Cantina Tramin and their path to Alpine wines
Cantina Tramin is one of the leading wine producers in the Alto Adige (Südtirol) region of northeast Italy. This co-operative is in the village of Tramin (Termeno), comprising some 190 member families farming 260 hectares of vines, some of which are now organic. In this mountainous region, individual family holdings are frequently tiny, and so co-operatives are a common way to enable commercial wine production.
Indeed, Cantina Tramin is the second oldest co-operative in the region, founded in 1898. The Cantina makes a wide range of wines. 62% of the vines are white varieties, with the rest being red. It has the “Due Stelle” award from Gambero Rosso – signifying a winery whose wines have won the prestigious tre bicchieri rating twenty times or more.
And as Tramin is the spiritual home of the Gewürztraminer (Traminer Aromatico) grape variety in Italy, it’s fitting that one of their expressions of this grape, called Epokale, received a 100-point critic’s rating.
Modern-day success came about by changing from bulk wine production and turning instead to realise the considerable potential of Tramin’s terroir. Though this began back in the late Eighties and Nineties, that quality path is a continuous one.
One of the leaders of this quality revolution back then was Kellermeister Willi Stürz, who is still in charge of winemaking today. He was born in the village and became Gambero Rosso’s “Winemaker of the Year” in 2004.
Based on tasting and an interview with Willi Stürz and Wolfgang Klotz (Director of Marketing and Sales), this article focuses on three of the top white wines from their premium “selection” range.
From the outside, it’s clear that the pivot to excellence has brought deserved success to Cantina Tramin, who now make some 1.9 million bottles every year.
The winery was redeveloped in 2010, featuring sculptural steel and glass architecture. After seeing this, it’s easy to forget that managing the transition from lowly bulk wines to making grand interpretations of terroir is a considerable challenge that isn’t achievable overnight.
There was a need to persuade all those individual members with tiny holdings to adopt new practices in the vineyards. At the same time, rewarding quality rather than quantity takes time and trust to be successful.
Changes in winery processes have consequences too. For example, the decision to extend maturation times to optimise wine quality meant sacrificing cash flow in the short term to reap dividends in the long run.
However, this forward-thinking strategy also coincided with increasing market demand for quality wine and attracted critical acclaim. As a co-operative, all these additional rewards belong to the members. It’s become a virtuous circle.
Tramin is in the south part of the Alto Adige, where the vineyards climb upwards from the western side of the Adige valley onto the Roen mountain. The vineyards on this west slope reach from 250 to 850 metres in elevation. Today, they are low-yielding, achieved by the vines gradual and natural adaptation to quality viticulture over the past two decades or more. Much of this area has limestone soils and a mix of porphyry, gravels, and clay on steep inclines.
The microclimate is affected by the warm Lake Kaltern (Caldaro, or Kalterer See) to the north and the Adriatic sea to the south. The afternoon “Ora” wind blowing from Lake Garda moderates the intense summer heat. After sunset, this wind stops abruptly when warm air rises and displaces the cool Roen mountain air, which then descends into the valley, producing dramatic temperature drops. Consequently, the vines rest at night, prolonging the ripening period and preserving vital acidity and aromas.
Three white wines
Cantina Tramin is probably best known for Gewürztraminer. However, the three white wines featured here are the current releases of Unterebner (Pinot Grigio), Stoan (a white blend) and Troy (Chardonnay Riserva). As we will see, these are also extraordinary examples!
Though still youthful, each one is ready to drink. All have longevity and will continue to improve in the bottle. As gastronomic wines, they are best with food, being versatile companions too. The recommendation when serving them is for a light chill so as not to subdue aromas and subtlety. Consider decanting them as well.
Unterebner, Pinot Grigio, DOC Alto Adige, 2019. 14%
Pinot Grigio is no newcomer, and it has long been part of the varietal portfolio. Unterebner launched in 1989. It’s 100% Pinot Grigio, using the best selection from vineyards at 400-600 m. These have gravel soils with calcium carbonate, facing predominantly southeast. Yields are just 50 hl/ha.
This wine used to be fermented and matured solely in stainless steel. Since 1991, fermentation and maturation are conducted partly in large oak barrels and partly in smaller tonneaux, which don’t mark the wine. There’s malolactic fermentation to soften the acidity, and the ageing is now extended to 14 months on the lees. The wine clarifies naturally and, after bottling, is held for three months before release. Willi Stürz says that 2019 had lower temperatures, resulting in a beneficial slower and more prolonged ripening, especially in the higher vineyards, so preserving aroma and acidity.
Pinot Grigio may be well-known to us, though far too many examples are unmemorable. Hence many wine lovers will be surprised and delighted by the subtlety, complexity and freshness of Unterebner. Stylistically, this wine shares some of the richer Alsace Pinot Gris style attributes but is bone dry, unusually aromatic and possesses a distinctive “Alpine” freshness.
