February 24, 2024

A head for heights and Dolomite delights

High in Italy's mountainous northern Alps lies one of Europe's smallest wine regions where quality prevails. Roderick Eime sips, sniffs and spits his way through the misty valleys of South Tyrol.

His knee was now more painful than it had ever been as he struggled down the glacier, barely a few hundred metres ahead of his pursuers. In his mid-40s, he was now an old man with the body to match. His laboured breathing and awkward gait hampered his hurried progress across the ice when suddenly he felt a searing pain in his shoulder. He’d been hit with an arrow fired from behind and the exhausted fugitive fell forward heavily and waited for his fate.
Fast forward more than 5000 years and hikers, Helmut and Erika Simon, spotted a body partly frozen in the ice. Believing the semi-decomposed corpse to be that of a deceased mountaineer, they called the police. The remains were clumsily extracted by the rescue team and taken to the Institute of Forensic Medicine in Innsbruck where, after thorough examination, they were discovered to be at least 4000 years old.

Dubbed Ötzi, after the Ötztal Alps on the Austrian-Italian border near where he died, he is now a posthumous rock star with his own museum here in Bolzano, the capital city of the province of South Tyrol in northern Italy.
Ötzi’s relatives continued to populate this mountainous region where the Roman General Nero Claudius Drusus established a military presence about the time of Christ. Over the centuries, Tyrol served as something of a cultural hub as various ethnic groups passed through on their way to other parts of Europe. However, some stayed to enrich the civilisation that gradually built up to where we find this highly eclectic province today.

Reflecting this potpourri of people and national ambiguity, the visitor will encounter conversations in Italian, German and English in the streets and boutiques of Bolzano (or Bozen if you prefer the German). While South Tyrol/Südtirol/Alto Adige (pron: AH-dee-jay) is politically Italy, the province enjoys autonomous status in deference to its turbulent history in which it was finally annexed by Italy following the defeat of Austria-Hungary in the First World War.
The diverse language groups gradually formed a homogeneous population who can seamlessly switch between Italian, German and often English in daily conversation. A few even speak an ancient local dialect, Ladin, which may sound like Swiss Romansh to the casual listener.

Alto Adige is renown for brilliant ski fields, stunning alpine scenery that’s ideal for hikers and mountain bikers and thousands of hectares of farmland that produces vast swathes of green tapestry interspersed with castles and medieval church spires. But if there is one unifying enterprise that can serve as the province’s trademark, it’s wine.

Wines of Alto Adige

The province enjoys a near-perfect dry and cool climate with a range of soils from sedimentary to volcanic and encompassing several microclimates. This unique circumstance enables a 26-variety assortment of grapes including many unfamiliar to Australian and New Zealand wine lovers. Such exotic varietals as Pinot Bianco, Lagrein and Shiava grow on 26,000 precipitous vineyards on mountainsides up to 1200 metres alongside the more familiar grapes such as chardonnay, merlot, cabernet franc and sauvignon blanc.

In a delightful throwback to feudal times, hundreds of families and wine producers have formed cooperatives to ensure mutual prosperity. Together they cultivate 13,000 hectares producing nearly 100 million litres of wine in roughly equal red/white quantities.

With such small quantities reaching our shores and bottleshops, Alto Adige wine is not about to displace either the Hunter or Barossa Valleys in our market any time soon. Instead labels like Terlano, Tieffenbrunner, Alois Lageder and Kurtatsch can be found on the wine lists of our high-end restaurants and on the shelves of niche wine merchants.

The delicate and soft-textured Pinot Blanc (aka Pinot Bianco and Weissburgunder) is one grape that should find easy acceptance in our region. Frequently blended with complementary varietals such as chardonnay and sauvignon blanc, it makes for delightful summer drinking when chilled and is a versatile accompaniment for a wide range of foods including spicy Thai curries and white meat dishes.
If possible, attend a tasting where these wines are offered as new oak casks and stainless steel are used in various stages of maturation and the proportions may not suit all tastes. Some wines will be ready for immediate drinking, while others will benefit from another year or two in the cellar.

Törggelen Time

Autumn is the traditional season for this extravaganza of local produce when wine growers present their new wines, the chestnuts are roasting and in the farm bars they celebrate with traditional harvest evenings named Törggelen. Farmers invite visitors to taste products like wine, juices, soups, cabbage, boiled potatoes, bacon, fruits and meat.

Tasting Alto Adige

As the various Europeans have converged on the province bringing their traditional culinary delights with them, so the menus of the many restaurants of the region reflect this delicious diversity from tasty home-style meals and at inns and hotels to 19 high-end restaurants with 26 Michelin stars such as Chef Norbert Niederkofler’s three-star St. Hubertus and Chef Matteo Mettulio’s two-star La Siriola.

The vegan will struggle in Alto Adige as the influence of German dishes such as Schlutzkrapfen (similar to ravioli), dumplings, salted meats and homemade sausages and sauerkraut all dictate meats and cheeses in abundance. Dumplings, in particular, are a favourite fare and are served in a wide variety of forms incorporating soft cheeses, minced pork or venison meat and pasta drenched in flavoursome sauces. Be careful though, these little Kasnocken are very filling.

As one might expect, Italian pastas abound in all their forms with your tagliatelle, gnocchi and spaghetti favourites easily found. Besides the regular pasta dishes, local variations include beetroot gnocchi or pine needle-infused marshmallow.

Visiting Alto Adige

Now that Tuscany is tedious and Bordeaux is a bore, why not investigate the delights of this often-overlooked province in Northern Italy? You don't need many excuses either. The gastronomy is up there, the people are chill, English is widely spoken and the activities beyond wine are plentiful.
Choosing accommodation is easy too. Vinum Hotels is a marketing co-operative made up of 29 family-run hotels located in the heart of the various South Tyrolean wine districts that specialise in catering for the wine lover. Your hosts will organise everything for the complete wine week including dining, tastings, spa sessions and sightseeing.

Self-drive is an option too with such dramatic scenery and well-maintained roads, although drivers will need to perfect the spit if they are going to enjoy sampling the wines.

Fact File:

Vinum Hotels Südtirol
Wine hotels - Gourmet holidays - South Tyrol

Südtiroler Gasthaus
Stay and dine at authentic South Tyrolean inns

Alto Adige Wine
Official Wine Region website

Official tourism website:

Originally published in MiNDFOOD Magazine

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