Raising the bar on eclectic: The irrestible charms of an Italian-German Red

By Jamie Gabrini
The Wine Chicks

Italian wines can be quite the pickle. Does the label display the name of the region? The grape? Just some random name created by the producer? The answer is generally yes, making Italian wines a very confusing sea to navigate. Once explored, however, Italy is perhaps the most rewarding viniferal venture, offering astounding array of micorclimates, varieties, and styles.

As Im sure youve noticed, I dig Italian wines; call it genetic destiny if you will, but I love exploring the oenological mayhem constantly a-froth. Despite the movement towards planting more international varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay (which, in my mind, is somehow just wrong), there are plenty of winemakers who cling to the mind-boggling array of indigenous grapes. Marzemino? Check. Arneis? Got it. Lagrein? Yep, that too.

Lagrein is a red grape native to northern Italy, where its been cultivated for over 500 years. It can be found in lower-lying vineyards in and around Bolzano, and it tends to do fairly well in soils with some clay mixed in. It ripens later than other grapes, which helps it develop the rounded berry flavors and woodsy notes for which it is known.

Maybe part of the reason I dig Lagrein as much as I do is because my bottle of choice adds to the Italian confusion by having a label in German. Yessir, why limit the confusion to esoteric grapes from unknown DOCs? Lets write it in German, too! The Lagrein Riserva (which is the DOC) by Heinrich Mayr-Nusser isnt, it seems, from Bolzano - its from Bozen. Just so ya know.

Mayr-Nusser farms organically and follows natural winemaking techniques in the cave to ensure pure expression of the grape. Thats always a good thing in my book because when I pick a wine, I want to taste the grape, not some highly manipulated yeast that will give it cherry or chocolate flavors, nor do I want a cup o mocha from the toasting and/or chipping thats been going on of late. Im a stickler like that. Anyway, Id had this bottle of Mayr-Nusser 2001 Lagrein Riserva kicking around for a little while and decided it was high time to open it.

To pair with the wine, I went with a lighter dish. I suppose the recent palatial assault from many a new-world wine made me yearn for lighter flavors and textures. And, of course, I figured something equally simple and bizarre would be nice, so I went with fiddlehead ferns. Id read a recipe once upon a dream involving fiddleheads that had captured my imagination, so when I saw the fiddleheads were in season this month, I scooped up a handful or two from my local market. I chopped them up and sauteed them in olive oil, garlic, and chopped shiitake mushrooms. I added some red pepper flakes and ground black pepper and sauteed it just until the fiddleheads were tender-crisp kinda like asparagus or broccoli. I served it over linguine with freshly grated pecorino.

I admit, this was not the most ambitious recipe ever, but man oh Manischewitz, did it work! The Lagrein was even better than Id recalled - gorgeous round blackberry and blueberry fruit were complemented by a rosemary-brambly-twig note, which worked with the green minty snap of the fiddleheads and the earthy shiitakes. By the second glass, the wine changed quite a bit, smoothing out even more, allowing more smoky-woodsy notes to rise from the glass. I was really enamoured and now regret (quick, note the time and date here) that I only had one bottle on hand.

So its the morning after. Im staring at my empty bottle. And I have the sinking feeling that Ill end up online ordering many more bottles than Ill ever need, forever wooed by a weird little Italian-German organic wine. Clearly you can see this is bigger than me.

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Reader Comments

“Despite the movement towards planting more international varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon “

A movement that’s been going on for over 100 years in Italy’s Northeast. I’m sure those grapes have more momentum now, but I think after a century things leak into traditional.

Well, Derrick’s nailed my verbal laziness: I should’ve clarified my point by explaining that the movement to plant more international varieties and vinify them for the international market is the more recent trend to which I was referring. (Though I should add that the willingness to forsake DOCG in the name of producing blockbuster IGTs using just such international grapes is another aspect that I love about Italian winemaking.)