Wine Spectator, October 31, 2010
Heart of the Dolomites
The majestic Dolomite mountain range is among the most beautiful parts of the Alps, and the lovely spa town of Merano is a central location for wine lovers to explore the many vineyards in the region.
These mountains stretch across northern Italy, near Austria's southwestern border. Castles and fortresses dot the snowcapped slopes, though most of the towns are in the more temperate valleys. This is the biggest apple-growing region in Europe, but the prominent landscape feature is grapevines: They cover pergolas in front of palaces and homes, fill lots behind restaurants and are even trained alongside roads. Patchworks of vineyards run horizontally and vertically across the steep mountain slopes.
The premier vacation spot in the southern part of this range, a region known as Alto Adige or South Tyrol, is the city of Merano (population a cozy 40,000). In the 16th century, it was fashionable among royalty to winter here, so hunting castles and opulent pal-aces were built. By the mid-19th century, the area had developed into a spa destination for its sunny winter days, radon-rich spring water, and a curative that purported to use grapes as a natural detoxifier. Today, almost all of the nicer hotels have their own signature spa, while in the center of town, a large public "spa park" offers several indoor and outdoor pools filled with mineral water.
Walks were also considered therapeutic, and there are still promenades through town that lead to outlying areas. One of the most enthusiastic visitors to the area during this time was Empress Elisabeth of Austria, or "Sissi," as she was called. She is commemorated with a statue, and a contemporary restaurant even bears her name. She liked to stroll from the center of town to her winter retreat, Trauttmansdorff Castle, just on the outskirts, and a popular promenade is now named for her. The terraced grounds are home to one of the largest botanical gardens in Europe. Tour buses congregate here and at the nearby Castle Rametz, which includes vineyards, a winery, a tasting room and a wine museum, where relics such as antique plows and wine presses draw both enophiles and history buffs.
The Passer Promenade runs alongside the Passer River, a beautiful, silty stream that cuts through the historic center of town and narrows into a stunning gorge. Due to the mild climate and plentiful sun, vegetation is a lush mix of birch, pine and tropical palms, as well as many Mediterranean plants. The variety gives the town an almost exotic feel, and the surrounding mountains and historic buildings lend to the sense of isolation in both place and time.
As with its flora, this area has long mixed Alpine and Mediterranean cultures; both German and Italian are spoken, and influences from both countries are prominent. In the heart of town is a pedestrian walkway and shopping area, Via Portici, which reveals its Italian influence through espresso cafÈs and specialty food stores selling olive oils and dried porcini.
But don't be surprised if you also see men sporting lederhosen or notice restaurants with Wiener schnitzel on the menu. This area was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire until World War I, annexed to Italy in 1919, but locals consider their culture uniquely South Tyrolean, and regional wines are part of their cultural pride.
The wineries in the region are almost all cooperatives. Merano restaurants and wine bars carry predominantly South Tyrolean wines, with $25 to $45 the main price range, though some reach $90 or more. Due to the varying microclimates, from mountainsides to heat-trapping valleys, there is a wide range of varietals.
It's believed that Gewürztraminer, also known as Traminer Aromatico, originated in South Tyrol. Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Blanc and Chardonnay are also made here, but locals tout another white: Goldmuskateller, or Moscato, which can be used in a broad range of styles from dry to sparkling dessert wines. Some reds, including Pinot Noir (also called by its Austrian name, Blauburgunder), are planted farther up the mountain, with Merlot and Cabernet around its base. The heat-loving red grape Lagrein, thought to be native to this region, is most used in rosÈ, but has become popular as a versatile red wine, too, where it shows a deep burgundy color, plenty of tannins and medium to full body. Another native red grape is Schiava, also known as Vernatsch. This makes a light, fruity wine that resembles Beaujolais, only a little more acidic and a bit less fruity. It is often served chilled. The area also produces a large amount of grappa, and most restaurant wine lists in the region include a section for these as digestives.
Two major events in Merano are the music festival in August through early September, in which chamber and symphonic concerts are held throughout the city, and the International Wine Festival & Culinaria, in November. For this latter celebration, tents are set up alongside the Passer River and wine producers from all over the world-South Tyrol to South Africa-pour their finest.
Note: When calling the following establishments from North America, dial 011, then the telephone number. Prices have been converted to U.S. dollars using the exchange rate at press time ($1 = 0.78 euros) and rounded to the nearest dollar.
