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Italy’s Alpine wine: exploring South Tyrol

South Tyrol is Italy’s smallest wine-producing area, but it is by no means a minor player on the country’s viticultural scene. Rebecca Ann Hughes plucks out the cross-cultural highlights of a region ready for wine lovers to discover

Words by Rebecca Ann Hughes

south tyrol
The Collection
Summer days are balmy and the nights are chilly In Italy's mountainous South Tyrol

Italy’s 20 regions take pride in their distinct characters, having been part of independent kingdoms and cultures for centuries before the country’s unification in 1861. Trentino-Alto Adige, a northern region bordering Austria, only joined the block in 1919 and, despite Fascist endeavours to ‘Italianise’ the population, it has never conformed to la dolce vita stereotypes. And nor has its wine.

Müller-Thurgau, Vernatsch, Lagrein, Sylvaner, Riesling, Gewürztraminer – these are some of the grape varieties of South Tyrol, the northern part of Trentino-Alto Adige, and they are rarely found in other parts of Italy.

Crunching along gravel tracks through the wine-producing areas, it’s easy to see why. Carpeted with vertiginous vines, the sun-drenched hillside rises steeply up from the road. Above is a backdrop of pale-blue mountains. Summer days are balmy, nights are chilly.

alois lageder
Alois Lageder winery, which comprises fifty-five hectares of vineyards

Glacial movements of millennia past, long-dried-up seas and more than 150 types of rock have laid the groundwork for a unique and variegated terroir. South Tyrol’s viticulture is far from monotonous – over 20 varieties thrive in the region’s microclimate pockets and precipitous altitudes.

I delve into the 3,000-year-old history of the area’s viticulture at the South Tyrolean Wine Museum, which opened in 1955 and claims to be the oldest of its kind in Italy. Alpine tribes known as the Rhaetians were exploiting the fertile terrain for winemaking before the arrival of the Romans, as Cato the Elder recounts in his De Agri Cultura. But it was under the Romans that the autochthonous varieties Vernatsch, Lagrein and Teroldego first flourished. In the Middle Ages, monasteries and aristocrats took up the oenological mantle, and later the Habsburg monarchy supercharged production, exporting wine to royal courts around Europe.

The museum’s own vineyard grows grape varieties that are now almost obsolete, like Bozner Seidentraube, Weiße Erdbeertraube, Blatterle and Gschlafene. Inside, exhibits include traditional torggl, hefty wine presses, some of which date as far back as the 18th century.

The South Tyrolean Wine Road winds past mountain ranges, medieval castles and Alpine villages

Today, the best way to explore the pocket-sized winemaking province of South Tyrol is along the rigorously signposted wine trail. The 150km South Tyrolean Wine Road wends its way past jagged mountain ranges, imposing medieval castles and Alpine villages. The route’s organisers offer guided tours with expert winemakers, wine safaris and cycling itineraries.

My first stop is Bolzano, the capital of South Tyrol. Squares are lined with pastel-hued buildings bearing delicately painted decorations, the steeple of an ornately imposing Gothic cathedral commands the skyline, and manicured floral displays encircle historic monuments.

Here, I get my first taste of South Tyrol’s distinctive Mediterranean-meets-Alpine culture. According to the regional tourist board, 70% of inhabitants speak German as their first language, and Bolzano (or Bozen) is peppered with rustic establishments – such as Wirtshaus Vögele and Franziskanerstuben – serving robust Tyrolean dishes like canederli (bread dumplings) and apple strudel. But the squares are also lined with elegant cafés where well-dressed clients sip Aperol Spritzes.

bolzano flower market
A flower market in Bolzano, a city where the German language dominates and Alpine cultures collide

The wine produced around here is another expression of this geographic melding. In the temperate climate, grapes grow on the gentle slopes of the St Magdalena hills around Bolzano. I head out of the centre to the Pitzner Winery, in the former arms plant of the striking Castel Cornedo (Burg Karneid), a castle jutting up from a rocky outcrop high above. The winery’s identity is progressive – from the charging stations for electric cars, to its circular agriculture.

Brothers Markus and Thomas Puff tend to the grapes growing in six different vineyards – all blessed by a favourable microclimate. ‘The well-ventilated slopes yield strong vines, while the marked temperature drops at the end of a summer’s day favour highly aromatic grapes,’ they write on their website. Their wines age in an evocatively chilly, 700-year-old cellar, while the enoteca above is sleek and modern. Here, I taste the hyperlocal St Magdalener Malanders, made from 95% Vernatsch (at its best in the St Magdalena soil around Bolzano) and 5% Lagrein. It leads with a distinctive scent of sour cherry and redcurrant, which gives way to warm mocha and dark chocolate on the palate.

