High Time for Lagrein
A look at the red wines made from Lagrein, a grape indigenous to Trentino-Alto Adige.
by Anthony Giglio
What do you do when a famous Italian winemaker visiting New York City invites you to dinner to taste his wines? You put on a well-fitting suit and tie and brush up on your Italian conversational skills, even if it’s only “Benvenuto” and “Buona Sera.” So when Martin Foradori, the head of the Italian winery J. Hofstätter, extended such an invitation, I was prepared. But when my wife, Antonia, and I arrived at Minetta Tavern in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village to meet Martin and his wife, they were speaking German. Then it dawned on me: his name is Martin, not Martino, and his family’s legendary winery is in Italy’s Alto Adige region, where the German language trumps Italian. So “wilkommen” it was.
If you’re unfamiliar with that area of Italy, it’s worth a quick history lesson. It was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire until the end of WWI, when it was annexed by Italy as part of the Treaty of St.-Germain-en-Laye. Now it’s made up of two autonomous provinces, with Alto Adige to the north and Trentino to the south. The terrain is extremely mountainous, encompassing a large part of the Dolomites and the southern Alps, and vineyards here cling to vertiginously steep slopes. In Alto Adige, the majority of people speak German and still call their home Südtirol, and wine bottles are labeled in both German and Italian.
The night we met, Martin brought two of his red wines made from Lagrein, a grape indigenous to Trentino-Alto Adige. Until recently, these complex and sometimes challenging wines rarely made their way to the U.S. According to The Oxford Companion to Wine, its name—pronounced “lah-GRINE”—suggests it might have first been cultivated in the Lagarina valley of Trentino. Its cultivation in the region is mentioned as early as the 17th century in records at the Muri Abbey near Bolzano, Alto Adige’s capital city, and, according to the local Instituto Agrario, Lagrein is a descendant of the region’s better-known Teroldego grape, as well as Pinot Noir and Syrah.
I asked Martin to describe Lagrein to my wife, who’d never heard of it. “Lagrein,” he said, “is a wine with character, not like the often sweet and soft overripe red wines from hot climates. It is perfect, thanks to its refreshing acidity, with almost every food. And thanks to its body, balanced tannins and moderate alcohol, you can enjoy more than a glass and still have a clear conscience.”
Alois Lageder, who heads his family’s eponymous winery, which has been in operation since 1823, and is a fifth-generation Alto Adige winemaking legend known as a champion of biodynamic farming methods, describes it similarly. “Lagrein is a rustic wine with a lot of character. It doesn’t have the finesse of the ‘noble’ grape varieties such as Cabernet, but instead has a very deep red color, a spicy bouquet and an earthy taste.”
But the Lagrein grape is a difficult one. It has a tendency to overproduce, which can greatly detract from the quality of
a wine, and it has been known to make notoriously tannic wines. As winemakers have cut back production, decreased maceration time (which limits tannins) and started to experiment with barrique aging, the true qualities of Lagrein have become evident. Josef Niedermayr, whose family began producing wines in Alto Adige in 1834, says that the emergence of Lagrein on the international stage was not easy. But, he says, “as a producer in Alto Adige, I have always felt it was necessary to stay committed to Lagrein so that we can showcase what makes this region and grape so unique. I always recognized the importance of this varietal and knew in time the world would, too.” Lageder agrees. “Among the three well-known indigenous grape varieties in this area, including Gewürztraminer and Schiava, Lagrein has the greatest potential for the future,” he says.
After we settled in with the Foradoris, Martin poured his Lagreins side-by-side. The 2008 Joseph, his entry-level wine, is scented with licorice and lavender, and tastes of fresh berries and a hint of spice. It is juicy and delicious, the perfect everyday wine that expresses some of Lagrein’s best qualities. His 2006 Steinraffler, a gorgeous, single vineyard wine, like the other, spends 10 days on the skins after crush, but it is aged almost two years in oak barrels and in larger barrels called botte, then one year in the bottle before release. It has added complexity, with a range of berry aromas and flavors balanced with plush tannins and sharp, earthy minerality.
For me, it’s the characteristic bouquet of Lagrein that is the most alluring. There are classic aromas of fresh cherries and berries, as well as a floral, violet perfume that reminds me of Syrah. But there’s something else that I couldn’t put my finger on until I asked Lorenz Martini, the winemaker at Niedermayr, about this distinctive quality. He said one word: “brunelle,” the name in local dialect for a type of wild orchid with a pronounced aroma found in the mountainous terrain of Alto Adige.
While we tasted these amazing wines, Martin told us about his family’s winery, founded over a century ago by the joining of two winemaking families, the Foradoris and the Hofstätters, whose combined properties now include seven vineyard estates along either side of the Adige river. He emphasized how well Lagrein reflects the terroir of Alto Adige. There is a combination of the Mediterranean influence on the climate, which keeps the growing season temperate and maintains a high ratio of sunny days; the steep slopes, which keep the vineyards exposed and ventilated; and the high elevation, which encourages the grape’s high acidity. While Lagrein “is difficult to grow in other parts of the world and also challenging to grow in Alto Adige,” he said, “the real challenge is to find the right moment to harvest it, and then treat the grapes in the cellar like a prima donna.” His efforts are reflected in the outstanding wines of J. Hofstätter, and, after we finished dinner and dessert, I almost said, “Grazie mille.” Instead, I caught myself and said, “dankeschön!” Martin laughed and replied in English, “The pleasure was all mine.”
The increasingly popular Lagrein is a relative newcomer to the U.S. With a unique bouquet and subtle grace, Lagrein’s pronounced acidity and balanced fruitiness make it a great wine for pairing with food.
Lagrein, Trentino, 2009
This beautiful ruby red Lagrein represents the modern style, with a soft, velvety palate from a year spent in barrique followed by six months in small oak casks. Flavors of berries, violets and vanilla meet toasty oak and dried spices.
J. Hofstätter, Joseph Lagrein, Alto Adige, 2010
Joseph Lagrein, Alto Adige, 2010
This is the perfect introduction to the Lagrein grape, balancing its inherent rusticity with Hofstätter’s ability to walk the line between traditional and modern styles. Brimming with juicy berry fruit, savory spices, licorice on the finish and chalky minerality.
Lagrein Riserva, Alto Adige, 2004
A beautiful, garnet red wine with violets, herbs, minerals, and dusty spice and lavender aromas. It is plush—full-bodied by Lagrein standards—with flavors of berries and plum, and a hint of mocha in the long, luscious finish.
Lagrein Gries Blacedelle, Alto Adige, 2007
This wine takes its name from the town of Gries, considered one of the best places in Alto Adige for Lagrein vineyards. It shows in the balance of spice and earthiness, and the perfect notes of juicy plum fruit.
Lindenburg Lagrein, Alto Adige, 2007
This single vineyard wine has notes of sweet cherries and cassis aromas. Aged 1 1/2 years in oak, there is a silkiness to the berry flavor, mingling with dusty spices and earthy overtones, and a long elegant finish.
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