New Views from Südtirol-Alto Adige

A view of vineyards and mountains in Südtirol-Alto Adige (aka South Tyrol).
The view from GraWü, Photo Credit Aleks Zecevic

The speed limit is probably lower in South Tyrol — aka Südtirol-Alto Adige — than in other parts of Italy. For good reason. Visitors may have trouble focusing on the road, as they’re too busy taking in the staggering surroundings. With abundant sunshine, turquoise waters, and towering mountains, you can’t help but wander in this enchanted realm.

Amidst the beauty, wine growers and winemakers are shifting the profile of the area’s wines by bringing vinification back in-house instead of selling grapes to cooperatives.

It took me 35 years to get to South Tyrol. Perhaps my delayed visit had something to do with the old way of doing things: big wineries running the scene. Even today, 70 percent of production comes from just 12 cooperatives. Admittedly, they built the region’s international reputation. But they also churned out wines that were, by and large, international. Lack of ingenuity masked the region’s diversity, evident in each of the region’s 5,700 hectares of vines.

Extremes are everywhere: topographical, microclimatic, historical, and cultural. In my view, craft, or artisanal, wines best express those nuances. Thanks to the handful of trailblazers, such as Nusserhof and the growers of the Freistil group (Garlider, In der Eben, Pranzegg, and Thomas Niedermayr), the number of individualistic wines is growing. 

Drawing inspiration from them, outsiders and new generations taking over their family estates are reforming the region’s wine identity one wine at a time. The move toward artisanal wines is prompting a region-wide shift in focus: to terroir. This, in turn, has brought South Tyrol a welcome increase in diversity and idiosyncrasy. 

Change of Generations

A prime example is Weingut Röck, a 3-hectare, organically farmed estate perched above the village of Villanders, in the highest, coolest part of the region, the Eisacktal (Isarco Valley). Run by the Augschöll family, this 400-year-old family farm first saw change in 1988, when Konrad Augschöll took over, slowly turning it from a mixed farm to a winery.

Augschöll started bottling his wines, farmed organically, a decade later. Together with his wife Frieda, he established a bed-and-breakfast and restaurant, open only during the törggelen season. Törggelen is a distinctively South Tyrolean autumn ritual, centered around the harvest. Wine and chestnuts are the key ingredients.

The Augschölls’ son, Hannes, and daughter, Carmen, joined the winery in 2019. Hannes, a trained winemaker, turned to natural, low-intervention wines without filtration or fining, and with minimal sulfur additions (usually below 50 mg/L). Carmen, whose views on natural wine were informed by her experiences living in Seoul and Vienna, encouraged the move.

All signs point to organic at Weingut Röck

“It just felt right,” says Carmen. “At least for us, nature, the universe, connection, balance, honesty, love…we feel that this connects more with our surroundings than in any other way.”

She doesn’t hide the effect of the Freistil winemakers, either. “We visited all of them when our dad was still in charge. They were a helpful support.”

Weingut Röck’s portfolio shows this in its own way. Carmen’s marketing expertise changed the estate’s branding. But her background as a yoga instructor and her connection to nature, combined with her brother’s training and vision, may have contributed even more to the new direction for the wines.

In 2020, Hannes fully took over the winemaking. With just three vintages under his belt, the results are promising. 

His wines embrace a signature that focuses on the vitality of the gravelly soils, enriched with quartz, phyllite, and granite, which come through as broad-textured wines. He plays with longer macerations and skin-fermentations for white grapes, carbonic macerations for reds, and pét-nats made in a thirst-quenching style. He works with a wealth of varieties, from Müller-Thurgau and Sylvaner to Pinot Noir and Rotburger. Expressions of Grüner Veltliner and Riesling in particular showcase his talent, where gorgeous reduction often draws you into the glass, while the distinctive character keeps you coming for more.

New Kid on the Block

Daniel Sigmund of the eponymous estate grew up wanting to be a carpenter — at least so he thought until about five years ago. It was then that he discovered “being a Winzer is much cooler.” His family tended vines for generations, but never bottled wine for commercial purposes. They sold their organically farmed grapes until 2021, when Daniel returned from his two-year viticultural studies in Germany at the Veitshöchheim wine school. 

“I tasted a lot of non-classical wines and really liked them,” he says. Influenced by the German natural wine movement, he reserved two-thirds of his family’s 3-hectare vineyards for his own production. “We still sell grapes from the remaining hectare because it’s planted with Gewürztraminer and Kerner, and I don’t like these grapes,” he explains. The plan is to rip them out and plant more Pinot Noir and Riesling.

His portfolio also includes regional staples: Sylvaner and Portugieser. “I like Portugieser. It is a variety with a lot of history in the Eisacktal, especially around [the towns of] Brixen, Neustift, and Villanders, where 100 years ago, it occupied about 80 or 90 percent of the vineyards,” he emphasizes. This is reasonable considering that this Austrian grape has high resistance to grape diseases.

Daniel Sigmund works his vineyards.
Daniel Sigmund, Photo Credit: Felix Becher

Daniel’s vineyards run along the steep, granitic slopes below the 200-inhabitant village of Tschötschg. At certain times of the year, you can hear the family sheep bleating between the vines. Daniel uses compost to promote cover crops in between the rows, which are only cut right before the harvest. 

This quest for biodiversity is crucial and it doesn’t stop on the steep slopes. He preserves it in the cellar, with minimal intervention. He believes this helps express the terroir. “I think the [granite, quartz and phyllite] soils give a certain reduction to the wines, which is quite nice,” he explains.

The wines are spontaneously fermented, undergo malolactic naturally, and then are matured in neutral barrels for a year, at which point barrels get blended and sulfured, then age for an additional six months. He makes only single-varietal wines, working with Portuguiser, Riesling and Pinot Noir, as well as Sylvaner — a must-try for anyone who still doubts the greatness of this grape.

