Alto Adige: Guild of Sommeliers Report 2013

In September 2013, the Guild of Sommeliers sent several of our members to the region of Alto Adige for an immersion in its culture and wines. Following is their collective report on the region.

Versoaln: “The Oldest Vine in the World”
By Mark Thostesen

A long, twisting drive up winding mountain roads provides vistas of sunset-drenched vineyards and foggy apple orchards. Alexandra, our local guide, speaks animatedly to the cultural and economic heritage of the region as we climb ever upward to our destination. She points to a large box like castle on a cliff. This is our destination, and it’s the home of what’s arguably the world’s oldest wine-producing vine in the world.

The vine, Versoaln, stretches from a base next to a small toolshed, over our heads and draped over a pergola, all the way up the castle walls. Its trunk is gnarled and massive, splitting into two main branches, each about six inches thick in diameter. The oldest writings of the vine place it at about 350 years old, but it is believed to be much older. The best part is that old-school, chestnut pergola training system that fans it out to a total of 350 square meters of vine stretching from the shed to a nearby cobblestone bridge and up to the castle. The largest branch is over 15 meters long! 

Sadly, this vine is dying, very slowly. Esca (black measles) is taking its toll, steadily depriving the vine of water. Every year they cut out the sections where Esca appears, but it is not producing branches fast enough to keep up. But enough sad talk, let’s drink its wine! The 2012 Versoaln is bright but very pale gold/straw with touches of green. There’s a lightly aromatic nose full of mango, pineapple, apricots and blood orange. On the palate it’s full of lemon zest and a very distinct, saline minerality accented with orange blossoms on the finish. The wine is dry, with a moderate body aided by the salinity, moderate-plus acid and moderate alcohol. 

Only 75 to 120 bottles are produced (total!) each year, so it was an honor to have this be our very first sip of Alto Adige on this trip. 

The City of Bolzano: Two distinct cultures, one united region
By Mark Thostesen

You cannot talk of the town of Bolzano or its encompassing Alto Adige/Südtirol region without mentioning the amazing mosaic of the two major cultures that dominate the area. The cobblestone, winding roads of Bolzano show the duality of the region at every turn. Under Bavarian rule from 635 CE and controlled by Austrian Habsburgs from the 14th century onward, Bolzano (with the rest of the South Tyrol) was annexed by Italy in 1919. Nowadays, the city is both Italian and German speaking. Although there are many cultural differences, the ebb and flow of the city operates seamlessly by bringing in tourism from all edges of Europe to enjoy the gorgeous mountain views, fantastic speck and knödel, and intricate old architecture, monuments and cathedrals. Cin Cin!! Zum Wohl!!! However you say it, this place was amazing.

  
Speck tasting at Restaurant Vögele in Bolzano; Local wine expert Dr. Heike Platter of the Laimburg Research Centre of Agriculture and Forestry showing off Alto Adige's 350-year-old Versoaln vine

Cantina Terlan
By Arthur Hon

Tucked away peacefully in the shadows of surrounding mountains, Cantina Terlan provided the first opportunity to really understand the longevity of wines from Südtirol.

We arrived at the winery on a brisk morning while the landscape was still shaking the fog and warming up to a gentle morning sun; you had the feeling that everything was just starting to wake up. The rain from the night before was still evident on the vines; the moisture was still fresh in the air. We were all snapping pictures of the Sauvignon Blanc clusters planted right behind the winery while learning how to identify the two distinct soil types based the colors of the exposed rocks. Val d’Adige at that moment was truly magical.

After the obligatory cellar visit at Cantina Terlan, where we got a glimpse of their substantial library collections, all of us were in for a treat: upstairs in the tasting room, it was time to go back in time. The flights that our host Klaus Gasser prepared for us were focused on two grapes—Pinot Bianco (from the Vorberg vineyard) and Sauvignon Blanc (the select Quartz bottling)—and showcased what Cantina Terlan does best: create stunning wines with the ability to age in both warmer and cooler vintages.

