Teroldego: The Story Behind a Red Wine Curiosity

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Posted December 11, 2013 by Evan Dawson in Regions

teroldego1When you’ve worked in the wine industry for years, it takes a little bit more to excite you. You’ve tasted great wines; you’ve seen beautiful landscapes. But if you’re Nancy Irelan, you couldn’t help but be inspired by the scene in front of you: teroldego vines climbing the terraces of Alto Adige, seeming to stretch toward the sky, or at least high into the Dolomites.

“It’s just incredible,” Irelan said to no one in particular.

On that crisp April day, Irelan felt re-energized by the experience. She has become a kind of red wine pioneer in the Finger Lakes, but her colleagues in the region have largely viewed her work as a curiosity, not a trend-setter. (For now, anyway.) But there, at the foot of the Dolomites, she felt the kind of connection that a single vine can create. “Connection to type,” she would later describe it. She wanted to see and taste teroldego in its home of Alto Adige, the region that stretches from northern Italy into Austria. She wanted to know if there was a parallel in the Finger Lakes.

Earlier in the day, she had been a bit disappointed. Visiting the larger production companies in Trentino, she had tasted plenty of teroldego, but “I just couldn’t place our teroldego in context with theirs.” This brief trip was threatening to be a let-down. But then she visited Giulio DeVescovi at DeVescovi Ulzbach, and it was a revelation. “I thought, ‘Yes,’ this is a lot like what we’re doing. It was wonderful to find that connection.” In essence, that’s wine, when wine is made well and true to type. A grape variety will adopt some of the characteristics of the place in which its grown, but it will also adapt, offering a kind of aromatic and flavor blueprint that can travel.

Irelan is the winemaker and co-owner of Red Tail Ridge on Seneca Lake, and she arrived from California nearly a decade ago with an open mind and a research background. Irelan is one of a still-small but growing group in the Finger Lakes to grow blaufrankisch, and her husband Mike Schnelle recently planted lagrein, another red variety that could promise in a cool-climate region. But it’s her work with teroldego that is the most revealing: It reveals that less heralded red varieties could indeed have a strong future in the Finger Lakes, but it also reveals that the region is slow to change.

After all, none of her colleagues have responded by following her lead with teroldego. Irelan has had calls from Ohio, New Jersey, and several others states, where growers want to know where they can get their own teroldego vines. But so far, Red Tail Ridge stands alone with the variety in the Finger Lakes.

“They’re probably being prudent,” Irelan says of her colleagues. “They’re waiting to see how it will pan out in the long run. It’s not easy, pulling up vines and planting new ones.”

In 2006, Schnelle planted 400 vines of teroldego on Red Tail Ridge’s property, totaling less than an acre. This year he put another 700 vines in the ground; those vines will be productive within several years. But that will only push Red Tail Ridge’s annual production of teroldego to roughly 250 cases. The current batch of 100 cases is a reasonably fast seller, even at $39.95 a bottle, making it one of the more expensive red wines in the region.

teroldego2It’s not easy to describe teroldego, other than to say it is decidedly not a thick, chunky red wine, nor is it a light, overly acidic red wine. Irelan calls it “brambly and minerally,” which it is, but it retains a kind of dark fruit and a lip-smacking balance. Think of the profile of Zinfandel with the mouthfeel of Cru Beaujoulais. That’s close, even if it’s not perfectly on the mark. “Teroldego is its own thing,” Ireland concluded. “We like that. It’s unique.”

The good news for consumers is that Red Tail Ridge is still improving its version of this variety. Irelan doesn’t feel that any variety can be considered “established” within a region until it’s had at least a decade in the ground, handling the weather and showing impressive wines. She cites her husband’s work in the vineyard, where the grapes can be “very large, big and juicy.” Red Tail Ridge’s crews will drop more fruit now than they used to, because Irelan wants more concentration.

And there is a sparkling version, too, which is what Irelan made in 2008 when the vines were just babies. She was surprised at the response, and has decided to continue producing a small quantity of sparkling teroldego. “People kept asking, so I’ve promised that I’ll still do it.”

All of this makes teroldego a curiosity, not a trend-setter. But that could change. Irelan won’t worry if her colleagues don’t also embrace teroldego, even if she seems to be convinced already of its potential. And she hopes to learn more on a future trip to Alto Adige. “Next time I’ll take a bottle of our teroldego, and we’ll enjoy comparing it,” she said. “I’m definitely going back.”