Visitors can stay the night in one of the winery’s three elegantly minimalist suites, with a room-service breakfast of fresh croissants and homemade jam included. There’s also a rooftop terrace with a sauna, bar and outdoor pool from where you can gaze at the mighty Sciliar limestone massif.

pitzner winery
Pitzner Winery occupies a former castle on the edge of town

Just under 15km south is the aristocratic village of Appiano, crowded with some 180 castles and manor houses. Refinement is in the air at the Michelin-starred Osteria Acquarol, which serves a contemporary cuisine with ingredients from independent local producers and the restaurant’s own vegetable garden. The menu changes seasonally – I try raw roe deer with figs and cumin, and crispy eel with leeks and sour orange. In the neighbouring village of Cornaiano, I find grandeur at Cantina Girlan, which opened in 1923 in a restored 16th- century manor. Wine cooperatives in other areas of Italy are often disparaged as producers of quantity over quality, but South Tyrol has a nearly 150-year-old tradition of first-rate multiproducer collectives.

Osteria Acquarol
Michelin-starred Osteria Acquarol in Appiano

Around 200 families grow grapes for Cantina Girlan, and oenologist Gerhard Kofler works personally with each to provide consultations and ensure quality. I enter the gracious cream property through a doorway beneath a suspended tower. Inside the vaulted enoteca, I sample its low-yield Solisti wines, like the full-bodied, fruity Gschleier Alte Reben Vernatsch and the citrus-and-peach-scented Curlan Chardonnay Riserva.

From Appiano and Cornaiano, you can follow a hiking trail to Lake Caldaro, the largest body of water in South Tyrol. In autumn, the hillside is aflame with russet-coloured vines above the expanse of cobalt water. The nearby town of Caldaro (Kaltern) is home to the aforementioned South Tyrolean Wine Museum, and it holds a wine festival in August, with four days of music, food stands and, naturally, plenty of good local wine.

lake caldaro
Lake Caldaro, the region’s largest body of water

On the road between Caldaro and the lake, I stop at Manincor winery, surrounded by vine-carpeted hills. Majestic iron gates lead into a courtyard overlooked by a noble manor house emblazoned with the family’s coat of arms. It is contrasted by the most recent addition to the estate, a stylish glass-panelled wine shop. In the late autumn sun, I sip a velvety, berry-rich Rubatsch, made from the local Lagrein grape, and I can hear the sheep that roam freely among the vines bleating nearby.

manicor winery
Manincor, a biodynamic estate with a wine shop open to the public

As the temperature drops towards evening, I return to the lakeshore to eat at Seehof Keller. The restaurant’s vast lake-view terrace is popular in summer, but dining inside the grand restored farmstead in autumn might be even more special. I’m seated in a room with a low, rough, wooden-beamed ceiling and a stone-paved floor. The lighting is warm and soft, and flowers brighten the light-wood table.

With their autumn menu, I’m introduced to the historic custom of Törggelen. Originally, this referred to the occasion when the new wine was drunk after harvest (the word deriving from the torggl wine press), but it has expanded to mean a celebration of local, autumnal foods and traditions. I eat refined classics like canederli with truffles and potato foam, and guinea fowl stuffed with walnuts and prunes. Dishes are paired with wines from the restaurant’s own vineyards.

seehof keller pastry
Krapfen, a sweet, stuffed pastry typical of the region, are served at Seehof Keller

My next stop on the wine road is Egna, a medieval hamlet with pale-coloured houses and arcaded streets. Founded in 1189, it is one of the designated ‘most beautiful villages in Italy’ and has welcomed prestigious visitors such as Dürer and Mozart. I stop at the vaulted enoteca Johnson & Dipoli, with its charmingly old-fashioned interior of dark wooden furniture and framed historic prints. I’ve come for the extensive wine collection, but I stay for the tempting plates of schlutzkrapfen – stuffed pasta in half-moon shapes, like mezzelune – and beef tartare.

In Egna, I find South Tyrol’s most theatrically positioned winery. Baron Longo, a family-run business with 400 years of history, operates inside the ancestral home, which sits atop a vine-covered hill. During the 20th century, the family sold their grapes to a cooperative, but since 2015, under the management of Anton Baron Longo, the winery has returned to producing its own labels.

You can book a wine tasting to try its delicate, floral Hohenstein Gewürztraminer or Friedberg Lagrein, an elegant red with notes of chocolate and vanilla. The winery also offers a picnic experience in the shaded garden by the house, and an e-bike tour around the vineyards passing the mysterious metal monolith that appeared among the vines in 2020.

johnson and dipoli
Enoteca Johnson & Dipoli is a charming stop-off for a glass in Egna, one of Italy’s ‘most beautiful villages’

My final destination on the South Tyrolean Wine Road is Magrè, a village of superlatives. It’s home to the oldest vine in the province – and one of the oldest in Europe – which decorates a house along Grafengasse street. Planted in 1601, it still bears about 80kg of grapes each season. Near the village you can also find the highest Müller-Thurgau vineyard in Europe at the Schlosskellerei Turmhof winery in Entiklar (Niclara), at an altitude of 1,000m above sea level.

