How Alto Adige went high

How does an entire region shift its focus to quality? Jason Sych learns more about Cantina Tramin in Italy.

Cantina Tramin, Alto Adige
Cantina Tramin, Alto Adige

Alto Adige, stands apart from Italy’s other wine regions. Also known as Alto Adige/Südtirol, thanks to the fact that two thirds of its inhabitants speak German, it has four other distinguishing factors. It is Italy’s smallest, and one of the highest altitude regions in Europe. With 5,000 growers tending 5,300 ha of vines it has an unusually high ratio of farmer to vineyard and, most extraordinarily of all, according to the regional Consortium nearly all –  98.8% – of its wines have a quality DOC classification.     

From light wines to profit

The explanation for this uniquely high proportion lies largely with the 16 co-operatives that vinify 70% of the province’s grapes: mainly Gewürztraminer, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Grüner Veltliner, Pinot Noir and Lagrein.

In the 1970s and 80s, with the exception a few high-profile estates, most larger wineries in the area made light red wines from the Schiava grape, selling it locally. Increasing globalization in the 1980s brought competition to the marketplace, and cooperatives began to realize they could not compete with cheaper wines from other regions. 

“We realized that if we wanted to have a future in this area, we had to focus on quality,” and produce wines that could reflect their unique terroir, said Klotz.  

Progress began slowly, as cooperatives had to convince wine growers to rip out vines, plant new varieties, and reduce yields. “It started with a handful of growers, the winemakers selecting some growers open to quality, who would work the vineyard to see beautiful grapes, instead of a lot of grapes.”  

It took ten years for most growers to understand high yield was not the goal. Some growers were people who lived through a war, through times where they had to look to find enough to eat, Klotz said. “If you ask these people to cut 20% of the grapes and leave them on the ground, that was something illogical.” 

A few growers replanted, and the market responded positively to the new wines, helping convince more to replant. In the late 1980s the cooperatives demonstrated a hectare of Schiava would earn €10,000 ($10,995) while Gewürztraminer would bring in €17,000. “That was a key fact,” said Klotz. It was one thing to convince a grower to replant, but at the end of the year the money had to prove it was worth it.      

But replanting wasn’t the end: the co-ops had to change their relationship with the growers. If they wanted to continue to improve quality, they needed to work closer with the them. Starting in the 80s they organized seminars and classes about grape growing techniques, organic farming, foliage management, soil treatment, and natural fertilization. “It all became much more linked together,” said Klotz. “They [became] proud to be quality producers.”  

However, convincing growers to replant and invest in quality is not the same as making it will happen. For that, the co-ops needed help. 

The associations 

Figuratively speaking, above the cooperatives of Alto Adige is the consortium. Officially the Consortium of Alto Adige Wines, it is an association of cooperatives, estate wineries, and winegrowers that consults for projects, regulations, producer requirements, as well as marketing the wines of its members under a single brand: Alto Adige Wines.  

“We did market research years ago, and one of the big differences here is that for producers in Alto Adige, the brand ‘Alto Adige’ is much stronger than a single company brand,” explains Klotz. This allows all the co-operatives in the consortium to benefit from a communal marketing effort, versus each brand shouldering the effort and cost of marketing by themselves.  

As the consortium works with the co-operatives to harmonize their efforts towards the world, the Südtiroler Beratungsring (the South Tyrol Advice Ring) is a body that works between the cooperatives and growers to allow the growers to better maintain grape quality. The cooperatives tell the Beratungsring what they need from the growers, and the Beratungsring works with the growers to achieve the bar set by their co-ops.  

Maintaining this information flow is no mean feat. Cantina Tramin works with 190 different growers managing 270 ha of vines. “It’s huge work, and it can be a big problem,” said Klotz. The Beratungsring is crucial in keeping the growers focused on the quality of their crop, ensuring the quality of the wine is high. 

Where to go but up? 

The future of Alto Adige, said Klotz, can be seen in its next generation of wine growers. “The younger generation is happy to start [wine growing]. They are proud.” In Alto Adige, the defining feature of their pride seems to come down to one main thing: cooperation. Cooperation between the co-ops through the consortium, between the co-ops and the growers through the Beratungsring, and between the growers themselves to achieve the highest quality they can. 

“People know when they buy a bottle of Alto Adige DOC, the wine will be good,” said Klotz. “But often they say it doesn’t matter so much if they buy from me, or another – at the end they are all good wines.” 

Jason Sych

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