In Alto Adige Cooperation is Key and Character

Credit: Florian Andergassen/Sütirol Wein-Vini Alto Adige

Author’s note on language 

The names of places and, in some cases, grapes — primarily the Schiava/Vernatsch doubling — are in Italian or German depending on my reading of one or a mix of the following: where the producer’s website or literature seemed to indicate a preference or greater use; where the area fell on the 1855 Ethnographic Map; when an interviewee used a specific name. Where I found a difference in place name spelling across time I reflected that, too. As the naming process here is a complex mix of usage, official policies, history, and who one (in my case as a speaker of English and Italian — my syntax and paragraph construction are deliberate reflections of this — but not German) happens to be talking to, rather than translations that inaccurately portray these as equal terms, I’ve chosen to replicate and reflect what happened during my research. In addition, in the bilingual literature, from websites to marketing materials, the names themselves match the surrounding language. In the Ladin cases, this turns trilingual. The “Sabiona” wines are identified as such on both the Italian and the German pages of that monastery. Throughout the websites I consulted, translations into foreign languages generally favor Italian names — for example, the Consorzio Vini di Alto Adige is identified as such on the Italian, English, and Russian pages on its website, and as Südtirol Wein on those in German. The Japanese page reads Wine from Alto Adige (South Tyrol),” translated a friend of mine from Japan, who added “I guess most of the Japanese audience wont know what Alto Adige is but South Tyrol will give them a good idea about where the wine is from.” When it comes to Alto Adige/Südtirol, I suspect the attempt to make this into one smooth place is part of the barrier to outsiders, like me, understanding it and its wines. This is my attempt in.

The 12 winegrower cooperatives of Alto Adige produce some of the finest wines in Italy, if not the world, a fact usually explained in terms of necessity (many, many, many very small plots) and innovative structures (members paid based on quality instead of quantity). But there is another, less grape-y reason for the widespread working together in this borderland of northeasternmost Italy. “It’s in our DNA,” says Andreas Kofler, who leads the co-operative of winegrowers in the Kurtatsch area and for the past three years had also been president of the Consorzio of Cooperative Wineries of Alto Adige*.

The prototype of modern European cooperative thinking is generally traced to 1844, when low-wage weavers at cotton mills in northern England formed the English Rochdale Equitable Pioneers Society, with a member-owned, values-driven shop of everyday goods. In 1895, the International Co-operative Alliance (ICA) of London came together on principles formalized from the Rochdale model — among them, voluntary participation and political and religious neutrality —  then in 1995 updated those to seven directives that include anti-discriminationconcern for community; and cooperation between co-ops. The ICA continues to serve as guide and forum throughout the world, including for Alto Adige’s Coopbund, founded in 1975 to represent the zone’s cooperatives across all sectors by promoting “a democratic economic system that is shared and pluralistic.”

The zone’s historical German (a Tyrolese or southern Bavarian dialect, according to the Italian encyclopedia Treccani, that is a form of high German and which in the late Middle Ages turned as prevalent the Latin dialects, then in the 15th century, dominant) and Italian “linguistic and cultural plurality,” reads their website, is “a richness and a resource” for their members. In 1935, the Consorzio of Cooperative Wineries of Alto Adige assembled to explore wine export markets, explains Kofler — then served as spiritual and representative model for today’s centralizing Alto Adige Wines consortium launched in 2007, which gathers co-ops, private estates, and small producers alike and whose logo is made up of both Alto Adige and Südtirol.

It was 19th-century German politician Friedrich Wilhelm Raiffeisen who “gave the ideas of the co-op to this Alpine world,” says Kofler. What started as a local fix when Raiffeisen organized a communal bread-baking society in Weyerbusch to face the 1846 crisis of wheat and rye crop failures across Europe soon grew into a long-term solution. In 1864, as mayor of Flammersfeld, he founded a rural lending bank by and for the town’s farmers, organizing it upon the values of self-help, -governance, and -responsibility, addressing local poverty by changing the bodies people depended on. His ideas spread quickly through the German-speaking world, including what is now Alto Adige or Südtirol.

“Co-ops are modern,” Eduard Bernhart, director of the Consorzio Vini Alto Adige, said to me by Zoom. “They are sustainable, and they last through time.” The 12 here today are the results of multiple mergers since a peak of 36 of them in the 1920s. Over the past four decades, they have steadily covered around two-thirds of the zone’s 5,500 hectares, encompassing more than 3,000 families. 

That has a lot to do with the landscape here: vineyard sites must contend with the landscape’s other marvels — more than 90 percent of Alto Adige is rich in rocks, steep, and forest-covered — which limit them in size and, furthered by a centuries’-old practice of dividing land equally among one’s offspring, make vineyards expensive even when they’re available. Along with the 12 co-ops are more than 100 small producers, about 40 tenuteor estate farms, and the result is a dense but united mix. “Within it is a lot of competition, but it’s one that pushes us to have ideas,” says Kofler. “It’s a strong stimulus to keep growing and improving together” — ideas that Bernhart echoes later in my conversation with him.