In both cases, the oldest vintage we sampled from either variety seemed, amazingly, so much younger and fresher than those from the previous years. The colors and rim variations of the older vintages were also very deceiving as well. The usual drastic change in concentrations and hues in these wines is most visible during the first five years, and it was as if a time-freeze spell had taken over the bottles after that. Some of the treats we got to sample were the 1996 Pinot Bianco Vorberg, the 2000 Nova Domus (Pinot Bianco, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc), and 1989 Terlaner Classico (Pinot Bianco, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc).

One of the questions raised by the Consorzio was whether or not wines from Südtirol have a place standing side-by-side with top examples from other classic wine regions. In the case of Terlan, they definitely do.

  
View of Terlano in the early morning; 1989 Terlano Classico

Abbazia di Novacella
By Josh Orr

Quite frankly, I wasn’t totally sure what to expect heading to the northernmost wine region in Italy. Like any good sommelier, I read the chapter in Vino Italiano about Alto Adige, and created a mental image of what the region, culture, food and wine would be like. 

That image held up right until the first hour of the trip: While on our way to Bolzano, our bus stopped for gas at a Shell gas station, and we all went inside for an espresso or macchiato. Yep, I said the words Shell gas station and espresso in the same sentence. They are Italians, that’s how they roll!

The terrain was truly unlike anything I had ever seen. Mountains draped with green towering over you on either side, and the thin valley floor completely covered with either apples or grape vines. The impressive terrain was relentless, even when we reached Bolzano, the metropolitan center of the region. As you walked the city streets, gazing at the beautiful buildings and the mixture of culture that emanates from every corner, your eyes are drawn to what little skyline you can see, due to the presence of immense mountains peaking out from behind the buildings. 

I now have a firm understanding of Brian Jordan’s fondness for this region—and, in particular, the reds from the Schiava grape. When you stand on the stunning hill of Santa Maddalena, and the sun is shining down on all of the vines overlooking Bolzano, the glass of wine in your hand tastes amazing. I, having never had Schiava prior to this trip, was completely blown away by the quality and overall pleasurable drinkability this grape brings to the table. If you love Pinot without the price tag, you will love Schiava. If you love cru Beaujolais and want to impress your hipster friends, you will love Schiava. If you generally enjoy consuming wine that is as versatile at the table as Neil Patrick Harris is with acting/singing/dancing, you will love Schiava. This was my big revelation for the trip, and I am very thankful to have met the people behind the wines I plan on mercilessly pushing on the public in San Diego. Schiava + Speck 4LIFE!

Another highlight of the trip was visiting the Abbazia di Novacella winery, which is one of the northernmost in Italy. It is located in the Isarco Valley, a subregion of the Alto Adige. The Isarco Valley is known for primarily white wines—95% white, in fact—and Kerner, Müller-Thurgau, Riesling and Sylvaner have all found homes on the steep slopes here. Roughly an hour from the central town of Bolzano, the Valle d’Isarco had some of the most dramatic terrain on which vines were planted that we saw on the entire trip.

The Abbazia is still a working monastery with a fully functioning Catholic school for boys onsite. Founded in 1142, they’ve been producing wine for over 850 years! The grounds are immaculately well kept, and the vineyards follow the same pattern. The basilica on property was absolutely stunning with several secrets that are only noticeable once they’re pointed out (leg hanging from the ceiling, anyone?). The Abbazia also has one of the most historic and well-kept libraries in Europe. It is mostly contained within this one AMAZING room that looked like it came straight out of a Disney movie. It included books that were about five feet tall and seven feet wide, specially designed so all the monks could read the hymns on the pages inside, thereby avoiding having to produce multiple copies of the same (hand-printed) book for each monk.

