Spectacular snow-capped mountains as a back drop, long hot sunny days with a glass of Pinot Bianco in hand – Alto Adige in North East Italy has to be one of the most perfect places for a wine tour. Great wines, superb food, stunning scenery – no wonder that it often features in those “best places to live” listings!
A tour that I organised this year for a group of wine lovers, kicked off in Verona, that beautiful city with its Roman Amphitheatre, Verona is compact enough to get the feel of it within a couple of hours, yet there are enough cobbled side streets to escape the ravening hordes. Away from the bustle of the main square, a host of small shady squares nestle ready to revive your weary feet with an Aperol Sprizt – the quite livid orange but delicious Aperitif that appears in every bar in the Veneto!
Thanks to the variety of the Veneto’s geography, traditional dishes ranges from simple grilled fish from Lake Garda, the largest lake in Italy, through to delicious risotto from the rice fields of the Po Valley. Starting off at one of Verona’s most best loved institutions, Antica Bottega del Vino, founded in 1890 and which has one of the most impressive wine lists of the region. Delightfully traditional with its wooden furniture, walls lined with ancient bottles, the Bottega has a vibrant energy that makes it ideal for a quick glass of wine with friends, perhaps with some of their delicious cicchetti (local dialect for nibbles with drinks!) such as fried quails legs or a more relaxed lunch featuring their traditional Veneto specialities. The classic dish Risotto all’Amarone, a deep purple hue which paired well with the Ripassa Superiore from Zenato (a “halfway” house of a wine between the lightness of Valpolicella and the sheer power of an Amarone, it makes the ideal food wine. Although the weather called more for a salad, wine was the focus of the evening, so a meltingly tender braised beef cheek was paired with the truly delicious Vigneti di Ravazzol Amarone Classico from Ca La Bionda. One of my favourite Italian wine producers for a long time, Ca La Bionda has its vines in the Valpolicella heartland where the Castellani family make superb wines, their Amarone is a perfect balancing act of elegance with tannin and richness. To finish, a seasonal Apricot Frangipane tart picked up all the apricot notes of the unctuous Recioto di Soave Le Colombare from leading Soave producer, Pieropan – a real vino di meditazione!
Trentino & Alto Adige are often lumped together as wine regions, which is unfortunate as they are very different in grapes, climates and culture. As you move North along the East side of Lake Garda, the countryside changes from the rolling hills of the Valpolicella valleys into mountains. Somewhat unusually, Trentino has lots of vineyards planted on the flat, in this case the Rotaliano plains, where the red grape variety Terodelgo Rotaliano is king! Calling into Trento for a brief visit en route to Alto Adige, to see the impressive Castle Buonconsiglio, where the Council of Trent was held as well as the Duomo with its Rose Window – Trento is still Italian in feel but with the countryside leading towards alpine.
Alois Lageder has long been an advocate of sustainability in wine production – long before it became the fashionable buzz word and where better to have the first wine tasting of Alto Adige than at their cellars in the village of Magré. With the sun streaming down, bees buzzing in the lavender and the gentle back drop of crickets chirping, one could be forgiven for thinking it was Provence. A trio of their biodynamically produced wines to taste before lunch: their Haberle Pinot Bianco – one of my favourite white varieties of the world, highly under rated but here showing lovely complexity due to the amount of lees contact. It suffers by word association to Pinot Grigio (which whilst there are some very good examples of PG, the majority that arrives in the UK is bland watery nothingness for sale in huge quantities) but remember that Pinot Bianco was historically the main grape variety of Burgundy, long before the more amenable and easier growing Chardonnay took over. Their reserve Chardonnay Lowengang 2014 was impressive but rather international in style, whilst their Gewurtztraminer Am Sand 2015 was a delight with typical notes of Roses and Lychees with a long finish, convincing more than a few doubters of this aromatic variety.
