The Dolomites stand guard over a land of small farms that are proving the co-operative model is alive and well, says Peter Ranscombe.
“THESE wines are all about mountains,” explained Diana Thompson as she introduced bottles from Mezzacorona during one of her recent Wine Events Scotland online tastings.
That mountain influence shone through in the freshness of the wines and the grape varieties from which they were made.
Yet it also shone through in the way in which they were made – by a co-operative.
Co-operatives are winemaking companies that are owned by their members.
They’re often set up by groups of farmers who don’t grow enough grapes individually to undertake cost-effective winemaking.
Instead, they pool their resources, putting all their grapes together to make wines at a scale that becomes viable economically.
Co-ops allow winemakers to share the risks and the rewards.
It allows them to bid for contracts to supply larger supermarket chains or restaurant groups.
Many now pay their members based on the quality of their grapes rather than the quantity – a distinct change from co-ops in days gone by.
Bubbles from the glaciers
Mezzacorona, which was founded in 1904, has 1,600 grape-growing members who together farm 2,800 hectares in Trentino, the southern portion of the Dolomites region.
Its wines are sold in Scotland by Margiotta, the family-run food and drink retailer with a chain of eight shops in Edinburgh and Aberlady.
The co-op’s Mezza Italian Glacial Bubbly (£10.99, Margiotta) plays on the connection with the Dolomites.
Like Prosecco, it’s made using the Charmat method, in which the bubbles are added through a second fermention that takes place in a large tank under pressure.
Yet – while Prosecco only spends about three weeks in contact with its lees, the dead yeast cells that add body to the wine – Mezzacorona’s bubbly has a full three-to-five months of lees contact.
That process adds noticeable richness to the sparkling wine, without compromising its high acidity.
Green apple and lemon flavours from its blend of 60% chardonnay, 30% pinot blanc, and 10% Muller-Thurgau dominate on the nose and palate, with some off-dry residual sugar to help with the balance.
Mezzacorona prides itself on producing pinot grigio and gewurztaminer as well as its chardonnay, including some under its Castel Firmian brand.
Its 2019 Castel Firmian Pinot Grigio Riserva (£10.99, Margiotta) is only made in selected years, with 60% of the wine spending between six and eight months in small oak barrels, with the remainder aged in stainless steel tanks.
The technique gives more body and depth of flavour than a standard pinot grigio from the Venetian plains further south, with red apple, peach, and a touch of honey on the nose, with cream and vanilla joining the fruit on the palate.
A mountain chardonnay
Further north in the South Tyrol part of the region, another co-op has also made a name for itself with aromatic white varieties.
Gewurztaminer is Cantina Tramin’s speciality, but it also produces notable chardonnays from higher elevations.
Although it’s not on sale in the UK, its elegant 2017 Cantina Tramin Troy Chardonnay is well-worth tracking down.
Grapes from some of the same chardonnay vineyards at 450-500 metres above sea level also go into its very special Cantina Tramin Stoan (£20.69, All About Wine) blend.
Stoan is formed from 65% chardonnay and 20% sauvignon blanc, with dashes of gewurztaminer and pinot blanc.
The result is floral, peach, and bruised apple aromas, which lead into an incredibly fresh palate featuring complex red apple, apricot, and lemon rind flavours, plus a slurp of cream.
Founded in 1898, Cantina Tramin was a classic co-op for nearly 100 years, making simple wines in bulk.
It made the switch to producing higher quality wines during the 1980s and 1990s, with vineyards replanted based on which varieties grew best on which sites.
Now, the 160 families in the co-operative are professional grape growers instead of hobbyists, paid on the quality of their grapes, not the quantity they produce, with the co-op dictating harvest dates.
Another factor that links the two co-operatives is the dual focus of many of their farmers on growing apples as well as grapes.
Red wines from the Dolomites
Back at Mezzacorona, the co-op’s other specialities are the rotaliano and lagrein black grapes.
Teroldego rotaliano is billed as “the prince of Trentino wines”, and Mezzacorona’s 2019 Castel Firmian Teroldego Rotaliano (£9.79, Margiotta) certainly carries itself with a regal air.
Thompson – who is running an online rosé tasting this Saturday with Margiotta – described it as the “aunty or uncle of syrah”, and the family resemblance shone through on the nose, with blackberry and blackcurrant aromas, alongside sweet vanilla from its time in oak.
On the palate, it’s much redder, with red cherry and raspberry jam flavours, plus a healthy dose of tannin to pair with food.
Interestingly, the recently-departed Jim Clendenen of legendary winery Au Bon Climat suggested California should have planted teroldego and barbera instead of merlot.
As a fan of Italian varieties, Clendenen knew what he was talking about.
Teroldego is joined by fellow native variety marzemino and the familiar face of merlot to form the 2018 Mezzacorona Dinotte Red Blend (£9.99, Margiotta), which is made in a much lusher style.
Wood smoke and toast join the mix of red cherry, blackberry, and blackcurrant on the nose, with heavy sweet vanilla marching onto the palate.
Merlot also stars on its own in the 2018 Castel Firmian Merlot (£8.99, Margiotta), which is great value, with classic black plum and red cherry on its fruity nose, plus fresh mountain acidity to balance the vanilla and more red cherry and black plum fruit on the palate.
While I expected crisp whites from the Dolomites to capture the high-altitude acidity, I was impressed by how ripe these reds could get while still retaining their food-friendly freshness.
Read more of Peter’s wine, beer, and spirits reviews on his blog, The Grape & The Grain