This concentration makes it easier to forge, then carry through, collective missions: the need to make up for being less than 1 percent of Italy’s wine production is behind the zone-wide push for quality that began 30 years ago and which, rather than compete with the rest of Italy’s reputation for great red wines, also shifted growers to a larger percentage of whites. In 1970, Bernhart tells me, 4,000 of those precious hectares were planted, often indiscriminately I’ll add, “to Vernatsch.”  The variety now accounts for a little more than 11 percent of Alto Adige vineyards (in second place to Pinot Grigio at nearly 12 percent), but in return more attention is being paid to its potential here. “I think Vernatsch will play a very important role in the future,” Bernhart says. “Done in the right way, in the right place, you have amazing results.” 

On April 25, 1893, says Bernhart, Alto Adige’s first wine cooperative was founded in Andrian by growers who joined forces, and with “dedication and intuition worked after a quality that could last through time,” reads their website in tellingly personal terms. Less than three months later came the growers’ group of Terlano, 24 members who, the co-op’s website reads, at a time when 80 percent of Alto Adige was planted to red, understood their area as ideal for white-wine production. Tasted for this article, their 2019 Pinot Bianco, the variety especially well suited to these sandy loamy soils of volcanic then glacial origin, with plenty of quartz and sunshine and little rainfall, is rich and saline, lined with a bitterness adult and deft; in recent days co-op president Georg Eyrl has become president of the Consorzio of Cooperative Wineries of Alto Adige. In 1900, the Kurtatsch cooperative was started by “40 contadini,” (growers) says Kofler. Of its current 190 growers (farming 190 hectares), 155 are in Kurtatsch, the other 35 include growers in neighboring Magré and Cortina, taken on as years went by. Local crises, Kofler explains, have played an important role in shaping how cooperatives develop here, he explains. The co-ops take on important social functions, but also embody social meanings that hold together the village itself: while it doesn’t happen often, there is always the possibility that a grower’s grapes will not be bought. If, for example with Covid or when a few years ago a tenuta  stopped buying grapes from some growers, then “by nature, the co-ops will buy them instead,” he explains. “A co-op is always founded on social principles. It needs to help.” Outside Kurtatsch, too, lie Alto Adige’s two most prized Pinot Nero (very important in Alto Adige, says Bernhart) sites: Mazon and Glen, medium-elevation slopes from which this co-op makes two single-vineyard wines in small numbers: 4,000 bottles of Mazon (one member, with 2 hectares) and 10,000 Glen (10 members, 8 hectares) and whose other growers include members of other co-operatives. How to read Mazon and Glen into Kurtatsch? “We’re doing it to follow our idea of what it means to be a cooperative,” says Kofler. To provide and elevate — “Every action affects the economic situation of our home town, therefore every action is based on a long-term strategy to leave resources for future generations,” reads a document they sent to me — and also to get better at more things: “As a producer who wants to push and grow, Pinot Nero is always a challenge,” Kofler says. The 2017 Mazon — their first vintage was 2016 — that I tasted for this article, but which I would otherwise have opened in at least three more years, is fennel-dusted red, earthbound sweet and savory spices, a ruby transparency with a glimmer to match its acidity. It is, long-lastingness and quality its point, a riserva.

Throughout Alto Adige, “the lands and agriculture have remained in culture and language very ‘Germany,’ very ‘Austria,’” says Kofler. Cultivated grapevines have been a thing here since Etruscan times. Skip then past conquering Rome, its fall, the series of Germanic tribes that arrived here after, and so, beginning in the 14th century, the empire of Austria ruled this land, a conduit for ethnic German and Austrian farmers whose language and ways of growing were largely preserved when Südtirol became Italy’s Alto Adige at the end of World War I. When, under Mussolini’s regime, the area was subjected to an official “italianization” process, a push to change both language and people, the Italians who the regime encouraged to move here did not do so to become contadini, says Kofler. “They came to work in the steel industry, in car manufacturing. They came to the cities, in the valleys,” leaving the existing growers’ culture on the slopes largely, by nature and circumstance, unchanged. For working out who, where, and when on this old and layered land, there is an accumulation of records over centuries, especially Austrian ones. On an 1855 ethnographic map drawn in service of the Austrian Empire, the city of Bolzano (now node of Alto Adige’s famously Y-shaped viticultural zone) and its immediate north and east is broadly colored German, while strands of Italian-populated terrains flow south in the direction of Lombardia and the still lands of Venice. A few years before that, on the Habsburg Empire’s second military survey, the zone was firmly marked in German names from north on down to that central city, which is called only Botzen. But from that point south names turn dual, options on either side of an oder: “Tramin oder Termeno,” “Neumarkt oder Egna” (with “stazione di Egna” and directly east, Pinot Nero’s “Mazzon”), “Kurtatsch oder Curtazza.” And, “Margried oder Magredo.” Founded in 1932, today the Nals-Margried co-op’s members grow in terrains from Nals north of Bolzano to Magrè’s lower elevation hills to the south, one of the warmest parts of Alto Adige, so that Bordeaux varieties, though today they are less than 7 percent of the province’s production, have been planted here since the 19th century making them traditional Alto Adige grapes. 