Over lunch, in their aptly named Bistro – Paradeis – the excellent, all organically produced dishes were paired with another four wines. A quirky blend of Viognier, Petit Manseng (and a few others….) the Cason white balanced out the delicate fried zucchini blossoms whilst the main course of Tagliata, showed that when meat is this good – the simpler and quicker the cooking – the better! I’d chosen two reds to see which paired better – but with everyone having different palates, the room as was divided. The Conus Reserve Lagrein is a beautiful brambly example of this local indigenous red grape variety – but it would be hard to visit Alois Lageder and not experience their excellent Lowengang Cabernet (actually a blend of Cab Sauv, Cab Franc, Merlot and Carmenere, some from over 100 year old vines). Not only superb wine & food in a beautiful setting, but the family’s philosophy gives hope in a world of doubt and distrust “ Today’s widespread individualism calls for a new awareness. For us, alliances are more than a form of operative collaboration; they help overcome individual egoisms in the interest of the greater whole. We endeavor to achieve our goals in cooperation with others”.
Alto Adige or Südtirol as it is also known, comes as somewhat of a surprise to the first time visitor. Just over the border from Austria, this autonomous Italian region was only ceded to Italy in 1918 after World War I. Although officially a bi-lingual region, most residents speak German as their first language and Italian second (there is a third local language “Ladin” but only really spoken in mountain villages). So whilst your head tells you that you are in Italy, you are surrounded by Germanic language, architecture and food. It is possibly one of the most appealing places to visit, with a combination of Germanic efficiency & precision, along with Italian passion & flair. Everything is a charming mixture of these two cultures and nowhere more so than the regions capital, Bolzano.
The Art Deco Park Hotel Laurin has an impressive history of hosting Austrian Royalty and Archdukes – and after sampling the refreshing Cocktail Applecrack – based on one of the region’s most prolific produce – apples, dinner in the cool leafy garden was the ideal place to relax and sample a few more wines from estates that we could not fit into the programme.
Alto Adige cuisine features a lot of traditional Austrian ingredients such as caraway seeds and horseradish and spices such as cinnamon, as well as a wonderful array of breads including the irresistible Schüttelbrot! The cool clear waters of the mountain rivers are a fisherman’s dream for trout and salmon, and the home smoked salmon with apple horseradish with Nals Magreid Sirmian Pinot Bianco was light and elegant. Pinot Noir – that petulant, difficult yet seductive variety works very well in the region and one of the most impressive is the Manicor Pinot Nero from Mason de Mason 2015 from magnum was still rather young but was truly superb – elegant, full of raspberries & smoke and delicious with the roasted poussin. A more Italian dessert of raspberry Panna Cotta signalled the arrival of one of most alluring dessert wines anywhere – Moscato Rosa from Franz Haas. In the interest of research, I have tried a fair few Moscato Rosas but not one comes close to this explosive piece of sweet heaven in a glass. Back in the UK, I paired this Haas Moscato Rosa with a chocolate cake made with ground almonds – delicious!
Terlano, a small village just outside Bolzano is home to the eponymous Cantina Terlano (or Kellerei Terlan), where not only do they produce world class white wines but also in season, the prized white asparagus which goes so well with their crisp Sauvignon Blanc Quartz. The dramatic view of the mountain rising directly behind the cellar was equally matched by the attention to detail in the cellars, complete with colour coded lighting on the stainless steel tanks. Unusually for Italy, their philosophy is that white wines can – and should – age well, so we enjoyed fascinating tasting of dual vintages of a few of their wines to show how they develop in bottle. Vorberg Pinot Bianco Riserva tasted side by side in 2014 and 2008 were quite spectacular – with age the wine had developed into rich fruit flavours such as quince. Nova Domus Terlaner Riserva a blend of Pinot Bianco, Chardy and Sauv Blanc tasted in 2014 and 2009 vintages showed how these wines keep their lively acidity and freshness even after a considerable amount of bottle aging, and the ’09 in magnum had developed a rather lovely savoury note of black olives. The cellars have started releasing small limited quantities of older aged whites onto the market, which is a brave but brilliant decision. Their newest flagship wine is the Terlaner I Grande Cuvee – complete with relevant price tag of £170 – simply a marketing decision to place it in the right section of the market! They also make a couple of reds from Pinot and Lagrein but it is the whites that capture and encapsulate this special sense of terroir.
