Please try to understand! – Conversations with Peter Dipoli

It started as research on Pinot Noir in Italy, but two extensive conversations with one of the experts on the small but wonderful wine region of South Tyrol turned it into much more: invaluable insights that answered many questions and raised a few new ones.

A Word of Warning

In light of the 2021 edition of the Giornate del Pinot Nero, the wine event that showcases the best Italian Pinot Noir, I reached out to Peter Dipoli as part of my deep dive into Pinot Noir. Considered by many the finest grape variety, I dedicated to learn more about the wines made from it in general and the Italian versions of it in particular. Hence, what would be more obvious than talking to one of the co-founders of the event who is also known as one of the region’s wine personalities. Surely, he would be able to tell a few things I hadn’t the slightest clue of. That was my simple reasoning and without giving too much away at this point, I was not be disappointed as we sat down on two occasions in June and talked for hours.

Yet, I believe that a word of warning would also be in order, since I am not sure so sure whether he is very fond of this article. Not that I will speak ill of him, at least that is not my intention. I will, however, give an honest account of what he has told me and he described himself on a number of occasions as an outspoken and rather critical person. Thus, it is more about a sort of warning he himself issued when he told me about his general opinion on wine journalists as well as something he had thought about a lot recently: a question that he asks himself that is whether we should be celebrating the wine itself or whether we should use the wine to celebrate us. All too often he gets the impression that it is the latter and he made it very clear that he does not approve of it.

So, instead of writing about his wines, I am – in a sense – writing about him. Or more precisely, I reproduce and share what he has told me and what I have learned during the hours of our conversations when we talked about many aspects. Hopefully, this will buy me some clemency, since I, on the other hand, made it clear from the start, that my objective was to learn something about wine and learn I did. My honest curiosity and thirst for knowledge he seemed to approve of, so we will see what comes off it.

Pinot Noir in South Tyrol

Pinot Noir as it is known in most countries around the world goes by the name of Blauburgunder (in German) or Pinot Nero (in Italian) in the Italian province of South Tyrol. Bordering Austria and Switzerland, it sits at the northern top of the country and is one of the two parts of the region Trentino-Alto Adige though it does not share many similarities with its southern neighbour when it comes to wine. Bilingual almost all places have a German and an Italian name just as the province itself: Südtirol and Alto Adige. The same is true for the places we talk about in this article where Pinot Noir is grown: Egna is Neumarkt and Eppan is Appiano. And the list goes on. Being further south than the homeland of Pinot Noir, Burgundy, you would expect it to be slightly too warm for this delicate and capricious grape variety, but South Tyrol is on the southern side of the Alps and is famous for its mountain ranges (among other things). Thus, it can be considered cool climate with plenty of different micro-climates as vineyards start at 200 meters above sea level all the way up to 1,200 meters, though not necessarily all locations and elevations are the right fit for Pinot Noir as is discussed in this article at several points. And having said that, climate change, too, has resulted in higher alcoholic content in the wines.

With these things out of the way, let’s delve right into it and since I already mentioned his somewhat strained relationship with journalists, maybe we can start with there: all the more as it touches on one of his key beliefs, which is the need to seek to understand wine. Since that’s my goal, too, I certainly fully support this approach, but what you may ask what it has to do with wine journalism? Well, early on during our first conversation, he lamented the passing of the traditional English wine journalism. There wines would be described together with the vineyards and its specifics as well as the winery’s vision and beliefs. Nowadays, he said, everything was driven by awarding points and if you didn’t do that, well, no one would be care anymore. That, and, what he sees as the true issue of modern wine journalism: emotions. People are selling emotions, he adds, and therefore every wine needs a story, though that’s not his cup of tea. He focuses on making wines and he is more than happy to explain why a certain wine is what it is, but that should be it.

Many journalists – with a few exceptions though – are in his view only interested in writing a piece without willing to really understand why a wine smells and tastes as it is. What enraged him all the more still and what he described as the real issue is the power these journalists and their verdicts have since we as consumers are often driven by the points they award. Thus, such judgements would not only potentially decide the commercial success of a wine but also force vintners to make their wines in a certain manner. This is in a way confirmed by the Parkerization in the 1990s though the question obviously is whether this kind of journalism still has the same influence as it had a few years back. However, the importance of other channels like peer platforms or social media is an entirely different question and you cannot deny the dubiousness of such a development. Peter Dipoli, therefore, has a point when he emphasis the necessity of understanding its origins, its terroir and the varietal within a particular terroir, if you were to describe a wine accurately.