On that note, although the monastery has a functioning wine team, not one of said team is a monk. The monks here are intellectuals, not laborers, we were told. Abbazia specializes in Kerner and Sylvaner but is also known in general for producing clean, correct, very well-made wines that present fantastic value for the price they command. I particularly enjoyed the 2012 Sylvaner Praepositus with its banana, citrus and melon notes coupled with hints of tequila and dried herbs.

Oh, and one more thing: The monastery has its own restaurant and even produces its own Amaro. Our group can confirm that it’s delicious, particularly when consumed at roughly 1 AM to settle your stomach or banish a fever after your fourth meal of speck for the day!

    

St. Michael-Eppan
By Chris Baggetta

At the heart of the impressive vineyard landscape of the South Tyrolean Oltradige subregion, scattered among the sunny slopes and hidden in age-old estates, you can find the farmhouses of the 350 members (cultivating 390 hectares) of the San Michele-Appiano winery.

We tasted several wines including Pinot Bianco, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Grigio. I have to say, I was surprised by this winery’s focus on Pinot Grigio—and, in particular, on their focus on its ability to age, since I have never really considered Pinot Grigio to be an age-worthy white. I must admit that my previous tasting experiences have mostly been with the current releases (perhaps with the exception of a few Friulian examples). Yet there we were—tasting through a vertical of Pinot Grigio from the 2011, 2006, 2002 and 1998 vintages. St. Michael-Eppan’s Sanct Valentin Pinot Grigio is definitely its own distinct style: vinified from the best grapes and maturated in oak casks, this wine is something really unique, starting with the strong, golden color, aromas of honey and vanilla, and a light, buttery taste on the palate. This is Pinot Grigio??

Yes. This is Pinot Grigio from St. Michael-Eppan. Their 2011 Sanct Valentin Pinot Grigio saw 100% malolactic fermentation and 12 months in oak barrels (30% was new, 30% once-used and 40% two to three years old), followed by six months in stainless steel… it was like Pinot Grigio made in a Burgundian style. There were very obvious influences from the new oak, as well as apple, almond, banana skin and walnut notes. The 2006 Sanct Valentin was mineral and nutty, with less fresh fruit than the 2011, but more of those classic peanut shell and lager beer notes that are so typical of Pinot Grigio. 

The 2002 St. Valentin really reminded me of older Chablis, at least in terms of flavor profile (not structurally, though, as there was much less acid). On the palate, the wine was nutty and yeasty, with dried herbs, crushed white flowers and lots of talc and chalk. This was a Pinot Grigio that called for food—fritto misto or oysters, perhaps. The 1998 St. Valentin was aged 100% in barrique yet was really unique, surprisingly tart and fresh. There was also higher acidity in this vintage than expected (especially after the 2002), but it was still nutty with slightly oxidative notes.

Our group was pretty mixed on whether or not we liked this interpretation of Pinot Grigio, but I was impressed by their unique style and the way the older wines were showing. It’s definitely not a benchmark style, nor is it for everyone, but I would be very happy with a bottle of the 2002 Sanct Valentin Pinot Grigio and a plate of salt and pepper calamari!

Tramin
By Jane Lopes

The first and last thing you notice when visiting Cantina Tramin, nestled in the hills of Termeno in the Bassa Atesina region of Alto Adige, is the design. Call it superficial, but I think the outward presentation of anything— be it fashion, architecture, product design, iconography—is of incredible importance in how it is perceived and consumed. From afar, Tramin is a study in opposition. A simple and quaint-looking house in the center supports giant wings on either side made of glass and encased by a bright green lattice. To have this juxtaposed against the lush yellow and green of the vineyards, the red hints of soil going up the hills, and the first sight of white snow on the mountains, is truly a spectacular sight. Tramin both embraces its surroundings in its design, as well as stands somewhat boldly in opposition.