Merano, known as the Floral City is famous for its Royal Visitor of the Empress of Austria, Sissi who stayed at the Trauttmansdorff Castle. Today the castle’s botanical gardens are set in a 12 hectare amphitheatre of 80 different landscapes from around the world. Combined with spectacular views across the Adige Valley, it is a gardener’s paradise and an oasis of peacefulness to visit and discover its delights including a 700 year old Sardinian oak and waterlily pond with lotus flowers.
With all the villages having dual names on the maps, the German and Italian versions are not always easy to reconcile, so Eppan / Appiano is one of the easier to recognise. Home to one of the most influential cellars throughout the history of wine making in the region, St Michael Eppan, whose Art Nouveau cellars dating from 1909 has been complimented by an Uber modern tasting room. Welcomed by the always entertaining President, Anton Zubling, whose passion for leading this Co Operative cellars, made up of 350 contributing wine estates, shines through in every word. The cellars are fascinating from the original carved barrels, to the modern walls made from broken glass wine bottles and the old tile lined concrete vats which now house 225 litre barriques. One of the most impressive wines of the cellar is their St Valentin Sauvignon – not because it is their Icon wine with a high price tag, but because it has won the prestigious Tre Bicchiere award (Italy’s most important wine award) 15 years in a row! Given the company it keeps with this award, its value price ratio is hard to believe at just 15 euros at cellar door! Across their range, all the wines are textbook examples of their grape variety – including the delightful Pinot Bianco (a favourite variety of the President so hence my present to him was a bottle of English Pinot Bianco from Stopham Vineyard!) through to the Pinot Grigio Anger, showing that this much maligned variety can have personality!
Wine makers come in all types, but passion, low boredom threshold, down to earthness along with a “can do” attitude, endless attention to detail, love of family and topped with a fair dose of stubbornness is what seems unites the best ones. Franz Haas in the small village of Montagna has earned the respect of wine makers across the world for his simply stunning wines – and like many great wine makers, loves the challenge of the capricious Pinot Noir. Welcomed into their cellars, where the creativity of Franz’s wife, Luisa is everywhere – from armchairs & curtains made from corks through to what every cellar should have – a Dream Catcher! Hosted by the eloquent Andy, their Export Manager, a great tasting of seven wines awaited from their Moscato Giallo, through their Pinot Grigio (“It’s Pinot Grigio but not as we know it Jim”!) Lepus Piano Bianco and the beautiful blend of Manna, named after the maiden name of Franz’s wife. Although slightly changing the blend over the years, Manna combines Riesling, Chardy, some late harvested Gewurzt and a dash of Sauvignon Blanc – resulting in a wine that can age so very well – one of the best food friendly white wines on the market today. Fascinating to taste the two Pinot Noirs side by side – with the Classic showing mulberries with a gentle smoky finish but the PN Schweizer 2014 went up a gear, with more grip yet an impressive elegance along with depth and complexity. Complete with eye catching labels designed by a family friend, Riccardo Schweizer who worked with Picasso and Chagall. One of the most welcoming families in the wine world (even when it was Luisa’s birthday the day of our visit!) – Andy even imitated a mountain goat by climbing onto the roof to take better photos for us!
