Elevation raises quality of northern Italian wines
By John H. Isacs
One could easily make the argument that wine and tea are mankind’s two greatest beverages. Last year in this paper I wrote about the fascinating parallels and differences between these two stylish thirst-quenchers. This week I’ll focus on one key quality factor of both tea and wine.
Many of the world’s best dry white wines originate from cool climates. This is also true of several of the world’s most acclaimed styles of tea. When cultivating vines cool temperatures help slow and prolong the ripening of the grapes, resulting in wines with greater aromatics, freshness, delicacy and complexity. The difference in temperature between sunny days and cool evenings is something we refer to in wine talk as diurnal temperature range. This is critical to the quality of many wines, especially white wines. As with tea, altitude and/or proximity to large water masses promote more expansive diurnal temperature ranges thereby enhancing growing conditions. Another beneficial factor for both beverages are sloping vineyards or plantations that are angled for greater exposure to daytime sun. The steepest wine vineyard and tea plantation slopes are sometimes so vertically challenging that they must be terraced in order to be cultivated.
Good examples of distinguished whites from cool climates can be found throughout the winemaking world including Argentinean Torrontes from Salta, Chilean Sauvignon Blancs from San Antonio Valley and Maipo Valley and whites from Adelaide Hills in South Australia. Two of my favorite cool climate regions known for their spectacular white wines are in northern Italy and they are the focus of this week’s column.
The region of Friuli-Venezia Giulia is situated in the northeast corner of Italy, boarding Austria to the north and Slovenia to the east. The hilly wine growing areas in Friuli have an alpine continental climate in the north and Mediterranean climate to the south. Vines have been cultivated there since ancient times, when the region was already an important stop on trading routes to the Near East. Roman Emperor Julius Caesar was said to be a fan of wines from Friuli as was the famous poet-drinker Pliny the Elder.
The late 19th century phylloxera epidemic decimated the diversity and production of wine in Friuli and it took nearly a century for the region to regain its winemaking prominence. In the 1980s and 1990s the explosive international popularity of Italian Pinot Grigio wines from Friuli and neighboring regions transformed the industry into one of Italy’s most dynamic wine regions. Today the most interesting wines of Fruil-Venizia Giulia are certainly not limited to Pinot Grigio whites.
Prosecco sparklers made from the Glera grape and single variety whites made from the international Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Chardonnay and Muller-Thurgau are popular with wine drinkers all over the world. White wines dominate the Friuli wine landscape comprising over 60 percent of wines produced but Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir red wines have also made a solid name for themselves. The aforementioned wines certainly have their merits; however, I personally find the indigenous variety whites the most exciting wines of Friuli. These include Friulano, Verduzzo and Picolit whites. Recommended Friuli producers with wines available in Shanghai are Livio Felluga, Marco Felluga and Orazio Nonino.
Alto Adige is the northern most wine region in Italy. The region features steep hillside vineyards that slope down to the Adige River and its tributaries.
These sloping vineyards have excellent exposure to the sun and benefit from cool evening breezes from the Alps. Archaeological evidence shows that winemaking in Alto Adige dates back to at least 500 BC. Centuries later wines from this region were favored by Roman emperors and the elite. As with Friuli, the great city-states of the Italian Renaissance provided new opportunities for Alto Adige winemakers, as did the rise of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
The strong German-Austrian influences are still seen in Alto Adige as the region has two official languages, German and Italian. Even today most the wines of this region feature both languages on the label.
Three particularly aromatic and balanced wines from this region are Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc and Gewurztraminer. Alto Adige Pinot Grigios are the fruitiest and most friendly, Sauvignon Blanc wines the most structured and Gewurztraminers the most textured and spiced. Good producers include St. Michael, Alois Lageder and Elena Walch.