I think this is an apt paradigm for looking at what Tramin is doing: a cooperative using traditional grapes of the region, while questioning and pushing the boundaries of what it means to be a cooperative, as well as the typical expressions of these grapes. As you can imagine, when dealing with 230 hectares of land (and 280 growers—do that math!), it is difficult to ensure quality, let alone philosophic approaches to viticulture. But Tramin is trying to do just that. They were one of the first cooperatives of Alto Adige to embrace sustainable agriculture. The 15 hectares of land that they cultivate themselves are entirely biodynamic and organic; their aim is to get the other growers on board as soon as possible, especially with the eradication of all herbicides.

The wines of Tramin cover a broad spectrum, from their Chardonnay-based Cuvée Stoan—a bright and fruity homage to the Mâcon (in my words, not theirs)—to the leesy, barrique-influenced Pinot Grigio Unterebner, to the dark and brooding Lagrein Urban. But what really struck me through our tasting was their interpretation of Gewürztraminer. Termeno/Tramin is the name the winery and the town (there's an Italian and a German name for everything in Alto Adige... er, ahem, Südtirol). Many will claim that Gewürztraminer originated in Tramin, taking its name from the region. Whether this is true or not, the grape is certainly a specialty of the region and of the Tramin winery in particular.

We had the opportunity to taste three different vintages of the Gewürztraminer Nussbaumer: 2012, 2009, and 2005. It is fascinating to watch Gewürztraminer—bbold, unctuous, fruity and flowery in a recent vintage—assume more delicate and nuanced expression as it ages. The residual sugar and alcohol integrate and spicy, mushroom-like, earthy secondary components emerge. Because of the lower acid, these are wines we don't often think about as contenders for aging, but I think with 8-15 years of age, they actually show more balance than when they are young.

Gewürztraminer has never been a grape that has appealed strongly to me, but the trip to Alto Adige has made me reconsider it as one of the fine wines of the world. And besides a few producers in Alsace, I don't think anyone is doing it finer than the wineries of Alto Adige. In addition to making fine wine, cooperatives like Tramin are working to sustain their environment and provide a means of living for the 280 growers they work with. And THAT is truly inspiring. 

Kellerei Kaltern
By Stevie Stacionis

The landing page for the Kellerei Kaltern website welcomes you with their motto: Where wine is one of the family.

This simple saying could not be more perfect for summarizing a cooperative winery made up of a wild 440 members, together farming over 300 steep-sloped hectares, every last one of them by hand.

This simple saying could not be more perfect for summarizing the drop-dead-incredible picnic lunch that this winery put together for us, in a dreamland setting surrounded by pergola-trained Schiava vines perched over a tranquil turquoise Lake Caldaro.

This simple saying could also not be more perfect for summarizing the reason that I come back to—time, and time, and time again—whenever I begin to wonder why I love wine so damn much.

For me, wine is about sharing. It’s about community, and I’d even say it’s about family. It’s difficult to share a fantastic, inspiring bottle with someone and not feel a familial tug, like you shared a part of your history with that person.

We certainly felt like family when our boisterous group finally stopped snapping photos of the impossible scenery and sat down at the table with the dynamic and engaging Tobias Zingerle of Kellerei Kaltern (aka Caldaro, for the local lake). Polenta from a giant copper cauldron was heaped onto our plates next to pale poached sausage just before a ridiculously large slice of gorgonzola was set down to melt over the top. Thin threads of crunchy cabbage and fennel dressed with vinegar and salt were passed around, followed by pots of tender beans that I am sure they serve in heaven.

First, Tobias poured a Pinot Grigio that permanently banished my stodgy recollections of insipid stale beer. Then their Campaner Schiava came around, the color of gleaming rubies. I am positive that every last one of us wanted to polish off an entire bottle him or herself. We savored, asked for more, swooned… and in so doing I believe we shocked Tobias, who is trying ardently to make a name for Schiava in the States. “How do we market this?” he asked us earnestly. We threw around plenty of answers, brainstormed Schiava taglines and promised mainstream domination before we all settled into a post-polenta, full-belly daze.

