Honestly, it’s only to benefit you that I travel the world in search of the finest wines. It’s challenging, but I’m willing to continue my quest when I find the sort of results I encountered on a recent trip to Moravia, Austria and Alto Adige, which is northern Italy’s Tyrolean valley.
These regions all share a similar heritage of conquest by ancient Romans who brought serious viticulture as they settled and imposed organized farming practices. During the Middle Ages, wine for purposes both religious and commercial was produced and traded here by monks and by kings. The Hapsburgs, who ruled these areas in various formats from 1278 to 1918, further encouraged this expansion with the kind of extravagant wealth that easily merged the sacred and profane uses of wine.
Grapes and wine are everywhere in the iconography of these regions. Bacchus stands guard, his hair entwined with grape clusters, in Innsbruck’s great cathedral, where Emperor Maximillian, who died in 1578, is entombed and a wall fresco depicts Christ literally being squeezed in a wine press, his blood flowing into a waiting wine jug.
This nexus of empire, religion and wine can also be found in a most dramatic setting about an hour’s drive south of Innsbruck, as the Alpine Brenner Pass opens into a fertile valley. Here, to provide godly hospitality to holy pilgrims, a bishop following St. Augustine (“Lord, make me chaste, but not yet”) founded the Abbazia di Novacella in 1157.
Today, after a rocky history of wars, revolutions and revitalization, the Abbazia is again home to monks and dedicated to hospitality. It offers guests a remarkable museum and library with treasures ranging from frescoed devils to gold-encrusted chalices, a busy tavern and a wide range of strikingly delectable wines from grapes grown on almost-vertical slopes adjacent to the abbey. Its Baroque chapel, with 365 angels on the ceiling, has a two-year waiting list for weddings.
With a secular business to sustain its godly goals, the Abbazia di Novacella distributes its wines worldwide. My favorites included the sprightly Kerner and a rich red Lagrein, both made from grapes common to Alto Adige. Both these varieties are enjoying a renaissance as traditional practices of over-production have been changed to lower yielding, site-sensitive viticulture.
Another hour south of Novacella, on the old wine route, I visited Manincor, a modern winery adjacent to a 1608 Renaissance manor house owned by Count Michael Goëss-Enzenberg, whose ancestor Ignaz was given a royal title by Empress Maria Theresa in 1764, after draining the malarial swamps that made this Adige valley floor uninhabitable until then.
With the same dedication and innovative fervor I saw at Novacella, Goëss-Enzenberg has adapted the spiritual philosophy of biodynamics, articulated first by the Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner in the 1920s. Following the concept of a farm as a whole, interdependent unit relying on humans, animals, plants and microbes to operate together, respecting the cosmic energy that drives the cycle of life, death and renewal, Goëss-Enzenberg has designed his operation with meticulous attention to every interconnected element, saying, “We must be alert, and present, at all times.”
While some scoff at biodynamics as pseudo-scientific wah wah, there is no doubt that the overwhelming beauty of the wildflower-rich vineyard here, the gravitational pull of the towering mountains around it, and the serene array of chicken, sheep, humans and other beasts here casts a spell that translates into spectacular wines. Prime examples? A lush but dry Manincor Pinot Bianco; a delicate but profound pinot noir called “Mason di Mason.”
Manincor’s wines are just now coming to America. And they are worth seeking.
You may already be familiar with wines from my last stop in Alto Adige, Alois Lageder. Like Manincor, Lageder is a family winery with an aristocratic past, also following biodynamic, sustainable practices with an artistic emphasis that makes a visit to Lageder’s “Paradeis” quite divine. From recordings of Bach played slo-mo to calm the wines aging in barrels, to the frescoed Archangel Michael kicking Satan from the heavenly ceiling of Lageder’s medieval tower, to the herb-dusted ricotta in the winery’s restaurant, I found art merged with nature everywhere.
Of the many Alois Lageder wines I sampled, two outstanding and distinctive white wines were the Tenutae Lageder Chardonnay-Pinot Grigio “Beta Delta” blend and the Alois Lageder Moscato Giallo “Vogelmaier.”
Unpredictable weather due to global climate change is testing the biodynamic practices of Alto Adige’s wineries. Still, in this region, as in ours, quality follows respect for the environment, allied with attention to detail. When wines are great, there is always magic.