29 Comments


  1.  
    Uwe

    I have to admit that I would be hesitant to pay $40 for a variety that has no track record in that particular region. But as I am tasting through Red Tail Ridge’s excellent 2012 Rieslings right now and after reading this article I am willing to give it a try (if I can find it) and maybe help setting the trend.




  2.  
    DC

    I’m all for diversity, especially in a time when more and more growers are planting the proven/tested international (boring) varieties (see http://www.wineanorak.com/wineblog/uncategorized/grape-varieties-and-the-diversity-of-wine for more).

    That being said I’m curious where Irelan and others get their cuttings–for obscure varietals it seems like it could be a bottleneck. Unless some happened to fall into her suitcase in Alto Adige that is…




    •  

      Lagrein, Teroldego, Schioppettino, Refosco, etc. are readily available from commercial nurseries. Both Vintage & Nova Vines have grafted Teroldego vines available for Spring 2014.




  3.  

    slow to change indeed… aside from the 7 acres of teroldego and lagrein in Southold, NY…. ;) (way to go nancy & co, big fans!)




  4.  
    DC

    Also– somebody should get their hands on some Mencia vines. I don’t know of anywhere in the US that grows it and I’d be fascinated to see how it does.




  5.  

    It’s possible that — other than Reegan — no one will ever dive into teroldego, no matter how much success Nancy has with it.

    Look at Paumanok and their hugely popular chenin blanc. It sells so briskly that they raised the price this year ($29) and it’ll still be gone by mid-summer I imagine. No one else has planted any that I know of.

    On the other hand, I could be completely wrong about teroldego. Rumor has it that there are at least 5 or 6 wineries in the Finger Lakes releasing neutral barrel-aged riesling soon — just a couple vintages after Forge had success with it.




  6.  
    jim silver

    I don’t want to stir up a pot of poop or anything, but please tell me why we drive towards varieties such as Teroldego and Mencia (?) when we know right now that the best of the best produced by these varieties is still only a pale shadow of the greatness that comes from the most noble variants like (insert name of the 10 best grapes on earth here).

    Okay, I totally understand (better than most) the diversity and interest arguments. Truly. But if it was my money, and Chardonnay (Montrachet, Meursault, Chablis) and Riesling (Schloss Johannesburg, Sonnenuhr, Goldert) and Pinot (Romanee, La Tache, Chambertin) were able to be grown…why would I care to grow an obscure variety from Bierzo or Trentino?

    Does it not make sense to strive for greatness, or is it okay to accept the middle ground especially if we take it from a philosophical or an artistic point of view? Is it an artistic CHOICE to plant and exploit the obscure rather than the most noble (but ubiquitous?)

    Or is differentiation directly corollary to public interest, and thus, sales? I’ll grant you, these are fun, but are they great?




    •  
      JRB

      I, for one, don’t mind the poop pot being stirred; in fact, I may give it a go.

      The crock that I’ll stir is the one that is full of an economic imperialism that uses sales as a criterion of nobility and/or greatness. This particular crock seems to elevate ubiquitous “noble variants” to levels of greatness even though the resulting wines have abdicated their royal lineage for mass produced profits. Moreover, this crock somehow equates “a philosophical or an artistic point of view” with middling mediocrity while implying that greatness lies in planting ubiquitous (mediocre?) noble vines that wine-tourists will happily drink/buy.

      Thanks, Red Tail, for honoring ancient grapes that are revered in their place of origin–grapes that neither dethrone nor redefine their noble kin. May their line/vine increase.




      •  
        jim silver

        Yes, that is the question. Is it heroic to plant obscure varieties knowing they can’t attain the heights of other more noble grapes, or is that – in and of itself – the great achievement? You almost understood me completely.

        I’m not sure when Riesling Chardonnay and Pinot became wines for mass profits, especially in NY where nothing is mass produced anywhere, and even less is profitable.

        To me, the fact that Teroldego and Chenin from NY is the first to sell out (sold out immediately) and both are sold at very, very, very high prices seems to work against your argument. Perhaps the mass profit is to be had in planting unusual varieties like this, no?




