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Hanging On

Published:  23 July, 2008

The most exciting grape grown in South Tyrol, at least among its reds, is the Lagrein, a variety found only there and in the adjacent hills of northern Trentino. Scholars differ about the area where the Lagrein grape originated. Some say it comes from the Vallagarina area, which is a valley south of Trento. This theory finds some support in the name of the variety, since Lagarino is the Italian name for Lagrein. Others believe it first appeared near Gries in the area of Bozen, where Benedictine friars of the Muri convent have cultivated it since 1600. But most scholars agree that the real origin
is Lagaria, a Roman coastal area near the Ionic Sea, or Greece, where lagaros means hanging grape, which in south Italy became lagarinum.

Lagrein Kretzer, a ros

There are two different versions of Lagrein wine. The ros type called Kretzer (previously Lagrein Kretzer) is obtained

by a vinification like that for a white wine. According to German terminology, this wine could be called Weissherbst. It has a pink to light-ruby colour, not much of a nose and on the palate it is dry and refreshing. If tasted blind, one can hardly detect the Lagrein grape, since the typical aromas and flavours of Lagrein evolve mainly during its vinification as a red wine.

Lagrein Dunkel, the real thing

A more serious wine than the Kretzer is the Lagrein (previously called Lagrein Dunkel). This wine has a colour of deep ruby to dark garnet. Its primary aromas and flavours are violets, black berry and sour cherry, while liquorice and prune appear on the palate in addition to these flavours. After two or three years, secondary flavours typical for an aged red wine may appear: chocolate, balsamic notes, coffee and carob. All Lagrein wines are low in acidity, and a Lagrein made with ripe grapes from controlled yields has tannins that are soft and velvety.

Most wineries produce Lagrein at two quality levels: a basic wine and a riserva. The riserva must be aged in wood for at least two years. Although the basic Lagrein would also benefit from two years of maturing, this wine is normally put on the market a bit too early; some bottle ageing is highly recommended. With regard to the riservas that reach their optimum after four to five years, fortunately most producers allow an additional half or full year of bottle ageing. A vin de garde can be kept up to 10 years, as the super vintage 1995 and the very good 1996 of Klosterkellerei Muri Gries have proved to this writer.

Thanks to its deep colour and intensive flavours, Lagrein has always been used for blending with the overcropped Vernatsch, another indigenous grape of South Tyrol. Up to 15% is added to improve the Kalterer See, and up to 10% for the St Magdalena.

The shift from Kretzer to Lagrein

Until recently, most Lagrein grapes were vinified into the ros version. It is a wine that the Italians call tuttopasto since it can be served with practically any food. Around 25 years ago, South Tyrol's production of Lagrein Kretzer was five times that of Lagrein Dunkel. But the consumption of Kretzer went down, and the producers switched their Lagrein production to red wine. At this year's Bozner Weinkost, only four South Tyrolian Lagrein Kretzers were on offer, against 62 Lagrein Dunkel, mostly as varietals, but a few as blends. It was demand from tourists and consumers in Germany for fashionable and full-bodied red wines that boosted the image of Lagrein Dunkel and made it the star of this area's red wine production.

Neighbouring Trentino shows a similar development. Here, no Lagrein Dunkel at all was produced until 1997 - only the ros version. Today the Dunkel version amounts to 50% of Trentino's total Lagrein production.

Barrique or no barrique, that is the question

The traditional method of vinifying Lagrein has been in big wooden casks or in concrete tanks, but recently also in stainless steel. When South Tyrol's Lagrein producers switched from ros to red, they all jumped on the bandwagon of barrique winemaking. It was the time when many consumers worldwide demanded dense and powerful red wines with a heavy note of oak.

Despite the success of these fashionable wines, two winemakers - both well versed in handling Lagrein - decided in 2001 to abandon the barrique bandwagon and to return to traditional big wooden casks. In the words of Ulrich Ambach, former winemaker at the Kellerei Bozen who is now with the Suedtiroler Weinbauernverband: Barrique suppresses the expression of the subtle complexity and typicity of the Lagrein grape.' Norbert Wenin, winemaker at Castel Sallegg, even goes so far as to call the use of barrique for Lagrein a crime'. Indeed, the 2001 non-barrique riserva made by Ambach, and the Castel Sallegg non-barrique wines not yet released, are not only of great complexity and fruitiness but also express the typicity of the Lagrein grape better than their barrique counterparts.

Vintage years

The great 2000 vintage (it has now reached its optimum) is practically sold out, with the exception of Castel Sallegg, which releases its wines after an additional year of ageing. 2001 was a somewhat difficult year for the vintners. Some 2001 riservas evolved nicely, but not all of them. 2002 and 2004 are good vintages that are well balanced between fruit, tannin and acidity.

