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The Northernmost Winery in Italy--Or Is It Austria?
By Ed McCarthy
Jun 26, 2007
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The glories of Italy's Alto Adige region could fill a book, let alone a wine column.  And so instead I'm focussing on one of the region's more beautiful and more successful wineries, Abbazia di Novacella--not only a winery, but a monastery, a farm, and a scenic stop for many tourists (mainly Austrian and German).  Abbazia di Novacella, in the Isarco Valley, is Italy's northernmost winery, specializing in cool-climate white wines, many of which are made from grapes of Germanic origin.

But first, a quick summary of the Alto Adige region.  I've just returned from my fourth visit to northeastern Italy's Alto Adige--and have concluded that it might be the world's most beautiful wine region.  I know that's a big claim, with Alsace, the Douro Valley in Portugal, the Mosel in Germany, and New Zealand's South Island all strong contenders, but for sheer dramatic, breath-catching beauty, I'll take Alto Adige.  The region is pear-shaped, surrounded by the steep Dolomite Alps on both sides, with the Adige Valley (known as Valdadige) in the center.  It was created in part by the Adige River, Italy's second largest.  Valdadige is the winegrowing region, and also the home of two charming cities, Bolzano (Bozën in German) and Merano (Meraner).  Bolzano, with many fine shops, is Italy's second-wealthiest city, trailing only Alba in Piedmont.  (It's interesting to note that both cities are winemaking centers.)

You might have noticed that I used both the Italian and German names for the cities.  In fact, street signs in Alto Adige, winery names, and the wines themselves, are typically written both in Italian and German.  German, in fact, is the first language of the mainly 75 to 80% Austrian-ancestry population of Alto Adige, followed by Italian and English.  It's kind of strange walking through the streets here, in what you know is Italy, hearing German all around you.

Before World War I, Alto Adige was a part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, and was known as the Südtirol (South Tyrol).  Because Austria was on the losing side of the War, it was forced to concede the South Tyrol to Italy.  Residents of the South Tyrol were given the opportunity to re-locate in Austria, but most stayed in their homeland of many generations--now known as Alto Adige, Italy.  The Italian government re-located some Italian citizens from other regions--mainly from Trentino, the Veneto, and even Sicily--to Alto Adige, but most of the Italians wound up in Bolzano (where you hear the most Italian; it's hardly spoken at all outside of Bolzano). 

Technically speaking, the full name of the region is Trentino-Alto Adige, but Trentino and Alto Adige are so different that most people consider the two sub-regions to be separate regions.  (Trentino was affixed to Alto Adige in an attempt by Italy to make Alto Adige more 'Italian.')  Trentino, directly south of Alto Adige, and all Italian-speaking, is a region of many large co-ops (Cavit; MezzaCorona) and sparkling wine houses (Ferrari).  Most of the serious, smaller wineries, such as Foradori, specialize in red wines.

Alto Adige has many smaller co-ops, producing over 60 percent of its wine, but also has many fine wine estates, such as Alois Lageder, J. Hofstätter, and Tiefenbrünner, where white wines are just as important as--or even more important than--red wines.  Alto Adige's leading white wines are Pinot Bianco (Pinot Blanc), Sauvignon, and Gewürtztraminer; its leading reds are Lagrein, Schiava (a.k.a. Vernatsch)--both made from indigenous grape varieties--and Pinot Noir.

But back to my showcase winery, Abbazia di Novacella.  The Abbey was founded in 1142 by the Augustinian order of monks.  Unlike other orders, such as the Benedictines, Augustinian monks are a 'working' more than a contemplative order, without the required vows of silence.  The reigning Abbot is always in charge of Abbazia di Novacella.  The hamlet of Novacella lies just north of Bressanone, the major town in northern Alto Adige, and a short distance south of the Brenner Pass and the Austrian border.  On the premises is a college for 100 boys--although I did spot a few girls, a modern innovation, I am sure--who are studying viticulture and winemaking, among other subjects.  Tuition, I am told, is very reasonable.