        •  
          JRB

          NO!
          1) With minuscule acres devoted to Teroldego et. al., profit margins may be higher, but cannot by any stretch be called “mass.” This is not the road to wealth.
          2) RE mass produced–all is relative. I made two trips to the Finger Lakes this year–exclusively for wine tasting. I spent 8 days in June and 7 days in October tasting mostly good but decidely generic “noble” wines from 30+ producers. These “mass produce” (maybe 90+% of their plantings) tourist-friendly wines seemed to sell rather well in their tasting rooms. This is not a get-rich-scheme, but neither is it a grand quest for greatness–it pays the bills.
          I don’t fault producers for being prudent, but I don’t praise them for some grand commitment to noble varietals. Quite simply, and almost exclusively, it’s good business sense.
          3) Since, by definition, “excellent is deviant behaviour,” the few producers I found “seeking greatness” are to be praised and supported. Likewise, producers pushing the greatest/highest levels of quality in the “obscure” varietals don’t deserve prejudicial innuendoes about “heroic” foolishness. Rather, at least a little praise and support seems in order.




          •  
            jim silver

            OK, ok. I get it.

            Perhaps a better way to say this is, isn’t it possible to build up the obscure varieties without first tearing down the reputation of varieties that have been in favor for a thousand years? (Smacks of the “natural wine” argument frankly…)

            I would agree that boredom, and producing boring wines is tantamount to producing flawed wines, but I feel it is way too early to give up on Riesling and Chard just because you feel it isn’t being mastered.

            I would much rather produce 100 cases of $30 Chenin than 300 cases of $10 Chardonnay (because economics always has a place at the table) but I’d stop short of saying planting and exploiting unusual varieties has nothing to do with the bottom line and planting Riesling is about feeding the hungry tourist.

            There is certainly nothing foolish at all about selling expensive Teroldego and Chenin. I wouldn’t say that, and I’m not saying it. In fact, it would seem on the surface that the hypothetical winery that had nothing but obscure varieties in the ground stands a much better than average chance of being sold out quicker and easier, and at a greater margin! Being profitable in the wine business? — well, that really is heroic.




            •  

              I don’t see anywhere where Evan or Nancy disparaged any of the “noble” (this is one my least favorite descriptors in all of wine) varieties. Her 250 cases are a drop in the bucket compared to the quality and quantity of chardonnay, pinot noir and riesling RTR produces. If people want to get excited and plant some new varietals and dig into them, great. If you want to be the best pinot or chardonnay producer, awesome! The key for me here, as JRB mentioned, is intention. To churn out juice without a thought is tragic and I’m guessing you’d agree. To strive to make the best Pinot or Teroldego…THAT is noble… it’s not about the variety.




              •  

                I’ll side against Jim here, which is fun given how often Jim and I agree. But I want to make sure no one is attacking any straw men.

                1) Riesling is king, not because Riesling is profitable or high-volume. Nothing in the Finger Lakes is high-volume. Riesling has shown the most consistent potential to break through to some nebulously world-class level of quality.

                2) Chardonnay is the workhorse, easy-money variety, and I don’t know too many producers who are pouring their soul into it. Some are, and those results are interesting.

                3) I forget the Virginia producer who said this, but the saying was something like, “Would you rather make the world’s best X, or the world’s 1000th best Merlot?” I’ll take the former. I love the potential of esoteric varieties, not just for their esoterica. I think there are intellectually stimulating discoveries to be made.




                •  
                  August Deimel

                  It was the owner of Chrysalis who said “I’d rather make the world’s best Norton than the world’s 400th best Merlot.” A fabulous and memorable quip.




              •  
                jim silver

                You and I have had this discussion before of course…I’m not saying Evan or Nancy disparaged anything, but that the poster (who I don’t know) did with descriptors like mass produced and boring, mediocre and whatnot.

                My questions were just philosophical about the purpose behind planting unusual grapes – is it for the art or for some other purpose? Having nothing to do with quality of winemaking, quality of the finished wine or talent or anything like that.

                I happen to think if it were me, and I was planting a new vineyard like you are, I would be 100% unusual varieties because those are easiest to sell and bring the highest cash register ring. Plus they’re fascinating. But I for one haven’t given up on the classics.




                •  
                  JRB

                  …for the record, I posted about 9 hours after your initial “stir up a pot…” post.




                •  

                  I haven’t given up on the classics either. In fact I think the sites that I’m making wine from this vintage and future vintages have great potential and it’s all classic bordeaux/burgundy varieties (though my approach may be a bit different out here).