2003 was also a hot year in South Tyrol. Thanks to irrigation (90% of the vineyards are irrigated), the grapes were in good condition, and the wines are extremely fruity and accessible. In general, the 2003 basic version offers excellent value for money. The 2003 riservas, to be released soon, will not need as much time to reach their optimum as the previous vintages.

Growing Lagrein vines

A total of 324 hectares (ha) are planted with Lagrein vines in South Tyrol and 211ha in neighbouring Trentino, but not in the steep, terraced vineyards that may reach an altitude of 1,000m. Needing warm conditions, the Lagrein prefers the bottom of the Adige valley. Here, at the foot of the mountains close to the riverbed, the vines are protected against strong winds and the cold air descending from the snow-covered mountains.

The vineyards around Bozen, especially of Bozen-Gries, are best suited to the growing of Lagrein. It is here that we find the first written testimony of Lagrein's presence: emperor Karl IV's Weinordnung of 1370 mentions the Lagrein as the best of all the wines of Bozen.

Control of growth is the key to producing the best Lagreins. Being a prolific variety, Lagrein must be contained in order to ensure quality. This is especially true with the old plantings of Lagrein that were established using the traditional, labour-intensive pergola system that normally supports higher yields. The winemaker of the Muri-Gries Klosterkellerei, Christian Werth, says that, for the Lagrein grape, work in the vineyard is more important than work in the cellar'. When overcropped and unripe, the tannins of the Lagrein grape become hard and make the finish of the wine unpleasantly bitter. This bitterness on the palate was quite typical for the Lagrein produced in the past. Today, thanks to improved vineyard management and cellar technique (removal of the

pips during fermentation), the leading producers do not create wines with a bitter note on the finish.

Nevertheless, some overcropping seems still to persist. Daniele Cernilli of the wine and food magazine Gambero Rosso stated at the Lagrein Conference in 2003 that presently the Lagrein cannot reach its optimum quality in production, because the yields of some producers are somehow too high'.

It has not yet been established to what extent terroir or clonal selection are determinants for the characteristics of the Lagrein. Apparently, the topsoil has only a marginal impact on the flavours. There is no substantial difference between the Lagrein from Bozen and that from more southern vineyards. Maybe the tannins of the Lagrein grown outside Bozen-Gries are a bit more pronounced than the super-soft tannins of Bozen-Gries. Crucial is the presence of gravel, which in Bozen is nearer to the surface than in the areas further south. Research is being done to understand the Lagrein better, in particular to find clones that would permit an extension of the 311ha area presently planted with Lagrein vines so that the rising demand for Lagrein can be met.

The Bozner Weinkost

To taste and understand Lagrein, one has to visit Bozen's wineries and those of the surrounding area. A very convenient and entertaining way is to attend the wine fair, Weinkost, held in Bozen during three days in March or April each year (flight to Innsbruck and then two hours by train); it is open to the trade and the public. While the mornings are yours to do with as you wish, visits to wineries are organised in the afternoon. Thereafter, from 5pm until 10 in the evening, the fair is held in Schloss Maretsch, which is surrounded by old Lagrein plantations. Here one can taste practically all of South Tyrol's wines, including the Lagrein, of course.

Lagrein on the international market

It is not Lagrein that became South Tyrol's flagship in wine production and export.

Two easy-to-drink wines are best known by the tourists visiting the region and the international wine markets. One is the Terlaner, a blend of 50% Pinot Blanc and/or Chardonnay with other white varieties, from the area near the town Terlan; the second is the Vernatsch (Schiava in Italian), a red grape indigenous to South Tyrol, grown in great quantity around St Magdalena near Bozen and at the Kalterer See (Lago di Caldaro), and often marketed under names. The Vernatsch grape makes, in the words of Jancis Robinson MW, a rather simple wine'. The basic nature of Vernatsch, and also the white blends under the Terlaner label, lend themselves to a rather commercial style.

Lagrein is little known in the UK. Its imported quantity is minuscule, thus it is not easy to find. The South Tyrolians have not made an effort to promote its sales abroad: apparently, their Lagrein does not need promotion. The area suitable to the growing of Lagrein remains limited to the present 324ha, and the demand by the locals, tourists and Germans has left little for other exports. Thus the Lagrein is the first wine to be out of stock in a South Tyrolean winery.

This explains the low presence and visibility of Lagrein at international wine fairs (with the exception of Prowein in Dsseldorf, a position that is explained by Germany's long-standing position as the number-one destination for Austria's wine exports) and its practical absence from international wine competitions. However, the recent changes in Germany's economy had a detrimental effect on the export of South Tyrolian wines to Germany. UK importers could seize this opportunity, since all major producers of Lagrein have expressed their interest in exporting their wines to the UK.