Tucked away in the northeastern part of Italy is a well-kept Italian secret; a secret laced with apple orchards, forest-green valleys, crystal blue lakes, and rugged mountain peaks scraping the sky. The air is crisp and life is slow, far removed from the crowded canals of nearby Venice or the swarming streets of Rome. This is a secret that has managed to evade the invasion of major airports, whose glasses are full of magnificent expressions of Pinot Noir and Schiava alike, and whose people fight valiantly to preserve its precious culture. This is Südtirol.
Südtirol, also known as Alto Adige, is a province often left out of major Italian guidebooks and tourist itineraries. It is one whose Italian history and whose Italian-ness is significantly less than that of its compatriots. Südtirol is an anomaly: an organized, German-speaking area of Italy where the trains are on time but the people still eat gnocchi. And sauerkraut.
This northern Italian province in the region of Trentino – Alto Adige bordering Austria became a part of Italy in 1919 when the Treaty of Saint-Germain-en-Laye gave the land to victorious Italy as spoils of WWI. Formerly a part of the Tirol, largely German-speaking and staunchly proud of the indigenous culture, the province and its people did not give up their culture without a fight. After a strict Mussolini ban on the German language and Austrian culture, the citizens took action, demanding autonomy and freedom to speak their native language and live their native culture. This was granted with a United Nations sanction in the 60’s, declared “an acceptable implementation” by the people in the 90’s, and Alto Adige, or Südtirol, is currently an autonomous, officially bilingual province of Italy.
The Wines of Alto Adige
Visiting this area is worlds away than any other destination on the Italian peninsula. The houses are distinctly Austrian in style, dishes are a peculiar mix of the Italian and Austrian cuisine (even the bread baskets have dark bread for the German speakers and white bread for the Italian speakers), and the wine showcases a mix of well-made international varietals such as Gewürtztraminer and Pinot Noir and fascinating indigenous varietals.
Indigenous red grapes such as Lagrein and Schiava thrive here, Lagrein being a complex, full-bodied grape whose heartiness can stand up to the mountain cuisine and Schiava a light, workhorse grape with impressive drinkability. As a very vocal advocate for drinking wines made from indigenous grapes, it is usually these two varietals and their blends that I lean towards, but every once in a while I like to try the other red grape, an international one, that has been gaining reclaim in the region: Pinot Nero, Italian for Pinot Noir.
The calcareous soil and cool climate of Südtirol produces a Pinot Noir worlds apart from those of the warm Californian Pinots or even the classic Burgundian expressions. Pinot Noir from Südtriol – or Pinot Nero in Italian or Blauburgunder as its called in the local Tirolean dialect – does justice to the grape’s nobility with a complex, highly gratifying wine adding a superb acidity that could only be attained from the high altitude, crisp air, and cool temperatures where it grows. It is an expression that can only be described as lovely; one to share around the table over a long conversation with friends, family, and food.
A Unique Expression of Pinot Noir
Cantina Tramin is one of Südtirol’s most reputable wineries, intensely focused on producing terroir -infused wines with the hope of bringing their beloved region to all areas of the world. I am a big fan of the Lagrein, but this month I want to highlight their take on Pinot Noir, a wine that I recently poured just as the fall chill began descending on the formerly temperate late-summer nights.
I have a picture on my desk from the first time I visited Alto Adige-Südtirol. I was there to conduct a two-week ethnographical study for my Notre Dame Honors Anthropology Thesis and the day I took this picture it was a crisp October day, perfect for the warm strudel made with the area’s recently ripened local apples. I had just finished conducting interviews with both German and Italian speakers and on my way back to the hotel, I found a road east of the city which wound up a hill. Curious, I followed it, past ever-increasing Austrian-style huts and narrow entry ways to unknown neighborhoods until I came to the hill’s crest. On my right were steep but somehow soft slopes adorned with vines, while to my left stood a small farmer’s hut proudly bearing the Tirolean rooster, a mark of the proprietor’s allegiance to the Austrian heritage of the region. Before turning into the hut to introduce myself and eventually spending hours with the 80 year old winemaker, Herr Schoenberger, I took a picture of the view: the valley below, the nearby mountains, and just visible rugged peaks of the Dolomites looking as thought they had been broken, splintered, and scraping the sky. It was a simple picture that anyone could have taken, but to me, it captures my experience: the cool, fresh air, the exhilarating feeling of following a passion and discovering new worlds, and the complexity of the situation of the people of the region.
Drinking Cantina Tramin’s Pinot Nero for me is drinking this picture. With every sip of this magical wine, I am back on that mountain. The first sip is that pinnacle day on the crest of the hill, the second I am hiking to a refuge for a hearty lunch, the third I am finishing a run, taking off my skis, and heading toward the lodge’s glowing fire. Subsequent sips bring me crisp air from new fallen snow, a refreshing cold so distant from the oppressive kind I experience in my Chicago home, and the warmth of a cabin amplified by friends, family, and homemade Knödel as we toast (Prost!) to each others happiness. This wine, to me, is a perfect expression of where it is from.
Cantina Tramin’s Pinot Nero is also an impressive wine in the most technical sommelier-style of senses. Undergoing aging for 3-6 years in barrique, oak casks, and steel tanks, this elegant Pinot Noir presents a nose of fresh wild black raspberries with underlying notes of vanilla and mountain herbs. The wine is absolutely opposite of heavy, yet is hearty enough to stand up to gamey meats and cheeses (I paired it with spicy Italian sausage sauteed with tomatoes and onions and served over cauliflower) or completely appropriate for enjoying a night cap by the far on a cold winter’s night.
Every month, Select Italy’s Director of Lifestyle Representation and in-house Italian Wine Specialist, Martina Zuccarello, highlights a pick wine. Check back next month for a new wine, a new grape, and a new story and follow her on Twitter @MartiZuc for more insights into the wonderful world of Italian wine.