In South Tyrol wines are about taste, smell, community and the evocation of memories
Rosalyn D’Mello | 28 Jun, 2019
What would Maya have thought about Gewürztraminer, I wondered, mid-way through Alexander Payne’s 2004 film, Sideways. I was uncomfortably perched in my aisle seat on an Air India dreamliner, still processing the visual shock of embarking a fully booked flight filled with “my people”, fellow Indians, perhaps returning to Delhi after vacationing in Vienna. Considering I had spent most of the last 45 days in the commune of Tramin, nestled on the slopes of the Roen Mountain in Northern Italy, where my body was frequently of the darkest disposition among the 3,000-odd residents, it was comforting to feel ostensibly lost in a similarly complexioned sea.
I was no longer the hothouse curiosity I’d inevitably be perceived as in Südtirol or South Tyrol, or Alto Adige, all different appellations for the same autonomous province in Italy’s northernmost tip that, unknown to many, is the least Italian speaking, the country’s wealthiest province, and the home of the Dolomites. The range of films on the in-flight entertainment menu was below average, but I was happy to re-watch Sideways. I was certain my immersion in the wine-drenched journey its lead actors undertake through the Santa Ynez Valley could assuage my substantial pining for the vineyard-strewn terrain I had left behind. I would have been utterly heartbroken but for the fact that I was bringing back to India, besides a bottle each of Gewürztraminer and Pinot Noir, a Tramin native. Bastian was asleep in his aisle seat a few inches to my right. If everything transpired as we intended, we would be married by late July, a week before he was scheduled to return to Tramin, in time to harvest apples.
The film had been building up to this moment—when the unflinchingly unlikeable Miles Raymond, an unsuccessful, depressed, alcoholic writer and wine aficionado, finds himself alone with his long-standing crush, Maya, who inquires about his Pinot Noir obsession. He responds with a brief reflection about the grape’s excessively temperamental personality, making it a challenge for vintners, a subtext for his personal inability to attract female attention. He returns the curiosity by asking Maya what she loved about wine. Her response assumes the form of a considered monologue, a more feminist perspective of wine, courtesy of its explicitly intersectional gist— “I like to think about what was going on the year the grapes were growing, how the sun was shining that summer, or if it rained… what the weather was like. I think about all those people who tended and picked the grapes, and if it’s an old wine, how many of them must be dead by now. I love how wine continues to evolve, how every time I open a bottle it’s going to taste different than if I had opened it on any other day. Because a bottle of wine is actually alive—it’s constantly evolving and gaining complexity. That is, until it peaks—like your ’61—and begins its steady, inevitable decline. And it tastes so fucking good.”
The ’61 is a reference to the harvest year of the yet unopened Cheval Blanc Miles has been reserving for a “special occasion” with “the right person”.
I could relate to his sentimental reluctance. From January until mid-March I’d been ‘saving’ the bottle of Gewürztraminer that Bastian had gifted me during his last visit to India. Kolbenhof 2017, it said on the label, attesting to its single- estate terroir. I had been waiting for a book deal to come through, much like Miles. One evening when my ex had come over for dinner, I gave in. He never quite had the taste for white wine, but since another dear friend was joining, I went ahead and uncorked the bottle, wholly unprepared for what would unravel upon my tongue. The ex, who was, like me, more partial to reds, felt too overwhelmed by the fragrant outburst. He asked for single malt instead. Parni and I were completely seduced by the exuding aromas of lychee and roses, and the candy-ish aftertaste, unusual for a dry wine. This olfactory memory of my first Gewürztraminer settled within my sensual vocabulary, eagerly awaiting retrieval. “The day you open a ’61 Cheval Blanc, that’s the special occasion,” Maya had told Miles. It was one of those casual statements that make you rearrange your attitude towards living, profoundly encapsulating a nourishing observation about how we are conditioned to anticipate the outcomes we desire and consequently rely on wine for its liquid ability to mark their arrival. But the opening of a bottle can be an event in itself, despite the absence of worthy celebratory cause.
Around the first week of May, days after my arrival in Tramin, I registered the etymological link between the town’s name and Gewürztraminer. Bastian’s father took me on an after-hours walkthrough of the local museum, and I was surprised to find an entire wall dedicated to the display of bottles of the salmon-skinned aromatic grape variety from all over the world. Eventually it would assume the weight of fact, especially when I’d keep encountering the sign somewhere along the Strada del Vino, a stretch of road that links Tramin with 16 other wine-growing communes. ‘Tramin: Heimat des Gewürztraminer’ it read, roughly translating to homeland of Gewürztraminer. The Gewürz, which translates to spice in German, is, in this case, a misnomer that only a sampling of the wine can correct. The nuance lost in translation is more ‘aromatic’ than ‘spicy’. Wine connoisseurs consider Alsace to be the spiritual home of Gewürztraminer, while DNA studies suggest Tramin to be its ancestral home. Conflicting accounts abound about the grape’s provenance, but Tramin prides itself for having given the world this variety, delighting in this historical claim to fame.