A Wine Pioneer from South Tyrol

Peter Dipoli was born 1954 in Leifers in South Tyrol where his parents were fruit farmers. After his time at the agricultural high school of San Michele, he first followed into their steps before he became an experimental technician at the Laimburg research centre from 1978 to 1983. When his family bought the Voglar estate in 1987, he became a wine producer, first with Sauvignon Blanc, later with the red Bordeaux varieties as well. In 1989 he started collaborating with a wine merchant from Padua as the representative for Trentino-Alto Adige. As such, he worked with many of the region’s haut cuisine, helping in the shaping of the wine lists of esteemed restaurants such as La Perla, Godio or Die Rose. When the wine merchant couldn’t pay neither him or the wineries they sourced there wines from any more, he set up his own business Fine Wine in 1994. He also co-founded the association of Independent Winegrowers of South Tyrol (FWS) in 1999 serving as vice-president and is a founding member of the Federazione Italiana Vignaioli Indipendenti (FIVI) in 2008 where he was elected to join its first board. The Winery Peter Dipoli is based in Neumarkt (Egna) in the southern part of South Tyrol.

Let’s take an example and since I initially set out to understand Pinot Noir in South Tyrol, which here is called either Blauburgunder or Pinot Nero given the region’s bilingualism (hence the name of Südtirol in German and Alto Adige in Italian for the region), let’s use this noble grape variety. A couple of years ago, Peter Dipoli together with Michela Carlotto (from a family that produces Pinot Nero from Mazzon) wrote a book about Mazzon and its Pinot Noir. Mazzon is a little village that is part of the municipality of Egna/Neumarkt in South Tyrol’s Unterland, which forms the southern tip of the region. It is famous for its Pinot Nero.

The hills of Mazzon sit on the eastern edge of the Adige valley – the river that runs through the region and gives it its name – above the larger town of Egna or Neumarkt (again, bilingualism). The vineyards are part of on a slightly sloped plateau at 300 to 450 meters above sea-level. Neumarkt has an elevation of only 200 meters and it is one of the various aspects that distinguish the Pinot Nero from Mazzon from others areas. It also has soils made of chalk and clay that in a way are comparable to the composition found at the Cote d’Or and are particular suitable to produce wines of great elegance in line with the verity’s typicity. It is also important to bear in mind that the area is protected by the mountains to the north and east from cold winds and that it sits right below the top of Mount Cislon. It’s a factor that mustn’t be ignored since it means that the rising sun doesn’t hit the vineyards in summer until ten in the morning guaranteeing a slow increase in temperature while it still gets the last rays of the setting sun from the west in the evening. The Ora, the daily wind blowing upwards the Adige valley from Lake Garda, together with the typical downslope winds that occur when the sun goes down and cause temperatures to drop suddenly guarantee the preservation of an elevated acidity that is typical for a great Pinot Noir. It is this kind of detail (and more) that you find in his book and it is essential if you seek to understand why Mazzon is arguably a better fit for Pinot Noir than other areas in Alto Adige. For instance, he explains that the single-vineyard Blauburgunder of fellow producer Martin Aurich of the Unterortl Winery at Castel Juval made in the north-western part of South Tyrol has very different attributes. To begin with this is in part due to the southern exposure of the vineyard and the (micro-) climate accounts for 70% of the quality of a wine in his opinion. The other key reason is the difference in soil between the two places: Mazzon’s base is made of a combination Dolomite chalk and porphyr while this particular area in Val Venosta / Vinschgau is entirely volcanic, which means highly acidic soils. He holds his colleagues and his authentic wines in high regard and while his Blauburgunder does not seem to rank as high, he stresses that this very good wine is an excellent expression of the specific terroir and that this should be accepted as such rather than tampered with to force it into something else. And on more than one occasions during our talks he makes it clear that he prefers this over the blends of different vineyards from various areas that can be found frequently.

Dipoli is based in Neumarkt and his co-author Carlotto herself actually is a wine producer well-known for the family’s Blauburgunder from Mazzon, so you be tempted into assuming some form of partiality towards this area. Producers from neighboring areas might also tell you that their terroir is equally suitable. Confronted with this, he explains why he doesn’t buy into the claims that other terrain might be at the same level or even better and it is an example of Dipoli’s characteristic directness that often hasn’t made him many friends though.