The truth is, Tobias and Kellerei Kaltern (and all of our generous hosts on our trip to Südtirol) were already doing their jobs perfectly. How do you market Schiava? Or Lagrein? Or even Alto Adige Pinot Grigio? You remember that wine is about sharing, and so you share it. You remember that wine is about community, and so you invite a passionate one to come together. You advocate that wine is part of family, and so you set the table for them to celebrate just that: to eat, drink, talk and laugh together. I can promise you that every last one of us went home still wanting to polish off an entire bottle of Schiava, and begging our distributors to help us get it into our guests’ glasses. This stuff is addictive. Oh, and as for the tagline we chose: “Schiava: Bet You Can’t Drink Just One Glass!”

  
Polenta picnic in the vineyards of Kellerei Kaltern; Hofstätter Gewürztraminer tasting in the Kolbenhof vineyard, above Tramin

J. Hofstätter
By Jenni Wagoner 

I believe it was the fourth espresso of the day that brought us, wide-eyed, into the presence of Mr. Martin Foradori. He stood at the entrance of J. Hofstätter looking every bit the part of the gracious (and stylish, in red pants and a navy blazer) host as well as a very enthusiastic tour guide.

We were in Bassa Atesina, the southernmost area of wine cultivation in Südtirol. It is known for being the warmest and largest area in the region, and I found myself going through the same ‘jacket on/jacket off’ routine that I experienced for much of the earlier part of the day. The effect of microclimates in this region is not to be underestimated. I looked around and admired the quaint nature of the town: the children walking down cobblestone on their way home from school, the church bells, the young couple enjoying a Campari spritz at the café from which we quadruple-caffeinated.

One of the most memorable attributes of this trip to Sudtirol, for me, was the sense of place; the sense of community. As I stepped to the cliff-side edge of any vineyard that we were lucky enough to admire, I couldn’t help but become a part of it. Rich in history and truly touched by the people, the wines and winemakers from this area gave me my first sense of intimately understanding how everything is connected. I have read about this. I have thought intensely about it at times… yet this was the first time that I truly felt it. Drinking these wines made by these people in these places… It all made sense.

Eight of us piled into the back of a military green truck (don’t ask why it was a military truck, it made sense at the time), and Martin took the wheel on the way to Kolbenhof vineyard, located just above Tramin. He spoke of “evil apples,” his young daughters and the area’s microclimates. Sitting between 1100 and 1500 feet above sea level, Kolbenhof has become an ideal place for the success of Gewürztraminer. From this spot on the southeast-facing slope, one can see Martin’s Barthenau estate. Looking back from the edge as we sipped, a large home stood quiet beneath a grove of trees. I loved hearing talk of soil types, minerality and wine business while simultaneously watching a woman slowly remove clean undershirts from a clothesline nearby.

Dinner across the valley at Barthenau was beautifully paired with the estate’s 1992 and 2000 Kolbenhof Gewürztraminer bottlings, and then we experienced what that vineyard is known for: Pinot Noir. The pair of 1997 and 2005 Hofstätter Barthenau Vigna S. Urbano Pinots were a gorgeous example of what the region can do with this variety, and I look forward to seeking out more of these wines in the future.

The evening ended with all of us around the candlelit table, sipping the last of our wine in a dreamy haze as I relished the tangible sense of the love, understanding and community behind wine that this trip had shown me.

Right around the time I was pondering what an inspiration the trip had been for me, Martin (in his suave red pants) excused himself from the table, walked over to the stereo and casually switched his iPod over from the classical and jazz music we’d heard all night… to Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines.” 

Castel Juval/Weingut Unterortl
By Paul Kulik

Soft-spoken, cat-loving Martin Aurich seems an odd counterpart for gregarious, world-famous extreme mountain-climber Reinhold Messner to select to run his Juval estate. But what Martin and his wife Gisele have carved from the sheer slopes 800 meters above the Etsch (Adige) River reveals a more resolute spirit.

