Italian flair and German efficiency

We’re here to visit Cantina Tramin, the region’s third oldest winemakers’ cooperative, based in the professed home of the Traminer variety, Tramin – or Termeno in Italian. We’re met by Wolfgang Klotz at their futuristic winery at the entrance to the village. This stunning green-veined building, a mixture of metal, cement and glass, based on the vine’s shape, morphology and the role it plays in the local landscape, morphs into a giant sculpture as you approach and has become a major landmark in Tramin.

Building on a long tradition of viticulture
En route to the vineyards, we call into the café in the centre of the village, as we all profess the need for a caffeine injection. In the tiny space, Wolfgang gives a bit of background on the area as we sip our espressi. There’s no viticulture on the valley floor here, unlike around Verona, this is given over to apple orchards. Apple production is big business here – Alto Adige is one of the biggest growers of apples in Europe. Munching on a Pink Lady? There’s a good chance it came from Alto Adige. Everyone around is speaking a form of German, but it’s not the German you’ll learn at school; it’s the kind of Alpine German you’ll found spoken in Tyrol and even Bavaria. Yet unlike their more northerly counterparts, the South Tyrolese don’t learn Hoch Deutsch (High German) and have no connection with it – they speak their local dialect and also learn Italian at school.

Despite today’s vast swathes of apples, they’ve only been here for two hundred years or so, previously corn was planted here on the swampy valley floor. Wolfgang tells us that it was very difficult to cross the valley, so dialects vary greatly from village to village. Viticulture, however, dates back 3000 years here. Monks later invested in viticulture too as it represented the warmest, mildest part of the German-speaking world. Viticulture is still a key industry in the valley nowadays with a myriad of varieties grown along its slopes. Gewürztraminer, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are grown on this side of the valley with Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir on the other.

We head off along narrow roads with fabulous views over the valley, now a UNESCO World Heritage site, to take a look at some of the vineyards and Wolfgang points out where which varieties are typically grown. In the seventies, they merged with another coop from the other side of the valley in Mazon, which is the grand cru for Pinot Noir in Italy. The Pinot Noir from here has great concentration and body. Gewürztraminer (or Traminer Aromatico in Italian), the winery’s flagship variety, prefers higher altitude with heavy soils which retain humidity, whereas Lagrein, another key local variety, is planted low on sandy soils.

The vineyards belonging to the coop’s members run 10km north to south. There are around 350 growers representing about 260 hectares, meaning that most work less than one hectare. The coop, founded 100 years ago, helps to keep such family businesses alive. The income is divided based on quality, meaning that there is only a small difference between grape price and bottle price in Alto Adige, enabling families to make a good income and maintain their traditional way of life. They will probably have some orchards too.

We take a look at some Gewürztraminer vines where botrytis has already set in – it usually appears between November and January. These berries represent the liquid gold that will become luscious late-harvest, naturally sweet wine, Terminium, which the cantina has produced since 1998.Alto Adige, aka Südtirol, is a strange, but delightful place. This most northerly region of Italy used to be part of the Austro-Hungarian empire and is thus a combination of Italian style and Austrian gemütlichkeit, one of those German words it’s simply impossible to translate effectively. Although Italian is widely spoken, you often have the feeling you are in Austria – the signs are in both Italian and German and the people are more likely to converse in German than Italian.

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The Gewürztraminer winery
Our next port of call is high up above Bolzano (aka Bozen) to taste the winery’s flagship variety, Gewürztraminer. The cantina, which has played a key role in raising the bar for Alto Adige wine, has based its profile on the aromatic variety and has become synonymous with high-quality, still Gewürztraminer. Its single-vineyard Nussbaumer Gewürztraminer has won Gambero Rosso’s highest accolade, Tre Bicchieri, 18 years on the trot and its newly released Epokale, a spätlese aged for seven years in a silver mine at 2000m scooped up an amazing 100 Parker points last year. However, the proof will be in the pudding or, in this case, in the wineglass.

