Exploring Italy's Trentino-Alto Adige Wine Region

Courtesy Elena Walch

Go for the wine, stay for the dramatic Alpine scenery.

An impossibly beautiful Italian wine region cooled by mountain air and strewn with pristine lakes, Trentino-Alto Adige borders Austria and feels cloistered from the rest of Italy by the snow-capped Dolomites. Think of the region as three parts: the southern province of Trentino, the northern province of Alto Adige, and the separate appellation of Trento. Between them, the wine options range from indigenous reds like teroldego (in Trentino) and lagrein (in Alto Adige) to Trento's mountain sparkling wines to the German-leaning whites of Alto Adige. And it's not difficult to find a great bottle: Trentino-Alto Adige has the highest percentage of DOP-level wines—the European equivalent of Italy's high-level DOC and DOCG appellations—of any Italian wine region

Related: How to Take a Virtual Trip to Italy Right Now

Perhaps most important, the region still feels like a place where experimentation is welcome, and that's largely thanks to the people who live and make wine there. Throughout Trentino-Alto Adige, a younger generation of winemakers is pushing for sustainability and bringing a modern, globalist spirit to their historic family businesses. It helps that the older generation was also willing to take risks; few winemakers are up to the challenge of mountain viticulture. Here are a few of the most interesting and renowned winemakers of Trentino-Alto Adige to know before you visit. 

In Trentino: Foradori 

Alaa Elkamhawi/Courtesy Foradori

Amid the tumult of 1980s Italy, where a flourishing fashion industry collided with an auto industry in decline and a dimming student-protest movement, 20-year-old Elisabetta Foradori took over the Trentino estate that had been in her family since 1939. 

"It was not really a choice," Foradori said. 

But she made crucial choices. At a time when "nobody spoke about local varieties," according to Foradori, and most regional vintners were growing teroldego clones and international grapes, she took a chance, producing much of her first vintage of teroldego from a seven-acre vineyard of old vines. Then, she tore up acres of teroldego clones and replaced them with Massal Selection, setting Foradori on a path to acclaim in Trentino and beyond. The winery, which went biodynamic in 2002, now produces numerous styles of teroldego and nosiola, as well as pinot grigio and manzoni bianco (a blend of riesling and pinot bianco). And more Trentino winemakers have followed Foradori's lead, including the group Teroldego Evolution, a consortium of about a dozen regional wineries intent on preserving the varietal's genetic diversity. 

Theo Zierock/Courtesy Foradori

"Teroldego is a wine which can bring you up to the top of a mountain in a very easy way," Foradori said, noting the wine's combination of quiet warmth and bracing acidity, a result of growing in mostly sandy, alluvial soil. 

But she's ready to move past wine. With three of her four children helping run the business, Foradori said she is building "a true farm," meaning an organic one that doesn't specialize, but rather grows local fruits and vegetables, raises livestock (Grigio Alpina cattle), and makes cheese that expresses the terroir. Visitors can tour each area of the farm as well as the vineyard, and leave with a heightened appreciation for the environment that so enchants Foradori. Preserving and even improving on the local genetic diversity, starting with the soil and grass and Alpine flowers, is central to what she said she wants to accomplish now: 

"Our goal is to transmit through the food the taste of Trentino."

In Trento: Ferrari Trento

Foto Marco Ambrosi/Courtesy Ferrari Trento

It's easy to feel bowled over by the pedigree of Ferrari Trento. The winery's 16th-century villa, Michelin-starred restaurant, and Champagne & Sparkling Wine World Championships accolades contribute to its stature as a leading producer of the Trento DOC, the first appellation in Italy only for sparkling wines. But something less glamorous changed the course of Ferrari Trento and helped set it on a path to prestige. During World War II, a protective wall was built around the winery, saving it from destruction while allowing for an accidental and first-ever aging of Ferrari wines. 

Of course, the aging would not have happened at all if not for the extraordinary efforts of Giulio Ferrari, who started the winery in 1902 after learning from Champagne producers in France. He introduced the region to "metodo classico," a traditional production method that centers around bottle-fermentation. Prosecco, by contrast, ferments in pressurized steel tanks. 

