A blog devoted to exploring wines made from unusual grape varieties and/or grown in unfamiliar regions all over the world. All wines are purchased by me from shops in the Boston metro area or directly from wineries that I have visited. If a reviewed bottle is a free sample, that fact is acknowledged prior to the bottle's review. I do not receive any compensation from any of the wineries, wine shops or companies that I mention on the blog.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Kerner - Valle Isarco, Alto Adige, Italy

By all accounts, today's post should take us back into Germany.  After all, the Kerner grape was created in 1929 by August Herold in Lauffen, Germany, by crossing Riesling and Schiava (also known as Trollinger or Vernatsch).  In the mid-90's, Kerner was the third most planted white grape in Germany and occupied about 8,000 hectares of land, accounting for about 7.5% of total German vineyard land.  Plantings have fallen in recent years, though, and Kerner today accounts for about 4% of total German vineyard area, placing it eighth among German white grapes.  For comparison's sake, Scheurebe accounts for less than 2% of vineyard area, and German Scheurebe, while not exactly everywhere, is easier to find than German Kerner for some reason.  In fact, both of the wines I'll be writing about today are from Alto Adige in Italy and every Kerner that I've seen on the shelf has been from this same region.

Why might that be?  Well, I think it has something to do with the image of each country in the mind of the American consumer (it may be more widespread than that, but I'm not going to presume on behalf of other nationalities...I hesitate even here to generalize about the "American consumer").  As mentioned in the Scheurebe post, when you have a look at the German section of your local wine shop, I'm guessing that an overwhelming majority of the bottles on the shelf are Riesling even though Riesling itself only accounts for 22% of the vineyard area in Germany (most shops I frequent run between 90 - 100% Riesling in their German sections).  I suspect that American consumers have associated Germany with Riesling to such an extent that there just isn't a lot of interest over here for wines made from other grapes, even though Germany certainly has a wealth of them.  Italy, on the other hand, has kind of a reputation for wines made from all kinds of different grapes, so consumers are probably more willing to take a chance on a grape they've never heard of from Italy.  In fact, the Italian landscape of grapes almost forces consumers to be open to variety unless they want to drink only Chianti for the rest of their life.  I get a sense that for most people, Germany is practically equivalent to Riesling (or, worse, Liebfraumilch), so wine made from others grapes are a tougher sell.  I've actually had more luck finding Müller-Thurgau wines from Italy than I have from Germany, and Müller-Thurgau is Germany's second most planted white grape, accounting for nearly 14% of the total vineyard surface!

So even if we grant that my little theory has some merit, some may still be scratching their heads and wondering what German grapes like Kerner and Müller-Thurgau are doing in Italy in the first place.  Well, as mentioned in the post about Schiava, the Alto Adige region is on the northern border of Italy and, historically, has been under the control of the Austro-Hungarian empire (the territory was ceded to Italy only as recently as the end of World War I).  The culture here is very Germanic and many of the grape varieties grown here reflect that.  Kerner seems to have a special affinity for a sub-region in the north-central part of Alto Adige called Valle Isarco which sits directly on the border with Austria.  This is Alpine country, though the areas right around the Isarco river are a little lower as the river has carved out the valley over time.  Many of the vineyards here are at altitude, though, ranging from 500 - 1000 meters above sea level.  As you might expect, this is definitely white wine country and Kerner seems to grow particularly well on these elevated slopes.

Most crossings are created to deal with specific climatic conditions and Kerner is no exception.  It buds late so it misses most of the spring frosts, which is a big deal in the climates it inhabits.  It does not have any specific soil requirements and is not particularly susceptible to any of the major moisture-related diseases that prey on vines (molds, rots, etc.).  Like pretty much all successful crossings, Kerner can yield very large crops which, if left unchecked, can create thin, dilute wines.  If properly managed in the vineyard and if given enough time to ripen fully (it is often not fully ripe until well into October), it can create exotically perfumed wines that resemble Riesling.

The first wine I was able to try was from the Cantina Valle Isarco, a cooperative within the Valle Isarco with over 130 members.  The word "Eisacktaler" on the label is the Germanic term for the Valle Isarco region.  The vintage on my bottle was 2006 and I paid about $18 for it.  In the glass, the wine was a lemon yellow color with aromas of petrol, melon and honeysuckle.  "Oily flowers" was the sum-up phrase I used for the nose.  On the palate, the wine was dry with a rich, oily texture and medium acidity.  There were lean fruit flavors of white peaches with honey and a touch of leafy mint on the finish.  There was a nice, flinty kind of minerality running through the wine as well.  The petrol aromas and flavors were pretty strong here and I'd guess this wine probably didn't have a lot of time left before it fell apart completely.  If the acid level were a little higher here, this would be a fantastic wine, but the rich, oily texture didn't have much to support it.  The alcohol here is also sky high for a white wine, clocking in at a monstrous 14.5%.  This wine was certainly made from very ripe grapes and was pretty good, considering its age.  This had the body to stand up to a lot, but I'd avoid foods with acidity as they'd probably make this taste a little flabbier than it really is.  Thick sauces or chicken or pork are probably the ticket here.

The second wine I was able to try was from the Abbazia di Novacella winery.  The vintage was 2009 and the price was $22.  In the glass, this was a medium lemon green color with intense aromatics of grapefruit, lemon, melon and a touch of grassy herbs.  The body was on the fuller side of medium with the same thick, oily texture as the prior bottle.  The acid level was medium and there were flavors of ripe melon and grapefruit pith with a touch of lemony citrus.  Considering how aromatic the wine was, it was a bit of a letdown on the palate as that exuberance didn't really carry over.  The alcohol was very high here again (14%) and was much more obvious and in the way than on the previous bottle.  All in all, this reminded me more of a Sancerre style Sauvignon Blanc than a Riesling which makes me wonder whether these grapes were a little underripe or whether they may something else blended in here (the DOC regulations stipulate that if a varietal is stated, the wine only needs to be comprised of 85 - 100% of that varietal with the rest made up of "other local similar varietals").  My money's on slightly underripe grapes, for what it's worth, and I would consider pairing this the same way I would the wine above, really, as it still had the big body with the lackluster acidity.

All in all, Kerner probably isn't going to replace Riesling any time soon, but it is a refreshing change of pace.  I'd recommend drinking these wines young and pairing them with fairly hefty dishes that aren't particularly acidic.  Also, because of the body and the high alcohol content, these feel more like autumn or winter weather whites to me, as they're not all that refreshing to drink on their own.  Alto Adige has plenty of light zippy wines that will serve you better for the warm months ahead.

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