A view over the vineyards and abbey of Abbazia di Novacella near Bressanone, Italy. ©Kevin Day/Opening a Bottle

Abbazia di Novacella: Legend of the Alps

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

7 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 Wine 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.”

Abbazia di Novacella Wines

Tasting Report: Abbazia di Novacella Wines, June 2019

Read my notes from the tasting I conducted of 16 wines from Abbazia di Novacella with this tasting report from my visit.

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