Courtesy Ferrari Trento

"He was a pioneer of sparkling wine here," said the president of Ferrari Trento, Matteo Lunelli, whose family purchased the brand in 1952. "He was the first to cultivate grapes on the mountain."

Those grapes were chardonnay, and Ferrari's large planting ultimately led to its cultivation all over Italy. Today, the full collection of Ferrari sparkling wines offers much to explore, from a mountain-clean zero-dosage Perlé to a fantastically complex Blanc de Noir. Do so at the brand's Trento estate, an immaculate expression of the Trentodoc where visitors can experience what the family deems "the art of Italian living." Along with joining winery tours of one to three hours, visitors can picnic in the vineyards and, starting this summer, follow guided walks and hikes through the vineyards and parkland around Villa Margon, which hosted the Council of Trent in the 16th century. The landscape is something to behold, with vineyards frosting the hillsides and distant views of the Dolomites. 

And the Lunelli family puts much of its energy toward sustaining that land. Ferrari is a founding member of Biodistretto di Trento, a collective of 125 organic winemakers who together oversee about half of the organic vineyard property in Trentino. Moreover, Ferrari collaborated with the Edmund Mach Foundation to create a sustainability protocol (no chemical herbicides, mite killers, or soil-fertility pesticides) for its hundreds of grape-growing partner families. The winery also has a resident beekeeper, Paolo Fontana, as part of its efforts to promote biodiversity—with the added bonus that bees not only transport terroir-specific yeasts from vine to vine, but also help control Botrytis by "sucking the wounds of the berries," according to Fontana. His expertise led to Ferrari being named a "Biodiversity Friend" by the Worldwide Biodiversity Association.

While you're in the area, head about two and a half hours northeast to the mountain village of San Cassiano, where three-star Michelin chef Norbert Niederkofler has created pairings of dishes with the region's sparkling wines, including Ferrari, at St. Hubertus restaurant.

In Alto Adige: Elena Walch

Courtesy Elena Walch

In the 1980s, Elena Walch "saw things that people from the valley at the time hadn't really seen or thought," said her daughter, Karoline Walch. Raised in Milan and an architect by trade, Elena had married into the Walch winemaking family, bringing an artistic cosmopolitanism to the vineyards of Alto Adige. Once she saw the land for herself, Elena realized that its potential had not been met. 

"She dreamed of something much bigger, much more interesting," Karoline said. 

Elena convinced her husband to give her control of two of the most important vineyard sites, so that she could experiment. She cultivated new varieties and focused on coaxing out a truer expression of each historic parcel, releasing her first vintage in 1988, the same year Karoline was born. In 2015, both parcels earned the prestigious "Vigna" designation, an official single-vineyard recognition. And that same year, the winery added a gravity-fed fermentation cellar, with the goal of working as gently and interfering as little as possible with the grapes. 

Today, the winery is led by Karoline and her sister, Julia; they studied winemaking in Australia and Burgundy, respectively. Along with cultivating numerous varieties, from gewürztraminer at Vigna Kastela to lagrein at Vigna Castel Ringberg, the Walchs are experimenting with high-elevation sites, including one at 1,000 meters, to prepare for any weather shifts that could come with climate change. While there's less fruit and more fragile flavors at such heights, according to Karoline, the resulting mineral-driven wines with great acidity are "exactly what we want."

Ruggero Arena/Courtesy Elena Walch

Tastings are offered in the wine cellar from May through October, and groups of five or more can join 360-Degree Tours that offer an in-depth look at the winemaking process, a trek through the vineyards, and a tasting at Castel Ringberg, a Hapsburg castle 10 minutes from the winery. In summer, shorter vineyard tours end with a tasting on the castle terrace with views of Lake Caldaro. While you take it all in, consider the mindset of Elena Walch, who saw parallels between architecture and winemaking in that both require starting from the ground up, explains Karoline: 

"It's kind of fascinating to her that you can create something with what nature gives you."