South Tyrol's Wine History in Fast Motion

From Rhaetians, Romans and Monasteries to Lagrein, Vernatsch, Riserva and Barriques

November 2015
Fermentation has been taking place in the wine cellars of South Tyrol for more than 2,500 years. As early as the middle Iron Age (sixth to fifth century BC) the Rhaetians began carrying out systematic viticulture here, including the cultivation, training and pruning of vines. In 15 BC the Romans advanced north through the Po Valley, eventually conquering the territory of South Tyrol – and marveling at its blooming vineyards. Prior to their contact with Rhaetian cellar techniques, the Romans knew only about goatskin hoses and clay amphorae. In fact, they learned about the benefits of using wooden barrels to store wine from the Rhaetians. South Tyrol's first winemaking heyday thus arose out of the combination of Raetian and Roman viticulture techniques: importation of new grape varieties, expansion of the vineyard areas and the relative durability of wines.

After the great migrations of the sixth and seventh centuries AD ended, many monasteries in southern Germany were thirsty. They had a great thirst for wine. In the Bible, wine is mentioned more than 500 times. So the monasteries built and supported more than three dozen wine farms between Salurn and Meran, and between Bozen and Brixen: these vineyards were to meet the strong demand for communion wine. But this South Tyrolean wine would have a long, long journey to make before reaching the Bavarian monasteries: the wine was syphoned off and collected at numerous customs posts and holding stations. It must be adulterated and somehow replenished. At the end of the route, the winemaker friar must work miracles in order to make the wine drinkable. The wise friar wrote down these miracles and fining methods. This was the first guide to winemaking. Now people knew how to improve wine and make it storable. This would be South Tyrol's second wine revolution.

The third was thanks to Edmund Mach (1846–1901), the legendary first director of the San Michele Agricultural Research Institute. Mach initiated a renaissance in Tyrolean viticulture based on the idea that the Tyrolean should not be stuck with indigenous grape varieties such as Lagrein, Vernatsch, Traminer, Teroldego and Marzemino. Mach suggested the introduction of new varieties from France, and developed new methods in both vineyard and cellar; he also supported the small-scale farmers who supplied the traders, by establishing cooperative wineries. It is to Edmund Mach's credit that South Tyrol ranks among the world's most interesting and diverse small wine-producing regions today.

South Tyrol comprises less than one percent of Italy's entire winemaking area; however, it accounts for four times that amount as regards Italy’s wine awards (Tre bicchieri, suns, toques, Vinitaly gold medals, etc.), if one takes the small area into consideration. This means that South Tyrol is undeniably as successful as Piedmont or Tuscany when it comes to quality viticulture. No other winemaking province in Italy, in fact, can boast as many wines with a Designation of Origin (DOC) label. And no other wine region in the world grows as many different varieties on such a small area under cultivation. South Tyrol’s widely varying soil conditions are part and parcel to its multifaceted harmonization of grape varieties and sites. Its Alpine climate (1,800 hours of sunshine a year; 17.8 °C average temperature recorded during the growing season), too, creates optimal conditions for the cultivation of international wines.