We knew we were getting close to Alto Adige, or Südtirol, when we started to see signs written in both Italian and German. The region is a melting pot of languages, people and tradition: remnants of its intricately woven history of two empires, Austrian and Roman.
We are heading to the village of San Paolo in Appiano (Eppan), a small region 10 km west of the city of Bolzano. The valley, bold and green, is spotted with ruins of medieval castles. Picturesque farmhouses and stone towers on gentle hills look out to the Alps and Dolomites. Feeling whimsical, we trundle along the strada, crest an elevation and we see it- the rural cathedral, St. Pauls, and the spiritual home of St. Pauls Co-operative Winery. As one of the oldest recorded parishes, the majestic St. Pauls church dominates the skyline so much that it is often called “the Cathedral in the Countryside”. In fact, its size was dictated to its builders in order to demonstrate the prosperity and wealth of those who settled in the fertile area of San Paolo.
In medieval times agricultural land was owned by the church and the aristocracy, which led to co-operatives being formed in order to protect workers’ rights and protect the growers from exploitation. It is in this climate that St. Pauls Co-operative Winery began in 1907.
We pull up to the cantina in September, and it is a hive of activity. Tractors roll past heaped high with glistening freshly picked grapes. The air is buzzing with voices of workers, who are busy harvesting, transferring, and pressing. Overseeing this fine-tuned machine is Wolfgang Tratter, the head winemaker, who takes the time to show us around today.
“St. Pauls is a real community winery,” says Wolfgang proudly, “From 36 growers in 1907 with cellar master Josef Abraham, we expanded in both quality and quantity, particularly after the Second World War. We now have more than 150 and we work in synchronicity.”
We head over to a vineyard of the grape Lagrein, a cousin of Syrah and Pinot Noir, that is a few weeks away from picking. Here, grower Franz Scherer is taking stock of his grapes growing on the gentle hill. He’s an advocate for Lagrein which is loved by the locals and slowly making waves overseas.
“The climate is perfect for the Lagrein grape,” Franz tell us, “We are quite far north, and over 300 metres above sea so it could be tricky, but luckily for us we have the gift of sunshine- always at least 300 days per year!”
The Appiano area is also blessed when it comes to terroir. Dating from the last ice age, the hills have a glut of differing soil types with regards to composition and density, as well as other aspects. These terroirs, explains Wolfgang, are the reason St. Pauls can successfully grow so many varietals, as well as reach incredible quality.
The highest quality vineyard is one of Pinot Bianco, used to produce the Sanctissimus wine. Up close, the grapes are an extraordinary colour, delicate and ethereal, seeming almost too precious to touch.
“This vineyard is believed to be the most ancient in Alto Adige, with vines planted as far back as 1899,” Wolfgang says, “Here everything needs to be done by hand due to its steepness.”
We leave the harmony and bustle of the vineyards and head over to the cantina where a grape reception is taking place with Spitaler Roland, a cooperative associate. The 1908 cellar still stands today though it has been amplified and modernised throughout the decades. Each wine produced has its own methodology and quirks. Enhancing varietal typicity, there are light oak touches for Pinot Nero, slow cool ferments for aromatic Sauvignon Blanc, and a touch of skin contact to add texture to Pinot Grigio. There is even space for amphorae in the vast and well-organized cantina. The wines are a symbiosis of fruit, elegance, minerality and the hallmarks of the land.
“Relying on terroir and climate means the wines are different from year to year. We take real pleasure in exploring the ways a grape like Pinot Bianco can express itself, and always searching for the most authentic realization.”
Individual and group expression is evident in all that St. Pauls cantina does. From the personality of the winegrowers, and individual plots of land, to the coming together of minds that produces one bottle. This is one community where they share their passions.
“It is our firm belief that winemaking is something wondrous, an affair of both the heart and the mind.”
We end our day in the tasting room and wine bar, alongside many of the growers and pickers. It is a real local social hub, a home for community engagement, and a way of bringing in younger generations and teaching them about the history of the wines.
The cathedral in the countryside is just that- a place of sharing, and of community. The openness and pride of those involved with St. Pauls make it an irresistible destination for those who want to explore northern Italian varietals at their best. And as we enjoy a refreshingly bright glass of Pinot Grigio, there is no place we would rather be.