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.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Lagrein - Alto Adige, Italy

Lagrein is one of those grapes that slowly seems to be coming into fashion.  Eric Asimov has recently written about it in his New York Times column, it was profiled on WineLibrary.tv a few years back, and it has started to show up in some email specials and even on some restaurant menus (one of the wines I'll be writing about below is from a local restaurant).  While the interest the grape is generating may be a relatively recent phenomenon, the grape itself is anything but new.

Let's get some history out of the way first: some sources say that Lagrein was first mentioned in print in the 17th Century, but other sources claim that mentions of the grape can be dated as far back as 1379 AD.  For awhile, it was thought that the grape came over from Greece and that the source of the name "Lagrein" was either from the Greek word lagarinthos, which means "hanging," or from the Greek Colony of Lagaria in southern Italy.  Today, most people seem to think that the name comes from the Lagarina Valley in Trentino, just south of Alto Adige.  Whatever the source of the grape's name, its origin is no longer in doubt: genetic testing has shown that one of its parent grapes is Teroldego and it is a full sibling of Marzemino, both native Trentino varietals (Vouillamoz, J., & Grando, M. (2006) Genealogy of wine grape cultivars: ‘Pinot’ is related to ‘Syrah’. Heredity, 97(2), 102-110.).  (**UPDATE**  Lagrein's parentage has been confirmed as Teroldego x Schiava Gentile according to: Cipriani, G. et al.  The SSR-based molecular profile of 1005 grapevine (Vitis vinifera L.) accessions uncovers new synonymy and parentages, and reveals a large admixture amongst varieties of different geographic origin.  2010.  Theoretical and Applied Genetics.  121: 1569-1585.).  These relations strongly indicate that the grape was born in the Trentino/Alto-Adige region.  Today, it is extraordinarily difficult, but not impossible, to find Lagrein anywhere outside of Alto Adige.  Australia seems to be the only other place on earth bothering with the grape, though production there is limited to a handful of producers (California has some vines, but nowhere near enough to be considered a player in the Lagrein game).

The vine was once more widespread through Alto Adige than it is today, but it was supplanted by Schiava to a large extent.  Both Schiava and Lagrein are capable of very high yields, and while I've read that Schiava was supplanting Lagrein because of its greater resistance to disease, my feeling is that fashion probably played a larger role.  The focus on denser, darker red wines is largely a product of recent history as, traditionally, most red wines were fairly light in body and color (many historians think that the great "clarets" from Bordeaux in the 17th and 18th centuries were closer to modern day rosé wines than red wines).  In general, Lagrein is not a light wine and it has the double-whammy of high acidity and very high tannins.  My feeling is that Schiava was more widely planted because the wines produced from the grape were more approachable and user-friendly than the wines being made from Lagrein.  A good deal of the Lagrein production was used to beef up the Schiava a bit, as Schiava can be bewilderingly light in color for a red wine.  It's also somewhat telling that, for quite awhile, Lagrein was more lauded for its ability to produce an excellent rosé than for its ability to produce red wine (it still has a great reputation for rosé production, though it is much more difficult to find rosé wines made from it than regular red wines).

Current fashion has swung in the opposite direction and today's consumer is more interested in denser, heavier red wines with more body and fruit.  While Lagrein does have high acid and high tannin, it also has the great equalizer of intense fruit concentration that can round out the sharpness and provide a lot of flesh on the  otherwise pretty angular skeleton that the Lagrein grape carries around.  The key, though, is a focus on quality in the vineyard.  As mentioned above, Lagrein has the capacity to yield explosively but when allowed to do so, the fruit gets diluted and the structure sticks out in all the wrong places.  Canopy management and restricted yields are especially key for producers who are looking to produce quality wines from Lagrein.  Many producers are heeding the call, though, and Lagrein is starting to take back some of the vineyard area from Schiava and to generate more of a buzz in the international community.

The first wine I was able to try is one I found on a local restaurant wine list.  Sel de la Terre was offering the 2003 vintage of the Abtei Muri-Gries Riserva for $40 a bottle when I was there in April 2011 (the picture on the side shows the 2000 vintage because I wasn't able to snap a picture in the restaurant and this was the best looking label I could find).   I jotted my notes down on some scrap paper so this isn't a complete tasting note, but the bottle was so good I definitely wanted to be able to write about it here.  The lighting in the restaurant was pretty dim, but the color on this wine was an obvious, dense, inky purple color. The nose was pretty shy on this and never developed very much.  On the palate, though, the wine was full, dense and richly extracted with acidity on the higher side of medium and grainy tannins.  The palate was full of rich, ripe purple fruits and nice earthy, leathery notes.  It was broad and very well balanced with a medium finish.  This wine is produced in a monastery in Alto-Adige from three different estate vineyards that only total 9 hectares.  Some of the vines on these estates are 80+ years old. The wine is stainless-steel vinified and then aged in wooden barrels (probably some new oak, but I doubt it's 100%) for 16 months prior to release.

The second wine I tried was the 2009 Georg Mumelter Griesbauerhof which I picked up for $22.  Again, the wine had a deep, inky purple color with a generous nose of crushed blackberry, blueberry, black cherry with some jammy notes to it as well.  The palate was full bodied with nice acidity and plush, ripe tannins.  There was smoky black cherry and blackberry fruit with some earthy leather rounding it out.  This was a bit more polished than the Muri-Gries, but really lacked the complexity and depth of flavor of that wine.  The finish comes up pretty short on this bottle, but overall, it's a very good effort.  Barbeque is the first thing that comes to mind for me with these wines, as they have the structure and the fruit to stand up to smoked meats and heavy sauces.  I almost hate to say it, but a good comparison here is with well-made Australian Shiraz as they both have that dense core of primary fruit with nice acid and enough tannin to prevent them from tasting like fruit soup.  If you run across Lagrein in your local shop, give it a shot and serve it with your next cook out.


I was recently able to track down a bottle of the 2009 Muri-Gries Rosato made from 100% Lagrein grapes in the Alto Adige region of Italy.  I picked this bottle up from my friends at Curtis Liquors for about $8.  In the glass this wine was a bright cherry red color reminiscent of maraschino cherry juice.  The nose was somewhat reserved with red cherry and fresh cut strawberry fruits.  On the palate the wine was on the fuller side of medium with fairly high acid.  There were flavors of Rainier cherry and sour cherry along with some fresh cut strawberry and touch of watermelon.  The flavors were a little bit washed out and muted here, as this wine is probably not meant to sit around for a few years before having its cork pulled.  This wine does typically retail for about double what I paid and I knew when I bought it that it was an end-of-the-vintage sale and that it might not be showing its best.  I did still find it enjoyable and thought that it was miles better than most rosé wines at this price point.  

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