The Grape Glossary: A guide to hip varietals
Lagrein is what you might call an Italian hillbilly grape. A signature of the mountainous Trentino-Alto Adige region that borders Austria and Switzerland, it has seen little travel beyond its Alpine birthplace. The vine, and the wine, pretty much stayed put for most of its many centuries of existence, supplying villagers, many of them German-speaking, with their daily local red.
Geography had much to do with that isolation, of course. But so, perhaps, did flavour. Wines made from lagrein lack what one would call a populist profile. They are fruit-forward and substantial in body (as well as deeply tinted), to be sure, but smoothness tends not to be a strong suit; the tannins are often rough and astringent.
Even if not as cuddly as, say, shiraz or merlot, though, lagrein has benefited from modern winemaking techniques that can round out those rough tannins. It often manages to deliver compelling balance by combining opulent mouth feel with fresh acidity and a welcome backbone of bitterness. It is brilliant with grilled or roasted lamb, among other things. Think of it as a leaner, more quaffable version of cabernet sauvignon, though usually with less savoury depth and cellar longevity. Lagrein also yields some of northern Italy's best rosés.
Though still confined almost exclusively to Alto Adige (a.k.a. "Sudtirol" or "South Tyrol," a designation you'll find on many labels) as well as the adjoining province of Trentino, lagrein has begun sprouting up in a few pockets in California and Australia, including hot Paso Robles and Barossa Valley. This might seem like an odd migration for an Alpine grape presumably accustomed to ski weather. But late-ripening lagrein in fact loves heat, and Alto Adige's south-facing valleys enjoy radiant sunshine and consistently high temperatures in summer.
Like teroldego, its genetic parent (and the newly chic local red of Trentino), lagrein makes only occasional appearances in most liquor or wine stores here. It tends to be the pet of keen Italian-wine buyers for private stores and fine restaurants with offbeat wine lists.
Distinguished Italian producers include Alois Lageder, Cantina Bolzano, Cantina Convento, Cantina Terlano, Hofstatter and Tiefenbrunner. California names to seek out on a visit to the Golden State or a good U.S. wine shop include Tobin James and Praxis Cellars. From Australia: Heartland, (which makes a blend of lagrein and another northern Italian grape, dolcetto) and Cobaw Ridge.
And here's how to pronounce it (sort of): la-GREYn. You'll want to practise that lest you end up sounding like a Canadian hillbilly.