As we discussed in our piece on white wines of the Alto Adige (aka South Tyrol or Südtirol), this northernmost Italian region spent a long time within the Austro-Hungarian empire prior to WWI, and is still heavily influenced by that culture. (On wine labels, for example, German text often appears above or alongside the Italian, as many residents speak German natively.) Thus, given the opportunity to speak with Judith Unterholzner – who represents regional producers Terlano and Andriano – about wines made with Lagrein, a red grape grown almost exclusively here, my first question was whether the winemakers see it as Italian or Austrian. “Lagrein is much more Austrian than Italian in influence,” she told me. “But this is more due the impact of the mountains and the alpine microclimate than the culture.”
In other words, it’s all about terroir. Lagrein don’t care about wars, country borders, or any other man-made conflicts. It found a spot it likes, in a sometimes-unforgiving alpine climate, and it is thriving. In mountainous regions especially, there seems to be a strong bond between the climate and certain grapes, and Lagrein’s match with Alto Adige is no exception. We can come up with all sorts of other ways to describe terroir, but for me, that just about sums it up.
The grape, pronounced “lah-grine” (rhymes with wine), was traditionally used for blending – with the lighter Shiava, mostly – or as a rosato, due to its rugged, bitter nature, and only found its true calling in the early 1980s. “In the decades before,” says Unterholzner, “many consumers wanted lighter, easy-drinking red wines. Then there was an upswing in demand for structured red wines, and more oak influence… Lagrein fulfilled both requests, being full of character and developing fine spicy notes with oak aging. For locals of the region, this became our first serious red wine.”
Tasting through several Lagreins recently, I discovered a refreshing typicity, especially with the non-riserva wines (those aged in large oak casks or steel). Though each wine offered something different – a few featured earthy, rustic notes, for example – there were characteristics that clearly identified every bottle as Lagrein. Aromatically, a violet, floral bouquet recalls Syrah (a cousin), but only just. (La Cucina Italiana identifies this scent as brunelle, a local name for wild orchids found in the region.) On the palate, bright plums and and blackberries lead the way, with black tea and more violet – or brunelle – notes. As it finishes, there’s an almost soapy aspect we’ll call lavender, lest you think it punishment for foul language, which it is most certainly not.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the riservas, or wines aged in small oak barrels – which can cost significantly more – tend to relinquish some of this typicity. Oak softens the floral nature of the aroma, and though spicy flavors on the palate can add intrigue, they also obstruct those special orchids & plums. Riservas are, of course, made for longer aging (10 years or so), but – and take this to heart coming from a lover of aged wine – I’m not sure, in this case, they offer more than the wines meant for everyday drinking.
Pairing-wise, Lagrein of course plays well with the foods of the region, including the legendary speck (smoked, cured ham), as well as beef or game stews. Polenta, mushrooms and root veggies are also common. I love it with fresh pork preparations too, such as grilled chops, roasted tenderloin, or stewed shoulder. Unterholzner suggests braised (in Lagrein, obviously) veal cheek on top of celery root puree.
Reviewing my tasting notes, a few things are obvious:
1) Lagrein quality is consistent. Any bottle that’s 15-20 bucks, is certain to be both delicious and representative of the region and variety. In fact, I’ve yet to try one in this price range that wasn’t good, with the exception of one bottle that was cooked. (Which was hardly Lagrein’s fault!)
2) There’s less certainty with riservas. Added winemaker intervention (mainly through oak) means that these wines may represent the region well, but could also taste like modern red wines of indeterminate origin. Of course I only tried two – one of which was on the younger side for a riserva – and though both were enjoyable, they were generally less appealing. (If anyone out there wants to prove this hypothesis wrong with a beautifully aged bottle, just tell me where and when…)
Without further ado, the notes:
Tiefenbrunner Turmhof Lagrein 2011 ($21)
Big fruit on the nose, alongside a touch of earth and smoke, as well as warm spice. Nice balance of freshness and funk. Good complexity, evolves in the glass. Rustic finish. (92 points)
Abbazia di Novacella Lagrein 2009 ($20)
Classic flavors mixed with the modern touch of sweet warm mulling spice and tobacco. Good acidity, big tannins, and intriguing complexity. (91)
Andriano Tor di Lupo Riserva 2010 ($40)
Classic Lagrein notes are there, but made more subtle by warm spice and tobacco. Hints of earth and tar on the nose, especially with air. Big tannins, bitter on the finish. Should improve with age. (89+)
St. Paul’s Lagrein Gries 2010 ($21)
Rich, dense fruits with a discernable chocolate/cocoa element. Would benefit from air and/or little time. (88)
Terlano Lagrein Porphyr 2006 ($50)
The least Lagrein-like personality, perhaps due to overdone oak. Dark fruits, lots of warm spice, some fleeting earth. Not bad, but nothing special for the price. (87)