WHERE TO EAT
Via Fragsburg 3
Telephone (39) 0473-244071
Open Lunch and dinner, Tuesday to Sunday
Cost Tasting menus $72-$153
While still a teenager, budding chef Luis Haller was visiting farms in the Alto Adige and hand-picking the best local products. In 2004, at the age of 25, he started working at Castel Fragsburg; by 2007 he was head chef. Two years later, this wunderkind received his first Michelin star. The restaurant, in a former hunting castle, is tucked into the mountains, and has a panoramic view of mountains and vineyards. The tasting menus showcase locally sourced products presented in fresh, creative ways. Trout is house-smoked and served carpaccio-style, sprinkled with flowers from the garden, accompanied by a mustard ice cream. A signaturedish of foie gras tiramisu is light but rich, while entrées include selections such as cheeks of veal with Fragsburg cherries. The tasting menu offers sea bass and vanilla salt served over marjoram-lemon sauce with black pudding "ravioli," and chanterelles. Wine pairings are available with the tasting menus; the selections are most often from the South Tyrol, though the wine list here includes nearly 250 choices from several regions in Italy as well as France, Germany and Austria. The pairings are a good way to learn about the region's wines. Start with a crisp Arunda Brut Rosé by Josef Reiterer ($41) or the soft, dry Sauvignon Blanc Winkle 2009 by KG Terlan ($41). Follow with a cool-weather red like the Löwengang Cabernet Sauvignon 2004 by Alois Lageder ($58). Or take matters into your own hands and order xfrom the list, which features well-priced local wines.
RESTAURANT SISSI DI ANDREA FENOGLIO
Via G. Galilei 44
Telephone (39) 0473-231062
Open Lunch, Wednesday to Sunday; dinner, Tuesday to Sunday
Cost Entrées $21-$36; tasting menu $84-$97
The larger-than-life personality of Andrea Fenoglio, a native of the area, is evident from the moment you arrive at this restaurant. He greets diners with a hearty welcome and encourages them to grab their chosen bottle of wine from a shelf as they pass through the foyer of the restaurant. Sissi feels like a renovated historic home in the heart of town, and is warm and elegant. The three-course menu often includes twists on Italian dishes, as with a first course of herb pudding with soft polenta and black truffles. Consider yourself warned: Most of the dishes are not light. The second courses include choices such as duck leg with spelt couscous and dried fruits, or lamb shoulder in pistachio nut pastry. Throughout the meal, the kitchen sends playful gifts, including "liquid pizza"-a soft cheese perched over a shot of herb- and tomato-flecked clear liquid, or a "modern apple pie," a spoonful of apple essence with a delicate cinnamon bread stick. The wine list, with more than 400 selections, emphasizes local choices and mostly keeps prices under $65, though more expensive and even auslander (foreign) bottlings can be had-there are two Napa FumÈ Blancs.
The restaurant pours wines by the glass, though it doesn't offer a pairing menu with them. Standouts among the locals include Lafao Sauvignon Blanc 2008 by C.S. Colterenzio ($45) and the J. Hofst”tter Pinot Nero Mazon Riserva 2007 ($46).
Also, though the menu in English doesn't tell you this, and it's not
encouraged, it is possible to order dishes à la carte.
Piazza Rena, 12
Telephone (39) 0473-212917
Open Lunch and dinner, Tuesday to Sunday
Cost Entrées $30-$34
The restaurant is sleek and stylish, with contemporary art in the sparsely furnished dining room and a lovely courtyard. Chef Luigi Ottaiano is from Naples and most of the front of the house staff is Japanese, so the ample seafood on the menu is no surprise. Though Italian and Japanese cuisines might seem incompatible, the fusion really works here. While the menu has sashimi and Japanese-style rolls, the most impressive offerings are Italian classics served in artful, Japanese-influenced presentations. Dishes such as asparagus wrapped in duck breast, oxtail ravioli and fish stew are all excellent. The restaurant's wine list has around 300 choices, many from Alto Adige and elsewhere in Italy, along with a smattering of international wines. Pairings from South Tyrol are suggested for each course. Two notable matches include calamari salad with a Pinot Bianco Popphof 2008 ($5 per glass, $26 per bottle), and a Gewürtztraminer Campaner Caldaro-Kaltern 2008 ($6 glass, $34 bottle) with basil-lemon risotto and prawns steamed with leeks, tofu and wasabi.
