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"33 wines were tasted, of which only three were enjoyable" was the summary of the first area wine tasting in Vinschgau in 1976. Today, that is definitely a thing of the past. Today you can hardly find a bad wine in South Tyrol's smallest wine-growing region, but rather an above-average level with some outstanding top products.'

The pioneers

Quality wine pioneers in Val Venosta: Thea Tappeiner-Schuster & Oswald Schuster% Photo: Hans Tappeiner
At the beginning of the last century, the Vinschgau vineyard area was still around 200 hectares, almost three times as much as it is now. Because the wine was only used for the self-sufficiency of the thirsty but not very demanding farming families, the quality was modest for a long time. "Diluted with enough water, the sour stuff was good enough for the locals. It could not be sold," says Oswald Schuster, who was the first in Vinschgau to bottle his wine on his command farm in Vetzan near Schlanders. "To bring money into the house, something else was needed. So they came up with fruit, because where the vine grows, the fruit grows even better."

On the other hand, the sites where fruit is planted in Vinschgau are very steep and difficult to cultivate, so that with increasingly cheaper competition from the easier-to-work flat monocultures in the valley, fruit could no longer be sold either. Schuster and his colleague Hubert Pohl from the Köfelgut in Kastellbell drew the conclusion to focus on wine again - but this time on good qualities. That was not so easy at first. What should one plant in the first place? The classic indigenous varieties were robust, but they also produced rather rough, rustic wines that were of little use in terms of quality. There was no experience with other varieties at the high altitudes of Vinschgau. So Oswald Schuster and Hubert Pohl had to try them out. Varieties that prefer a more northern climate were obvious: Riesling, Müller-Thurgau, Kerner and Pinot Blanc for the whites, and Pinot Noir and Zweigelt for the reds. Hubert Pohl also tried Pinot Gris, Oswald Schuster the local grape variety Fraueler. Their patience and tenacity paid off. The wines they now offer are characterised by cleanliness, delicacy, distinctive varietal character and the freshness and minerality typical of Vinschgau.

Interesting prospects

Freshness, minerality and distinctive varietal character with moderate gradation are being appreciated more and more. At the same time, however, climate change is making it increasingly difficult to produce wines with these characteristics in classic growing areas. High-lying areas such as Vinschgau are therefore becoming increasingly interesting. "In the future, we will primarily source the grapes for our Pinot Noir from the Vinschgau Valley," says Stephan Kapfinger, cellar master at the Merano Winery. "Here we have no problem with physiological ripeness and the wines rarely have more than 13% alcohol. In addition, there are hardly any problems with fungal diseases in Vinschgau because of the dry climate and the good ventilation due to the ever-present wind."

Vineyards near Silandro% Photo: Josef Linser

Baron Sigmund von Kripp, who has been managing his vineyards and orchards on the Stachlburg in Partschins organically since 1998, also appreciates this. "This year, due to the unusually frequent precipitation in early summer, we have for the first time had a significant infestation of peronospera. But we don't have many of the problems that we have to deal with down below every year up here." He also relies mainly on Pinot Noir and has already had great success with it in Italy. His 2004 was named Italy's best Pinot Noir at the annual National Pinot Noir Days in South Tyrol.

In red wine, this grape variety is certainly the most interesting in the Vinschgau Valley. In the case of white wines, it is the Riesling. The Vinschgau Valley also owes it the attention of the Italian wine guides, who are happy to give their highest awards to Rieslings from the vineyards around Naturno and Castellbello.

The "stars"

The showcase producers in Vinschgau are currently Martin Aurich (Unterortl Winery) and Franz Pratzner (Falkenstein). They both focus primarily on Riesling. They are stars in inverted commas mainly because - fortunately - they do not feel like such and are able to realistically assess the quality of their products. "Riesling is a niche product here in Italy. Apart from us here in the Vinschgau and Eisack valleys, there are no really interesting growing areas for this grape variety south of the Alps. This naturally brings us a certain amount of attention from Italian wine guides, which we would probably find difficult to achieve in Germany and Austria due to the competition there," says Franz Pratzner. "However, we don't have to hide from the Rieslings north of the Alps either." He is quite right about that. The tastings for the Wein-Plus wine guide also showed that the Rieslings from these two producers have all the characteristics that have made this grape variety the "queen among white wines".

Well-known faces in the Vinschgau wine world: Martin Aurich% Franz Pratzner and Reinhold Messner% Photo: Roland Brunner

Despite their success, Martin Aurich and Franz Pratzner do not act arrogantly towards their fellow vintners. On the contrary: there is a very collegial, friendly relationship among all the winegrowers in Vinschgau. You will hardly find a winemaker in the whole of South Tyrol who talks badly about his colleagues. But in Vinschgau, the relationship between the producers is characterised by a very special cordiality. Almost all grape producers - not just the ten farms that market themselves - are organised in the Vinschgau Winegrowers' Association(www.vinschgauer-weinbau.com). This association, founded in 1981, advises the Vinschgau winegrowers and organises expert conferences as well as the annual Vinschgau regional wine tasting, where one can taste all the growths of the growing area. "And", says Martin Pohl, son of the pioneer Hubert Pohl, "in addition to the serious, technically competent work, there is a lot of laughter and some things are not taken quite so seriously" - such as the awards. This relaxed, uncomplicated atmosphere can be experienced during all visits to the winegrowers here. Whereas elsewhere there is often dogged ambition, which in the end all too often leads to over-ambitious wine caricatures, in Val Venosta one encounters relaxed serenity, as well as curiosity and joy in one's own work.

