Lovely Lagrein

Expand your palate with Dolomite deliciousness.

Posted on by Mike Madaio

lagrein-alto-adige

As we discussed in our piece on white wines of the Alto Adige (aka South Tyrol or Südtirol), this northernmost Italian region spent a long time within the Austro-Hungarian empire prior to WWI, and is still heavily influenced by that culture. (On wine labels, for example, German text often appears above or alongside the Italian, as many residents speak German natively.) Thus, given the opportunity to speak with Judith Unterholzner – who represents regional producers Terlano and Andriano – about wines made with Lagrein, a red grape grown almost exclusively here, my first question was whether the winemakers see it as Italian or Austrian. “Lagrein is much more Austrian than Italian in influence,” she told me. “But this is more due the impact of the mountains and the alpine microclimate than the culture.”

In other words, it’s all about terroir. Lagrein don’t care about wars, country borders, or any other man-made conflicts. It found a spot it likes, in a sometimes-unforgiving alpine climate, and it is thriving. In mountainous regions especially, there seems to be a strong bond between the climate and certain grapes, and Lagrein’s match with Alto Adige is no exception. We can come up with all sorts of other ways to describe terroir, but for me, that just about sums it up.

The grape, pronounced “lah-grine” (rhymes with wine), was traditionally used for blending – with the lighter Shiava, mostly – or as a rosato, due to its rugged, bitter nature, and only found its true calling in the early 1980s. “In the decades before,” says Unterholzner, “many consumers wanted lighter, easy-drinking red wines. Then there was an upswing in demand for structured red wines, and more oak influence… Lagrein fulfilled both requests, being full of character and developing fine spicy notes with oak aging. For locals of the region, this became our first serious red wine.”

judith-terlano

Judith Unterholzner with Terlano Lagrein

Tasting through several Lagreins recently, I discovered a refreshing typicity, especially with the non-riserva wines (those aged in large oak casks or steel). Though each wine offered something different – a few featured earthy, rustic notes, for example – there were characteristics that clearly identified every bottle as Lagrein. Aromatically, a violet, floral bouquet recalls Syrah (a cousin), but only just. (La Cucina Italiana identifies this scent as brunelle, a local name for wild orchids found in the region.) On the palate, bright plums and and blackberries lead the way, with black tea and more violet – or brunelle – notes. As it finishes, there’s an almost soapy aspect we’ll call lavender, lest you think it punishment for foul language, which it is most certainly not.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the riservas, or wines aged in small oak barrels – which can cost significantly more – tend to relinquish some of this typicity. Oak softens the floral nature of the aroma, and though spicy flavors on the palate can add intrigue, they also obstruct those special orchids & plums. Riservas are, of course, made for longer aging (10 years or so), but – and take this to heart coming from a lover of aged wine – I’m not sure, in this case, they offer more than the wines meant for everyday drinking.

Pairing-wise, Lagrein of course plays well with the foods of the region, including the legendary speck (smoked, cured ham), as well as beef or game stews. Polenta, mushrooms and root veggies are also common. I love it with fresh pork preparations too, such as grilled chops, roasted tenderloin, or stewed shoulder. Unterholzner suggests braised (in Lagrein, obviously) veal cheek on top of celery root puree.

lagrein-alto-adige

Though Lagrein is not exactly commonplace in the PLCB system, we’ve put together a list of bottles that are all available either in stores, through the SLO system or from nearby shippers.

Reviewing the notes, a few things are obvious:

1) Lagrein quality is consistent. Any bottle that’s 15-20 bucks (maybe a few more in PA), is certain to be both delicious and representative of the region and variety. In fact, I’ve yet to try one in this price range that wasn’t good, with the exception of one bottle that was cooked. (Which was hardly Lagrein’s fault!)

2) There’s less certainty with riservas. Added winemaker intervention (mainly through oak) means that these wines may represent the region well, but could also taste like modern red wines of indeterminate origin. Of course I only tried two – one of which was on the younger side for a riserva –  and though both were enjoyable, they were generally less appealing. (If anyone out there wants to prove this hypothesis wrong with a beautifully aged bottle, just tell me where and when…)

Without further ado, the notes:

Tiefenbrunner Turmhof Lagrein 2011
$20.99 – PLCB SLO #527830
Big fruit on the nose, alongside a touch of earth and smoke, as well as warm spice. Nice balance of freshness and funk. Good complexity, evolves in the glass. Rustic finish. (92 points)

Tramin Lagrein 2010
$17.99 – SLO #516941 – also available at Saratoga Wine for $15.84
My favorite nose of the bunch. Moss, forest floor, leather, fruit. Leaps out of the glass. Palate decent too, but almost a letdown after the nose. Still, quite good. (92)

Balter Lagrein

Abbazia di Novacella Lagrein 2009
$19.99 – SLO #534642 (2011 Vintage)
Classic flavors mixed with the modern touch of sweet warm mulling spice and tobacco. Good acidity, big tannins, and intriguing complexity. (91)

Peter Zemmer Lagrein 2010
$22.09 – SLO #519284 – also available at Wine Library for $17.98
The most typical of the group. This is the pure essence of Lagrein. Straightforward, with all the expected aromas and flavors. (91 points)

Azienda Agricola Balter Lagrein IGT 2010
$17.99 – in PLCB stores
Nice balance of earth, spice and herbs to go alongside the plum and fig. Smooth. (90)

Andriano Tor di Lupo Riserva 2010
$39.97 – available at Wine Library (2007 vintage)
Classic Lagrein notes are there, but made more subtle by warm spice and tobacco. Hints of earth and tar on the nose, especially with air. Big tannins, bitter on the finish. Should improve with age. (89+)

St. Paul’s Lagrein Gries 2010
$20.79 – SLO #526208
Rich, dense fruits with a discernable chocolate/cocoa element. Would benefit from air and/or little time. (88)

Terlano Lagrein Porphyr 2006
$53.89 – SLO #499911 (2005 Vintage)
The least Lagrein-like personality, perhaps due to overdone oak. Dark fruits, lots of warm spice, some fleeting earth. Not bad, but nothing special for the price. (87)

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Categories: Wine Regions

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About Mike Madaio

One of the co-founders of Pennsylvania Vine Company, Mike is a food & drink writer based in the western suburbs of Philadelphia. His work has appeared in publications such as Main Line Today, Bucks Life, Main Line Dine and Small Food, and he has achieved Core Certification from the National Wine School. Mike is obsessed with exploring Italian wines of all kinds, especially old-world-style bottles that feature savory, funky notes, achieve great balance and work well with food.

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2 Responses to Lovely Lagrein

  1. avatar Kevin Robinson says:

    Great article, Mike, and very informative on this lesser-known variety… Makes me want to run out and find one now to try!

    • avatar Mike Madaio says:

      Thanks Kevin, appreciate it. And, um, I know of at least one vineyard growing Lagrein in ChesCo, so, although the mountainous terroir might be lacking, there’s precedence!

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