                  I see your point on cash flow, but for me I don’t think we’ve discovered what can do the best out on LI. That has been the exciting part of our endeavor for me, really digging into our climate, getting past the broad statements and assumptions and doing good research on varieties that could respond well once planted in our soils. This first planting is our first batch of attempts to answer the question of terroir and more is to come (hopefully).

                  I think this sort of thing is healthy for a region. Nancy is doing a favor to FLX by sticking out her neck out on this, regardless if people follow her lead. Christopher Tracy and Channing Daughters is doing much the same thing for LI. We need these types of people and this type of curiosity to keep these regions moving forward, keep them exciting, the alternative is rather grim at worst and just plan boring at best.




  7.  
    JRB

    Evan,
    Even the Italians find it difficult to describe Teroldego. In Firenze, our favorite enoteca (recently named one of the top 10 wine bars in Europe) specializes in small producers working with indigenous varietals–we always let the owner select our wine. He usually brings the wine, describe its and then we taste and chat. Last summer, he brought our wine for a “blind tasting.” Neither my wife, who has a better palate than I, nor I could nail it. I was able to identify the region (Alto Adige) but that was it. The owner said “this is a wine that has to be tasted before described.” Your description was as good as any–but it still has to be tasted.

    Thanks for the good article.




  8.  
    JRB

    To quote you: “You almost understood me completely.”

    To quote the Italians: “Basta.”

    OK?
    OK




    •  
      Susan

      JRB: I’m curious to know the name of the wine bar in Firenze. Will be in Perugia this spring and would love to take a road trip.




      •  
        JRB

        Susan,

        You’ll be happy you made the excursion!

        Le Volpi e L’uva
        Piazza dei Rossi, 1 (This tiny piazza is between Ponte Vecchio and Palazzo Pitti)




        •  
          Dana Estep

          JRB – where was this post when I needed it? My wife and I and another couple were in Firenze in mid Oct. Oh well, I’ll save the info for a possible future trip. thanks




          •  
            JRB

            Now you HAVE to go back! “Possible” needs to become “planned.” By the way, given the many, many months we’ve stayed in Firenze, we also have many non-touristy osteria/tratoria/ristorante suggestions. Of course, there are many wine excursions–by car or bus.

            cin cin




  9.  
    Ethan

    Jim, while you make a valid point, the larger issue is that we are never going to make a Pinot noir on Long Island to rival a grand cru burgundy. I seriously doubt that we will ever produce a cab franc that will rival a comparably priced Chinon either. Ditto the Bordeaux varietals. But can Long Island produce a world class Lagrein? Perhaps. The more I taste, the more I am convinced that German and NE Italian varietals do better here than their French counterparts.




  10.  
    August Deimel

    Interesting that it feels we have made the assumption that the French varieties are the most noble. I find fault with that logic. If we believe that Bordeaux and Burgundy represent the paragon of wine (dubious, but arguable) who is to say that is because the cultivars involved are the most noble? Perhaps the noblest grape variety of all languishes in obscurity in Eastern Europe, unknown due to the lack of time/talent/money poured into its cultivation and vinification? If that hypothetical cepage found its way to the Côte d’Or we would celebrate it and not Pinot. What we consider noble may be an accident of history. The explorer of esoterica is unlikely to stumble upon the next world-shattering combination of grape and place. But hundreds of people experimenting with hundreds of grapes just might.




    •  
      JRB

      I agree.

      Although the history of wine is older than 4,000 years, the era of “modern” wine is only a few hundred years old. And for those in the Western world, France is the leader/model. As August implies, its indigenous varietals have been given top billing–especially in New World countries without significant indigenous wine grape varieties. Old World countries with numerous indigenous grapes (Italy, Spain,Germany, Eastern Europe, etc.) have a different lineage of noble grapes; they too may grow French international grapes, but mostly for export/economic reasons.

      Since the New World is playing catch up, a good case can be made that the focus on noble/classic grapes was the proper place to start. However, openness to the reality that “the next world-shattering combination of grape and place” will not be France, the US’s wine world might be well served by moving beyond adolescence to more exploration and experimentation; a more mature wine culture is a challenge, but the risks of perpetual adolescence may be greater still. You go, Nancy!




  11.  

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