However, his motivation towards the place does not appear to be based on personal preferences or favouritism, which is underlined by another project he is currently working on: a new book on wine in South Tyrol with twenty of the brightest wine minds, for which he has taken on the job to identify the best areas for each of the twenty varietals you presently find in the region. Dipoli is adamant that in order to maintain and increase the level of wine quality the region is known for, the vineyards ought to be analysed and matched with the right varietal to achieve the best possible result. He tells how vineyards were traditionally identified as good locations because they were south facing and free of snow already early into spring though that necessarily does not mean that they were the right location for any grape variety. He also jokes about Pinot Noir production in Tuscany, which in his view is far too warm for its plantation. Because of the climate the grapes had thicker skins to protect them from the sun and develop more tannin and became more concentrated – the exact opposite of what Pinot Noir should be. He narrates the story when he told a prominent producer of Sangiovese wines, the typical Tuscan variety, that he would taste his Pinot Nero as soon as farmers in Burgundy decided to make olive oil, underscoring the importance of the right place and climate for wine.

Vineyard classification in Alto Adige

Talking about the right variety for the right place is equally relevant as at the time of writing South Tyrol is undergoing the process of classifying single vineyards, similar to the work that has been done in other regions, for example, Barolo. By focusing on the appropriate site and considering the specific climatic geological circumstances, a maximum of three varietals are assigned with the objective it to maintain and increase the quality of the wines. It should also be a measure to a more transparent use of designations of origin. Naturally, it is a matter of great dispute and Peter Dipoli is sceptical whether the objective can be achieved. On one hand, it is not necessarily in the interest of the large cooperatives, that are predominant in Alto Adige and have contributed significantly to the image of the region’s high wine quality. As they process different fruit from their many members, it naturally is a difficult process to pick one over the other. On the other hand, several producers have managed to establish certain wines as brands itself. In these cases, narrowing the area from which grapes can be sourced to single vineyards is counterproductive as it would result in a maximum number of bottles that could be produced under one name. Consequently, Peter Dipoli describes the process as a close fight as the sites are established in local panels where conflicting interests clash. Often, this would lead to compromises that extend the borders of a specific site far beyond what should be advisable only to appease the interests of all involved.

DOC Made in Südtirol

„La DOC è fallito ma ci sono i punti che dobbiamo salvare.”

Hence, the project of vineyard classification risks to end as the existing system of geographical indications. Italy’s DOC system bears no meaning for the individual consumer, Dipoli states, and the current project was heading in the same direction. He criticizes that when the DOC system was introduced in 1971, no distinction was made between varietals and sub-regions that would consider their specific micro-climatic and geological attributes that vary considerably across South Tyrol. For this reason, the positive effects of the DOC system nowadays are very limited: a guarantee of a basic standard and the mention of the region’s name as an expression of South Tyrolean quality. Why then, he puts the question, does the number of wines that are de-classified and marketed at the lower quality level of IGT? Indicazzione Geograifca Tipica, Italian for protected geographical indication (PGI), is used for two reasons according to Dipoli: first, it allows for the inclusion of grapes or juice from areas outside of the costly South Tyrol; secondly, the trend to produce organic or biodynamic wines that is prevalent in Alto Adige renders it more and more difficult to adhere to the DOC requirements as the level of, for example, volatile acidity or Brettanomyces frequently exceeds the allowed maximum limit. At the same time, the considerable paper work that needs to be done as part of the DOC system would lead many downwards the path of least resistance. Dipoli, however, is an ardent defender of the DOC classification as a measure to differentiate original wines and to guarantee clean wines as the categorization as a IGT wine could at least theoretically include such examples he describes as vinegar. Moreover, since the IGT classification does not allow for the mention of the name South Tyrol on the label, it reduces the visibility of the region. After all, he explains, the world’s best wines were those from specific regions: Barolo, Bordeaux, Burgundy, Cotes du Rhone as well as Napa Valley. For this reason, he reacts with disbelief when prominent producers like Alois Lageder decide to classify a significant part of their wines as mere IGT, especially since Lageder had been the first to promote the brand Südtirol in the United States and as such, he laments losing these brand ambassadors that promote the region’s name in an important market.

Criticism and strained relationships

It is important though to stress that despite his argumentative nature he has high respect for his peers even when he may disapprove of their approach. On several occasions during our conversations, he named Hans Terzer of St. Michael, Rudi Kofler of Terlan, or Willi Stürz of Tramin as the best winemakers of South Tyrol, but also openly criticises where he disagrees with them, for example, in the production of wines that are blended with great skill and precision, but are more like a tuned Formula 1 car rather than an expression of a specific terroir. Yet, even though his criticism may sound harsh in his own forthright manner, it never seems to be of a personal nature.