There are currently 26 Augustinian monks at Abbazia di Novacella, eight on the premises, 18 working away from the Abbazia, along with 100 lay workers, 60 full-time.  The Abbazia also has a choir (which I heard practicing--an angelic sound!),  and a convention center.  But the most striking room in the Abbazia di Novacella is its incredibly beautiful library, with huge books handwritten by monks, dating back to the 1100s.  The farm produces all sorts of fruits and vegetables, but the two major crops are wine grapes and apples.  (Alto Adige, by the way, is the most important apple-growing region in Europe.)

Abbazia di Novacella has three major vineyard areas: the valley around the abbey itself, where white varieties grow, and two vineyard areas in southern Alto Adige: one around Lago di Caldaro, where the red Schiava and Pinot Noir grow, and one near Bolzano, the warmest area, where the red Lagrein grows.

Abbazia di Novacella's most widely planted (and probably its most important) variety is the white Sylvaner.  Frankly, I never much enjoyed Sylvaner wines (most of which are from Germany, its home), until I tasted Abbazia di Novacella's.  But for me, as good as it is, Sylvaner is not Abbazia di Novacella's best white wine.  That honor goes to its Kerner, another Germanic variety, which, according to our guide, Urban von Klebelsberg, the Administrator of Abbazia di Novacella (a slender, healthy, grey-haired, mountain-climbing 44-year-old Teuton and father of four), the hearty Kerner grows even in Siberia!  (I asked Urban why he had so many children, considering Italy's current trend towards small families.  He shrugged, 'My wife is so pretty!')

Other white varieties grown around the Abbazia include a very good Müller Thurgau, a light, racy Gewürztraminer, Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon, and Veltliner (known in its Austrian home as Grüner Veltliner).  All of  its varietal white wines carry the DOC appellation, 'Alto Adige Valle Isarco.' Abbazia di Novacella makes one blended white wine (called 'Weiss') of Sylvaner, Pinot Grigio, and Chardonnay (the only place at in the winery's lineup where Chardonnay makes an appearance).  The soil around Abbazia di Novacella is mainly granitic schist, created by ancient glaciers; the hill slopes where the vines grow are very steep.  Urban told me that in climate and soil such as this, vines last only about twenty years, less than half of a vine's normal life in more temperate climates.  The rugged soil and extreme climate produce small amounts of white wines that are aromatic, fresh, and rich, with high extract contents.

Abbazia di Novacella has two lines of wines, its standard, or classic line, which retails in the $17 to $26 range, and its premium line, called Praepositus, which sells for $37 to $42.  About 500,000 bottles (42,000 12-bottle cases) of wine, predominantly white, are produced each year, and are distributed throughout the U.S. (Vias Imports), and are readily available on the East Coast. 

The following are wines that I tasted.  I review mainly the wines of Abbazia di Novacella, but I also include a few wines from other wineries which stood out:

White:

Abbazia di Novacella, Valle Isarco (Alto Adige, Italy) Sylvaner 2006 ($18, Vias Imports):  Sylvaner is often called 'the Pinot Noir of white varieties' because it's so difficult to grow well.  In its native Germany, Sylvaner usually yields rather pedestrian wines.  The 2006 Abbazia di Novacella Sylvaner is excellent.  It is dry, yet viscous, and packed with concentrated white fruits and mineral flavors.  92

Abbazia di Novacella, Valle Isarco  (Alto Adige, Italy) Pinot Grigio 2006 ($19, Vias Imports):  If only all Pinot Grigios were as good as Abbazia di Novacella's!  Its 2006 is lively and crisp, with the acidity which is lacking in most commercially produced Pinot Grigios.  It is dry, medium-bodied, with fresh, tart pear flavors.  90

Abbazia di Novacella, Valle Isarco  (Alto Adige, Italy) Kerner 2006 ($19, Vias Imports):  I love this wine!  I always order it when I see it on restaurant (mainly Italian) wine lists.  Kerner, a cross between Riesling and Trollinger, grows at about 2,000 feet at Abbazia di Novacella.  The grape was bred to withstand extreme climates.  The 2006 Abbazia Kerner is very aromatic and crisp, with a hint of Muscat, rich in extract, with lots of intense fruit and mineral flavors, and a long finish on the palate.  94

