Clemens Lageder at Aquagrill in New York City
Until I tasted Alois Lageder’s wines in the 1990s, I considered most Italian white wines to run the gamut from avoidable (Gavi) to pleasant warm-weather drinking (Arneis, Fiano di Avellino, Greco dei Tufo, and Falanghina) to worthwhile exploration (Mount Etna Bianco). The few I gave serious thought to were from northern Italy and made from fruilano (the wine was marketed as tocai fruilano before the 2007 European Court’s ruling upheld Hungary’s suit banning the use of the word tocai), ribolla gialla and sauvignon blanc. Then, in a class of its own, was Lageder’s chardonnay, and single-vineyard Haberle pinot bianco.
The 66-year old Alois Lageder IV is the fifth-generation owner of Lageder (la-GAY-der) winery. In 1823, his great-great-grandfather Johann Legeder began selling wine from a shop in Bolzano, now the capital city of the province of South Tyrol, or Sudtriol, in the Alto Adige region. Depending on who won the most recent war, Bolzano and the region have been part of Austria and Italy.
In 1934, Alois the third purchased the Lowengang winery in Magre–also known as Margried an der Weinstrabe, and Magre sulla Strada del Vino–about 16 miles south of Bolzano, and other vineyards in Alto Adige, setting the family on the course of estate wines.
The 24-year-old Alois IV assumed control of the estate in 1974, taking over from his mother and sister who ran the winery upon the early death of his father. At that time, the bulk of the region’s wines and Lageder’s was devoted to red wine production for the Austrian, German and Swiss markets. But in 1979, Alois made the first of two important additions with the purchase of the 19-acre Romigberg vineyard.
Located on steep slopes at 820 to nearly 1,100 feet above Lake Caldaro, Romigberg became the source for Lageder’s outstanding biodynamic Cor (“heart” in Latin) Romigberg cabernet sauvignon. Twelve years later, Alois bought the 76-acre Cason Hirschprunn estate in Magre where he adopted the Bordeaux model of making blended wines.
Casòn Hirschprunn is a beautiful estate from the 13th century. With its purchase, Lageder had the majority of its vineyards around Magre, where in 1996, Alois opened a new winery built around holistic ecological concepts. The grapes and wine, for example, are moved by gravity, not machine, from fermentation to aging vessels 55 feet underground in a circular cellar. This is, of course, not only friendly to the environment but also to the grapes.
Believing that white wines had great potential in Alto Adige because of its climate, geology and diversity of altitudes, Alois began planting chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, pinot bianco and pinot grigio in the 1980s.
Alongside his vision of white wines, Alois perceived that the climate in this cool, northerly Alpine region was getting warmer. So, in the 1990s, he started to apply the precepts of biodynamic farming in his vineyards.
Biodynamics is an agricultural-based philosophy conceived by the Austrian philosopher Rudolph Steiner, who delivered a series of lectures to local farmers in 1924. It advocates a farm is a living organism that must sustain itself through natural means from its own fertilizer (animal manure), abstain from chemical usage, and integrate its planting, weeding and harvesting with the cycle of the moon and planets. Ultimately, the synergistic practices create a self-sustaining, closed environment in which flora, fauna, insect, bird and animal life thrive and contribute to. If this strikes you as mysticism in the fields, you are not alone. But I think of it as applying to viticulture the ideal of the Hippocratic Oath, “First do no harm.”
However, Alois’ attempt in the 1990s at transforming some of his vineyards to biodynamic farming failed due to resistance by employees who could not, or would not, change from a lifetime of traditional farming using chemical fertilizers and pesticides, as well as the “shocking” use of horses to plow the vineyards in place of tractors. Alois also blamed his own caution in limiting the change to only some of the vineyards. It was a transformation that had to be “all in” or “all out” in his words. The “all in” ideal ignited in 2004, in response to Europe’s scorching summer of 2003, in which the vineyards (and Europeans) suffered.
In October, 29-year-old Alois Clemens Lageder introduced himself at Manhattan’s Aquagrill restaurant as the sixth generation of the family to join the business. Clemens, as he prefers to be called (and thankfully so), is up to the task of representing his family’s estate to the marketplace in the most modern way: He holds undergraduate and graduate degrees in sociology and business management, and in winemaking studies at Geisenheim University in Germany and University of Dijon. He has also worked at Volnay’s prestigious Domaine Marquis d’ Angerville in Burgundy’s Cote de Beaune region.
