Novacella Abbey. Horizontal tasting

There are some wineries that do not need designers/star architects to create state-of-the-art architecture. They do not need to be equipped with super technologies to produce great wines. Some priests already thought of this almost a thousand years ago!

Novacella Abbey was founded in 1142 by Augustinian canons regular. They are priests who respond to the rule of St. Augustine. One in particular of these rules-nay, quotation-from his precious talks, “Guests who come to the monastery are to be welcomed as Christ.” In fact, this abbey was an important crossing point in the Middle Ages for pilgrims moving to Rome, as it was the lowest pass of the Brenner Pass. To give a taste of Rome here, a small palace has been created that is a stunning replica of Castel Sant’Angelo.

But what is surprising are not only the artistic choices, such as the Basilica renovated in the 1700s with a triumphant Rococo (Novacella is the southernmost example of Bavarian Rococo Baroque in Europe), but also the vineyard designed like a French clos i.e., a 5-hectare vineyard surrounded by walls.

Drywalling. Walled vines protect grapes from theft and can improve the microclimate. All work is carried out today as then only by hand. The soils are of moraine origin, which are very useful in these climates because they warm up quickly.

White grapes are grown here, while red grapes are grown in Cornaiano and Bolzano (a total of 21 hectares). In both cases, the abbey also buys grapes from about 60 conferrers with whom it has created a cooperative so as to create a team of producers with a common denominator, quality. A total of 86 hectares and 800 thousand bottles. Not bad for a wine region where there is an average of 1 hectare per winery!

Historically, Novacella represents the second entity to produce wine in order of age (the first being Castello di Brolio in Tuscany), and after renovating bell towers, basilicas and refectories, there was also a focus on the winery. The new one was built in the 1990s by renovating an old barn (which housed 100 cows!) and expanding under part of the adjacent vineyard.


I love to discover artistic and food and wine peculiarities. So in this tasting we focused on native grape varieties. South Tyrol has 240 wineries. Here we are in the Eisack Valley, one of the two main valleys of South Tyrol, stretching from the source of the Eisack River at Brenner to its mouth in the Adige River in Bolzano. About 20 producers gravitate to this valley. This is not an area of Müller Thurgau, Pinot Blanc or Gewurztraminer, it is an area of Sylvaner, Grüner Veltliner, Riesling, Pinot Grigio (which was called Ruländer in these lands). Abbazia di Novacella unlike many other wineries of the same size produces only 2 lines: the classic line and the Praepositus, which involves selections from more vocated areas (older vines and lower yields).

Grüner Veltliner is produced only in this valley. The nose is a semi aromatic, delicate, white fruit, green apple, white peach. A typical ambassador of the area with a delicious acidic backbone that gives a delightful freshness with savory, salty finish. Almost peppery (white pepper) typical of this variety. In the Praepositus ’19 version, 15% of the wine makes a passage in large acacia barrels. Nose of riper fruit (apricot, peach), slightly creamier, but not fat.

The Sylvaner Praepositus ’19 offers sweet nuances (touch of honey), although the wine is nice and dry. No hints of roastiness can be felt. Acidity preserves wine from aging. The hot vintage is more engaging in the early years, richer, but in the long run the acidity makes the wine more long-lived.

Kerner. A fairly recent phenomenon. In Brixen, every wine bar serves it as an aperitif. Born in 1929 in Heinzberg, Germany (Agricultural Institute) by crossing Riesling and Schiava. As early as ’69 produced experimentally as it was prohibited because it was not in the specification (it would become DOC in ’92). Semi-aromatic grape variety among the most popular at this winery. Praepositus ’20 vintage: the nose is beautifully expressive and unusual, exotic fruit (pineapple, maracuja, mango) with nuances of wild herbs (also sage and mint) high acidity, great drinkability, not low alcohol content (13.5°/14°) but the acid backbone makes it a super drinkable wine. In the mouth intriguing spicy note (ginger).

Riesling Renano, not to be confused with Riesling Italico. The Rhenish is more expressive, with more pronounced aromaticity. Few areas have a vocation for this vine: the Venosta Valley, the Isarco Valley, something in Piedmont. There are so many stylistic interpretations of them, from the most basic to the spätlese. This one from Novacella is not a Mosel Riesling (difficult to pair with Italian cuisine), but one with a more graceful body and higher sugar content. It is closer to the Austrian ones in Wachau. On the Praepositus line, when possible (if it snows heavily it is harvested earlier) 15% do an in-plant withering, harvest in mid-December (!!!). The 2019 is one of the most beautiful examples of Rhine Rieling. Candied fruit, orange peel. Interesting body. I imagine it also perfect paired with truffle tagliatelle.

Pinot Noir. Produced in Cornaiano, hillside at 350 meters. In cool vintages Pinot Noir is fantastic, warm ones more suited to Lagrein. 18 months aging in tonnaux and barrique (1 third new wood and 2 thirds used wood) and 1 year aging in bottle. Extremely aristocratic nose. Young and promising tannin.

Lagrein ’18. This grape variety is a relatively recent phenomenon (since the 1970s), previously used mainly in cuts to give color, body and tannin to Schiava for St. Magdalener. Almost purplish color that intrigues. Tannin of a more rustic quality, which precludes it from being an elegant wine like its Pinot Noir sibling, but here we have an engaging more fleshy and passionate note. To tame it requires 18 months of wood (barriques used more heavily). A traditional style. Today some wineries with a modernist imprint play with overripeness and super pulp, here a more classic stylistic approach is preferred.
This classic, traditional, concrete, I would say almost “solid” style I think is common to all the wines tasted. To continue drawing parallels with architecture, I quote Elias, the winery’s super sales manager for Italy, who describes them as “gothic, not baroque.”

I conclude by going back to quote the one who spiritually founded this place, St. Augustine. On the front door is a burning heart with flame, another important symbol that stems from his speeches, “If you want to access faith in others, it must first burn within you.”

We know that the heart burns through a wide variety of emotions or rather, passions. And I think the drink that most reflects passion is wine. We are then in the right place.


January 8, 2022