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Abbazia di Novacella: Legend of the Alps

Italy’s Second Oldest Winery is Far From a Stodgy Place

12 min read

One could argue that Abbazia di Novacella is among the prettiest wineries on Earth. I might list some other contenders for the title, but I would certainly not fault anyone who went all-in on the Südtirolean abbey. It is a stunning place, defined by pristine grounds, a wild mashup of architectural styles spanning centuries, and an amphitheater of terraced vineyards to embrace the whole scene in a lovely corduroy of green. Italy’s most dramatic peaks, the Dolomites, are within yodeling distance.

At the heart of the sprawling complex lies a 16th century marble font, which in 1669 was crowned by an eight-sided stone gazebo depicting the Seven Wonders of the World on each panel. And on the eighth panel? A painting of Abbazia di Novacella.

“I know. Such modesty,” the abbey’s Italian Sales Director, Elias Holzer, said with a laugh as he gave me a tour.

We were headed to the abbey’s cantina for a well-deserved tasting. Over the previous hour in the hot sun, we had circumnavigated the sprawling complex, taking in the impressive Rococo church, the cloister for Augustinian canons, the conference center, the 75,000-volume library, the school and dormitory for children, the immaculate garden, and — of course — the vineyards and winery. Abbazia di Novacella may not be in the same league as the Pyramids of Giza, but its scale and immaculate condition (given its 877 years of age) make it a prime attraction for tourists, pilgrims and wine enthusiasts.

In fact, its very purpose from the start was to draw people in.

At the Crossroads of Europe

A mere 45 minutes north of the winery lies the Brenner Pass, a crucial traverse of the Alps. For millennia, it’s low elevation and comparatively temperate weather has provided a path-of-least-resistance to connect Germanic Europe with Italy. During the Holy Roman Empire, the Via Imperii crossed Brenner Pass, allowing armies, merchants and pilgrims to cross the imposing mountain range. By the 10th century, the settlement of Prihsna, later known as Brixen, emerged and became a stronghold for the Catholic church.

It was the pilgrims from the north — who were making their way to Rome — that interested the bishop of Brixen the most. In 1142, Bishop Hartmann consecrated the monastery church of Novacella just north of the city. From the very beginning, it was run by the Augustinian Canons.

“Other orders, their abbeys are placed in isolation,” Holzer pointed out to me. “But the Augustinians placed their abbeys along routes so that they could minister to the people as they passed through.”

By the entrance to the complex lies the Engelsburg, a spectacular Romanesque structure fashioned after the Vatican’s Castel Sant’Angelo. It once served as a hostel for pilgrims — a quasi-taste of Roman grandeur some 425 miles shy of the Vatican.

At the close of World War I and with the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the region of Südtirol — including Brixen and the Novacella Abbey — was annexed by Italy, becoming known as Alto Adige. Under Mussolini, a program of Italianization attempted to suppress the Germanic identity of the Tirolean people. Germanic names were converted into Italian names (e.g. Brixen became Bressanone). After World War II, Südtirol/Alto Adige was granted autonomy under the Italian government, and German-language education was once again allowed.

This history explains why the wine labels from the abbey carry two names: Abbazia di Novacella and Stiftskellerei Neustift. The Italian name refers to the abbey, the Germanic name refers to the winery. Together, the names underscore the unique historical identity of Südtirol, where it seems every sign has one foot in Italy, one in Austria. (I defer to the abbey name, as many in the wine trade do as well).

It also explains why the wines from the abbey are so Austrian. The only indigenous varieties in the lineup (a hallmark of Italian wine) are the Lagrein and Schiava which hail from 25 miles to the south, down the valley in Bözen/Bolzano, which is often the hottest place in Italy during the summer. In the high-altitude, close-to-Austria Valle Isarco — where the abbey is located — its the white grapes that thrive.

