By Julia van der Vink
Today I am thrilled to present Lagrein as the first of a long list of underrated grape varieties. There are thousands of grapes that are used around the world to make wine, but much to my chagrin, I am probably only close enough to about twenty of them to feel comfortable snuggling. Through my parents’ influence, much of my experience with wine revolved around an obsession with a few Bordeaux varieties, and their corresponding California transplants. But the waves of change are upon us! My quest to better understand some of these so-called “underrated grapes” has opened my eyes to the new limits of what wine can and should be, and I feel compelled to share the wealth. As they say, once you go Hárslevelu or Királyleányka, you never go back.
Lagrein, (pronounced La-grine), is considered one of the up and coming flagship wines of the Italian Alps and Dolomites. It is a true mountain wine, indigenous to one of Italy’s smallest wine producing regions, Alto Adige, (pronounced Ah-dee-jay), which also bears the Germanic name Südtirol, (don’t be confused by labels that use these names interchangeably). The snowcapped Alps of Alto Adige lie right on the border of Italy and Austria, and although linguistically German, the area reflects a climate that seductively synthesizes elements of the Mediterranean South and the Germanic North. Lagrein is the most widely grown grape in Alto Adige. The area experiences huge temperature swings from day to night, but guarded by the Alps, the cool slopes of the Bolzano basin still experience warm summer times that are perfect for Lagrein.
Lagrein is one of those grapes that truly inspires me with its disconnect between performance and expectation. Although the wine often appears inky, dense, and dark, it comes off much lighter on the palate than its color seems to suggest. Many Bordeaux drinkers might find this alarming at first, and when I first shared a bottle of Lagrein with my dad, the first thing he said what that the wine seemed “thin.” However, about fifteen minutes thereafter, as it began loosening its lederhosen, true appreciation dawned upon us. Many Lagrein wines have a lightness that is elegant, refreshing and unpretentious. Maintaining a smart terroir-driven minerality, it can be characterized by its tight dark fruit, smooth tannins, and velvety notes of violet, earth, and smoke. Although the wines can be anything from light to medium, and sometimes even decently full-bodied, (I had one particularly jammy one that I would have sworn was a different species), they are distinctively clean, with nice fresh acidity, and a dark, brooding finesse.
I would especially recommend Lagrein if you like Cabernet Franc, or as a stunning substitute for Chianti or Valpolicella. Lagrein lends itself well to the traditional foods of the area, (think of fatty cured pork speck, sauerkraut, bratwurst, and stewed game). However, I would contend that its lightness and acidity make it a refreshing summer wine that can easily be paired with lighter cuisines as well. In terms of specific producers to look out for, I would recommend J. Hoffstatter, (especially the wines from the Steinraffler estate). I also feel compelled to include the Georg Mumelter Lagrein Griesbauerhof, which I recently enjoyed extraordinarily.
Lagrein is an unusual and expressive mountain wine that couples terroir-driven purity with unique velvety depth. However, it is relatively unknown amongst many drinkers, and is currently only ranked as the 116th most frequently consumed varietal out of the 156 listed in the cellars of Drync users. Just yesterday, Eric Asimov introduced Lagrein as Unfamiliar, But Worth Getting to Know. It is arguably not for everybody, but I hope you go out and try a bottle.
Also check out http://www.altoadigewinesusa.com