However, this line is put to a test when we talk once more about the influence of journalists and wine critics. He tells the story of the responsible for Italy of a famous wine guide who after tasting Dipoli’s Sauvignon Voglar 2014 once gave the questionable advice to better consume it within few years of its production. Needless to say, that this didn’t go down well with him given that he is adamant that his wines need time to develop their full potential and resulted in a corresponding response from him. It is also the reason he no longer makes his wines available to this specific guide, but for him it is just another example, too, that shows a lack of understanding or willingness to try to. For him, it has long been a cult of personality or the special relationship between a producer and a critic that would influence the results, though nowadays it was mostly driven by sponsoring. And both things he cannot finds unacceptable.

Clones and Climate

By now, you will surely have realized that this conversation about Pinot Noir in South Tyrol had developed into something much bigger and  – you will hopefully agree – more interesting. If you don’t mind though, I would like to get back to the subject of Pinot Noir, which I don’t want to play down by all means and there are still a couple of things I’d like to share with you. For instance, the subject of the use of Pinot Noir clones in South Tyrol: it’s another example of the change the region has undergone in the last thirty to forty years towards greater quality. With a complete change in course the objective in the selection of a specific clone has changed, too. With the few remaining clones that originated in Switzerland and that produced rather large, expressionless grapes now dying out, the current plant material is far superior and produces better quality. Again, this has been a result of testing and learning about the impact of different clones in different locations, which underlines the importance of fully understanding the matter that he preaches.

Likewise, he is less concerned about the climatic change that has resulted in higher alcoholic content in Alto Adige Pinot Nero as the region had the tools at hand thanks to twenty different varietals that can be combined with varying heights and different microclimate. Thus, he explains, there would be a right grape variety for any decent vineyard and it was the responsibility of the region’s producers to find that right combination and take the right decisions. For instance, he believes that Mazzon may have to accept more alcohol than traditionally associated with its wines, but would remain one of the prime locations for Pinot Nero in South Tyrol. At the same time, planting Blauburgunder in higher altitudes is only partially a solution since a delicate variety like this requires a certain climate over the course of the year. In his opinion, the mere coolness in comparison during and shortly before the harvest season could not compensate for later budding and the lack of slower ripening that gives the wines its elegance.

Be yourself

Despite the region’s undisputable benefits, being a wine producer in South Tyrol is not necessarily easy: it starts with making the right decision about the variety you use, to the decision about what and how much intervention is required in the cellar. It’s not enough to make good wine, you have to sell it, he said on another occasion, and selling is often easier than it sounds. Surely, wines from Alto Adige come with a strong brand, the lack of tourism due to the pandemic has hit local producers hard as direct sales are an important channel as is Horeca, while competition to find a place on the shelf has become fierce. Dipoli mentioned that when he co-founded the association of Independent Winegrowers of South Tyrol, they started with 12 members. Today the association counts more than hundred vintners, and all need to find a way to sell their wines.

At several stages of our conversation, we touch upon examples of vintners trying to please an audience rather than sticking with their own philosophy or producing a wine that reflects their terroir. For Peter Dipoli this is also the result of a lack in wine culture in South Tyrol. After all, many of the producers’ grandfathers still were animal farmers, while their parents profited from the apple boom that is in part responsible for the region’s wealth. Burgundy, he says, Burgundy had its own, hidden pride. No one would dare to tell them how to make their wines and he longs for this conviction for Alto Adige, too. “If we were to keep doing what other tell us or want us to do, we might become even richer, but soon there wouldn’t be much to be proud of”, he said and the passion for his home swings in his voice.

He also stresses that the higher price point of South Tyrolean wines is a necessity simply because of the higher costs of production in the region. Almost all of its production is on hill sides, which either means a lot of manual labour and an associated higher price per bottle or the declassification where grapes from cheaper regions can be added as discussed above. The less money consumers are willing to spend on a bottle, the less Südtirol would be in the bottle, it is as simple as that, Dipoli says. In a sense, the region’s producers are doomed to produce the kind of wine that warrants the comparatively high prices to cover the high costs of making it.