Among the Vines

The spectacularly steep vineyard of Abbazia di Novacella. ©Kevin Day/Opening a Bottle

The spectacularly steep vineyard of Abbazia di Novacella. ©Kevin Day/Opening a Bottle

Across the courtyard from the Engelsburg and the cantina lies a gated portal to the vines. When I stepped through it the first time, I was astounded by the view. The vineyards climbed the hills, and the red and white rose bushes at the end of each vine row were blooming like a riot.

But it was the landscape above the vineyards — idyllic forests and meadows seemingly cut-and-pasted from The Sound of Music — that grounded the scene. Make no mistake: I was in the Alps.

Following the dirt track and rounding the bend by the garden, the terraced vineyard emerged. Among wine lovers, this coliseum of vines has become the icon of the abbey. The long, coarse walls are impressively made, but they are hardly unique. Dry-stone terracing has been an essential aspect of viticulture in the Alps for thousands of years, especially at higher elevations. The stone walls simultaneously stabilize the slope and reflect the heat of the day. In some cases, without this last aspect, ripening would not occur.

Terraced vineyards of Pinot Grigio, Sylvaner and Kerner surround the abbey complex. ©Kevin Day/Opening a Bottle

Terraced vineyards of Pinot Grigio, Sylvaner and Kerner surround the abbey complex. ©Kevin Day/Opening a Bottle

“If it is raining a lot, we have to replace the stones,” Holzer told me later, when we returned to the vineyard. “We have to renovate the walls constantly.” The upkeep of these mortar-less terraces falls to an external team of stone masons who specialize in the work. (Given this added expense, it is incredible that Abbazia di Novacella’s priciest still wines are only $30).

The soils are poor in nutrients, but as Holzer pointed out, they have a singular advantage of heating up quickly in the morning. In the Valle Isarco, the summer and autumn night’s get cold enough to make every minute of sunlight count.

“The wines of the area have a typical fresh acidity because of the warm days, cool nights,” Holzer said, as he summarized the valley’s terroir. “They also have a typical ‘salty’ finish, especially on this one side [of the valley] where we have gravelly, moreno [moraine] deposits formed by glaciers thousands of years ago. And then we pick very late, so the grapes have a long time to pick out the [saltiness] of the soils.”

I noticed this mouth-watering attribute on two of the abbey’s wines: the Praepositus Grüner Veltliner and the Praepositus Riesling, both of which are featured below.

Italian Wines By Flag Only

Region-wide, Alto Adige’s wine industry has transformed completely in the last 40 years. The expansion of white grape varieties has tipped the scales from a Schiava-heavy market to one defined by crisp, aromatic white wines. At times, these wines are more in line with their Austrian neighbors to the north in terms of style, and this is especially the case at Abbazia di Novacella.

One might assume that a monastery would fall victim to its history — that the crutch of tradition would prevent the wines from advancing forward. Nothing could be further from the truth at Abbazia di Novacella. The abbey’s enologist, Celestino Lucin, is one of the area’s most influential, and in 2009, he was awarded the Winemaker of the Year distinction by Italy’s top culinary publication, Gambero Rosso. His emphasis on planting what is most appropriate for the unique terroir of the Valle Isarco is a follow-through from his predecessors, who through the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s experimented with an obscure grape variety called Kerner.

A cross between Riesling and Schiava, the grape was developed in 1929. It was originally intended to produce Riesling-like wines with Schiava-like yields. Perhaps it was never intended to be a serious wine, because it was named after Justinus Kerner, a poet known for drinking songs. Volume was the objective, and by that measure, Kerner was a success in Germany. It just wasn’t making very good wine.

But as they found out at Abbazia di Novacella, it was a different story in the Valle Isarco, where Kerner’s yields were naturally limited by the growing conditions. Despite the esoteric nature of the grape, Kerner has become the winery’s most important wine.

“Kerner is our door opener,” Holzer said. “Very often, it is our first wine in a new market.” Combining Riesling’s aromatic punch with the freshness and ease of a high-quality Pinot Grigio, the Abbazia di Novacella Kerner has become a darling for wine merchants in America, especially in Colorado, where I live. (I rarely pass through a wine shop without seeing it on the shelves, and an earlier write-up of the wine remains one of the most popular pages on Opening a Bottle).