RESTAURANT SANTER KLAUSE
Telephone (39) 0473-234086
Open Lunch, Friday to Wednesday; dinner, Friday to Tuesday
Cost Entrées $13-$22
Wildly popular with locals and often crowded , this rustic restaurant is said to serve the best classic Tyrolean fare in town. Its outdoor space is capped by a pergola of grapevines, while the wood-paneled interior has a Bavarian feel. The dishes are Tyrolean comfort food, heavy but good. Try potato and porcini soup, or buckwheat dumplings with cumin butter over braised cabbage, followed by trout from local streams. The wine list is short but solid, with area offerings by either glass or bottle. J. Hofstätter Gewürztraminer 2008 ($34) is good with the trout, and the Kelleri Kaltern Chardonnay Wadleith Weisswein pairs nicely with dishes that contain cinnamon or cumin. Local beer Forst and many grappas are also available.
WHERE TO STAY
Via Cavour, 2
Telephone (39) 0473-271000
Located just beyond the city center and within easy walking distance of most attractions, Palace Merano gives a glimpse into the lives of the affluent and noble families for whom it was built. The historic site, including a château and parklands, was first converted into a palace a century ago and most recently transformed into an opulent hotel and spa. The chandeliers, gilded mirrors and marble columns common to the older parts of the hotel lend a regal air to this exclusive property, which also features sprawling, park like grounds. The rooms and suites are spacious, with high ceilings, Tiffany glass and silk damask textiles. All rooms have LCD televisions, most have views of the gardens, and suites have balconies. Continued renovations have brought more contemporary design elements as well as the Henri Chenot spa, a destination in its own right. Many spa visitors purchase treatment packages for the week, targeting everything from detoxifying to weight loss and energizing.
VIGILIUS MOUNTAIN RESORT
Vigiljoch Mountain, Lana
Telephone (39) 0473-556600
Website www.vigil ius.it
The Vigilius adventure starts with a short but steep cable car ride up the mountain. This eco-hotel was designed by regional architect Matteo Thun, whose style emphasizes harmony with natural surroundings. The decor adds drama by way of saturated red walls and cowhide sofas in the lobby. Guests are encouraged to gather for tea or cocktails in the "piazza" living room, but most of the emphasis here is on the scenery. There is no hotel gym, and the rooms lack televisions. Nature is the focus; the hotel supplies equipment for hiking and biking on the local trails. All of the rooms offer mountain or forest views from the beds, and there are thoughtful design touches such as heated clay walls between the tubs and bedrooms. The spa treatments incorporate natural, local products, in fact much of the property has the serenity of a spa. A fine dining restaurant serves light Mediterranean fare, and a more casual, traditional restaurant features South Tyrolean cuisine.
Via Fragsburg 3
Telephone (39) 0473-244071
Rates $235-$419 (includes dinner)
Now a boutique hotel, this castle, perched high in the Dolomites just outside Merano, was once a hunting retreat. The decor, pure Tyrolean, seems a little rustic at first, with knotty pine doorways and window frames, deer motifs and plaid sofas in the rooms, but the deliberate furnishings add to the niche property's quaint atmosphere. The service and accommodations are excellent, as is the restaurant, and spending the night here will save you a winding ride home after dinner. While the words "castle basement" usually inspire images of dungeons, here the basement is home to a lovely spa, with treatment rooms that open onto apple orchards and vineyards.
WHERE TO TASTE
MERAN BURGGRÄFLER KELLEREI
Gampenstrasse 64/Via Palade 1, Marling/Marlengo
Telephone (39) 0473-44 7137
Open Monday to Friday, 8 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. and 2:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m.; Saturday, 8 a.m. to noon
Cost Tastings free
This new partnership of local tasting rooms is located between the cable car for Vigilius Mountain Resort and Merano, in the town of Marlengo. Meran Burggräfler Kellerei combines the Meraner Weinkellerei collective, formerly in town, with the Burggräfler. It is a good place to stop and try a broad selection of local wine. Don't expect a château experience, though; it's casual and more of a wineshop than a tasting room. You point to the bottle of wine you'd like to try, and an employee fetches your selection and pours you a sample.
Among the tastes on offer recently were a Privat Goldmuskateller 2009-a very dry Muscat with a big floral nose and a little musk and spice to the flavor. The 2009 Meraner Schickenburg Vernatsch is aged in steel rather than oak, and is light, dry and minerally, with lots of fruit; the St. Valentin Vernatsch gets five months in used oak barrels, which gives the wine a little more depth. The Pinot Blancs are a source of pride, as is the Vinschgau Weissburgunder 2009 by Sonnenberg, which has the taste of citrus and apples. The Zeno Pinot Noir 2007 is a nice example of the local Pinot style. A 2007 Lagrein-Cabernet blend by MerVin, aged six months in French oak, has a medium body, slight spice aroma and a smooth finish. Most bottles cost between $9 and $15.
Maria Finn is the author of Hold Me Tight and Tango Me Home.