Great White Wines from a Near-Alpine Augustinian Abbey

In any short list of Europe’s amazing places, the Abbazia di Novacella – aka Stiftskellerei Neustift – should hold a prominent mention. The abbey is historic: It was founded in the 12th century by a monastic order with a rule traceable back to St. Augustine. It’s also beautiful: Though many times sacked and occupied, even bombed in WWII, it has been lovingly restored to the peak of splendor it achieved in the mid-18th century.

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library

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And it’s still alive, still a working monastery, performing all the pastoral tasks expected of such venerable establishments.

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church

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Most amazing of all, I think, is that it largely supports itself by agriculture – including the making of some of the loveliest white wines in Italy, from some of the northernmost vineyards in the country.

Located in the most northern reaches of Alto Adige, the Abbazia di Novacella sits far up the valley of the Isarco river, near its headwaters at the foot of the Austrian Alps. Eventually the Isarco flows down past Bolzano, where it joins the Adige, which in turn flows down past Verona, turns east, and enters the Adriatic just south of the gulf of Venice.

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At its start, up there under the shadow of the Alps, what is now called Alto Adige was for centuries the South Tyrol, and its language is still largely German. So too are the grape varieties that are cultivated on those high, sunny slopes – Kerner, Sylvaner, Veltliner, and Gewurztraminer. The last grape, despite its strong associations with Germany and Alsace, actually takes its name from the Alto Adige village where it probably originated: Terlano in Italian, Tramin in German. So production of distinguished wine has a long tradition in this region, and all the evidence points to the Abbazia’s equally long involvement with it.

At the present day, the Abbazia achieves its greatest successes with grapes that don’t fare so well in other places. Sylvaner, an originally Austrian vine which in Alsace and Germany usually makes a fairly straightforward, ordinary wine, here yields a much more nuanced juice with nice hints of complexity and much more evident structure. Kerner, the Abbazia’s other most important variety, originated in Germany in 1929 as a deliberate cross between Schiava grossa and Riesling. Nowadays, it is the fifth most widely planted white variety in Germany, where – as far as I can tell – it is used mostly in blending. The Abbazia makes a varietal wine of it, and its top-of-the-line bottling regularly takes the highest awards from Gambero Rosso.

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Last week I tasted four of Abbazia di Novacella’s newest releases: the 2012 editions of Sylvaner, Syvaner Praepositus, Kerner, and Kerner Praepositus..

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I’ll cut to the chase: All four were fine, and the two Praepositus wines – selections of the best grapes from the best vineyards – were fabulous. And especially fabulous for their value: The suggested retail price for the basic whites (take that “basic” with a large grain of salt) is $20, for the two Praeposituses (Praepositi?) $28.

I am not alone in thinking the Kerner Praepositus one of Italy’s greatest white wines, and the 2011 Sylvaner Praepositus won Tre Bicchieri, so we are here talking about wines of the highest quality being offered at the price of some fancy-label plonks. The wines are imported by Skurnik, so at least here on the east coast they should be pretty readily available. Need I say more?

In case I do, here is a brief rundown on the four wines I tasted:

?????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????2012 Sylvaner: Forest floor (what Italians call sottobosco) aromas, plus flowers. Diane suggested also mirabelles, those delectable yellow plums so loved in Alsace. Nutty and floral palate. Excellent acidity, though still round in the mouth. Long-finishing. Very fine.

2012 Sylvaner Praepositus: Sottobosco again, and floral scents so strong as to seem almost overblown. On the palate, all the flavors noted above, with sapid minerality. Refined, elegant, round; very long-finishing. Medium body and lovely.

?????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????2012 Kerner: Floral, woodsy aromas, with a little diesel oil smell (that Riesling ancestry, I guess). Medium-to-full body, with wonderful acid/fruit balance and almost chewy sottobosco flavors. Lovely.

2012 Kerner Praepositus: Spicy nose, suggesting woodruff. On the palate, everything the basic wine showed but raised a notch or two, into an utterly smooth and elegant package. Just gorgeous.

The Praepositus wines, it should be noted, will take a bit of bottle age and probably be the better for it. Certainly they lose nothing at five years old. These are wonderful wines that deserve to be better known, and I say that while ruing the fact that, once they are, the prices will probably rise. When journalism duty’s to be done, a writer’s lot is not a happy one.

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4 Responses to “Great White Wines from a Near-Alpine Augustinian Abbey”

  1. Paolo Tenti (@PaulTenti) Says:

    Great article Tom! We are big fans of Abbazia di Novacella at casa O’Keefe-Tenti. We particularly love the Kerner Praepositus as it marries perfectly with one of our favorite dishes, risotto agli asparagi. I also agree with Ed, when we go to Alto Adige we never see many Americans, and that’s too bad as there is so much to see and taste.

  2. Ed McCarthy Says:

    Tom, You know I am a big fan of Abbazia di Novicella, the place and the wines. A visit to its medieval library is alone worth the trip. And I love its Kerner wines.I know most Americans do the usual trio (Rome, Florence, and Venice) when coming to Italy. But they are missing out by not visiting Alto Adige and particularly the monastery of Novicella. I know many of us Italian wine lovers have discovered it, along with Austrian and German tourists. For me, its one of the “don’t miss” places in Italy, if not the world, along with the Amalfi Coast.

  3. Pat Thomson Says:

    Tom, I’m so glad you spotlighted one of my favorite Alto Adige wineries. I remember when I first discovered Abbazia di Novacella, while researching on article on Italian Pinot Grigio.

    Not a fan of the grape, I was determined to find a good one and had assembled a line-up of contenders that were either critical darlings, top scorers, or had come recommended by a trusted source. That’s how I arrived at my first bottle from Abbazia di Novacella, suggested by Prospect Wines, my local shop. Their Pinot Grigio knocked it out of the park, comparatively speaking, and I’ve since seen that their other wines are consistently among the best that A.A. has to offer…and that’s saying a lot; the region sets the bar high for whites with enormous fragrance & minerality.

    Someday I’ll drive up that long valley and pay a visit.

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