Like Father, Like Daughter

The Mayr family’s Weingut Nusserhof is an 18th-century estate that seems to have escaped time. It has no website or social media presence. It is the last standing winery and vineyard located within the city limits of Bozen-Bolzano. Despite frequent attempts by the city to swallow the estate, the Mayrs continue to repel them, conserving history and tradition, even as a new generation takes over.

As for style and farming, little has changed at Nusserhof since 1994, when Heinrich Mayr converted the 4-hectare estate to organic farming. His daughter Gloria joined the winery in 2018. Since then, she has gradually taken over winemaking, continuing her father’s work and preserving the family style.

There is a spark in Gloria’s eyes as she talks about the history of her family and the region while walking the 2.5 hectares of vineyards surrounding the family house.

Gloria Mayr of Weingut Nusserhof
Gloria Mayr of Weingut Nusserhof, Photo Credit Paula Redes Sidore
Heinrich Mayr
Heinrich Mayr of Weingut Nusserhof, Photo Credit Aleks Zecevic

“At one time, Sankt Magdalener was more famous [for red wine] than Chianti or Barolo,” she says, explaining the heritage of red wines in Südtirol-Alto Adige. Sankt Magdalener refers to the slopes that rise above the town of Bozen, where the family owns an additional 1.5 hectares of vineyards and some of the Lagrein vines are 100 years old.

Lagrein is the Mayrs’ main variety. Their unembellished style shows the characteristics of this inky, thick-skinned, and tannic Alpine variety. The family philosophy holds that the grape’s austere tannins can turn velvety and elegant only with time. Thus, Nusserhof Lagrein is released after two years in French oak botti and at least two additional years in bottle.

“It is very important to us to sell our wines when they are ready to drink,” says Gloria as she opens the rare cuvée of Lagrein, hailing from the 2015 vintage, the current release.

They also work with Südtirol-Alto Adige’s native Vernatsch (aka Schiava) and Teroldego, a red variety more at home in Trentino, due south. The Mayrs are also one of the only growers still farming Blatterle, an obscure white variety that is nearly extinct.

“The grape doesn’t produce a lot of sugar, which is a problem if you sell grapes,” Gloria explains, referring to the common practice of supplying grapes to co-ops. The Nusserhof Blatterle sees two weeks on the skins, but is velvety in texture and only slightly aromatic — a perfect apéro wine.

Back to the Roots

Dominic Würth of GraWü and his wife, Leila Grasseli, have been avant-gardists of the region since they started their winery in 2017. Their new project, “Roots,” stands out from their impressive portfolio.

Dominic, German-born, quality-obsessive, and ever-evolving, is the driving force behind the microwinery’s approach to expressing each vintage and terroir of South Tyrol, as well as Trentino. In his definition, these expressions also include the people they buy grapes from, since they market their wines. The Roots project takes this to another level. Roots is a line that features the best grapes of the season and is thus not produced in all years (e.g., the peronospora-heavy 2023 vintage).

“I leave them for many months on the skins, as I want to extract the etheric sense of the grapes,” he explains. After a long maturation in the cellar, which can go up to three years on some wines, they mature further for another year or two before release.

These wines demonstrate Dominic’s vision, but also the region’s potential. They are made with the cream of the crop, using each grape as a magnifying glass.

Dominic Würth in the vineyards of GraWü
Dominic Würth in the vineyards of GraWü, Photo Credit Aleks Zecevic

Pinot (Noir) Roots hails from GraWü’s own vineyard in the Vinschgau-Val Venosta, locally referred to as “Swallow’s Nest.” Coming from the driest part of South Tyrol, the wine shows great tension between ripeness and acidity, just like a top Pinot should. It is firmly structured, but with perfume that will seduce even the skeptics. It is made for the long haul though, so patience will be rewarded.

The GT Roots is a Gewürztraminer from a site in Tramin. “The Garden of Eden,” as Dominic calls it, is a tiny spot that embraces permaculture, a method designed to treat the field as its own ecosystem. Here the vines live among pear and pomegranate trees, herbs, and the insect life that allows them thrive. He believes this approach encourages self-efficiency, strengthening the immunity of the plants. “This vineyard needs to be treated [against diseases] only two or three times a year because of its incredible balance,” says Dominic. 

A glass of wine in the foreground, with barrels and winemaker in the background.
Wine at GraWü, Photo Credit Aleks Zecevic

Considering the quality of these grapes, Dominic leaves the wine in contact with the skins for seven months in old oak barrels. The result is a corduroy-like texture, which is simultaneously smooth and crunchy. The palate is multilayered and invites a meditative approach. 

“Chardonnay Roots comes from a small vineyard near [Elisabetta] Foradori [in Trentino] where I fell in love with the taste of the grapes,” he explains. The vineyard, planted on post-glacial soils with high clay content, gives this wine broad shoulders and nearly a creamy texture that seduces from the first sip. However, with eight months on skins in acacia barrels, this can be a sleeper unless decanted. This was a one-time project, unfortunately, because Dominic won’t be able to buy the grapes anymore.

Dominic is also working on Riesling Roots. The grapes for this wine come from the 2022 vintage, grown in the granite and gneiss soils of Kastelbell in the Vinschgau, an area becoming known for its crystalline Alpine Rieslings. For this wine, he partners with a grower to get the grapes. It is still maturing in an acacia barrel and will be released in 2025.

“The idea is to go as deep as possible into the single-vineyard interpretation, to make long-lived wines and get the full taste of the grapes,” says Dominic.

To judge by a barrel tasting, I can confidently say he, like the region, is succeeding. 

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