The Unterortl property sits on a unique formation where the Schnalstal (Val Senales) and Etsch river meet, in the Vinschgauer (Val Venosta) region of the Etschtal (Valle dell’Adige). If that seems awfully German for an officially Italian appellation, it’s because 97% of the inhabitants denote German as their first language. The castle Juval, like so many that dot the Tiroler mountain peaks, profited from the prolific trade routes that cross north through the Alps. But the estate reveals more ancient handiwork, like stone etchings and irrigation troughs that date back to the Bronze Age. In fact, the discovery of Ötzi, a fully intact 5500-year-old mummy in the glacial permafrost of the Schnal valley, evinces the long and grueling human history in the region.

Castel Juval/Unterortl, which began in 1981, now produces from four hectares—an unfathomably large vineyard in the area (only one other producer in the Venosta Valley has commercial bottlings). Widespread viticulture is slow to come to the area, whose valley floor supplies an enormous proportion of the European apple market.  And, although Martin begins by pouring Müller-Thurgau (a wine that shows sturdy potential for the Etschtal) and spoke highly about his two plots of Pinot Noir, it is his Riesling that steals the show. 

It is not merely that the Etschtal receives half the rainfall and 1.5˚ C less average temperature than the Bolzano basin. Nor simply that the vineyards climb some 250 dramatic meters over eroded gneiss soils, precluding any mechanized harvesting.  Neither the high-density plantings, nor the sun-splashed south-southwest exposure, nor even the dry, moderating Föhn winds from the confluent Schnalstal mountains alone contribute to such piercingly clear, focused and precise wines. 

Martin’s approach is to incrementally harvest, taking the bottom half of the cluster first, then returning a few weeks later for the remainder, so as to allow for full maturation while maintaining a delicate, juicy intensity. In the cellar, Martin prefers neutrality: a gentle winemaking style with natural yeasts, stainless steel tanks, and large oak casks (though his Pinot Noir might see some barrique or acacia wood). 

When he’s not making wine, Martin bottles a number of distilled spirits from a copper column still next to his tasting room. Wild plum, chestnut, apple and grape spirits are diluted with pure Juval mountain stream water to produce clean, generous, balanced fruit aromas.

One of the most striking things about Südtirol is how the area can be so intensely micro-independent. Although there is certainly a regional kinship, the Etschtal feels distantly removed from Bolzano, let alone the Eisacktal (Val Isarco). In some ways Castel Juval is a microcosm of this independent spirit; indeed, at the base of the lone switchback road to the property is a charmingly comprehensive boutique of locally produced fruit preserves, speck, kaminwürst and schuttelbrot. Martin adores the self-sufficiency of the hillside. Unterortl embodies it. 

Muri-Gries
By Erica O’Neal

People often ask me, “what does the word ‘sommelier’ mean?” “What exactly does being a sommelier entail?” This was a great discussion topic throughout our recent trip to Alto-Adige; our group discussed it at length outside the context of simply attaining a certain level of Court certification.

The overall consensus was that a sommelier is a service professional, handling all aspects of the floor as well as providing knowledge—in an unintimidating way—to help choose a wine that will resonate with a guest for the evening. So what drives a person to want to be all of those things? This is the question that I believe needs to be answered first, because “sommelier” is more than a simple job title. Wine is a way of life. Our visit to the Muri-Gries monastery in the outskirts of Bolzano showed us this. 

It would be easy to agree that a monastery has its own established community and chosen “path” to live by, but outside of Muri-Gries’ beautiful greenhouse, gardens and living quarters there stood a man, his daughter, and his belief in a native variety. Christian Werth was unlike any other winemaker I’ve met before. His soft voice, minimalist appearance and clumsy nervousness made me feel like he was gently opening his life up to us, hesitant about how we’d react.