Wine is central to the Südtirolean ethos. This Alpine region, among Italy’s smallest, has been cultivating grapes for centuries. Frescoes abound, attesting to the pivotal role grapes occupy in Südtirol’s imagination and culture. Just above the entrance to my fiance’s home, for instance, was where I first encountered an old fresco of St. Urban of Langres, the patron saint of barrel makers, vine growers, vine dressers and vintners. Some days later, I requested Bastian to take me to Urbankeller, the local farmer’s bar a few meters away from the town square. He was hesitant, the bar was a known hangout for an older generation that went in to quaff wine and play cards over the din of retro American pop. It wasn’t ‘cool’, but it boasted frescoes by a local artist, Guido Waid, whose frequently commissioned work is scattered all over the tiny town. Bastian noticed I was nursing my glass. “Rosa, this is not a sipping wine,” he gently informed me. It was young wine, more suitable for gulping.
I had learned to listen to his superior internalised wisdom when it came to wine. On our first date almost a year before, at Turmbach, a restaurant in neighbouring Eppan, he had ordered us a glass each of Lagrein, a Südtirolean grape variety whose rounded body always settles majestically on my tongue. We’d first met each other after an event at the Lanserhaus, a gallery in Eppan, conceived by the Residency Eau & Gaz that was responsible for my initial presence in the region between April and May 2018. We had talked for almost an hour, and even though it wasn’t possible to trace the particulars of our conversation, it left a seductive aftertaste. At Turmbach, after the waitress had poured us wine, I extended my hand to hold the glass, wrapping my fingers around the goblet to enable its journey towards my lips. He couldn’t help correcting what seemed like a clearly untrained gesture. He cast his fingers around the stem and lured it towards him to illustrate the preferred mannerism.
This would prove useful one year later, when I set foot inside his home within the Josef Hofstätter winery. Of course, back then, I had chided him for his alleged snobbishness. I spoke flippantly about people who take their wine too seriously. “I grew up in a winery,” he’d told me. I dismissed it as a seemingly impressive thing a man might tell a woman from a part of the world that doesn’t boast a wine-making culture. I was still trying to piece together his identity based on bits of information he’d shared. He was a farmer, who had studied Ancient Greek and Latin in high school, and later, linguistics, in Vienna.
He, like the region he was from, seemed to exist within the interstices of deceptive misnomers. Südtirol was in Italy, and yet, during my first week there in April 2018, I heard almost no Italian until I visited Florence. My own identity as someone with Goan ancestry made its history relatable, once I was able to weave it together. Until 1918, Südtirol or South Tyrol was part of the Austro-Hungarian princely County of Tyrol and was almost exclusively German speaking, until it was occupied by Italy at the end of World War I, when it was annexed and became part of the Kingdom of Italy. The rise of Italian Fascism ensured the forceful Italianisation of the area. German was forbidden. Simultaneously, Italians from other regions were encouraged to migrate to Südtirol as a homogenising strategy. In 1943, after the fall of the Fascist government, the region came to be occupied by the German Reich, until the end of the Nazi regime, after which it was ‘returned’ to Italy. It is now considered an autonomous, bilingual province.
“That could be my mother,” Franz Oberhofer, Bastian’s father, exclaimed when we encountered a life-size diorama at the Südtirolean Wine Museum in Caldaro depicting an apron-clad woman binding vines within a pergola. The third- youngest of 10 siblings, Franz’s father died tragically young. He was raised by his mother, an exceptional woman, by all accounts, who lived until the age of 90, and worked in the Kolbenhof vineyard where all her children, including Franz, were born. Her husband’s brother, Konrad Oberhofer, took Franz under his wing initiating him into the practice of wine growing, making and tasting. Konrad Oberhofer was then the owner of the J. Hofstätter winery, now managed by Martin Foradori. With a total of 50 hectares, it is among the most significant family-owned and operated wineries in the region with vineyard parcels on both the west and east banks of the Adige River, along slopes and steep sites at altitudes between 820 and 2,788 feet, bottling 22 kinds of wines.
