The top wines of Cantina Tramin in Italy’s Alto Adige

I received a few samples from Cantina Tramin, an Italian cooperative in Alto Adige, also called Südtirol in German. Cooperatives are still often perceived as making cheap, inferior wines, so I was happy to receive some of their top wines in white. Cooperatives can produce genuinely good value for money wines, but others also have ambitions in the “premium” segment. As is the case for Cantina Tramin.

I had the pleasure of talking to Wolfgang Klotz, Director Marketing and Sales of Cantina Tramin, and Willi Stürz, their winemaker. In a mountainous region like Alto Adige working together is almost a necessity. “Alto Adige has 5000 hectares, and 5000 growers,” says Wolfgang, “so that gives a good idea of how fractioned Alto Adige is”. Without cooperatives it would probably not be economically viable for many to grow grapes. “But as a member of the cooperative it is. Many people would otherwise grow apples, for example. Or just move away to other regions where it is easier to make a living.” I remember hearing this as well when I spoke to the people of Cantina Tollo, who are based in Abruzzo, another mountainous region where it is hard to make a living in the countryside. Another example of the social impact of Cantina Tramin is the price guarantee that wine growers get : “For the high-end wines we want to have perfect ripeness of the grapes, which means harvesting later than for other grapes.” As chances of hail or heavy showers are higher in the mountains, there is always the risk that the grapes will be damaged if they are left in the vineyard until October. “But we cover that risk,” says Wolfgang. “The growers who are selected to provide the grapes for the topwines of Cantina Tramin are paid the full amount, no matter what happens.” This means that the growers can let the grapes hang until the ripeness is reached that Willi Stürz wants, withouth losing a part of their income if a storm destroys the harvest. So while the growers have a guaranteed income, Cantina Tramin gets the quality of grapes they want.

So what does this give in the glass? I tasted 5 whites that were selected to showcase the quality and style of Cantina Tramin’s high end wines.

Stoan 2019, DOC Alto Adige

If the name of this wine makes you think of “stone”, it is because it means exactly that. German is the main language in this region of Italy, and “stoan” is the local dialect for the German word “Stein”. This wine is made mostly of Chardonnay (65%), with Sauvignon blanc (20%), Pinot blanc (10%) and Gewürztraminer (5%) and is aged for one year in large casks. This blend may seem peculiar, but for Willi Stürz this was a logical choice : “At some point we thought : why not make a blend with the grapes that represent our region?”. And the blend actually works very well! The nose is very expressive, with apricot, fresh pear, a hint of aniseed, but also a bit of minerality that adds refinement. On the palate this wine is nicely round and creamy. The Sauvignon gives a touch of freshness, that counterbalances the ripe, exotic fruit. In the end there is a slight almond bitterness, giving a welcome contrast. Everything comes together so naturally in this wine. In a time where terroir and variety expression have become very important in the view of wine critics, this wine shows that skillful blending is still an art in itself.

Unterebner 2019, DOC Alto Adige

This is a Pinot gris, fermented in oak (25% in small tonneaux and 75% in large casks) with 12 months of further aging on the lees, again in large casks mostly. “People choose this wine because it is Unterebner, not because it is Pinot gris.” says Wolfgang Klotz. Indeed, Pinot gris doesn’t get positive press in general. “Few people invest in Pinot gris. In Alto Adige the advantage is that vineyards are not allowed in the valleys, where it can become too hot. The vineyards are on the slopes of the mountains, so we always have good cool temperatures during the nights. Nevertheless, most producers here will produce Pinot gris in stainless steel, to make clean and crisp wines.”

It’s clear that Cantina Tramin wanted to make everything but a crisps palate cleanser. Just after opening the nose starts off with very pure aromas, such as fresh pear and minerality. After a while the wood becomes more apparent, also on the palate, almost in a Burgundian way. This is definitely a Pinot Gris with a lot of substance and volume. Just as in the Stoan, there is a combination of creaminess and freshness that combines really nicely.