In Magrè, I learn that South Tyrol’s winemaking may be steeped in tradition but is not shackled by it. The Trentino-Alto Adige region has invested heavily in green energy and renewable sources in recent years, and vineyards have followed suit. I discover as much at the sixth-generation family business Alois Lageder, in the centre of Magrè, which practises biodynamic viticulture. Alongside eliminating all chemical herbicides and insecticides, the 55ha vineyard is an explosion of biodiversity. In spring, orange poppies and purple wildflowers bloom between the rows. Cows graze and peacocks strut beneath the vines. For owner Alois Clemens Lageder, the vineyard is a ‘single living organism’.

The Alois Lageder family estate in Magrè boasts a long history and a beautiful setting in which to sample its delicate Müller-Thurgau wines

In an elegant courtyard graced by a fountain and backed by a grand manor house, I taste its Müller-Thurgau, a white grape variety that was created in 1882 by crossing Riesling with Madeleine Royale. Aged only in steel, it is crisp and delicate, perfectly echoing the scents of lavender, rosemary and lemon of the garden’s floral decorations.

After a few days touring South Tyrol’s wine scene, I feel embraced by the quiet refinement that pervades the province. Its wine is inextricably linked to the delicate blend of two seemingly contrasting cultures, and it is best experienced in situ.

girlan winery

Wineries to visit in South Tyrol

  • Alois Lageder, Magrè (Margreid). Now run by the sixth generation of the Lageder family, this winery is dedicated to biodynamic principles. Flora and fauna bloom between vines producing excellent Lagrein and Chardonnay. @alois.lageder
  • Baron Longo, Egna (Neumarkt). At Baron Longo, winemaking happens inside the family’s 17th-century ancestral home. Owner Anton Baron Longo has been producing exquisite biodynamic wines using local varieties such as Gewürztraminer and Lagrein since 2015. @baronlongo
  • Girlan Cantina, Cornaiano (Girlan). Founded in 1923 by 24 wine growers, Girlan Cantina (pictured) is a prime example of how cooperatives can produce high-end wines. Around 200 families sell their grapes to the cellar. @cantina_girlan
  • Manincor, Caldaro (Kaltern). Surrounded by hectares of vineyards, Manincor is one of the most attractive wineries on the South Tyrol Wine Road. A 17th-century manor house is flanked by a modern-design wine shop. @manincor.wine
  • Pitzner Winery, Bolzano (Bozen). Young and progressive, the Pitzner Winery is run by brothers Markus and Thomas Puff. They produce an exclusive 45,000 bottles a year from six vineyards over an area of 6ha. @pitzner_winery
pitzner hotel

Top accommodation in South Tyrol

  • Adler Lodge Ritten, Soprabolzano (Oberbozen). At this Alpine retreat just north of Bolzano, guests sleep in wooden chalets with log fires. Enjoy the spa, open-air infinity pool and forest saunas. @adlersparesorts
  • Pitzner Winery, Bolzano (Bozen). Extend your vineyard visit with a night in the elegant grey-palette suites of Pitzner Winery (pictured above). There’s a kitchenette in each for self-catering, plus a wine and delicatessen store, pool, sauna and outdoor bar. @pitzner_winery
seehof keller restaurant

Restaurants to have on your radar in South Tyrol

  • Johnson & Dipoli, Egna (Neumarkt). This wine bar and bistro is located under the atmospheric arcades of a pretty village. Stop for a special dinner with dishes recommended personally by the owner. @johnsondipoli
  • Löwengrube, Bolzano (Bozen). Time spools backwards as you enter Bolzano’s 16th-century Löwengrube. The dining room is decorated with greyscale frescoes and wood panelling, kept light and elegant by the tasteful table settings. The food sees original twists on classic dishes. @restaurant_loewengrube
  • Osteria Acquarol, Appiano (Eppan). Elegance and refinement are the themes at this Michelin-starred establishment where dishes have a hint of Mexico in honour of the chef’s wife. It’s an intimate spot, with just a few tables in a minimalist interior. @acquarol
  • Restaurant Astra, Collepietra (Steinegg). Chef Gregor Eschgfäller dishes up art at Restaurant Astra, with delicate culinary creations on handmade plates. The unconventional menu takes you on a gastronomic journey – you’ll be more than happy to sit back and enjoy the ride. @astrarestaurant
  • Seehof Keller, Caldaro (Kaltern). If you’re a romantic, head to Seehof Keller (pictured), with a vast patio overlooking Lake Caldaro. Dishes use ingredients from the restaurant’s smokehouse and wines from its vineyard. In the colder months, dining is inside the grand restored farmstead. @seehofkeller
obereggen ski resort

Things to do in South Tyrol

  • Obereggen ski resort. Head to this large ski area for 48km of slopes with a spectacular backdrop of soaring limestone peaks. Eat at the strikingly modern Oberholz Hut (pictured below), with big glass windows, at an altitude of 2,096m. @obereggen_official
  • WineSafari, South Tyrolean Wine Road. Guests are driven along part of the South Tyrolean Wine Road, stopping at wineries for guided tastings with sommeliers and oenologists. The day includes a short panoramic hike and a stop at a local wine bar. @suedtiroler.weinstrasse