Later that afternoon, after returning from Caldaro, Franz took me for an extensive tour of the J. Hofstätter winery, beginning with the cellar, where, on one of the oak barrels, I saw a 1946 etching. I recognised the landscape from a trip there in early May. “Kolbenhof?” I asked him. “Yes, my birthplace,” he replied. His brother, Johann, still lives near the estate. He owns and tends to the vineyards through which we had walked that early spring evening, when cold winds were still blowing from the north. It was on the Kolbenhof farmstead, located on the west side of the Adige River, that Franz met Heidi, an Augsburg native who was brought to Tramin annually as part of her family’s farm-stay vacationing tradition. Kolbenhof’s particular location along the slopes of the surrounding village of Söll, offers satisfying exposure to morning sun and cool evening winds that sweep down the mountainside, which, along with the typical marl comprised of lime-rich loam, make it perfectly suited for growing Gewürztraminer.
In the evening, after dinner, Franz took me back to the top floor of the Hofstätter winery, adjacent to the stone bell tower of the Tramin parish church, whose facade bore the town’s symbol that’s replicated even on wine corks—a star arched over by a crescent moon. We were a group of five, including Bastian and his friend and employer, Florian, his partner, Julia, and their toddler. Florian, too, was a wine grower, but, like many in the region, he sold his grapes to the local town cooperative, just like he, Franz and Bastian did with the apples they harvested.
For our Gewürztraminer tasting, Franz had placed five glasses per person. He poured a small portion of the Joseph 2018 in the first glass and asked us to transfer the same liquid from one glass to the other, then empty the contents into the spittoon. This would rid the glass of extraneous odours, lining it instead with the Gewürztraminer’s aromatic bouquet. He then opened four more bottles, each from a single estate, or vigna, thus respectively filling the four empty glasses, after re-pouring into the first a serving of the Joseph 2018, a classic induction into the grape’s flavors. We moved on to the Kolbenhof 2017 a relatively young wine which continued to open up as our tasting progressed, arriving at its most fragrant self much later. It wasn’t as candyish as the Joseph 2018. The third glass held the golden yellow wine of a 2007 harvest from Kolbenhof. It was the same wine as in the second glass, except it had the luxury of waiting 10 years during which a mineral richness is said to enter Gewürztraminer. It was not only sophisticated but somehow surer of itself, like me at 33, within a year’s span of my first visit to Südtirol. Maybe next year I might aspire to the subtler, saltier, more perfected elegance of the Vigna Pirchschrait 2008, which, unlike the Kolbenhof, was bottled a decade after the harvest.
The final glass held a more golden tinge. The Vigna Rechtenthaler Schloßleiten 2015 was anything but dry, bearing olfactory traces of oranges, the skin of grapefruit, apricots, and honey, reminding me of the kind that Franz’s sisters Monika and Maria derived from their resident bees. Franz noted this wine would pair excellently with Gorgonzola, Roquefort, or Foie Gras. I was still deducing what I’d have loved to pair with the Vigna Pirchschrait, which I was increasingly beginning to covet. I thought of river prawns, cooked in their shells with a Goan masala made with fresh coriander and spices. I felt confident that Gewürztraminer would be grateful to be married with nuanced Goan cuisine.
My suspicions were confirmed last evening. Bastian made Kaspressknödel, a Südtirolean form of dumpling. I made a Goan version of the Mangalorean pork buffad. My best friend came over with her sister and a mutual friend. I decided to open the bottle of Kolbenhof 2018 we’d brought back. With each sip I felt washed over by memories; I caught glimpses of the wind shuffling through vines. I saw flashes of tender green grapes journeying towards ripeness. I recollected the taste of satisfaction when we returned to the plot a week after I’d helped Bastian thin the trees and witnessed how the apples had already swollen in size. I heard once again the relentless clamor of the bells of the medieval church of St. Jakob that May evening Florian invited us to dinner—a form of ritualistic refuge, a sonic intercession to the heavens to ward off the storm and prevent the skies from pouring down unseasonal hail. These fluttering thoughts distilled into a singular desire: to be allowed the privilege of sampling a Kolbenhof 2019 next year, then perhaps 10 years later; to keep returning so that I, too, may be irrevocably implicated in the living-ness of every subsequent Traminer wine.
Tourist highlight of Tramin St Jakob’s church, a 12th-century structure overlooking the town, with mysterious Romanesque frescoes.
Local highlight of Tramin The biannual, Dionysiac carnival, Egetmann, is held either in February or March. Along the Egetmann parade everything is said to be a bit rough, so be prepared for that.
Art to catch The four medieval churches whose frescoes underline the town’s historical wealth owing to its successes in wine trading.
Wineries to visit J Hofstatter, Cantina Tramin and Elena Walch.
Best time of the year to visit Mid-August to mid-November, during the wine harvest, when the wine leaves turn either yellow or red. This is also when the first autumn nights make the air crisp, allowing for crystal clear views of the Dolomites.