Article By: Harvey Finkel
ANCIENT WISDOM teaches us that stressed vines make good wine. Our focus today, Abbazia di Novacella, carries this advice about as far as anyone can, short of committing viticide, thereby achieving laudable elegance and longevity in its wines. In fact, vines here live no more than 25 years, so stressful are their living conditions.
The Alto Adige is the most northerly region of Italy, and Abbazia di Novacella cultivates its most northerly vineyards, set high above the Isarco Valley in the Dolomite Alps, not far from the Austrian border.
The vines struggle from 14OO up to 36OO feet of elevation, on slopes as steep as 4O percent. The exposure is usually to the south-/southwest. Soils vary. They include gravelly moraine deposits, granitic, quartz, and porphyry. Microclimates, too, vary – from the cold austerity of high altitude to the blazing summer days in the Adige Valley near Bolzano. Most days are sunny. Day/night temperature swings are wide. Plantings of grape varieties are allotted to their most appropriate sites. I am using Italian names for most places and some wines. Each has a German equivalent that is used at least as much in this bilingual, formerly Austrian (’til 1919), region. Interested readers can glean more information on this beautiful region and its enticing wines from my “Alpine Treats” article in this publication’s May, 2O11 issue.
Abbazia di Novacella was founded by the Augustinians in 1142, and began making wine immediately, to nurture pilgrims and to prevent ullage of monks. Scholarship and education have continued to be important missions. The library is famous. And the wines are dandy. The Abbazia, also center of the local parish, operates a boarding school, an Education and Conference Centre, a Cellar Pub, and a shop selling products of this and other monasteries. The 15OO hectare estate encompasses orchards and gardens, producing apple juice, herbal teas, cosmetics, and liquid spirits.
The Abbazia farms 35 hectares of its own vines, plus it has a cooperative arrangement with numerous growers.
The 13 varieties grown are vinified into 25 distinct wines, some in vanishingly small quantities. The Germanic white grapes (riesling, kerner, sylvaner, müller-thurgau, gewürztraminer, veltliner) are grown in very small plots in the alpine reaches near the abbey. Heat-seeking lagrein is famously planted at Gries, in the Bolzano area. Pinot nero, sauvignon and the astonishing moscato rosa grow on slopes at Markhof di Cornaiano, under intermediate conditions. Most of the vines are Guyot trellised, some still pergola trained.
Two lines of wines are made. Fermentations are conducted by natural yeasts. “Classic Selections” are fermented in stainless steel. The whites are also matured in steel, to maximize fruit and freshness. The reds undergo malolactic fermentation and six months of maturation in oak casks. “Praepositus Selections” spend more complex preparation for their destiny. Winemaker Celestino Lucin and CEO and viticulturist Urban von Klebelsberg, both talented and celebrated, have been on their jobs for many years. Total production averages 66,OOO cases per year.
I became reacquainted with some of the wines of the Abbazia di Novacella at a recent wine dinner at the widely appreciated La Morra Ristorante in Brookline. The four courses were designed by chef/owner Josh Ziskin to set off the wines, all from the Classic line. The stimulating Italian wine program at La Morra is managed by Jennifer Ziskin. Costanza Maag and Becky Vuolo-Paglia, representing the winery, enhanced the proceedings by acting, respectively, as speaker and source of information.
GRÜNER VELTLINER 2O11
Austria’s mainstay grape. Light, aromatic, refreshing. Minerality in finish. Enhanced by food. $19
PINOT NERO 2O11
The Alto Adige is one of the handful of sites in the world to grow quality pinot noir. This is a lovely wine: fragrant of gentle raspberry notes, suave and balanced, long. A hint of saltiness. Though young, already very enjoyable. $23
One of the region’s indigenous varieties. A versatile wine source that should be better known. Good color and saturation. Fragrant, smooth and long. Has depth and future. Hints of black cherry. Perhaps spice to come. $2O
A most successful 1929 cross of riesling with Alto Adige’s own schiava. Named for Justinus Kerner, a Swabian physician/poet who wrote wine-drinking songs. Retains much of riesling’s character. From high-elevation, low-yield vines. Very lean, racy, smelling of white fruit. Icy pure. $2O