Other white wines in Abbazia di Novacella portfolio include Sauvignon, Riesling, Pinot Grigio, Müller Thurgau, Sylvaner and Grüner Veltliner. Each one is carefully planted in the exact-right zone of the valley to achieve ripeness. (For instance, the Müller Thurgau prefers the highest elevations.)

“Almost all of our white wines are aged and fermented in 100 percent stainless-steel tanks,” Holzer told me. “We have a lot of aromatic varieties, so it doesn’t make sense to use a lot of wooden casks. We don’t want to cover the fruitiness, the freshness of the wine.”

Tasting Impressions

Abbazia di Novacella boasts only two product lines: the entry-level “classic” wines, and then a more choice selection of grapes for each varietal called Praepositus, which is dedicated to the Abbot, the head of the monastery. Only one wine is blended (the St. Magdelener), and every wine has a Praepositus version with the exception of the Schiava.

Because there are only subtle aromatic and textural differences between these two lines, I’ve combined my tasting impressions for each varietal together.

Abbazia di Novacella Müller Thurgau

Another interesting cross that thrives in Alto Adige is Müller Thurgau (a cross between Riesling and Madeleine Royale). In terms of potential, the grape has its limits, in my opinion, but Abbazia di Novacella seems to do a good job reaching for them with its entry-level 2017 Müller Thurgau (★★★★ 1/4) and the 2017 Praepositus Müller Thurgau (★★★★ 1/2). This is due in part to the high-elevation of their vineyards, which helps to preserve the acidity needed to keep the wine from getting flabby. While the entry-level wine is more up-front and aromatic to start, the Praepositus is more detailed and intriguing. Both are defined by tones reminiscent of pineapple, peach and white flowers.

Abbazia di Novacella Sylvaner

For their Sylvaner, Abbazia di Novacella once again seeks inspiration from the north, as this grape variety is most closely associated with Alsace and Germany. “This is our answer to Pinot Bianco,” claims Holzer, and the comparison is not far off. Sylvaner tends to be fairly neutral, and it needs very meticulous care to shine. The 2017 Sylvaner (★★★★) is fresh, lean and bright, but subdued on the nose. The 2017 Praepositus Sylvaner (★★★★ 1/4) shines a little more with a bit of herbaceous mint livening up the nose. Because of Sylvaner’s neutral nature, Abbazia di Novacella uses acacia casks for aging roughly 30% percent of the Praepositus version.

Abbazia di Novacella Pinot Grigio

If Sylvaner is their answer to Pinot Bianco, than the Pinot Grigio is their answer to the world’s Pinot Grigio haters. Mass-produced Pinot Grigio from Northern Italy is a popular punching bag, and rightly so. If wines like Abbazia di Novacella’s 2018 Pinot Grigio (★★★★ 1/2) — which is fresh, floral and delicious — restore my faith in Italian PG, wines like their 2018 Praepositus Pinot Grigio (★★★★ 3/4) make me believe that Pinot Grigio can be among Italy’s best white wines. The Praepositus is allowed to mature in oak, which imparts depth and a textural roundness that adds some excitement. Decked in aromas reminiscent of green apples, butter and toasted almonds, the wine is a standout.

Abbazia di Novacella Grüner Veltliner

Until this point in the tasting, I was beginning to think that for all the precision in Abbazia di Novacella’s wines, the one thing missing was personality. That changed with the Grüners. God, I love these two Grüners. The 2017 Grüner Veltliner (★★★★ 1/2) has a compelling framework on the palate: it just works perfectly, with a delicate aroma of rose that reveals itself somewhat coyly from underneath a swath of green apples and peaches. The 2017 Praepositus Grüner Veltliner (★★★★★) is the winery’s best wine. There is so much going on with it. Aromas recall green apples and peaches again, but also tea, honey, hay and pepper. It’s a comfort wine; the kind you’d drink even if you had a sore throat and should know better. On the finish, it lingers with traces of pepper and a saltiness that goads you into another sip.

