Four Faces of Alto Adige's Iconic Vorberg
by Paula Redes Sidore
Unmarked, unpaved: the rocky gravel of Alto Adige’s south-facing Tschögglberg pummels the underside of the car like a tantruming toddler’s fists. Klaus Gasser, sales and marketing director for Cantina Terlano, slows his car as we approach a wire-girded suspension bridge on our way up to the historic Vorberg vineyards. The canyon stretching beneath us is a mottled volcanic russet, notably different from the gleaming limestone of the rest of the region. Cool, variegated shades of green beckon from the century-old terraced vineyards on the opposite side.
Gasser reaches through the open window to fold in the side mirrors, all the while busily recounting the history of the pergola-trained Pinot Bianco (a.k.a Weißburgunder) vines used in the legendary wine. In truth, however, most of his words are drowned out by the car’s bleating proximity sensor reminding me just how narrow this bridge really is. He shuts it off.
The sudden silence, like so many elements of the storied Italian cooperative, demands a moment of re-adjustment.
“A quiet wine,” he says, “must start with a quiet vineyard.”
Once across the bridge, Gasser navigates the hairpin turns, shifting gears at both a literal and metaphoric level as we ascend the 70% grade into the vineyards. Vorberg is the historic name for the southern slope of the Tschöggelberg, and its steep terraces of volcanic urgestein (literally: primordial stone) marked with quartz and porphyry. Although the vineyards stretch from 300 to 900 meters above sea level, only those special plots between the altitudes of 450 and 600 meters are used in the Cantina’s beloved Vorberg Riserva wine.
The tires briefly lose their grip on the road’s loose gravel and Gasser reaches for his seatbelt. I quickly check my own. After 20 years in Europe, I have learned that when an Italian buckles up, you know you are in for a wild ride.
Challenging the Vinous Quo
Much of the world treats Pinot Bianco as the overlooked middle child of the Pinot family. It is considered neither as refined as Chardonnay nor as robust as Grauburgunder. Worse, it has a reputation as a compromise grape: a little of this, a bit of that, fresh, fruity, and woefully undefined.
Cantina Terlano sees it differently and has for over 100 years. “Weißburgunder plays a central role at the Kellerei,” says Gasser. “And Vorberg is the pinnacle expression of Pinot Bianco and the region. The name translates to ‘in front of the mountain’ and refers to the stunning altitudes that provide this grape with additional acidity.”
Vorberg’s secret sauce isn’t magic. It’s a pulsating intersection of conditions that readies itself to create the space where magic can happen.
Yet there’s more than just elevation at work here. Start with the very composition of the Vorberg — sandy soils with high water permeability and a limited nutrient supply atop subvolcanic rock. They challenge the vines to be leaner and tougher, more resilient. Dancers pushed to their breaking point, in order to reveal their true mettle, and forced to not acquiesce to their otherwise more generous inclinations.
But perhaps the most crucial factor in raising this particular wine to the sublime is an unflagging trust in both the variety and the vineyard. From his first days in 1955, former cellarmaster Sebastian Stocker recognized the variety’s potential in Terlano's vineyards, selling his coop members on the charms of mature Weißburgunder. He saw these wines as having an untapped and unparalleled potential, and went so far as to hide bottles in secret in the cellar in order to (later) prove his point.
Cellarmasters Rudi Kofler and Klaus Gasser proudly continue to prioritize the key decision of Stocker’s stewardship: patience. Each stop from vineyard to barrel is intended to afford the wines space and time. Cluster thinning to keep yields low and berries loose. Warm fermentation to encourage complex yet quiet aromas. Large barrels. “The maturation of Pinot Bianco,” says Gasser, “is our highest priority. It’s not only the time in the large oak, but also the time in the bottle that the wine needs to find balance. Time naturally corrects the edges in the wine to make it smoother, creamier, to reveal its full length, power, and momentum.”
Thereafter the wines are raised for one year in large barrel, another six months in cement. There is one concession to vintage: malolactic fermentation. “Partial malolactic fermentation comes together to create a creamy warm Pinot Bianco brimming with depth, structure, and tension,” with extended lees contact to further support the intrinsic harmony and power.
The result: Vorberg has the complexity to pair with a truly wide range of food, from simple to star. Yet given the age of the casks — all over 40 years old — it also has the added advantage of not having the tannins from new oak. Just microoxygenation and the creaminess of the lees.
The Keeper of the Vine
There are those vineyards where you feel ‘it.’ Something that separates this site from the rest. A reverence in the way the name is spoken, a more cautious step in the vineyard, as if to not disturb the history that has brought it to be.
But Vorberg’s secret sauce isn’t magic. It reflects a very real investment of time and tradition. It’s a pulsating intersection of conditions that readies itself to create the space where magic can happen. A synergy of climate, aspect, soil, tradition, and people.
