The Tyrolean Avant Garde (Part 1)

Even after 45 vintages in northern Italy, Alois Lageder stays “radical”

The Tyrolean Avant Garde (Part 1)
Can Assyrtiko thrive in Alto Adige? Should modern growers switch back to traditional vine-training techniques? Biodynamic winegrower Alois Lageder, now joined by his son, Alois Clemens Lageder, hasn't stopped experimenting in the vineyards or the cellar. (Robert Camuto)
Aug 4, 2020

The German-speaking Tyrolean village of Magrè is a tidy, quiet, ancient burg of about 1,300 people in Alto Adige, a small, mountainous region in northern Italy acclaimed for its cool-climate white wines.

Along the western side of the Adige river valley, orderly vineyards climb up the dolomitic limestone cliffs behind the town, with its historic buildings dating to the 13th century.

Yet Magrè is more than another postcard town along the region’s strada del vino, or weinstrasse. It’s a center for avant-garde winemaking, thanks to Alois Lageder. Now 70 and in his 46th vintage, Lageder helped pioneer biodynamic agriculture and modern winemaking in Alto Adige, as he built the family winery from a regional bulk producer into one that makes 100,000 cases of quality wines sold in 40 countries.

Today, the winery regularly makes 40 wines (see Wine Spectator blind-tasting reviews) and works with more than 30 grape varieties across the region, from local Lagrein and Schiava to the more broadly popular Pinot Bianco and Pinot Grigio.

In the past eight years, Lageder’s son, Alois Clemens Lageder, 32, has helped him launch a new and even more daring era.

In an eco-friendly winery, built here 25 years ago and powered by what was then Italy’s largest solar-energy installation, Clemens leads me through a tasting of some of their 100-plus “experiments,” arrayed in small steel tanks and wood barrels. These are a crazy mix of heirloom and international grapes, varied clones and grapes picked at different ripeness—all fermented with indigenous yeasts with a range of techniques, including whole cluster, whole berry and skin contact for whites.

“We want to find answers to certain questions,” says Clemens, 32, who is tall, lean and blue-eyed like his father. Over the past five years he has been overseeing the winemaking. “In order to find answers, we need to be radical.”

“All the experiments are important,” he adds. “Even if they turn out shitty, they are important for us to learn.”

Alois Clemens Lageder in the winery's barrel cellar
In the cellar, Alois Clemens Lageder is experimenting with everything from heat-tolerant grape varieties to skin-contact whites but always sticks with native yeasts. (Robert Camuto)

Lageder is still known for its classics, like its Cabernet Sauvignon–Petit Verdot blend from the steep Cor Römigberg vineyard (2015, 91 points, $65) and its Löwengang Chardonnay (2016, 90 points, $50).

But to keep its edge, in recent years, the winery has bottled and released some of its experiments, typically small batches of 10 to 80 cases, called “Comets.” In some vintages, there’s a wine called Tik, made from the Greek variety Assyrtiko, which thrives in hot weather. Another wine, called Zie, is a field blend (sometimes made as a white and sometimes as a red) from the collection of 150-plus varieties planted by the late naturalist Rainer Zierock (and ex-husband of Trentino winemaker Elisabetta Foradori). Then there is my new favorite white summer sipper, called Bla Bla Bla, which blends three vintages of Blatterle, a nearly extinct local heirloom variety, made with light skin contact.

“When the DOC was created in Alto Adige, they forgot to include Blatterle,” says the elder Lageder. “It’s ridiculous, but we can’t call it Blatterle, so we call it Bla.”

Later this year, Alois plans to formally retire and hand the last of his duties over to the sixth generation, led by Clemens with his two sisters. Reflecting on his career one early summer morning, Alois credits his two greatest influences: his mother and the late pioneering California vintner Robert Mondavi.

The Lageder family began wine trading in the nearby city of Bolzano nearly 200 years ago; in the 19th century, when the Alto Adige was still part of Austria, the family began its own négociant business, making wine from purchased grapes. That model changed in 1935, when Alois’ father bought the Löwengang estate in Magrè, which includes one of the region’s oldest vineyards, dating to 1875. The plot is filled with pergola-trained Carmenère, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, which were among the many imported varieties planted in the region under Austrian rule in the 19th century.

In the mid 1970s, when Alois took over the winery, it still sold most of its wine in bulk as red table wine or as base wine for spumante. The vineyards were farmed conventionally, but Alois’ ideas were shaped by his mother, who had studied the esoteric teachings of biodynamics founder Rudolf Steiner.

Alois Lageder
Among Alois Lageder's legacies will be Alto Adige's reputation for cutting-edge, quality wines. (Robert Camuto)

“I grew up with the idea from my mother of looking at nature. So I knew I couldn’t continue to farm conventionally—always working against nature,” says Alois, walking to a vineyard newly planted on the valley’s gentle slope below Magrè. “But at the time, you couldn’t just think of converting a whole farm—the convention was so strong.”

With resistance to change even from within his own family, Alois had to wait 20 years to completely convert the estate to biodynamics.

“To convert the plants was easy,” Alois says with a laugh. “To change the minds of the workers here and others was difficult. There was a lot of resistance.”

Read Part 2 of Lageder: The Tyrolean Avant Garde: Learning from Mom and Robert Mondavi.

People Biodynamic Red Wines White Wines Pinot Gris / Pinot Grigio Italy Alto Adige

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