In recent years, the Northern Italian alpine valley of Alto Adige or Südtirol, has captured the attention of American wine drinkers. The area’s unusual historical fabric, interwoven with Austrian food, culture and politics, has culminated in one of Italy’s highest-quality wine industries. Here’s how Romans, monks, and the House of Austria contributed to a modern-day Alto Adige ripe for exploration.
Roman viticulture spanned the European continent; Alto Adige was no exception. Indeed, the oft-cited Pliny the Elder, the original wine critic, recorded notes on the area’s Roman predecessors. The Rhaeti people, who used wooden vessels for their wine, held the fermented drink in “high regard.”
Grape growing continued after the Romans asserted control in 15 BC, only to decline after the Empire collapsed. A period of barbarian invasions and the Dark Ages saw little recorded history or annotations of winemaking. But the cycle of human resolve would lead to an upswing in Alto Adige’s fortunes.
During the Middle Ages, religion revived viticulture. German-speaking regions developed a taste for Alto Adige’s wines; grapes like Müller-Thurgau, Sylvaner, and Riesling reflect early Germanic influence.
Eventually, the region was folded into the House of Habsburg. Austro-Hungarian rule would imprint food, language, and clothing customs upon the region; preferences which persist. Affluent Bolzano, where German is a common tongue and speck the favored salume, feels like a southern extension of Austria. Yet Alto Adige would become Italian, the Kingdom taking control after WWI in 1919, and again after WWII based on the condition the region would remain bilingual.
Today, wine labels reflect this dual identity, using both German and Italian. Food with Italian origin — pizzas and pastas — are served alongside Austrian specialties, from pretzels, sauerkraut, to barley soup, apricot dumplings and strudel.
This melding of cultures is the key to Alto Adige’s unique identity. It also helped the wine industry successfully modernize. Indigenous grapes like Schiava and Lagrein grow alongside international varieties like Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. Quality is high – 98% of wines merit DOC status. Apparently, Pliny the Elder not only recorded the past, but predicted the future.