The Tyrolean Avant Garde (Part 2)

On Italy’s northern frontier, Alois Lageder has learned from Mom and Robert Mondavi

The Tyrolean Avant Garde (Part 2)
Alois Lageder has been working with his son, Alois Clemens Lageder, since 2012. (Robert Camuto)
Aug 18, 2020

At 70, Alois Lageder, a fifth-generation winemaker in Alto Adige, is an icon of innovation in this small, mountainous region that produces some of Italy’s most renowned white wines.

Lageder made his mark by questioning local orthodoxy. His first influence was his mother, who taught him to observe and respect nature. (Read part 1 of my visit.) The other big influence in his career was Robert Mondavi, whom he met when the American vintner visited Lageder on a 1981 tour of Italy.

“Mondavi got me to look at tradition in the right way,” Lageder explains one summer morning at his historic Löwengang estate in the village of Magrè, “to preserve it, but to evolve.”

Mondavi convinced Lageder to use small French oak barrels to age his Löwengang red, a field blend of Carmenère, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot from a site where the vines range up to 140 years in age. Mondavi also convinced him to barrel ferment his white Löwengang, a Chardonnay, and to try new vine-training systems that result in lower yields than Alto Adige’s traditional tall pergolas.

Lageder followed the recommendations, and the wines became international flagships—for both the winery and the region. (See Wine Spectator reviews.)

But Lageder never went in for the extractive, “big wine” style that became associated with barriques in the decades that followed. “The wines here have always been cool mountain wines,” he says in his soft-spoken but frank manner.

Though Alto Adige’s history with Bordeaux and Burgundy varieties dates to the 19th century, in the 1980s, Lageder grew concerned by the first studies on climate change and returned to planting ancient, late-ripening, local varieties. He also added warm-climate varieties from the Rhône Valley and southwest France; many of them, like Viognier and Tannat, turned out to be successes that helped grow his portfolio of offerings.

In the 1990s, Lageder bought a second vineyard estate in Magrè, with a Renaissance palazzo called Hirschprunn, where he continued his experiments with alternative grape varieties.

Then he built a new solar- and geothermal-powered, gravity-fed winery at Löwengang. To mark his attachment to nature, he commissioned an installation by Italian artist Mario Airò: When the wind blows, a roof turbine powers a stereo in a barrel cellar that plays a Bach concerto slowed down to what sounds like primordial groans from the underworld.

In the next decade, he led the conversion of the estate’s 135 vineyard acres to biodynamic farming, with certification awarded in 2007. He ultimately convinced half of the winery’s 80 small, local growers—with whom he works on a handshake and sets prices by consensus every summer—to follow suit.

Alois Lageder and son Alois Clemens Lageder standing in one of the estate vineyards with a mountain in the background
To help mitigate climate change, Alois Lageder switched to biodynamic farming more than a decade ago. Now he and his son, Alois Lageder Clemens, will be re-evaluating the mix of varieties and clones planted at each site. (Robert Camuto)

But Lageder was not content.

“In many ways, the innovation stopped at the cellar door,” he recalls. Though winemaker Luis von Dellemann helped modernize and improve wine quality, “My brother-in-law was very conservative.”

In 2012, Lageder’s son, Alois Clemens Lageder, took over from von Dellemann, recruiting a new team of winemakers from Germany while studying viticulture at the Geisenheim Institute. Viticultural researcher and biodynamics proponent Georg Meissner came on as consulting enologist, with Clemens Lageder’s former classmate Jo Pfisterer as production manager. The new team now undertakes more than 100 small-batch experiments each year—some of which are bottled and sold as part of a wine series called “Comets.”

In the meantime, the Lageders have accelerated their sustainability initiatives. They began a partnership with a mountain dairy to have alpine cattle winter in their vineyards to feed and help fertilize the land, developed a bucolic organic restaurant that sources from their vegetable garden and other local farmers, and have made other eco-friendly changes, such as replacing metal capsules on all their bottles with small paper bands.

In an ironic twist, while Lageder helped lead the region’s adoption of modern vine-training systems in the 1980s, today he champions a return to pergolas. With the acceleration of hotter growing seasons in the past decade, he believes pergolas are better for vineyards, their longevity and grape quality—even for some international varieties like Chardonnay.

“Pergolas protect the soils by shading them; they create a microclimate and they preserve acidity,” says Lageder.

At 32, Clemens Lageder, who is set to take the reins of the estate later this year, is an exuberantly youthful version of his father, extolling the family’s commitment to nature and innovation.

“Forty years ago, the wine culture had the problem of getting enough sugar in the grapes. Now with climate change, the problem is how to maintain acidity,” he says. “We need to get rid of the clones from 40 years ago and either go back to the mixed diversity of vineyards 150 years ago or find new clones.”

The decisions will be his to make—although his father isn’t going anywhere. The elder Lageder sees his retirement as a liberation from the office that will leave him more time to spend in the vineyards.

“I started here at 24 years old,” he says. “Now, I would like to continue to work in the vines—but without the responsibility.”

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