Everything about this vineyard is old school. The vines on the Vorberg, uniformly over 50 years in age, grow on old pergl made of larch wood. And it’s steep. Hard core steep. Harvest is a bit like hiking. “The key to quality, especially with Weißburgunder, lies in the work in the vineyard,” says Gasser. “We focus on doing whatever is necessary to keep the berries small and clusters loose. The result is good, concentrated fruit. Each vine is thinned individually and by hand.”
One cooperative grower bears responsibility for tending this treasured vineyard, and has for many years. His house sits in the middle of the vineyards. Chickens mill around the yard, and a dog blocks the path to the vines. Winemaker Rudi Kofler makes regular visits throughout the growing season; the continuity of character is as important to Cantina Terlano as it is to the vines.
“It used to be that the growers were paid based solely on sugar — and thus potential alcohol — in the fruit,” Gasser tells me as we walk beneath the low-slung vines. “This rewarded long hang times and encouraged overripening. But we pay based on the classification, according to the evaluation of the site. We’ve never measured ourselves against the best cooperatives, but rather against the best producers. Our concept is different.”
More than Meets the Eye
These are characteristics that ultimately translate into the other element for which Terlano is known: unparalleled longevity. “A great wine needs structure, complexity, tension, and time. In the cellar we treat Vorberg like a red wine: minimum ripeness degrees, extended lees maturation, two years in the bottle.” The wine law adapted to reflect this attitude: since 2002, Terlan has been allowed by the DOC to use ‘riserva’ on the label.
This blurring of traditional characteristics between red and white is no coincidence. “Vorberg is taking the [cultural] space that was traditionally reserved for reds,” Gasser notes. But unlike red wine, it accompanies, not dominates, the food. As the food gains in intensity, so too does the wine, without ever overshadowing the dish. His frame of reference for this talent is charmingly Italian: “Vorberg can even handle the ultimate pairing challenge with ease: artichokes.”
And perhaps here he touches on the unsaid secret to Vorberg’s iconic appeal: it’s not just more red wine than white; it more redefines what a white wine can and even should be. Not a big surprise in a region that exists in two countries, with two languages, intersecting and redefining on a daily basis. And this, ultimately, is what affords it a seat at the table.
Tasting 4 Vintages of Vorberg
2019 Vorberg Weißburgunder Riserva DOC, Alto Adige
The youngest of the lineup, it’s little surprise that the 2019 twists and twirls with showy charms of ripe melon, peach, and apple, before bowing to an herbal current of lemon thyme and chamomile. On the palate, it takes a hard right turn from flowers and fruit into a structured, savory spice. Creamy, yes, but also vibrating with the taut, irascible energy of youth, as well as the capricious vintage conditions that brought it to life. Verve and power race each other into the long salty finish. While the site’s deep volcanic minerality remains somewhat hidden, given time it breaks for the surface from beneath the fruit dominance. Aged for 12 months on the lees in traditional oak barrels, with a suggested sleep of at least another three years.
2016 Vorberg Weißburgunder Riserva DOC, Alto Adige
Quieter than the 2019, but not an inch softer, the wine opens with aromas of autumn apple, poached apricots, sweet cream, white flowers, and a smoky minerality. The creamy palate is marked with loads of ripe fruit, mango, and spice; it is nuanced, cool, and deep. A wine of subtext; each element savored and in balance, moving hand-in-hand, and evoking rhythms more felt than heard.
2013 Vorberg Weißburgunder Riserva DOC, Alto Adige
Classical aromas of apple and pear, candied lemon peel, and crushed limestone are accentuated with the by-now-familiar white flowers and a cool, cascading herbaceousness. Rich, elegant creaminess envelops the palate while sweet spots pop up like tiny fires, unexpected and slightly warming, alternating with bright spots of snappy, citrus acidity. An inconceivably long, gorgeous and considered finish. Showing beautifully now, and a delightful table companion with nearly any firm fish, grilled vegetables, or mature cheese.
2010 Vorberg Weißburgunder Riserva DOC, Alto Adige
Liquid gold with filigreed yellow flowers throwing open a complex aromatic window. Aromas of dried apricots and brioche, with chestnut lurking at the edges. Ripe yellow fruit marked with a bit of lanolin and honey. A savory creaminess moves forward and demands attention. A more balanced acidity recalls the elegance of the 2016. Here the wine overlays a creamy texture on a defining and rigid structure, it gains in power and momentum the longer it sits in the glass, accented with hints of dried and candied fruit. The saline power knocks me over like a rogue wave at the beach. A margarita dressed like a Pinot Bianco, with overwhelming sensuality and mouth-watering appeal.
*This tasting was conducted in part at the estate and the remainder from media samples.