That Alto Adige DNA runs also in the tenute, larger private producers whose grapes are a mix of estate and contracted and who unite under the Association Alto Adige Estate Wineries (since 1999, independent grower-producers have gathered under their own association). Now based in Magré, 6th-generation Tenuta Alois Lageder had once made only Bolzano wines, Alois Lageder told me by phone. “My father wanted to widen his range with old-vine Chardonnay and Cabernet,” and drawn by a vineyard planted around 1870, “6,000 square meters on 100% Dolomite limestone,” in 1934 he launched the tenuta here, where 140-year-old Carmenere, both Cabernets, and Merlot still grow today. A 2017 Cabernet Riserva I tasted for this article is geranium and pepper, earth and wild juiciness, a perfectly herbal example.

With grapes bought from 90 growers alongside their 55-estate hectares, Alois, otherwise retired, remains in charge of those relationships, collaborations that have gone on for generations. “In Alto Adige it’s a tradition to work with growers,” he says. “Parcels are very small; for 200 years there’s been this need. You had to find other vineyards.” When Maria Teresa of Austria’s House of Habsburg decreed, he continues, that the empire’s largest farms could not be divided — so that one son or daughter inherited a geschlossene  (closed farm) — it began a tradition (“it still works the same way”) that the farmer with the largest holding purchased the area’s grapes, without setting a price until harvest. “They buy on trust,” on four key dates, ensuring steady support throughout the year: San Martino (11 November, and once the day Italy’s landowners renewed their sharecroppers’ tenant leases — or didn’t), Candlemas (2 February), San Giorgio (23 April), and San Giacomo (25 July). Communal values are more recently found in Alto Adige’s biodynamic practices, which are low but growing — largely following the example of Tenuta Lageder. Their agronomist, Lageder shares, has been talking to their growers, 80% of whom are following biodynamic suit, meeting at each other’s farms to share information and labor. “In two years we will have been a winery for 200 years,” Lageder says, “and we hope that all of our partners will be at least converting by then. Ten years ago I didn’t think it would be possible, but now they’re coming around. It’s the most natural way to farm but it’s very complex and the best way to enrich your experience is to share your ideas with others.” In his role as consorzio director, and as the son of a farming family, the need for in-depth grape-grower conversations is taken just as seriously by Bernhart: three years ago, he planted a small vineyard in the Val Venosta, not for production but “to research and understand and know the manual and practical aspects,” to keep in step with the people he is working with.

The Association Alto Adige Estate Wineries also holds Alto Adige’s two commercial wine-making monasteries, whose surrounding lands have grown the winegrapes best suited to them over centuries and whose historical responsibilities to their neighbors can be likened to cooperatives’. If, as Treccani notes, some valleys like the Altoatesian subzone Val Venosta offer conditions best suited for human settlements, then less favored is the stark and precipitous valley of Isarco, at that viticultural Y’s most northeastern reach. In this rugged valley white-wine grapes thrive, and the Abbazia di Novacella has made wine of all kinds since 1142. “Until the end of the 19th century, [the wine they made was] mostly to cover their own needs,” Werner Waldboth, head of marketing at the abbey, wrote to me in an email. “There are some old documents which show that around 1700 every field worker got nearly a gallon [of wine] a day. In addition, the abbey had to supply the surrounding parishes, and therefore there wasn’t any wine left to sell.” But in 1807, when secularization was imposed by newly ruling Napoleon-allied Bavaria, the abbey dissolved for nine years, until the area fell to Austria again. Reopened, it needed new sources of income, and looked to wine. And in 1961, when 60 local farmers founded a cooperative, the heads of the monastery began to buy their grapes, a relationship which still exists today. “Payment is very similar to the co-ops’,” says Waldboth. “The farmers share in the winery’s gains: if business is going well, they get better prices for their grapes.” The monasteries have played another crucial communal role in the area’s winemaking: because they were naturally networked with monasteries in other places, Bernhart points out, they had access not only to greater winegrowing knowledge but also to other varieties, to better-suited clones, to innovations in wine production. Novacella’s 2019 Kerner — an early 20th-century German crossing (Schiava x Riesling), incongruously in terms of quality only about 2 percent of Alto Adige’s production — is a savory yellow and white flowers and honeyed beeswax, vinous with a soft warmth, and powerfully fresh. Gathering its growers with a winery 13 kilometers south and gently west is the Cantina Valle Isarco, whose highlights include the 19th-century German crossing (Riesling x Madeleine Royale) Müller-Thurgau: the 2019 Aristos is first salty, then green-apple tart, vinous and extremely herbal, a concentrated roundness underneath it all. The Monastero di Sabiona/Kloster Säben in Klausen works with the Eisacktaler Kellerei, too, for the monastery’s line of “Sabiona” wines, tasteable there. At the city of Bolzano, the Abbazia di Muri-Gries — this 13th-century abbey (once home to Augustine monks, who vow to poverty and adhere to communal living) in the district of Gries has been home to Benedictine monks from Muri, Switzerland since 1845, after their base was closed — has been producing, and through that act protecting, Lagrein for centuries, notes Ian D’Agata in Native Wine Grapes of Italy. Here, he writes, local officials set the grape’s annual harvest dates in the 11th century; 400 years later its ongoing importance and quality caused its farmers to unite in revolt, with demands that included being allowed to drink Lagrein as the nobles did. The grape also seems a likely grandchild of Pinot Nero, complicating the tale of that grape’s presence here. 