I was eager to taste this wine on the second day as I was curious how it would evolve. In fact, the evolution was quite impressive. The wood had nicely integrated, which brought the minerality and the fruit of this wine to the forefront. The elegance and balance of the Unterebner as showcased on day 2 makes it worth to give this wine a little more time.

Pepi 2020, DOC Alto Adige

This Sauvignon blanc takes its name from the first letters of the two sites the grapes come from : Pinzon and Penon. The latter is on the east side of the hills and is a cool site, which gives a typical Sauvignon expression and freshness. Pinzon is on the west side of the hills and gives riper grapes and a more exotic fruit expression. The fermentation happens in stainless steel tanks, after which it matures for six months in big barrels.

Sauvignon blanc can rarely hide that it is Sauvignon, and also here the aromas readily point in that way. But there are definitely no grassy or vegetal aromas here, rather attractively fresh peaches. On the palate this wine is graceful and light on its feet. Very refreshing and inviting, this wine will be a great partner for hot summer days.

Nussbaumer 2019, DOC Alto Adige

Cantina Tramin is a specialist of Gewürztraminer. The Nussbaumer is made and aged entirely on stainless steel. 30 years ago it had almost disappeared in Alto Adige, but now it is back and Cantina Tramin has several Gewürztraminers in the premium segment.

The nose is very aromatic and rich with roses, coreander, green herbs, and aniseed. After a bit of air there is also a subtle hint of minerality that gives extra complexity. The wine is creamy, round and sufficiently fresh. Although Cantina Tramin makes this Gewürztraminer in a dry style, it is not bone dry. There is a bit of residual sugar that gives a hint of sweetness.

Gewürztraminer is not an easy grape to get right. It can lack acidity, have very high levels of alcohol, or bitterness in the end. There is none of that in this Nussbaumer. “We let the grapes ripen until they almost burst. That is why there is no bitterness here. And yet the acidity is good, because of the altitude of the vineyards (300-500m).” Not everyone likes Gewürztraminer, but if you do, then this Nussbaumer offers much complexity and depth.

Troy 2017, DOC Alto Adige

If the previous wines are the “premium” segment of Cantina Tramin, then you could this Chardonnay their “super premium” wine. The vineyards are situated between 500 and 550m altitude, the yields are kept very low (35 hl/ha) and, just as with their other wines, Cantina Tramin goes for full ripeness of the grapes, while keeping good acidity for freshness. The fermentation is done in small oak barrels, followed by 11 months of lees aging. An additional 1,5 year of aging in stainless steel tanks makes the wine pretty much ready to drink when it comes on the market.

The nose starts off with attractive aromas of apricot and pear. There’s a bit of vanilla here as well that makes a nice combination with the ripe fruit. But it’s on the palate that this wine really reveals all its power. There are two elements that make this wine very special : the first is the flavor intensity. This is something that is rarely talked about when discussing the quality of wine, but in my experience high flavor intensity is a quality that I only find in top wines (and sweet wines, but that’s a completely different story). The second is the density, again something that I associate with top wines. Troy has both these aspects, not to mention a very long finish. This is a wine that makes a big impression. Definitely not a Chardonnay for the faint-hearted, but a wine that makes a statement.

This changed dramatically on day two, however, with the wine that had shed most of the oak and the density, only to gain in finesse and elegance. There was even a bit of minerality that made the nose very intriguing and attractive. The oak played a support role, rather than being one of the prominent features. A completely different appearance of this wine. But both versions are very neat renditions of what Chardonny has to offer, and allow you to play with the time of opening : you can enjoy this wine in its youth to savour the richness and density, or you can wait a few years to allow for more subtlety to develop.

Conclusion

This line-up made it very clear that cooperatives are perfectly capable of producing top wines. It’s also nice to see that there is a clear vision behind these wines : the choice to go for optimal maturity leads to wines with full and rich flavors, while maintaining their freshness. Clever wine making by Willi Stürz.

Then there is the social aspect of working as a cooperative : garantueeing the price for the grapes, offering technical expertise and ultimately contributing to the possibility for local growers to be able to make a living in a region where grape growers would otherwise struggle. Not something every wine drinker might care for, but nice to know for those who do.

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