He believes he may have picked up a bit of that Burgundian attitude during his many wine travels in the sense that he makes his wines in the way he sees fit: a thread that connects each vintage is important in his opinion, but if the wines are clean and represent the particularities of both the year and the vineyard, he doesn’t feel to have the right to force the wine to be something other than that only because a winemaker might have had a different vision for his or her wine or because the market demands something else. Each wine, he says, has its own fan base and he believes that old wines are more interesting than new ones. This somewhat unfortunately does not entirely concur with the trend we often witness nowadays, that is to always get the latest vintage, but while it took time to make a name for himself, he prefers working with and for people that appreciate that and that are looking for this kind of wine culture.

Strong Opinions

Naturally, not everyone will agree with these views. Yet, while he is certainly very passionate about his beliefs, that what others might describe as opinionated to me sounded – at least in the hours we talked about wine – came across more like curiosity as well as the desire to make the best possible wine he can. Neither did he not strike me as someone that will follow his idea to the bitter end, no matter the cost, but maybe that’s only my personal impression. He certainly is very convinced about his views but not necessarily set in his ways or showing a lack of flexibility. Instead, I got the impression that if he discovers something that would make sense for him, he would change the way he makes wine. To use two examples to explain my point, we talked about the use of Barrique and alternatives or the eternal dispute about what is the right wine closure. In both arguments he showed very strong opinions but at least he made a good argument why he has chosen a particular side and it’s difficult to argue with that.

While he prefers to make wine for people that have a clear interest in wine culture rather than hype – something that nowadays all too often surrounds the world of wine and is amplified through social media (the subtitle of his website reads “no facebook, no twitter – just wine!) – it is definitely immensely interesting to talk to winemakers like him. As I have pointed out before, this journey for me is about learning about wine and trying to understand more about why it is what it is.

Thucydides, the great Athenian historian is credited with saying that “knowledge without understanding is useless.”. So, in that sense and in the original words of Peter Dipoli: “Please, try to understand.”

The Wines of Peter Dipoli

Initially starting with 1.2 ha thirty years ago, the Winery Peter Dipoli today owns 6.5 ha. The Sauvignon Blanc Voglar comes from a vineyard at 500-600 meters ASL that was originally planted with the traditional red Schiava variety, which he replaced entirely with Sauvignon Blanc due to the vineyard’s elevation and the high content of limestone in the soil, which he considers excellent conditions for the grape variety.  Following the first vintage in 1990, the wine has now an annual production of 25,000-30,000 bottles. At our second encounter at the end of June 2021, we tasted the “Voglar” 2018, 2017 and 2012. While the first was still rather closed and delicate (Dipoli says that his Sauvignon Blanc have a primary phase that matures in the bottle for up to five years before it enters the second phase and fully deliver), the second already showed signs of the great promise of aromas of ripe exotic fruit and minerality. The 2012 then shows the full potential of the grape variety at this particular location: a multifaceted scent with intense notes of tropical fruit like litchi, minerality and a bit of flintstone, and very elegant palate that is both creamy and very fresh. It is this combination and the appealing acidity that is the thread that connects the three vintages. The “Fihl” is his second red, predominantly made from Merlot grapes he until recently bought from another grower (the next vintage will be from his own vineyards) though can contain some of the Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon that go into his first growth. Dipoli described it during the tasting of the 2018 vintage as his everyday red, which can be consumed right away while his other red wines benefit from more time in the cellar. Round and with a velvety palate again with a very pleasant acidity, he produces between 5,000 and 8,000 bottles each year. The 2017 “Frauenriegel” was, however, already an entirely different beast: made from about 60% Merlot and 40% Cabernet Franc from a tiny vineyard of only 3,000 square meters of clay and chalk soil that is extremely steep, the grapes are vinified together and mature for 12 months in entirely new barrique for a total of 2,000 bottles per year. An exciting and very complex nose of red fruits, tobacco and cedar wood. A well-integrated fine tannin structure, round and almost tangy notes define the palate of a wonderful wine. Lastly, the “Iugum” is made from 70% Merlot and 30% Cabernet Sauvignon, which are harvested and vinified separately, mature in barrique for twelve months (second run for the first, new for the latter) before they get blended, aged for another 24 months in bottle, and released four years after the harvest. The 2015 vintage showed a delicate nose of floral aromas and tobacco, while the tannins were still a bit young but of fine structure and well-integrated. Fast forward (or rather backwards) to the 2003 that still shows fruity notes of black currant and cherries, licorice and tobacco. Despite its considerable age, the palate is still fresh, very elegant with a long finish. Dipoli vividly remembers this very difficult vintage following one of the hottest summers on record and certainly one he can recall, that despite all its challenges was saved in the cellar.

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