Just south, in the hills of Cornaiano, members of the Kellerei/Cantina Girlan co-op tend to a few red wines and many of the zone’s whites in glacier-brought soils 400 to 500 meters up. Alongside Pinots Grigio and Bianco, Gewurztraminer, and Chardonnay, grows, one-worded, Sauvignon. A tell-tale pungency in the 2018 Indra Sauvignon blends with reductive notes and toasted pine nuts, an intricate resin reference that continues upon tasting it and is bolstered by unconverted acidity and 2 grams of residual sugar — add it to the world’s expressions of this grape. 

Head south. Alto Adige’s mild Lake Caldaro or Kalterersee softened by the warm afternoon Ora wind from Lake Garda, picturesque and sporty glacier-made moat between Lombardia and Veneto, are signaled by Schiava. Kellerei Kaltern’s 2017 Quintessenz Kalterersee Classico Superiore from 60- to 100-year-old vines is luscious and warm, its meaty black cherry and clove matte, juicy, and lasting. Then, the aromatic grape Gewurztraminer which is best grown in the Y’s southernmost area, in Tramin or Termeno (from the Latin Terminus, as here once marked the boundary between the lands of the Tridentini (what is today the southern portion of the Trentino-Adige region) and the Isarci), southern Oltreadige west of the Adige river running through the Bolzano city center about 25 km north and that will cross the city of Verona before terminating in the Adriatic Sea at a point just south of the Venetian lagoon. Cantina Tramin, whose reputation as Gewurztraminer experts grew stronger still in 2018 when its newly released 2009 Epokale became the first Italian white wine (and first non-Tuscan or -Piemontese) to be awarded 100 points by The Wine Advocate, has long been celebrated for its Nussbaumer, a single-site Gewürztraminer (the co-op uses the German spelling) whose 2019’s exuberance is made so much more serious by acidity, correct lychee and oiliness that is even now — if in the unopened bottles — showing that the real thing will come.

On October 9, 1889, Alto Adige’s first cooperative, credit-union Cassa Raiffeisen dell’Alto Adige, was established in the Marebbe frazione of Rina in Val Badia, land to another ethnic group that spoke neither Italian nor German. There is a third language here, semi-official and neolatin, a layering of the Romans’ language onto the older one of Raetic populations who are Alpine in language and in cuisine, who predate both the Roman and the Austrian conquests, and whose places have been under UNESCO protection since 2009: the slopes of the Dolomites house some of the Ladin population, Ladiner blazing across the valades ladines on that 1855 map. Raetic artifacts have been found in places like Mazzon, and are tied to foods like barley soup panicia and bread dumpling balotes. Such Ladin cooking can be tasted at Chef Norbert Niederkofler’s St. Hubertus restaurant at the Hotel Rosa Alpina in the dolomitic town of Àndel, in the province of Trento which along with Alto Adige and the Veneto province of Belluno has been a subdivision of Ladinia since the end of World War I. The hotel began as a vidum, an inn-like parish house, built in 1850 by some among the town’s 100 inhabitants, working, necessarily and it could be said by nature, together. One hundred and seventy years later, this coordinated industriousness is still defining the entire zone, including its peoples’ three models for making wine: this month, head of his area’s organized winegrowers and further informed by those three years leading the consorzio of cooperative wineries, Kofler became president of its centralizing wine body, the Consorzio Alto Adige Wines/Südtirol Wein.

*The Consorzio Alto Adige Wines/Südtirol Wein is a partner of TRINK magazine but had no involvement in the selection of this topic, nature of the coverage, or choice of producers highlighted in this article.

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