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In South Tyrol, more and more wineries are planting Piwi grape varieties. Even the large wineries are no longer spared the trend. Roland Brunner reports on the experiences of the winegrowers and the development of the wines.

Thomas Niedermayr calls his wines, which are made exclusively from Piwi varieties, "the wines of the future". The future already began on the Gandberg farm 30 years ago, when his father Rudolf decided to work consistently organically and to do without spraying of any kind by planting Piwi varieties. There has been a lot of progress in organic farming in South Tyrol, especially in the last ten years. In the production of Piwi wines, however, winegrowers are still generally reticent.

Piwi-Pionier Rudolf Niedermayr und sein Sohn ThomasPiwi pioneer Rudolf Niedermayr and his son Thomas

With Werner Morandell (Lieselehof), the St. Quirinus vineyard in Kaltern, Franz Pfeifhofer (Zollweghof) in Lana, Patrick Uccelli (Ansitz Dornach) in Salurn, Othmar Sanin in Margreid, Josef Gamper (Gruberhof) in Algund as well as Willi Gasser (Santerhof) in Pustertal, other colleagues have joined the ranks who consistently - and quite successfully - rely on Piwis. But all in all, resistant varieties are still the exception in South Tyrol. But the organic trend also started small and is now indispensable for many wineries - even those that are not officially certified.

The pioneers of fungus-resistant grape varieties have now established themselves in the premier league with their quality. For Thomas Niedermayr, this is a decisive factor: "For me, it is important that I can offer high-quality wines with my way of working. For me, viticulture means a type of agriculture in which animals and plants other than the vine, as well as humans, also find their habitat. Piwi varieties are the most suitable means for us to achieve these goals."

As for all other varieties, the following applies to him: "The variety must have enough potential, the location must be right - and I as a vintner must manage to use these conditions. This results in great wines, where you don't discuss which varieties they are made from, but whose quality you are thrilled with. Just like with the other high-quality wines."

Using the advantages of Piwi varieties

Alpenschweine auf dem Santerhof - resistent und glücklich (©Brunner).Alpine pigs on the Santerhof - resistant and happy (©Brunner)

Niedermayr is not at all enthusiastic about the approach of seeing Piwi varieties only as a stopgap for sites that are difficult to cultivate or - even worse - in rather unsuitable sites because they tend to be too wet. Anyone who asks him for advice on suitable varieties and their location will receive the answer that in these locations it is better to "plant a meadow and put a cow on it".

The climatic development will also bring changes in the South Tyrolean grape varieties. That is why he and some of his Piwi-affine colleagues, such as Patrick Uccelli from the Dornach winery in Salurn, would like to see more commitment from the official side as well as from the larger wineries. "Who knows if I won't be able to plant Primitivo, Negroamaro or something similar here in 15 years. And I would be pretty stupid if I were to forego the advantages of Piwis in the face of changes in the variety list that are pending anyway. As with all other varieties, the result must be right, i.e. it must be a high-quality, exciting wine. I am convinced that enough Piwi varieties now meet these requirements." In addition, they would "certainly do better justice to the recently adopted sustainability agenda of South Tyrolean viticulture than conventional varieties".

Piwi varieties are also best suited for farms that use the ecological and economic advantages of animal husbandry in the vineyard. "We can almost do without work for foliage and soil cultivation. Our sheep do that. With us, they can do this all year round, as we have almost no copper treatments," explains Johannes Gasser from the Santerhof winery in the Pustertal valley.

Piwi varieties in large wineries

Piwi-Weine mal keck und frech (Kellerei Kurtatsch), mal markant sachlich (Kellerei Meran)South Tyrolean Piwi wines - sometimes creative and cheeky (Kurtatsch Winery), sometimes strikingly matter-of-fact (Merano Winery)

But Piwis now also play a role in South Tyrol's larger wineries. The Merano and Kurtatsch wineries currently offer Piwi wines in their classic lines that can easily keep up with traditional wines in terms of quality. "Otherwise we wouldn't offer them," says Andreas Kofler, chairman of the Kurtatsch winery, who is also chairman of the South Tyrolean Wine Consortium. He sees a future in the resistant varieties "even if the quantities are very small for the time being".

Willy Stürz, winemaker at the Tramin Winery, is also of the opinion that "this path is certainly the right one. If everything works well, it is a huge gain for viticulture". However, sales are part of good functioning. For businesses that market larger quantities, the requirements are different than for small wineries that only serve a niche.

"In sales we have to take into account the wines with which South Tyrol has built its image as a quality region. These are above all Pinot Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc and Traminer among the white wines and Vernatsch, Pinot Noir and Lagrein among the red wines. These will remain the dominant ones in the near future and we have to find ways to produce them in an ecologically sustainable way."

Piwi research in South Tyrol

Which resistant varieties could be interesting for South Tyrol in the future is being investigated at the Laimburg Experimental Centre. The institute currently maintains two experimental vineyards in which the suitability of Piwi varieties under South Tyrolean conditions is being tested. The head of this department is Josef Terleth, who sees good potential for new varieties in South Tyrol because of the "diversity in a small area. For example, in the high altitudes, early-maturing varieties such as Solaris and Muscaris can produce very good results".

The project leaders cannot yet make any recommendations as to which varieties are the most suitable for South Tyrol. For Josef Terleth, it is important that "the taste characteristics of the new varieties are comparable to those of the already known varieties". But Terleth emphasises: "They should not differ too much from the already familiar varieties for the consumer, otherwise they will not be accepted." Whereby he has made the experience, however, that this does not apply to all wine consumers, but is "generation-dependent".

At an event organised by the experimental centre, visitors were blindly offered two wines each from Piwi and conventional varieties for tasting. The test persons only had to indicate how they liked the wines. "The older visitors preferred the varieties they were familiar with, while the younger ones appreciated the Piwi wines just as much. And since there is a lot going on in the 'new wine world' at the moment anyway with Orange, Pet Nats and others, the Piwi wines also have a chance, which differ from the familiar tastes.".

At present, the Laimburg Experimental Centre is not working on breeding and researching special South Tyrolean Piwi varieties, although many producers would like to see this. So far, only varieties bred outside the region are tested in experimental cultivation. Own Piwi varieties would be interesting under the aspect of the strongly pronounced South Tyrolean identity - and they could help to convince even the sceptics among the winegrowers.

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