Bolzano as the regions capital has much to recommend it to the visitor – famous today for being home to Ötzi the Iceman, there are many other museums and lovely porticoed arcades lined with elegant shops ideal for retail therapy. Andres Gotlieb Hempel escorted us around the city for a City Tour with a difference. As an architect, it was a fascinating insight into the divided history of Bolzano made evident by the contrasting architectures on either side of the river from the Austrian mural decorated townhouses to the austere Arch of Mussolini. Andres has written various books about wine and architecture in the Sud Tyrol, including Wein Bau, with glorious photography. He is also something of an expert on the beers of the region – but that will have to wait till next time!
The cuisine of the South Tyrol today is more of a melting pot, but the most traditional dishes hark back to the glory days of the Austro–Hungarian Empire, and where better to taste such tradition than at Wirthaus Vögele. A tavern originally called The Red Eagle dating from 1840, which was a meeting place for strategists during the war (using the name Vögele – “birdy” – as a code word!). Today, the Alber family continue the welcoming hospitality in this traditional “Stube” which is listed as a Tavern of Historical Importance. Starting with the unusual but very local White Wine Soup with Cinnamon Croutons – which paired so well with a Riesling 2015 Kaiton, which was followed by Venison & wild mushroom casserole with the classic Knödel, a bread dumpling. Though it might sound a little heavy, the glossy gravy made it quite irresistible especially alongside a 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon Riserva Sass Roa from Laimburg, whose notes of blackcurrant and blueberries lifted the venison perfectly. Given that Südtirol produces about 10% of apples grown in Europe (up to an even more impressive third of all organic apples), no surprise that the classic Austrian dessert of Apfelstrudel finished up this traditional dinner at the Vögele, paired with a v moreish Spatlese Gewurtz from J.Hofstatter.
Dramatic, Brooding, Majestic, Spectacular – one can easily run out of adjectives to describe the simply breath taking Dolomites and this UNESCO World Heritage part of the Alps certainly inspired the climber Reinhold Messner and the architect Le Corbusier. Easily accessible from the centre of Bolzano via a very modern Cable Car, climbing dramatically 950 metres in just 14 minutes, high above the vineyards of Santa Maddalena, the Renon Plateau is something out of the back drop of The Sound of Music! The narrow gauge Renon Railway, celebrating its centenary this year (and we were lucky enough to board one of the original wood panelled carriages) , winds its way through a delightful scenery of rippling meadows dotted with wild flowers, Alpine farm houses surrounded by woods, and views across to the Dolomites. From Collalbo, there are a range of walks to discover the scenery including the quirky 2500 year old Earth Pyramids. Alternatively, simply bliss to sit outside the Belmens Post on the terrace and breath in the pure mountain air (with maybe a glass of Riesling to hand as well!).
The Holzner family have run a Hotel in the Dolomites for over 100 years, and with stunning views across the mountains from the terrace, an ideal place to revive with lunch. Their in house Chef wields an excellent understanding of flavour combinations, so even simple sounding dishes leap from the plate in vibrancy. Staying seasonal & local, lunch began with Val Passiria Trout & asparagus, followed by a perfectly pink rack of lamb ending with a delicate Honey Crème Brulee (Südtirol having 6000 Bee colonies taking advantage of the meadow flowers and alpine flowers). A Grüner Veltiner from outstanding winemaker Manni Nossing as an apero to revive the palate before lunch showed just how well this variety works in the region, with fresh grapefruit on the nose backed up by slight spice on the finish – a producer to look out for. The trout & asparagus cried out for a classic Sauvignon, so the Winkl Cantina Terlano fitted the bill well with its crisp nettle notes. Vernatsch is the local name for the variety known in Italy as Schiava, and gives red wines that are often relatively (!) light – ideal for a hot summer’s day in the mountains and the Gschleier 2015 from Girlan did not disappoint as a partner for the lamb (and won best label of the week award!). Indeed the enticing cherries on the nose were backed up with considerably more silky tannin than expected from this variety, perhaps due to it being sourced from old vines. As a comparison, the Blauburgunder Trattmann Mazon, the flagship Pinot Noir Riserva from the same producer Girlan, should have had more complexity than the Vernatsch, and delicious though the PN is and I’d enjoyed quite a few vintages of it during my forays into the region, but on the day, the star was rather surprisingly the Vernatsch!