Rieslingtage Naturns

Once a year - in the first week of November - there is a very ambitious project in the Vinschgau Valley. "What is put together here every year by a few wine enthusiasts, almost entirely on a voluntary basis, is not offered anywhere else. Not in the Rheingau, not on the Mosel, not in the Wachau and not in any other of the famous Riesling growing regions," says Stuart Pigott, Riesling expert and regular guest at the Naturno Riesling Days. More than 100 Rieslings, including the best in the world from all the well-known growing regions (F.X. Pichler, Heymann-Löwenstein, Peter-Jakob Kühn, Zind Humbrecht and many more) as well as exotics from countries like Luxembourg and even the Netherlands can be tasted for only 25 entrance fees.

Naturno Castle% Photo: Josef Linser

And, of course, you can taste the Italian Riesling growths, which bravely face international competition in large numbers, against which they rarely stand a chance in the end. But the organisers of the Riesling Days are not interested in competition, but above all in showing the diversity and uniqueness of this grape variety. That is why there is not only the purely Italian Riesling tasting, but also an extensive supporting programme with a vertical tasting of famous international Rieslings. This year, ten vintages of the Riesling "Cuvee Henriette" from the Frederic Mochel winery in Alsace are on the programme. In addition, a 6-course Riesling gala dinner will be offered (unfortunately always booked out half a year in advance) as well as winery tours of the best Vinschgau Riesling producers. This year the Riesling Days will take place from 1 to 9 November, partly at the same time as the Merano Wine Festival ( www.rieslingtage.com).

High-percentage variety: Vinschgau brandies

The Vinschgau Valley is a paradise for lovers of high-percentage drinks, be it marc or fruit distillates. There is an abundance here and a level of quality that is rarely found elsewhere in this concentration.

Everything% that is suitable is distilled. Offer from Martin Aurich - Winery Unterortl% Photo Andreas Zipperle
Hardly any wine producers refrain from distilling schnapps from their marcs. "There are three reasons for this," says Martin Pohl. "Firstly, we have the best starting material, secondly, we have to bring all our press residues to distillation in a verifiable way. And since there is no major distillery in Vinschgau itself, it used to be simply too inconvenient to drive the pomace long distances to the distillery during the harvest. Thirdly, distilling is just as much a pleasure for us as producing wine, and you can taste this in the results. And because the Vinschgau wine producers, without exception, also grow apples and other fruit, in addition to grappa, everything that grows in Vinschgau is also available as a high-proof drink: apricots, pears, apples, plums, elderberries, quinces, Cornell cherries and sweet chestnuts.

Valuable basics: high-quality food

As everywhere in Italy, wine is enjoyed almost exclusively with food in South Tyrol. In Vinschgau you can find the best right on the spot.

Rudolf Eberhöfer% Hofkäserei Gandhof% Photo Roland Brunner
The climate, which is favourable for viticulture (dry, high temperature fluctuations between day and night as well as summer and winter, and a steady, refreshing wind), is also conducive to the production of high-quality bacon and tasty fruit. Cattle, sheep and goats graze on the mountain pastures in the side valleys, providing the milk for tangy cheese. More and more of it now comes from controlled organic production. Which brings us to the Yeti mentioned in the headline. Of course, there is no Yeti in Val Venosta. But Reinhold Messner, who has probably dealt with the snowman most intensively of all, was very active in Vinschgau in order to (re)revive the local agriculture. In 1983 he acquired a mountain farm on the Juval mountain near Kastellbell (where, by the way, Martin Aurich's Drei-Gläser Riesling is also produced), where his tenants prove that this very ecological form of farming can be operated quite profitably. He was also one of the founders of the Vinschgau farm shop. Here, at the foot of the Juval mountain, you can buy everything that the Vinschgau Valley has to offer in the way of high-quality agricultural products. Much of it in organic quality. And because the project is organised on a cooperative basis, i.e. without intermediaries, the products on offer are available at extremely moderate prices.

Vinschger Bauernladen. Hauptstraße 78, Juval; I-39025 Naturno/Naturns; (0039)-0473-667723.

Vinschgau producers recommended by Wein-Plus and their wines:

Unterortl Winery - Aurich family
Falkenstein - Franz Pratzner
Köfelgut - Martin Pohl
Befehlhof - Oswald Schuster
Merano Winery

Producer addresses for bacon, cheese, fruit (all certified organic)

Hofer family from Partschins, Niedereben. Tel: +39 0473 968208

Psairer mountain cheese dairy Sankt Martin in Passeier; Tel: +39 0473 650139

Gandhof Gand in the Martell ValleyTel: +39 0473 744596

Vinschgau producers

Other useful addresses for a culinary visit to the Vinschgau Valley

Red Rooster. Arranges holidays on the farm/winery and informs about producers with high-quality, typical products.

Merano Country Tourist Board; Gampenstrasse 95, I-39012 Merano/Merano (0039)-0473-200443;

Vinschgau Tourist Board; Kapuzinerstrasse 10, I-39028 Schlanders/Silandro; (0039)-0473-620480; www.vinschgau.suedtirol.com

(Note: for Italian telephone numbers always dial the complete area code with the zero)

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