Speaking about his estate’s history of biodynamic farming, Clemens said, “We learned that biodynamics is not only a different way of cultivating grapes, it’s also a social process. It is not the plants that need to learn how to adapt, it is the humans who need to look at the plant in a different way.” Clearly impassioned, he continued, “If you only try biodynamic farming in some rows but not in others, you go on as you’re used to and you don’t really change your approach; it was only in 2004 that we had the courage to convert every row.”
Today the family’s 124 acres are cultivated entirely biodynamic, and Alois (Clemens’ father) is the president of the Italian chapter of the Demeter association. Named for the Greek goddess of grain and fertility, Demeter, founded in 1928, is the leading global organization certifying biodynamic farming. It is among the most rigorous and prestigious of such certifications.
As Clemens presented the 2013 Tenutae Lageder Lowengang Chardonnay, he explained the family has three wine groups. The chardonnay is from his family’s estate and is certified biodynamic. The vines range from 20 to 70 years old, grown in sandy, gravely, limestone soils at a cool altitude of 750 to nearly 1,100 feet. No artificial yeasts are used for the fermentation.
A deep yellow color captured my eye as I held the glass thinking about how much I loved the Lageder chardonnay from my first tasting about two decades ago. A gentle, elegant perfume of vanilla and white fruit lifted from the glass, reminiscent of premier cru Chassagne-Montrachet. The Burgundy parallel continued as the medium body was wrapped with white-fruit flavors and bound with a soft acidity. Not a trace of alcohol or oakiness was found in the pleasing, long finish. 95 points. Not yet in our market; expect to pay about $50.
Clemens poured the 2015 Alois Lageder Haberle Pinot Bianco, part of Lageder’s second wine group and made with purchased grapes of specific vineyards. He said the family has agreements based on a handshake with 90 growers, of which about 40 are biodynamic. The 2015 Haberle pinot bianco is from two vineyards with vines 20 to 48 years old, growing in stony and limestone soils in a cool climate at 1,500 to 1,700 feet.
After fermentation in stainless-steel tanks, 30 percent of the wine is moved to large oak casks for six months of aging. The craftsmanship yielded a light-gold-colored pinot bianco with a floral and citrus scent. Its full body bears a tasty, white peach character that carries a balanced, clean finish. Richness and elegance elevate this pinot bianco, reminding me why I liked Lageder white wines–and I think you will, too. 91 points. Should be in our market shortly and at a great value of $22 to $25.
The 2014 Tenutae Lageder Forra Bianco is another response to climate change. This hybrid grape was created in 1930 by Professor Luigi Manzoni at the Veneto’s enology school. He crossed riesling with pinot bianco, creating a variety adaptable to various climatic conditions and soils, resistance to a number of diseases, and with highly aromatic notes.
Alois planted the Manzoni bianco in one of his best vineyards at 1,100 feet above the village of Magre. Its stony limestone soil is from the dolomite rock of a nearby gorge (Forra in Italian means “gorge”), which channels cool Alpine winds, creating a microclimate for the vineyard.
Alois’ vision, the Mazoni bianco grape characteristics, and the biodynamic vineyard’s soil and microclimate finds their expression in the deep gold color, pungent tropical fruit aroma and full mouthfeel of ripe, rich fruit flavor. Clemens served the 2014 Forra Bianco in the Spiegelau Vino Grande Burgundy glass. Do not to use a smaller glass if you want to capture the unique aromas and flavor of this wine. 90 points. Clemens said the wine will be in our market later this year. A price has not been set.
The volume of pinot grigio that flows from northern Italy might rival some rivers, and often has about as much flavor and body. Not so with the 2015 Tenutae Alois Lageder Porer Pinot Grigio. Made from grapes of its biodynamic vineyard at the foothills in Magre, the amber color and full body are light years from the insipid and colorless pinot grigios filling retail shelves. It is rich and intensely fruit-flavored with low acidity. My one criticism: Its alcohol content was too high and noticeable for my palate. 85 points. Expect to pay about $25.
With millennial-aged Clemens joining his father, we can look forward to many more decades of top-notch Lageder white wines.
Clemens and the Lageder white wines.
Photos by John Foy