Erste & Neue, which translates as “The First & the New” was created in 1986 but has older origins with the Erste founded in 1900 and the Neue founded a whole 25 years later! Their cellars are located in the small town of Caldaro, not far from the eponymous lake, and hosted by the knowledgeable communicator, Judith Unterholzner, a great selection of their wines awaited our attention. The varietals were from their classic range and their Puntay reserve line. Two wines stood out – the Puntay Sauvignon 2016 from 60 year old vines which had a depth that would work well with dishes such as braised fennel. Puntay Kalterersee Classico Superiore, grown with low yields on Porphyry based soil, was an inviting red, all black cherries as well as redcurrants and would go well with roasted tomatoes or even a light red option for baked whole bream. The unusually hot weather was beginning to sap our tasting concentration, and so we repaired to the cooler shores for dinner in an idyllic setting overlooking Lake Caldaro as the sun set behind the mountains. The owner of Seehof Keller is apparently a keen windsurfer, and he chose his restaurant well, as the Ora breezes in from Lake Garda every afternoon to Caldaro, making it the ideal spot for windsurf lovers! One of the issues of eating with in such beautiful settings is that the views often distract from what is on the plate. The Chef at Seehof Keller has made sure this is not the case with imaginative, beautifully presented food. A simple plate of San Daniele prosciutto was complimented by a parmesan mousse, whilst gnocchi with watercress and pheasant ragu was light and irresistible but it was the dessert, a variation on mocha which had many a pudding lover smiling in the gloaming! For the white wine, I’d chosen Stoan from Cantina Tramin, who as one of only 30 wine estates in Italy to hold the two star rating in the Gambero Rosso Guide, are a winery to follow. Recently, the winemaker requested, and despite no doubt horror on the part of the company accountants, that the whites were not released on the usual dates, but given an extra year aging in the cellar before release. The Stoan 2014 is a blend of 65% Chardy, 20% Sauv Blanc, 10% Pinot Bianco and 5% Gewurzt – superbly balanced- white flowers and apricot to start ending with a delightful multi layered complexity that drew one back for yet another sip! For the red, Amistar from Peter Solva, a blend of Cab Sauv, Merlot, Lagrein, Cab Franc & Petit Verdot, but the unusual aspect that 3 % of the grapes are dried on the vine giving a raisin like finish to the wine. To end back with an Erste & Neue wine, it was the turn of Anthos 2012, a white passito blend of Moscato Giallo, Gewuzrt and Sauv Blanc. Rich tropical fruit led into slight spice of nutmeg – truly delicious dessert wine.