Abbazia di Novacella, Valle Isarco (Alto Adige, Italy) Gewürztraminer 2006 ($24, Vias Imports):  I have never been a fan of Gewürztraminer wines because I generally find most of them to have excessive richness and not enough acidity.  Abbazia di Novacella's Gewürztraminer is an exception.  Its 2006 has the characteristic aroma of roses, but has really good acidity, and its flavors are restrained.  A Gewürztraminer I can enjoy, giving hints of its spicy origins without going over-the-top.  92

Alois Lageder, Alto Adige (Italy) Haberle Pinot Bianco 2006 ($18, Dalla Terra Imports):  Alois Lageder has led the way importing Alto Adige wines into the U.S., and his best-known wine might be his exceptional Pinot Bianco from the Haberlehof Vineyard, now shortened on the label to 'Haberle.'  This was the first Pinot Blanc wine that convinced  me that this variety can make exceptional wines in the right terroir.  The 2006 Haberle is dry, clean and crisp, with aromas and flavors of tart apple and white peach, which linger on the palate.  Lageder also makes a standard Pinot Bianco for $5 less, but the Haberle Vineyard has considerably more concentrated flavors and is worth the extra money.  92

Tiefenbrünner, Alto Adige (Italy) Feldmarschall Müller Thurgau 2006 ($38, Winebow):  Müller Thurgau is a rather boring variety in its native Germany, but it makes an exciting wine in Tiefenbrünner's Feldmarschall Vineyard, perched up at 3,000 (!) feet in altitude, in southern Alto Adige--certainly one of the highest vineyards in the world.  Planted in 1972, with some re-planting in 1987, the Tiefenbrünner Feldmarschall is generally regarded to make the world's best Müller Thurgau wine.  The 2006 has tons of minerality, pronounced floral aromas, and really good acidity.  According to Christof Tiefenbrünnner, its acidity is the key.  Müller Thurgau wines made at lower elevations tend to be flabby and neutral in flavor.  The 2006 is available now, but it needs time.  A 2004 Feldmarschall that I tasted was even better.  Christof says that his wine is best at three to five years old.  Only 1500 bottles (but fully one-third of the total) come to the U.S.  96

Red:

Abbazia di Novacella, Valle Isarco (Alto Adige, Italy) Lagrein 'Praepositus' 2003 ($40, Vias Imports):  Lagrein is an indigenous, chunky-fruited, rather rustic variety which seldom grows outside of Alto Adige.  Even here, it thrives only in the relatively warm vineyards around Bolzano.  The 2003 Abbazia Lagrein Praepositus is dry and full-bodied, very dark ruby in color, with aromas of violets and black fruit  along with intense, tart blackberry flavors.  An enticing wine with its own unique flavors.  (The standard 2006 Abbazia Lagrein sells for $25).  92

Abbazia di Novacella, Valle Isarco (Alto Adige, Italy) Pinot Nero 'Praepositus' 2004 ($42, Vias Imports): My recent trip to Alto Adige convinced me that Pinot Noir is a very successful variety in this region, clearly better than any other regions in Italy growing Pinot Noir.  The 2004 Abbazia Pino Nero Praepositus is very fine, quite full-bodied and rich, but not as over-the-top as so many overly fruity New World Pinots.  The wine exudes class and breed.  93

J. Hofstätter, Alto Adige (Italy) Vignas Urbano Barthenau Pinot Nero 2002 ($72, Domaine Select Merchants):  For many years now, Hofstätter's Barthenau vineyard Pinot Noir has been considered not only Italy's finest, but a world-class Pinot Noir as well.  I tasted both the 2002 and 2004; the latter has beautiful Pinot aromas and excellent balance, and will be great, but is just too young right now.  The 2002 Barthenau is simply stunning, with gorgeous tart cherry aromas and concentrated flavors.  Sixty percent of the vineyard's production stays in Italy, with much of the rest going to the rest of Europe, leaving just a small amount for the U.S.  You can find it in high-end Italian restaurants.  It's worth the search!  96