We take the Renon cable car up the mountainside and across verdant mountaintop meadows to the atmospheric Parkhotel-Holzner, built in 1908. Before getting stuck into the real work of Gewürztraminer tasting, we enjoy the spectacular views across to the snow-covered peaks of the dolomites from the beautiful turn-of-the-century’s sunny terrace. Glass of their Chardonnay blend, Stoan (a play on the dialect word for stone) in hand, Willi Stürz, the cantina’s winemaker gets us up to speed with the variety, one of the oldest in viticulture, dating back at least a thousand years, although nobody knows exactly where it came from.

Traminer gets its name from the village of Tramin where its village museum has a bottle of wine from 1883 where the name Traminer is still used, Gewürztraminer being a spicy mutation of the same variety. Famous names such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Riesling are descendants of the variety and Pinot Noir also shares genetic similarities. The variety still has one of its strongholds in Alto Adige, the other being Alsace. Gewürztraminer from here is generally drier, usually with around 3-7g of residual sugar and spicy notes of cinnamon, whereas Alsatian version may well contain up to 20g and tends to be more floral, with its familiar aromas of rose petals.  Twenty-two percent of the coop’s members’ vineyards are planted with Gewürztraminer.

We taste their range, from the dry Selida 2017, which offers the accustomed rose and lychee character, through to the luscious Terminium 2015, which is labelled as late harvest but is more like a Trockenbeerenauslese. Harvested between the end of November through to mid-January with 60-70% botrytis, the luscious golden-amber liquid proffered orange, marmalade, honey, ripe peach and umami and weighed in at a whopping 320g of residual sugar. Long lingering finish.

Of course, the main course comprised the Nussbaumer and Epokale. The 2016 Nussbaumer, where they had made 25 separate vinifications to try to understand the variations comes from the Nussbaumer vineyard with porphyry base rock. Well-deserving of its tre bicchieri – a rich, creamy, full-bodied wine filling the nose and palate with aromatic rose, lychee and bags of cinnamon spice. The 2009 had already begun to lose varietal expression but had developed greater harmony and elegance on the palate. Still retaining freshness, it had become smoother, creamier, more buttery with vanilla, spice and mineral notes. Willi pointed out that they now release their Gewürztraminer a year later than in the past.

And on to the Parker 100-pointer, the Epokale 2011. This was produced in the old medieval style (hence its name) of the variety, semi-dry with 40g of residual sugar and harvested at the end of October. The first vintage, Willi tells us, boasted 107g. Beautifully balanced and creamy, elegant yet honeyed and rich.

A cooperative recognised for high quality
Back at base camp in Tramin, we also taste some of their other wines, demonstrating that they not only excel with their flagship variety but also turn out very high-quality wines from the wide range of varieties grown in the area, such as Pinot Grigio, Pinot Bianco, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay. Although a cooperative, here there are none of the negative connotations associated with the concept, these wines have earned them recognition as one of Italy’s top white wine producers. Willi Stürz, the driving force behind helping growers and introducing cutting edge technology in the cellar, was named Italian Winemaker of the Year by Gambero Rosso in 2004. In their search for high quality, they also decided to age their top whites longer, releasing them six months later. This entailed a drop in sales in 2015, but the quality-motivated coop members chose to bear this.

Naturally, we don’t pass up the chance to taste the Maglen Pinot Nero or the Urban Lagrein, the cellar’s top reds.

Cantina Tramin is an excellent example of how the cooperative system helps turn mountain viticulture into an economically sustainable activity for local wine-growing families, whilst pursuing the highest quality in their wines. It is an example that could be followed, despite the distaste for the word ‘cooperative’, in many regions where individual vineyard holdings are relatively small. Not only could it increase the income of grape growers, but it would also enable greater investment in modern technology, thus facilitating an increase in quality.

Many thanks to Irene Graziotto of Studio Cru for organising the trip and to Wolfgang and Willi of Cantina Tramin for hosting us.

Photos by Cantina Tramin, Parkhotel Holzner and Sue Tolson.

Article originally published in two parts on WineSofa. 

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