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Northern Italy's Lagrein Grape: A Local Hero
Note from the author: There are 1,368 varieties covered in Wine Grapes by MW Jancis Robinson, MW Julia Harding, and Dr. Jose Vouillamoz. Let's try them all. Disclosure: I recently traveled to Alto Adige with the Guild of Sommeliers on a trip for sommeliers sponsored by Alto Adige Wines.
Lagrein has been planted in Alto Adige for over 500 years. The Wine Grapes book calls it a "very well-connected, distinctively fruity but sometimes rustic feature of the Alto Adige," going on to explain that, while a DNA-proven consensus on its heritage hasn't quite been reached, it's a natural cross between Teroldego and... something else. Half Teroldego, my grape crush? Count me in.
Despite the long history and ample plantings in Alto Adige, up until the last couple of decades this dark and rustic red wasn't really ever taken seriously. Over 80% of the area's planted Lagrein was made into a simple (albeit tasty, super fruity) rosé, locally known as kretzer, which was gulped casually and rarely exported. The remainder was typically blended with the lighter local red grape, Schiava. It wasn't until the 1980s that any producer really even considered making a "serious" red Lagrein. One of the first to do so was Christian Werth, winemaker at Muri-Gries, a still-working monastery in the city of Bolzano that owns vineyards and makes wine.
Christian is shy, humble and utterly adorable with a patient, devoted affinity for Lagrein. Why not, he wondered shortly into his tenure at Muri-Gries, try to focus on making high quality, ageworthy wines from local varieties? The world didn't need yet another Cabernet Sauvignon, he thought, and it would be more convenient and cost-effective to simply work with what was already on hand: Lagrein.
Christian focused on deriving better and better fruit from the vineyards, first and foremost. In the winery, he decided to try aging the wines in considerable new oak. It was a smart decision: Lagrein is wickedly concentrated with black-blue fruit flavors, coming in sour and unabashed on entry, with stealthy tannins that sneak up on you and tighten around your tongue at the finish. This sour and grippy profile is amazingly balanced out by the sweet-spicy oak, which contributes potent flavors of vanilla and cedar. In addition, the oxygen the wine gets from time in barrel softens the texture, giving it a more plushness to counteract that sneaky grippiness.
On my recent visit to Muri-Gries, Christian was so quiet yet clearly proud and excited about the work he had been doing for the past 25 years with Lagrein, his baby. He pulled out bottles from the 2011, 2007 and 2003 vintages, even surprising us later on with a 1993 from his early days at the monastery. The evolution was fascinating, seeing the tannins soften up and drop out with time, the fruit evolve from blackberry and blueberry compote into dried, raisinated and extra perfumed notes. Notes of licorice and brushy herbs pulled through, and in vintages like 2003 (a very warm year), the fruit moved from fierce black and blue into a very red cherry spectrum.
When asked what his plans were for future vintages, if there was a clear direction he'd decided to move in, Christian shrugged his shoulders as his eyes lit up with a glimmer of excitement, of adventure. He said that he wasn't completely sure; he'd only (only!) been at it for 25 years and hadn't had enough time to make a decision. He beamed: There was still more experimenting to do! His patience was beautiful; his devotion was contagious, and I can't wait to follow along for his and Lagrein's next 25.
Muri-Gries Lagrein & Muri-Gries Lagrein Riserva
The Grape: Lagrein
The Region: Alto Adige, Italy
The importer: Polaner
Retail price (current vintage): $18 (regular bottling); $43 (riserva)
About the Author: Stevie Stacionis is a wine writer and Certified Sommelier based in San Francisco. She's currently drinking her way through the 1,368 varieties included in Wine Grapes. Follow her on Twitter @StevieStacionis and check out her snobbery-free wine videos at A Drinks With Friends TV.