The river Adige emerges in the Italian Alps, almost at the Austrian border, and cuts a broad furrow through the northern Italian landscape. It descends through the cities of Bolzano, Trento, and then Verona, before turning its course and running out to the Adriatic Sea. The weight of history moves through this slow, powerful body, countered only in weight by the rough-hewn mountains that guard its banks.
‘Vast’ is the key word, as we follow the river, climbing up through the Trentino region towards the slopes of Val di Cembra. The sky is boundless and bright; the verdant-scrubbed Alps and Dolomites ring softly of sparrows and warblers. Picking our way Northward we feel exhilarated yet humbled by the expanses of land and sky.
At 700 meters above sea level, Cembra is the highest winery in the Trentino mountains, earning its title Cantina di Montagna (Mountain Cellar), with vines even higher. Cembra started as a cooperative in 1952 when a group of locals, all with small plots under vine, began to pool their efforts. Now 400 strong, this band of growers cultivate gravity-defying sites on the craggy slopes. An innate knowledge of the land, climate, and the challenges therein is essential to produce fruit of such consistently-high quality.
“These slopes can’t be tamed,” enologist Stefano tells us, gesturing out to the patchwork of vineyards, “Here we must work alongside nature.”
We arrive at Cembra mid-September, and the harvest is in full swing. With many small sites at different stages, workers are constantly on the move to help pick a particular vineyard when its time is just right. In one terraced vineyard, full bunches of early-ripening Müller-Thurgau are slung low under pergolas, shaded from the piercing mountain sun.
Naturally, the slopes mean mechanical harvest is impossible, but a quick harvest is vital to retain Müller-Thurgau’s racy acidity in this warm weather. For the pickers, this means many pairs of hands, plenty of full baskets, and a song or two to carry them through until dusk.
“There is particular climate and terroir here,” Stefano says, “The higher Alps provide protection from heavier rains, and the valleys channel warm air in the day and cooler air in the night.”
Community contribution is one way to understand how Cembra has continued to grow over the last 60 years. These are a people used to the sparse nature of their environment, little villages tucked into mountain pockets with their neighbors sometimes many miles away. The family wineries in the cooperative function with the underlying value of coming together, striving for common goals, retaining history and building a legacy for the children who are here today lending a hand to this community spirit. These are a people who have dedicated their lives to the crop, and this hard-to-reach landscape.
Stefano leads us to the airy, spacious cellar, where a crusher-destemmer glugs away, mulching the freshly picked Müller-Thurgau and running the juice down to stainless steel vats. Here it will spend more than six months resting on the lees for texture and flavor. Single varietal wines are important for Cembra, who through the grapes want to represent the extraordinary region, from its altitude with its glinting red-gold soil, to its tradition and timelessness.
And it’s not just the talk of a winemaker fanatic, we taste the region in every glass…
The Sauvignon is all nettles and grapefruit, rich from a little lees contact, and at peak aromatic heights coaxed out by the excellent mountain diurnals.
The Schiava, a light red expressing red summer berries and pink bubblegum, is opulent and elegant-- thanks to the hand-pruned vines and steel fermentation.
The Pinot Nero, its fine tannins developed by 7 months in Burgundian barriques, offering sublime raspberry and red berry tones- perfectly ripe, a testament to the careful vine-training and measured aging.
Our Müller-Thurgau has a bouquet of every bloom of the Trentino meadow- rose petals, sage, rhododendrons, and apple blossom, closing with a dash of Alpine spruce.
We make our way to a treat-laden table under a covered veranda right in the vineyards. The workers break bread after their busy day as a family, across a communal table. Their pride, Cembra’s high-acid wines, cleanly cut the softly springy Alpine cheeses, and richer cured meats. It’s that heavenly pairing that calls for another bite, another sip, ad infinitum!
Though Stefano is the head winemaker, there is a calm democratic equality between the cooperative members. Everyone’s contribution is valuable-- whether you’ve hand-harvested all day under 100 degrees of bright sun, or you’re here to bring great stories to the dinner table.
“We are all here to put in our best efforts to make the wine the finest expression it can be.”
Terroir, effort, faith, and a cooperative in the truest sense of the word: a trip to Cembra is another world that reveals a new beauty every time you look at it.
As we pick our way slowly down the mountain, back down to earth, we are entranced as the once austere-grey Dolomites in the distance blush rose pink at sundown.