Imagine if Italy, Austria, and Germany got together, had a few too many glasses of Pinot Grigio, and spawned a lovechild that at once offered the passion-fueled, undeniable magnetism of Southern Italy, and the crisp, pristine elegance of, say, Switzerland. Then, add a stunning backdrop of the Dolomites, cuisine that somehow manages to be both traditional and modern, and a range of wines that will take your breath away, and you have the northeastern Italian region of Alto Adige. In other words, a wine traveler’s dream.
I had the immense pleasure of visiting Alto Adige recently. I’m not sure what I expected – I’ve traveled quite extensively throughout Italy and know Alto Adige from a wine student’s perspective – but man did this region overdeliver. Which is why if there has ever been a wine region worth traveling to, Alto Adige may just be it. Here are five reasons why.
1. Close Enough to Get to, Remote Enough to Keep it Yours
It may not be Dallas Fort Worth in terms of accessibility, but very few places worth visiting are. Homebase is the charming town of Bolzano, the heart of Alto Adige. A vibrant center for both culture and commerce, Bolzano offers bustling piazzas, historical landmarks and, of course, shops brimming with local wines and culinary treasures (including some of the best artisanal Muesli I’ve ever had in my life), as well as global comforts like well-known retail chains and brands.
If traveling from the U.S., Bolzano is reachable via international flights through major European hubs like Milan, Munich, or Venice. From there, a three to four-hour drive or train ride will plant you in the heart of town. Within Europe, regional airlines offer flights to smaller airports near Bolzano, like Verona and Innsbruck, which are a short train or car ride away. Regardless of how you arrive, you can count on the journey to, at the very least, be beautiful, so be prepared to take in the scenery as you travel.
2. Wine as a Storyteller
Diversity is the name of the game when it comes to the wines of Alto Adige. White wines run the gamut from crisp and zingy, luscious and aromatic, to oak-kissed and rich, while red wines range from light and bright to brooding and dark. In between, we find expertly-crafted metodo classico sparkling wines, savory rosés, intriguing orange and skin-contact selections, and sweet wines begging to be paired with local pastries and desserts. Alto Adige’s terroir boasts that ideal mix of mountain and valley, warm days and cool nights, diverse soil types, and the influence of lakes, breezes, and talented winemakers, the combination of which is to thank for this patchwork of exciting wines.
During my stay, I tasted dozens and dozens of different selections and would be hard-pressed to find a favorite. While the white wines of Alto Adige continue to impress me, Alto Adige’s signature red grapes are worth the trip alone. Pinot Noir from this region is perfumed and bright, with such gorgeous structure and texture it could give any of the world’s top destinations for Pinot a run for their money. The local grape Schiava, also called by its German-language name Vernatsch, has experienced a renaissance over the past few years, and offers many iterations of those quaffable, chillable reds we so crave either with food or on a warm day. Lovers of dark, savory wines will relish Lagrein from Alto Adige, serving as the perfect accompaniment to the region’s traditional dishes of grilled and roasted meats.
Most importantly, however, is the culture of wine that pervades, linking residents past and present to the region’s history and new visitors. More than 5,000 winegrowers form the foundation of Alto Adige wines, and yet the region has a distinctly intimate feel. Small operations with big personalities work hand in hand with cooperatives and estate wineries, and the result is a region with immense heart and soul, ready to welcome visitors with open arms, a glass and corkscrew at the ready. “Wine is a part of our culture,” says mountaineering legend, adventurer, author, and Alto Adige native Reinhold Messner. “South Tyrolean producers have a beautiful and ideal landscape for producing wine, which gives the wine not only high quality but good storytelling. There is no product [that invites you] to sit together, to tell stories, to be together, and to have strong emotions like wine.”
3. A Delicious Cultural Tapestry
One eats well while traveling through this Alpine region. Destinations whose identities are formed through a historic cultural fusion are always exciting. Alto Adige is at once Italian, German, Austrian, and Swiss, the sum of which is, culinarily speaking, greater than its parts. The seamless blending of distinct culinary traditions has created a regional gastronomic experience that is both familiar and entirely new. The region is rich in local produce, like crisp and flavorful apples, orchards of which blanket much of the valley floor, fragrant mountain herbs, and dairy products like the Stelvio cheese, all of which add layers of authenticity and regionality to every dish.
I sampled thick, decadent yogurts the likes of which I’ve never tasted before in North America, rustic and chewy breads made from whole grains, and perfectly ripened fruits and vegetables. I was treated to creative plates like kohlrabi carpaccio with sauteed mushrooms and herb-infused oil, and barley risotto with apple, speck, and leek. Local meats were simply and beautifully prepared, a testament to the quality of each ingredient. At every turn, I was surprised and delighted by what I was invited to sample, all made even more delicious when paired with local wines, and more enjoyable thanks to that unique co-mingling of Italian hospitality and German efficiency.
4. No Filter Needed
In a world where few wine destinations feel undiscovered, Alto Adige – while ridiculously Instagrammable thanks to mountains, valleys, lakes, medieval castles, and uncannily gorgeous people – still retains a magical, “hidden gem” vibe. Everything here is pristine, with the town of Bolzano nestled among mountains that rise up majestically. No matter where you pose for a photo, there seems to be some sort of natural wonder in the background.
At one point, we drove up to visit vineyards at an elevation of around 3,000 feet, nothing but a simple fence between us and falling to certain death – among the vines, at least! – which offered perspective on just how varied is the terrain of Alto Adige. From this vantage we truly saw it all – valleys, apple orchards, vineyards, crystalline lakes, historic towns and castles, and of course cloud-capped mountains that reminded us all as we clinked glasses of our shared humanity.
5. An Outdoor Enthusiast’s Haven
One can only do so much eating and drinking in any destination. Fortunately, Alto Adige is the ideal setting for a number of outdoor, adventure, and wellness activities. There’s a reason Messner has become such a vocal ambassador for the beauty of his hometown, the very place where he discovered his love of mountain climbing. “For me, it’s quite clear,” he says. “We have the most beautiful mountains in the world – the Dolomites.” These mountains provide infinite opportunities to climb and hike at all levels. Lake Caldaro, Lake Resia, and Braies Lake offer a stunning setting for simply taking in one’s surroundings and delighting in the natural world.
The terrain of Alto Adige invites cyclists and hikers of all levels, with hundreds of miles of trails stretching through mountains, valleys, and, of course, vineyards. Skiers will find fewer places in the world more worthy of exploring, with a thousand miles of slopes, breathtaking views, and exciting ski tours to experience. For a more serene, but equally beautiful experience, several tramways offer gondola rides up and down the mountain.
For something more cerebral, a visit to Firmiano Castle, home to the Messner Mountain Museum, is a must. This unique experience looks into the significance of mountains in the region and beyond, as well as the history of the castle and South Tyrol. “This is not a classic museum of art or nature,” notes Messner. “It’s a museum of this tension between human beings and mountains.”
Alto Adige’s rich offerings make this a wine destination like no other. “We are responsible for giving all tourists the possibility to find what they like to find,” says Messner. “There is a place for everyone. We still have enough space and silence and beauty for everyone.”