Sadly, day dawned with the realisation that we had to leave Alto Adige. Passing along the valley floor, following the Adige River, flanked by orchards, vines and hill top Castles, the Valpolicella region awaited. Leaving all notions of Austrian influenced Italy behind, the gently rolling hills a patchwork of vines, cypresses and cherry tree orchards lined with dry stone walls, Valpolicella quietly but proudly carries its beautiful countryside well. The most historical estate of the area, Serego Alighieri is today run by the descendants of its famous owner, the son of Dante Alighieri, when Dante was exiled from Florence in the 1300’s. A shady cypress lined avenue leads down to the Foresteria, today converted into very comfortable apartments (I previously organised a wine & cooking school tour here for Leiths staying on the estate and realised then that it is a small jewel of peaceful heaven away from the bustle of Verona). The central courtyard, once the threshing yard, is lined with a pergola of vines, including one pre-phylloxera vine of the Molinara variety. Today, Serego Alighieri works in partnership with Masi, but the wines of the estate retain their own distinctive style. Time for a welcoming cooling glass of their Possessioni Bianco, their only white wine, made of Garganega (the white variety used in nearby Soave) and Sauvignon Blanc. A rickety stair case leads up to the drying rooms, where after harvest in late October, the best bunches are laid out on bamboo racks and allowed to dry naturally throughout the Winter, reducing their liquid content by 30% plus and intensifying the sugars – these will be used for the flagship Amarone and Recioto wines. Wandering through the garden of the Villa, past immaculately sculpted hedges, a lawn with wild mint giving off a delicious scent and even thanks to the micro climate, a banana tree, next was a visit to their ancient cellars which gives a clue to a distinctive aroma of some of their wines – they still use a small percentage of Cherry Wood casks for aging the red wines. In the elegant dining room of the Foresteria, we were joined for lunch by Contessa Massimilla di Serego Alighieri, the current generation of Dante’s descendants to run the estate. A vegetable tartlet with local Monte Veronese cheese was matched with a Masi wine, the famous Campofiorin made by appassimento method, and it was interesting to compare with the Brolo di Campofiorin Oro with the pasta course – both of which lived up to the Latin on the label nectar angelorum hominibus (nectar of the angels!) But the iconic wines of Serego Alighieri are surely their Amarone and their Recioto – up first with veal cooked in hay was Vaio Armaron 2011, made from the classic three Valpolicella grapes of Corvina, Rondinella and Molinara, this seductive Amarone combines cherries backed up with subtle spice making a wine that was greeted with a reverential silence on the first sip! Followed by its sweet sister, Recioto Casal dei Ronchi 2013, hard to describe as wonderfully balanced between rich sweetness that does not cloy, cherries, chocolate, coffee and spice – Recioto is truly a unique style of wine!
To complete the tour, a return to Verona for those who decided some Opera was needed to balance out all the wine & food – but first a last evening at SignorVino, just below the Archway leading to Piazza Bra and the Roman Arena, where Nabucco was due to begin as night fell. Although a rapidly expanding chain of wine shops, SignorVino was begun with the simple premise of showcasing 100% Italian Wine! The staff (at least in the Verona branch!) are very knowledgeable and enthusiastic to suggest more unusual wines to the less discerning tourist who wanders in looking for a gift to take home. In a private room stacked with wine bottles from all of Italy’s 20 wine producing regions, I’d chosen a final few wines to sum up our time in Trentino- Alto Adige & the Veneto (with a delicious buffet just to avoid hunger pangs later in the middle of the Va Pensiero Aria later!) – a palate livening Brut Perlé, a Trentino sparkling from Ferrari ( no – not the ones with those red cars, but an excellent fizz producer!), followed by a white from one of my favourite Soave Producers – Graziano Pra. He has been one of the key people for revitalising the reputation of Soave, by proving what the Garganega grape is truly capable of in the right hands. Their Soave Classico Montegrande was opulent, with good structure, thanks to its time in barrel and a certain drying on the vines of some of the grapes before harvest. Staying in the region, there was time for a last Amarone, but also to sneak in a ringer from out of zone – Rancia by Felsina, hailing from Tuscany – for no other reason that I simply adore this Chianti Classic Riserva with its enticing black fruit, coffee and spice and also as a reminder of the first tour I escorted these clients on, which was to Tuscany some 18 years ago! But back to the Veneto for our final wine, this time from the area around Breganze – a gleaming golden glass of Torcolato from Maculan. A dessert wine made from 100% Vespaiola grape variety, it is honeyed, rich yet with a great balance of acidity. The perfect wine to finish off a week of exploring these beautiful regions of North East Italy, whose wines I simply cannot praise enough. Alto Adige is split 60% / 40% of white & red wine production, with a wide range of different varieties including some lovely indigenous ones, everything from sparkling through to intense dessert wines, unlike some other wine regions which are limited to only one or two varieties, which makes it quite irresistible for the curious wine lover – which paired with some great local food – I strongly recommend a visit!
All Photos taken by Cindy-Marie Harvey
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