Christian gently led us through the estate, enthusiastically answering questions about the history of the buildings, the meanings of the religious markings on doors, the types of exotic trees sprinkled through the yards. When we rounded the corner into the Lagrein vineyards, our curiosity was ignited. His daughter translated; Lagrein is a “noble variety” in her father’s eyes, and the region of Südtirol provides a perfect climate and terroir for the grape, so there was no sense in planting other more popular or international varieties. With every word he chose to describe his humble vines, he began to make a case for Lagrein that was to be unraveled in the tasting room.

We were served four wines: a 2012 Lagrein Rose (Krezter), made from the first-pressed juice of its bigger brother Lagrein bottling, then 100% Lagrein Riserva wines from 2011, 2007 and 2003. Christian, less hesitant now with us, spoke about the history of Lagrein, explaining that it was mostly used to make rosé, particularly because of its abundant fruit on the nose and palate. But the first pour of the 2011 Lagrein Riserva was surprising to me, because we had already tasted countless examples of this variety earlier in the trip, and what I found in this glass was strikingly different.

There was more elegance, more finesse in the structure of this 2011, integrating well with the fruit. It was not a deep rich purple hue or a vibrant pinkish purple that stained the glass, teeth, table, whatever the wine came in contact with. In fact, this reminded me of a Saint-Joseph Syrah, supple with black and blue fruit, and soft, chewy tannins amplifying the richness of the wine. The 2007 showed that there was some thought put into handling this variety that Christian noted, “wasn’t easy to grow, wasn’t easy to take care of, and was even harder to make into good wine.” The oak treatment changed slightly across vintages, thanks to Christian’s own curiosity and interest in seeing how Lagrein would wear each style.

The 2003 was the most shocking to me. In appearance it was tawny and paler as expected, but the wine was fresh, boasting plum, raspberry, chocolate, baking spices and cooling fennel, mint, and herbaceous characters. In a blind tasting I would not know what to call it. I’d never even consider Lagrein. I asked Christian’s daughter to relay the same thought to Christian, conveying that the sophistication of the wine was enchanting. Yes, there was new French oak on the wine, but it didn’t mask the violet floral notes, the blackberry and blueberry; it only turned it into a vision of an old log cabin shop you’d find selling local fruits and flowers in the mountains. 

We asked Christian about his use of oak and why he chose to use particular barrels, how he arrived at a percentage of new oak, etc., and his daughter informed us that this has been an ongoing experiment for him for the past 25 years (as long as he’s been the winemaker there). New French oak was introduced to the wine in 1991, a few years after Christian became the winemaker at Muri-Gries, as he wanted to elevate the richness of the variety. He’s continued to experiment ever since. Surrounded with such a rich history of the monastery and winemaking, my respect for Christian grew immensely upon hearing that he would be so willing to experiment.

All of a sudden, Christian turned to his daughter, speaking excitedly to her in his polite, quiet German. He raced out of the room while she started to grab more glasses for us, and he returned with a bottle of 1993 Lagrein Riserva that he thought would be a good representation of his experiments with oak. You could see his nerves as he opened the bottle, wishing he had decanted this beforehand like he had for the other wines. Nevertheless, as soon as the wine was poured into our glasses, we were beguiled by the complexity of leather, tobacco, spice, blackberry, blueberry, earthen floor, clay pot and fennel seed that we found on our tongues.

To me, that bottle would definitely rival any Bordeaux, Barolo, Brunello—you name it, any day. For the first time on the trip our rambunctious group was speechless. We sat back and enjoyed the warmth of the wine and the company we had all found ourselves enjoying together. The noble (I said it!) Lagrein found at Muri-Gries along with the charming winemaker resonated in all of us as we nodded in agreement that this kind of experience, this ability to still be surprised by a great wine, is what makes us love wine, what drives us to be a sommelier, what drives us to want to share this with our guests.

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Pictured from left to right: Paul Kulik, Erica O'Neal, Arthur Hon, Jenni Wagoner, Mark Thostesen, Stevie Stacionis, Jane Lopes, Chris Baggetta, and Josh Orr

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