Abbazia di Novacella Kerner

The abbey’s most famous wine comes from its most obscure grape. But the Kerner, as noted above, is their gateway wine, and what the 2018 Kerner (★★★★ 1/2) does well is showcase the winery’s deft touch with white wines. It’s edges are rounded off, the acidity is bright and has energy, and the finish is clean as can be. The 2018 Praepositus Kerner (★★★★ 3/4) is even more compelling: “it dances,” I wrote in my notes, clearly struggling for words to accurately describe its focused complexity. Aromas recalled lemon verbena, peach, kiwi, herbs, honey and dried grass. A close second to the Praepositus Grüner Veltliner.

The 2017 Praepositus Riesling is a fruity, full and racy Riesling defined by peach- and hay-like aromas. ©Kevin Day/Opening a Bottle

The 2017 Praepositus Riesling is a fruity, full and racy Riesling defined by peach- and hay-like aromas. ©Kevin Day/Opening a Bottle

Abbazia di Novacella Riesling

The last of the white wines I sampled was the 2017 Praepositus Riesling (★★★★ 1/2). This is a very market-friendly, crowd-pleasing Riesling with none of the “petroleum” notes that, for some, mar their impression of this grape. It is also vinified dry even though 10% of the grapes were harvested late. This fact seems to express itself in the bouquet, which is decidedly sweet and invigorating (i.e. rather than apples, it conjured notes of apple sauce). A dash of lemon, a pinch of honeycomb and a swath of brittle hay added some subtle intrigue to the wine’s tones.

Abbazia di Novacella St. Magdelener

On to the reds. While Alto Adige’s whites are increasingly international in style and substance, the reds share tones from other alpine wines, particularly Switzerland and Valle d’Aosta. St. Magdelener (aka Santa Maddalena) refers to the light but structured wines hailing from the spectacular hill above Bolzano. Comprised mostly of Schiava (90%) with a dash of Lagrein (10%), Abbazia di Novacella’s 2017 St. Magdelener (★★★★ 1/2) is a classic chill-in-summer red wine that pairs beautifully with aged cheeses. Tart cherries and bitter blackberries define its profile on the nose, while the miniscule amounts of tannin on the palate allow the acidity to cut and rinse any food you might be noshing on. I prefer St. Magdelener to straight Schiava, and the abbey’s is a shining example.

Abbazia di Novacella Pinot Nero

Pinot Nero (yep, the same thing as Pinot Noir) has had a presence in Alto Adige since the mid-1800s. It thrives lower in the valley in an area called Bassa Atesina where the vines stay in the shade for much of the morning due to the imposing cliffs that line the valley. Abbazia di Novacella has had a stake in the Pinot Nero game for a while, and the 2018 Pinot Nero (★★★★ 1/4) is fresh, fruity and simple; another summer sipper. If you are more accustom to American-style Pinot Noir, you’re more likely to enjoy the rich and spicy 2015 Praepositus Pinot Nero (★★★★ 3/4). Defined by aromas of black raspberries, cherries, cinnamon stick and peppercorn, the Praepositus picks up its spicy character from a small inclusion of stems in the pressing of the juice. It is aged 18 months in a mixture of tonneaux and barrique, with 10 months in bottle.

Abbazia di Novacella Lagrein

Lastly, I sampled Abbazia di Novacella’s Lagrein. This ancient grape is the offspring of Trentino’s Teroldego, and it registers some of the highest counts of anthocyanin of all Italian red grapes. It’s dark color makes it a brooding wine, and the 2018 Lagrein (★★★★ 1/2) from Abbazia di Novacella is a great introduction. It’s kirsch-like fruit tones are cut by an edge of slate. Even more precise and balanced is the 2015 Praepositus Lagrein (★★★★ 3/4) which is simultaneously delicious and fresh, yet ready to be unpacked if you are on a quest for tasting notes. Recollections of black raspberries, black cherries, plums, rose and licorice all came to the fore on the nose. A superb ending to a comprehensive and intriguing tasting.


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