A golden-yellow, there are aromas of pear with some tobacco notes. As it warms, white blossom and smoke also come forward. The full-bodied palate has an impressively silky texture. Juicy pear fruit is the principal flavour, accompanied by a mineral touch and a long spicy finish. It’s what Pinot Gris can achieve when from the right terroir and in skilled hands. Few examples have elegance and energy like this one!
In short, this wine far exceeds expectations. Unterebner was also an excellent foil for smoked-haddock and leek tart. It worked almost magically with the smoke of the fish, while the silken acidity combined with the pastry perfectly. It’s rare to find a wine that works so well with smoked food.
As for ageing potential, 7-10 years is the norm. Wolfgang Klotz said that the Cantina has bottles from the nineties that are still in excellent condition.
£27.74 at Tannico, which excellent value for a wine of this quality!
Stoan, Bianco, DOC Alto Adige, 2019, 13.5%
This wine is a clever blend of 65% Chardonnay, with 20% Sauvignon, 10% Pinot Bianco and 5% Gewürztraminer. That’s the usual ratio, subject to any minor variations from vintage conditions.
Stoan is a local dialect word for “stein” or “stone”, describing the stony limestone soils found on this steep site at mostly 500-600m with southeast exposure. Again this wine is from the 2019 vintage.
The original idea for Stoan was to make a 100% Chardonnay. However, back in 2002, launching an alpine-style Chardonnay was risky because market demand was for fat, buttery and oaky examples. Thankfully, fashions subsequently changed, but by then, Stoan was a successful blend, being Chardonnay leavened by other aromatic white grapes. Indeed, while single-varietal wines dominate Alto Adige, skilful combinations such as this add dimensions of complexity and harmony that would be otherwise unobtainable. In musical terms, there’s plenty of room for an orchestra as well as for a soloist.
Yields are again low at 45 hl/ha. Each grape variety ferments separately in large wooden barrels with a partial malolactic fermentation. The wines are kept apart during maturation, on their lees in large wood for eleven months. After blending, the bottles rest for another three months before release. Once again, large old oak leaves no wood flavour to impede the wine.
A light gold colour heralds fruity aromas of peach cut with roses and jasmine – nothing tropical here. Instead, it’s more like a cottage garden. The palate is complex, akin to a grassy orchard. Citrus, apples and pears gambol. The texture is silkily smooth, with elegant acidity balancing fruit and alcohol. More than the sum of its parts, there’s a long finish dominated by a saline minerality. For food, a classic match is asparagus risotto. However, a tray-bake of chicken with various Mediterranean vegetables doused in herbs and olive oil works too. It’s also good with a homemade pesto made from wild garlic and hazelnuts.
Troy, Chardonnay Riserva, DOC Alto Adige, 2017, 14%
Troy means “path” and symbolises the journey of the Cantina. The Cantina’s latest wine to launch (in 2015) is an “Alpine Chardonnay.” Market conditions were once again receptive to elegant and subtle Chardonnay style that reveals terroir.
According to Willi Stürz, 2017 is the best yet, with an outstanding balance and captivating elegance. With yields at a Burgundian level of 38 hl/ha, there were just 5,000 bottles.
The Chardonnay grapes are from just two small plots in nearby Söll, old vines at 500-550 metres. These feature calcareous gravel and loam with steep southeast exposure. The grapes press with their stems, and both the alcoholic and malolactic fermentations are in Bordeaux barrels. After 11 months sitting on their lees, the wine is transferred to stainless steel for a further 22 months of ageing on the lees. Bottling is after 33 months, so this extended maturation time also qualifies it as a Riserva. The winemaking exploits Chardonnay’s natural affinity with wood, but the wine supported by subtle oak, not dominated by it.
Making comparisons with white Burgundy would be merely stating the obvious. However, this wine isn’t imitative. Instead, this Alpine-style is authentic and unique to its origins in Tramin, which puts this wine at the forefront of the world’s best expressions of Chardonnay.
In the glass, it’s a light yellow, green and silver-flecked. The aromas of white flowers and citrus mingle with mint, smoked almonds and hazelnuts. The bone-dry palate shows elegant acidity and a lean, flinty mineral streak, underpinned by oak tannin and roasted nuts. Fruit notes are apple and peach, with a hint of mango and caramel appearing as it warms in the glass. The finish is exceptionally long-lasting and satisfying. While this wine is already drinking wonderfully, it will improve. As for longevity, 20-25 years seems a reasonable assumption.
With food, Troy is a wine that deserves all that a skilled chef can concoct. It’s versatile, suiting fish, white meats, poultry and game birds and has the body and stuffing to stand up to rich sauces too. However, complex wine shows just as well with more straightforward but subtle fare. Hence the food-pairing here was with Poached Salmon with mayonnaise, new potatoes and cucumber salad, a classic recipe from Rick Stein.* Just about perfect.
This 2017 is available from Tannico at £68.47
The UK importers are Hallgarten and Novum.
These top wines from Cantina Tramin exemplify how the Alto Adige region is reaching for its potential and has become a consistent source of some of Italy’s finest wines. Do try them!
Strada del Vino, 144
39040 Termeno (Tramin)
*Rick Stein’s Seafood Lovers’ Guide, page 179.