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The variety of the territory in the quality of the wine: the next ten-year challenge of South Tyrol

Climate, soil, vines, cuisine and art: how can this heritage of contrasts be clearly enhanced? Impressions from the Wine Summit South Tyrol 2019

5,500 hectares of vineyards (out of a total agricultural area of over 272,000), 5,000 winemakers (who share just over one hectare of vineyard each), 218 wineries (including 12 cooperatives), 330,000 hectolitres of wine (1% of the Italian wine production). A piece of land that contains over 20 different grape varieties (between native and non-native), up to 150 varieties of minerals (which significantly influence the composition of the soil even at a few hundred meters), wine altitudes ranging from 200 to over 1,000 meters, a climate influenced simultaneously by the Mediterranean and the Alps that creates - thanks to the fragmented morphology of the territory - small and unique microclimates, capable of hosting an incredibly rich and varied flora. All this variety and contrast, and their relationship with the climate emergency, together with the preview of new vintages, were the focus of the three-day Wine Summit 2019, organized by the South Tyrolean Wine Consortium, from 5 to 8 September.
An opportunity for intelligibility and confrontation towards a demanding theme, full of potential (still unexpressed) and perils, which can confuse the consumer. But at the same time, it is an opportunity to express desires, intentions and needs that the wineries, together with the Consortium, will try to address in the near future: so much variety has to be organized and defined and therefore also South Tyrol has finally decided to tackle the issue of zoning (to complete a DOC among the highest adhesion rates in Italy: 98% of the area planted with vines), starting to identify 86 Lagen (sub-areas), recognized by the official cartography, from which it will be possible to obtain only wines from individual vines of the territory: Gewürztraminer, Black and White Pinot, Sauvignon, Riesling, Schiava and Lagrein, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, but also Sylvaner, Grüner Veltliner, Yellow and Pink Muscat, Müller Thurgau, Kerner, Pinot Grigio and Chardonnay. All varieties have been permanently integrated into the South Tyrolean territory since the end of the 1700s, and recently new varieties, which are resistant to fungal pathologies, have also recently been added. Today they are vinified individually with success (such as Solaris, Bronner Souvignier Gris or Cabernet Cortis), but it is not yet clear whether they will be part of the zoning project.
“South Tyrol has a unique specificity in Europe: in an area of 8-9 km is concentrated a heterogeneity of soil and climate and biological and temperature range, comparable to the more than 1,000 km that go from Spain to England,” explained Georg Niedrist of the Institute for the Alpine Environment. A precious factor, which in the face of extreme climatic events (rising temperatures, drought, hail, late frosts) gives the opportunity to play a few more cards. Mainly by judging the South Tyrolean varieties that best suit the different situations, or by moving vineyards to higher altitudes. Seeking complicity in biodiversity and good agricultural practices that make the land more fertile (and therefore the plants more balanced and resistant to “shocks”) is now an established theme. But even new varieties can be an answer: it takes time and experience to fully understand if they can be a truly viable path. Finally, the theme of water: “South Tyrol is a dry area, despite everything. Here it rains between 500 and 800 mm per year. 75% of the vineyards therefore have irrigation systems - said Niedrist - which are increasingly necessary for emergency interventions, but which must also be used more efficiently”.
Vineyards at high altitudes are an answer, of course. But it cannot be the only one, according to Barbara Raifer of the Centro Sperimentale Laimburg: “climbing up is a very limited solution. Up there the land suitable for viticulture is becoming rarer. We estimate that there are no more than 400 hectares actually available: the incidence of sunlight changes, the areas of shade increase and the slopes become prohibitive. The composition of the air is also different” which would affect not so much the plants as the man who has to work the land. For those who want to try this solution, it is therefore necessary to look for solutions without making too many mistakes. In any case, at the moment, there is no organic strategy in this direction. It is the individual producers who are experimenting upwards.
Zoning laterally could go in this direction. According to Carlo Ferretti, a researcher at Geo Identity Research: “the fixed macro-features of a territory such as geography, geology, water, light and climate control the biology of the vine. This concentrated climatic variety of South Tyrol, which makes it a mild island within the Alpine arc, if correctly estimated and defined, can give winemakers the necessary basis to assign (and confirm) the most suitable varieties for each individual Lage”. The clash between the European and African plates and the following glaciations have, in fact, stratified the metamorphic, volcanic and pellet/dolomitic rocks in such a varied way as to affect the plants in a different way and allow, for example, to obtain significantly different wines from the same vine. It would also be very useful for research and experimentation to systematically order this precious heterogeneity.
But also art would benefit from it, which in this land has suffered southern and northern influences and has always been linked to the economic activity of the territory. “Art flourished where there was wealth - said Leo Andergassen, director of Castel Tirolo - Museo Provinciale di Storia Culturale e Provinciale - and the significant presence in South Tyrol of churches and noble residences full of rural representations associated with wine and vine (largely yet to be discovered) only confirms how the area was crossed - thanks to the transalpine road links - by an intense commercial ferment, which gave continuous impetus to viticulture and its artistic representation”. Bavarian convents first and then the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, have contributed to indissolubly link art to wine, creating emotional and narrative spaces immediately understandable and usable by people. Developing or implementing a food and wine and art network would make the experience of wine lovers even more complete, with a significant economic return (even for that sector of art and culture too often neglected).
All this without losing sight of the quality “to which we are condemned” in the opinion of Hans Terzer, enologist at the Cantina di San Michele Appiano “because in this small area we can not compete with large regions and productions. The slopes force us to work mostly by hand, so we have to sell at reasonable prices and these prices can only be achieved with quality. And that's why we need a spirit of observation, which requires time and patience”. And this is true for the individual, but South Tyrol is also very high level cooperation: “Teamwork is what has helped us to leave the difficult 70s and 80s - said Willi Stürz, enologist at the Cantina di Tramin - because the viticulture here is very fragmented and join forces was the only way to grow and establish ourselves as a quality wine-producing region, especially in the vineyard”. Also with protocols built ad hoc with its members, as did the Kurtatsch Winery: an incentive to increase the sustainability of the vineyards without oppressing and recognizing an economic incentive increasingly higher to those who implement more parts.
Quality that is also found in the glass: with a Schiava that is reaching ever higher levels of enjoyment (and increasingly adherent to the vine); a Pinot Bianco that - on the contrary - should regain that adherence; a Pinot Nero that has known better vintages but with isolated peaks of excellence; Sylvaner, Kerner and Grüner Veltliner, vines that are less and less “minor”; and a Gewürztraminer that, in its various expressions, is increasingly confirmed as the mother variety of this variegated South Tyrol.

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