All roads lead to Bolzano-- the low, sprawling city hugs the valley floor, surrounded on all sides by mountains. The only sizable settlement in the Y-shaped glacial valley in this most Northern part of Italy, the walled center hums with passing trade, business, gossip, ebbing and flowing with its unique internal rhythm.
We are in Alto Adige, or Sudtirol. Although part of Italy since 1919, the region retains a great degree of autonomy and as such its inhabitants, not coincidentally, are a proud and independent people. Visit any local bar, we’re told, and there will be a patron willing to spin you a battle-yarn of the Austro-Hungarian Kaiserjäger and the Italian Alpini fiercely fighting high up in the Alps and Dolomites.
Wine has long been a key economic engine here, and the surrounding mountains are perpetual monuments, adorned with rows upon rows of steeply sloping vineyards.
We take a small road, tracking northeasterly up to the St. Magdalener zone that rises out of the city to find Weingut Obermoser and the Rottensteiner family. From our viewpoint at the rustic, fresco-painted St. Magdalener church, dating back to 1295, we watch the city turn with a wild breeze in our hair. Obermoser nestles neatly into its plot on the hillside, half-hidden, somewhat sheltered and seemingly unaffected by the bustling city below.
Thomas Rottensteiner, and his father Heinrich, greet us at the entrance to the winery. A fifth generation Rottensteiner, Thomas is the current winemaker. In 1890, the family started growing grapes and, through dedication and mindful expansion, became the small estate they are today- growing, processing, and bottling around 35,000 bottles of wine a year. While Alto Adige is best known for its take on Pinot Grigio, the Obermoser cantina made a decision to buck the trend and double down on lesser grown varieties. Measured cultivation and vinification, and many experiments on the way have allowed the Rottensteiners to whittle down to three grapes: famous Sauvignon, and the lesser know Lagrein and Schiava.
“In particular, the past thirty years have been a long trial and error process for us,” says Thomas, “My father and I wanted to focus on just these three varieties, and working out how to produce the best representations of them.”
Thomas is keen to take us right to the plentiful green vineyards. It is a beautiful day for it. In total, Obermoser has only 3.8 hectares under vine, most of which lies in the St. Magdalener Classico area, with one vineyard in the Kalterer See Classico zone. The reds are classic varieties in the region and represent much of its history, though little known outside of Alto Adige and Germany. The Sauvignon Blanc, quite unheard of in the zone, works beautifully in the cool climate. “The Sauvignon was a little experiment,” smiled Thomas, “And it became something much more. It is a really interesting expression of our terroir.”
The vines are neatly trained into pergolas and well spaced-out by connecting wooden laths, and pruned to limit their yields. Some vines manage to limit their growth just fine on their own; in particular, some of the Schiava plants are up to 50 years old, reducing in quantity, but ever increasing in quality. This type of training and the sloping vineyards mean that a lot of work must be done by hand.
The slopes are vital too, and have a dual purpose. Winter in Bolzano is bracing, with temperatures averaging at 30 degrees farenheit. Thankfully, the gentle breezes blow the coolest air down the slopes, maintaining enough warmth to stop the vines from freezing.
“Unfortunately, July is a our rainiest month, we get a lot of dramatic thunderstorms,” explains Thomas, “Our site selection has been key to ensure the water runs off. It stops the grapes from swelling up with water and diluting the taste- which is a risk if the wet weather continues through to the harvest months.”
We are in the midst of rows of Schiava, known as Vernatsch or Trollinger to German speakers. Schiava is actually the name given to a handful of dark-skinned red grape varieties. Translated from Italian, it means slave - thought to be a nod to its Slavic origins, but perhaps also its highly productive nature. Though it enjoyed a peak of popularity in the late 20th century, plantings have since seriously decreased- now less than 1900 hectares in Italy.
Stepping into the cantina, we encounter great, wooden barrels, in cool stony silence. The space is peaceful and impressive. “These are Alpine wines, and this is the environment they love the most,” Thomas tells us, “Our Magdalener Classico spends about 10 months in these beautiful barrels before we bottle it.”
St. Magdalener DOC is one of the few varietal DOCs for Schiava in existence. Its DOC zone, where Obermoser grow their fruit, is a specialized micro-zone of choice sites, scattered with quality wineries. The Rottensteiners, one of only 22 certified producers, are justifiably proud of their flagship variety and keen to show us exactly what makes it so special.
Excited, we pop open a bottle of the Magdalener and it is a quite a revelation- the Tyrolean cousin of a red Burgundy. It is spicy, floral, elegant, complex, and just calling out for local speck, or perhaps roasted game. Thomas blends in a touch of Lagrein, only 5%, that adds a certain chewy darkness to the glass. We are in love!
Here, deep in Südtirol wine country, Thomas Rottensteiner is making decisions that elevate the Obermoser cantina to new heights. The quality of the wines is exceptional, rivalling France’s most famous offerings, but at much more agreeable price points… for now! After visiting the Rottensteiners, St. Magdalener is most definitely on our wine lists, and we can’t think of a better producer to introduce this Italian underdog to the international crowd.