In Italy’s Alto Adige, Alois Lageder is setting the standards for experimental and biodynamic winemaking.
The German words roll off Helena Lageder’s tongue with a little verve: “We use a…buggel spritzen.” We are in the middle of a conversation about biodynamic sprays. “It’s a metal rucksack—you fill it with liquid, and wear it on your back,”she explains. I can picture it now: an agriculture backpack sprayer. It strikes me that we are talking about Italian winemaking and this German description seems a little out of place, but the peculiarity makes immediate sense when I recall the history of Alto Adige, the region where Helena’s family-run winery, Alois Lageder, is located.
Alto Adige, located in northern Italy, borders Switzerland and Austria. It is a mountainous region, where the striking Dolomites and southern Alps are an antithesis of the rolling Tuscan hills and sun-drenched coastlines that have come to define the bel paese for the rest of the world. The region was once under Austrian rule in the early 19th century. After enduring territorial and ideological battles during the two world wars, Alto Adige eventually became an autonomous region in northern Italy, and the populace was allowed to keep their unique Austrian cultures and customs. German and Italian remain the official languages. The region is also known as Südtirol or South Tyrol.
Helena, 26, is the sixth-generation member of Alois Lageder. The winery is almost 200 years old: in 1823, Johann Lageder, a wine merchant based in Bolzano, bought a number of vineyards in the region, starting the family wine business that has continued to this day. Alois III, Johann’s great-grandson, passed away suddenly in 1963. Alois IV, Helena’s father, was only 12 years old then, so his eldest sister, Wendelgard, had to take over the operations of the winery.
Alois IV eventually took over the winery in the mid-1970s. Today, the winery owns 55 hectares of vineyards, makes 1.2 million bottles a year, and is also certified biodynamic. Helena, who joined the family business last year after a spell in film production, is the winery’s appointed ambassador, handling exports and marketing, while her older brother, Clemens, assists dad in the winemaking department.
Daring to be different
While the region of Alto Adige is small—just 5,300 hectares under vine—it is home to a diversity of grape varieties. This is mainly cool climate territory, so white grapes dominate. Pinot Grigio, Pinot Bianco, Sauvignon Blanc, and Chardonnay are favourites among vintners. Schiava and Lagrein, two indigenous red grape varieties of Alto Adige, also command respect, given their heritage and tradition in the area. Schiava is a light, fruity, easy-drinking wine, while Lagrein makes a fullbodied, tannic quaff.
Pinot Noir, ever the cool climate lover, also shows up in Alto Adige. Alois Lageder’s Krafuss Pinot Noir 2014 is reminiscent of some of the top Spätburgunders from their neighbours in the north. It is elegant and floral, with lovely cherry aromas, silky tannins, and crisp acidity.
Retaining acidity in their fruit is one of the concerns of Alois Lageder. “With global warming and climate change, we are seeing a decrease in acidity levels [in our grapes],” says Helena. “Back in the old days, we used to be able to plant Riesling everywhere, even at altitudes of 50m, and still get acidity. These days, we have plant to them higher at 600m. But you can’t keep going higher all the time—you don’t want to bring monoculture into untouched nature. That’s why we are also growing grapes that are more suited to warm climates, like Tannat, which has a high acidity that won’t be lowered too much under the heat. We are experimenting with them to see how they would develop in our region.”
The winery has never shied away from experimentation, and the Comet wines in their portfolio represent this innovative spirit. Taking its inspiration from the ephemeral astronomical phenomenon, the Comets are a series of limited, experimental wines that are launched in small quantities, usually between 200 and 600 bottles per release. Helena says that the wines are sold to niche markets or selected restaurants with “sommeliers who know they have the right consumers who’d be interested in such wines”. A particular edition may get a relaunch, but it may not have the same vinification method as its predecessor.
The Moscato Giallo, often made into a dessert wine in the region, is one of the latest Comets from Alois Lageder. The winery decided to turn it into a bubbly through Pétillant Naturel (also known as Ancestral Method), an ancient sparkling winemaking method in which the wine is bottled before the first fermentation is complete, and then left to finish its fermentation in the bottle. If you have been around your favourite natural wine bars recently, you would have noticed your sommelier slinging the phrase ‘Pet Nat’, which is the abbreviated term for this growing category of sparklers.
Helena notes that such Comet releases are not an attempt to jump on the natural winemaking wagon. “With the Moscato Giallo, we wanted to find out what would happen if we tried a completely different vinification method; we did it out of interest and curiosity,” she says. “The Comet wines let us explore forgotten grape varieties and old methods.”
The modus operandi at Alois Lageder is biodynamic winemaking, a tenet that Alois IV began embracing in the 1990s. (Alois IV is also the president of Italy’s Demeter association.) Many wineries in Alto Adige are not receptive of biodynamic agriculture, and Helena reckons it could be the extra labour and costs that keep them wary. Plus, there isn’t much to scientific proof to biodynamics, an esoteric concept built on astrology and homeopathy. “Some people think it’s about dancing naked under the moon and spraying fairy dust,” she quips.
One of the biodynamic methods she uses is Preparation 500: manure is placed in a female cow horn, and buried in the soil for a few months. After the horn is removed, the contents are added into a pail of water, and stirred for one hour in one direction, until a vortex builds, and then for another hour in the opposite direction. This, she says, “dynamises the mixture”. The liquid is then transferred into the buggel spritzen (Were you paying attention?), and sprayed onto the soil.
“[With biodynamic winemaking], we have observed a difference in the vineyards,” she says. “The vines are stronger and healthier, and more resistant to diseases. It’s about helping them build their immune system.” Currently, the winery also sources fruit from growers who manage 100 hectares of vineyards—60 percent of them are organic or biodynamic. “Our goal over the next few years is to motivate the rest of them to convert to biodynamic winemaking,” she says. “We hope to achieve this by 2023, which would mark the 200th anniversary of our winery.”
Alois Lageder wines available from pinnaclewinespirits.com
This article was first published in the Sep/Oct 2019 Celebrating Singapore’s Top Restaurants issue of Wine & Dine.