It makes perfect sense that one of Italy's smallest regions produces some of its most distinctive wines.

After all, Alto Adige is where Alpine slopes meet a Mediterranean climate, providing the combination of warm, sunny days and cool nights that grapes love. It also plays host to two cultures — Alto Adige was annexed from Austria after World War I, and many residents still speak only German — and so its vintners often display a marvelous mashup of Italian passion and German precision.

"The incidence of good wine goes up when boiled wool is involved," quipped Annette Peters, whose Eagan-based Bourget Imports brings in wines from three Alto Adige houses.

An indication of how high the quality is in that northeastern Italian region is that a co-op, Terlano, makes fabulous wines in the kind of operation that in most other areas is a dumping ground for lesser grapes.

A strong argument could be made that there are no "lesser grapes" coming out of Alto Adige vineyards: A full 98 percent of Alto Adige wineries have earned the designation DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata), which basically guarantees the geographic authenticity and quality of the wine. That's by far the highest percentage of any Italian region.

Not surprisingly, this area has a storied history, and not just because it serves as the primary gateway through the Alps between Italy and the rest of Europe. Wine grapes were grown as far back as the 5th century B.C., hundreds of years before Hannibal marched through with his elephants to take on the Romans. According to perhaps the world's first wine writer, Pliny the Elder, the local folks taught the Romans how to store and transport wine in barrels.

With 300 days a year of sunshine and major temperature swings (the nights are decidedly colder, allowing the grapes to "rest"), Alto Adige vineyards tumble up and down the Alpine foothills, growing as much as 3,300 feet above sea level. Steep slopes mean painstaking work, but also allow for great hands-on care in the vineyard: Many sites are farmed sustainably, organically and/or biodynamically.

"We always emphasize quality rather than quantity," said Alois Lageder during a Twin Cities visit a few years ago. His winery of the same name uses biodynamic practices.

The wines, especially the whites, evoke the minerality of the rocky terrain and the crispness of the mountain air, sharing those traits with another Alpine region that has a mixed ethnic heritage, France's Alsace. Alto Adige's pinot biancos and pinot gris vie with Alsace's as some of the world's best renditions. These wines also possess a pure-as-the-driven-snow expressiveness that embodies their homeland.

No wonder Alto Adige's white wines have been finding an increasing foothold in the Twin Cities, especially in restaurants, where their pairing versatility comes to the fore.

Other white grapes that find great expression in Alto Adige are chardonnay, kerner, sylvaner, Müller-Thurgau and gewürztraminer, which originated there in the town of Traminer. In recent years, the prices of many of these have dropped into the $15 to $24 "sweet spot," providing outsized character for the money.

But 40 percent of Alto Adige's output is red, and those are just beginning to find a spot on local shelves and lists. Lagrein has relatively high acidity but also nice darker fruit flavors, earthy/herby/peppery notes and a velvety finish; those who enjoy barbera from Italy's Piedmont region should be pouncing on the stuff. Schiava and teroldego are other indigenous red grapes that are popping up here and worth seeking out.

Thanks to the efforts of Twin Cities importers and distributors, more brands than ever are available from this pristine wonderland. Some worth seeking out include Cantina Bolzano/Santa Magdalena, Terlan/Terlano, Bolzano, Alois Lageder, J. Hoffstatter, Dipinti, Abbazia di Novacella and the formidable Foradori.

One odd note: Because of the region's Austrian roots, many of the labels bear the area's former name, Sudtirol, in addition to or even in place of "Alto Adige."

Either way, consumers can be assured of high quality.

Follow Bill Ward on Twitter: @billward4