Like other regions in northern and central Italy, South Tyrol developed into a cultivation area for mass wine in the years after the Second World War. At its peak, almost the entire area under cultivation in the region was planted with Vernatsch. The sales crisis at the beginning of the 1980s put an abrupt end to this trend. With an unprecedented quality offensive, South Tyrolean winegrowers succeeded in converting their viticulture within a very short time and transforming the Dolomite region into a showcase wine region.
Today, around 20 different grape varieties grow in the South Tyrolean vineyards. The former leading variety Vernatsch rapidly lost popularity among winemakers and wine drinkers. Andrea Moser, cellar master at the Kaltern winery, explains why: "40 years ago, Vernatsch was planted practically everywhere, even where the conditions were completely unsuitable, for example in locations that were too high or on soils that were too heavy. The wines were correspondingly thin and lacking in character. Much was sold as open wine or in litre bottles. When a new generation of winemakers took the helm, they relied on other grape varieties to polish up South Tyrol's image."
Vernatsch was thus increasingly replaced by white grape varieties: Pinot Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc in the high vineyards, and Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio and Gewürztraminer in the lower vineyards. Over the years, the share of Vernatsch has shrunk from 90 percent to ten percent of the 5,300 hectares of South Tyrolean vineyards.
The cooperative members of the Kaltern Winery have also cleared many Vernatsch vines in recent years. But in the meantime the area has stabilised at 80 hectares.
"The quantity and quality of the grapes today are exactly what we need as a winery to produce top-level Kalterersee wines," Andrea Moser tells us.
The time of trivial wines is long gone for Vernatsch. Today it is only grown in particularly suitable locations. And under these conditions, it produces finesse-rich wines that are wonderful to drink and simply fun in the glass. The best-known wines made from Vernatsch are Kalterersee, which is named after the lake on whose shores it grows, as well as St. Magdalener from Bolzano and Merano.
From Kalterersee, the Kaltern winery produces three different lines: Klassik, Selektion and Quintessenz. In all of them, Andrea Moser, the cellar master in charge, focuses on elegance, freshness and drinkability. In the Klassik line, the focus is also on varietal fruit and drinking pleasure. The wines of the Selektion line from old vines are more expressive, more complex and show unmistakable character of origin. The top quality wines are the Quintessenz wines, which are made from the highest quality grapes from the best vineyards, most of which are farmed organically.
In the vineyards around the Kalterersee, the Vernatsch finds optimal conditions. The water masses of the lake act like an air conditioning system that protects the vines from weather extremes. Andrea Moser explains what distinguishes the Kalterersee from the wines of the other Vernatsch growing areas in South Tyrol: "The wines are particularly fine and filigree, they are more delicate and fragrant than, for example, the St. Magdalener, which produce stronger, more structured wines due to different conditions."
Since the 2014 vintage, Kellerei Kaltern has also been releasing a special limited edition. In this difficult year, marked by rain and cherry vinegar fly, a perfectly ripe and healthy batch of Pinot Blanc grapes was harvested, the quality of which surpassed everything else that came into the cellar - a real feat of nature.
The grapes were vinified individually and bottled in magnum bottles under the label "kunst.stück". Since then, there has been a new edition of the kunst.stück every year that nature allows - in each case from the batch of grapes that inspires the cellar master the most.
Even today, Vernatsch is still perceived by most wine lovers as a simple accompaniment to "Törggelen", the traditional South Tyrolean vesper with bacon and Schüttelbrot. That Vernatsch offers much more is impressively demonstrated time and again by the Kaltern winery with its finesse-rich Kalterersee wines. This is what happened recently at the Casa Maria Luigia restaurant of the world-famous three-star chef Massimo Bottura near Modena, to which the winery had invited guests.
"We want to detach Kalterersee from typical South Tyrolean cuisine and show that it also goes wonderfully with other dishes outside the region. Massimo Bottura has developed a wonderful menu with nine courses, to which we have combined nine different Kalterersee wines. And I must confess that the perfect harmony of wine and food exceeded even my expectations. Whether with vegetarian courses or with fish, the wines have impressively demonstrated their richness of facets and their suitability for fine cuisine. This is exactly what we want to convey, because both in Italy and abroad, Kalterersee still has that outdated, dusty image of the unpretentious vesper wine for most people."
The Kaltern Winery is a winegrowers' cooperative and is one of the most important wineries in South Tyrol. With its Kalterersee vineyards, it is one of the top addresses for top-quality Vernatsch wines. It processes grapes from 450 hectares of vineyards, with most of its 650 members cultivating a vineyard area of less than one hectare. The cooperative preserves this small-scale, family-based winegrowing structure and guarantees its members economic security through the high quality of its wines.
A visit to the wine village of Kaltern is always something special. No matter whether it is for hiking, wine tasting or a leisurely Törggelen: With its hospitality, quality and authenticity, the village on the lake has become a showcase for wine culture interpreted in a contemporary way.