Located in the shadow of the Dolomites, Alto Adige is a wonderland for travelers seeking fabulous wine and spectacular scenery. While it may not have the cachet of other wine destinations, this unique region in Northern Italy is well worth visiting.
Alto Adige is a great place for wine. You can taste it. You can buy it. It’s a wine region that’s relatively under the radar in today’s wine world.
But visit the area, more commonly known among locals as Sudtirol, and you’ll find a wine culture that’s existed for over a thousand years.
This entire region is a wine lover’s dream.
In a world where wine has been increasingly globalized, corporatized, homogenized and price-inflated, winemakers in Alto Adige sell quality ‘juice’ at a fraction of the price charged in pinot producing regions in France and the USA.
This is an Italian region where family-run vineyards produce food-friendly wines that are intended to be enjoyed by locals and with local dishes. By doing so, they convey the spirit of the grapes and region beautifully.
Although South Tyrol was annexed to Italy from Austria-Hungary in 1919, German remains the dominant language in Alto Aldige.
Alto Adige isn’t the part of Italy that most travelers dream about visiting. It certainly wasn’t at the top of our travel bucket list until we journeyed to the region with limited expectations. We’re glad we did.
To this day, outside of South Africa, we can’t think of a more beautiful place to taste wine. While we’ve tasted wine grown on majestic slopes in the past, this is the first time that snow-capped mountains were part of the wine tasting equation.
Imagine hiking by foot past small, limited production tiered vines under the shadow of the mighty Dolomite Alps. Then imagine tasting the wine that comes from those vines.
Alto Adige’s significant varietals include Pinot Noir (more commonly known in Italian as Pinot Nero or in the native German dialect as Blauburgunder), Gewurztraminer, Kerner and Lagrein. Some wineries focus on just one of these varietals while others produce the gamut.
When you taste wine in Sudtirol, you’re not tied to your car all day. It’s possible to hike the Via Val Venosta – a wooded wine path shared by streams and vines alike – in towns like Castelbello/Kastelbell.
Other wine trails exist in towns like Termeno/Tramin and Caldaro/Kaltern too. They all offer unforgettable views featuring both grape vines and mountain ranges.
Every town in Alto Adige has two different names – the original German name and a newer 20th century Italian name. We’ve opted to use the Italian names in this article.
To be clear, Alto Adige’s majestic mountains aren’t just any mountains. These are the Alps. The Alps! The land of Ricola and Heidi. James Bond skied away from his villains in places like this.
When you’ve grown up in markedly less beautiful places in the eastern USA like we did, the Alps trigger a fantasy life of chalets and fondue.
Which brings us to food. Visions of pasta and pizza immediately sprang to mind when we heard we were headed to Italy. While those Italian food favorites do exist in Alto Adige, the Sudtirol diet instead involves food like knödels (in a slightly more Italian form called canederli) and schnitzel.
We enjoyed eating those foods as well as dishes like mezzaluna ravioli (commonly called schlutzkrapfen in German) served in butter and stuffed with spinach and cheese. Similar to pierogies, these thin-doughed, stuffed pastas are more delicate and elegant compared to their Polish cousins.
South Tyrolean food is technically Italian food since Alto Adige is in Italy. But, due to the geopolitical forces of the 20th century, this Alpine region’s cuisine inarguably leans Austrian. It’s not the Italian cucina that conquered the globe.
Instead, it’s a different way of eating in Italy. Even the desserts – think apple strudel instead of tiramisu – are different. While we enjoyed exploring Alto Adige’s cuisine, nine days of dumplings, breaded cutlets and strudel is a lot of days.
Despite these culinary differences, we didn’t miss out on eating pizza during our trip. However, in a nod to local food culture, most of the pies we ate were topped with speck, the region’s famous smoked answer to parma ham, and skewed closer to Roman pizza than to the Neapolitan pizzas that we love most in the boot.
So, you should expect to eat your fair share of Germanic food when you travel to Alto Adige. However, this is a small sacrifice when you consider the beauty, the people and the wines that the farthest region of Northern Italy has to offer.
Alto Adige Wine Trip Itinerary – 5 Villages Not To Miss
Planning a trip to Alto Adige requires a bit of creativity. Sure, you could base yourself in Bolzano where you’d be near great pizza and an international airport, but you’d miss out on many of the region’s greatest assets.
Instead, you’ll want to rent a car and base yourself in one of the region’s many borghi (small medieval villages) during your visit. Staying in one or more of these villages will complete your Alto Adige/Sudtirol experience.
Italian borghi are not the kind of towns featured in most guidebooks. They’re classic villages that made their bones in the middle ages. They’re also excellent jumping points for an Alto Adige wine itinerary.
That being said, some Alto Adige villages are better than others for overnight stays. We recommend basing yourself in one or more of the following villages:
Egna | Neumarkt
Famous in the region for its streets lined with historic houses and arcades, Egna feels like an oasis that’s far from the maddening crowds. In reality, this charming hamlet is a short drive from Bolzano and has all of the amenities (i.e. restaurants and shops) that travelers require. More important, Egna is Sudtirol’s ground zero for Pinot Noir wine.
You can taste Pinot Noir wine at Egna wineries. You can buy Pinot Noir wine at shops like Castelfeder Wine Shop. You can drink Pinot Noir wine at restaurants like Johnson and Dipoli. And you can walk amid Pinot Noir vines on the Pinot Noir Trail located just outside of the quaint village.
We can’t sing the praises of the varietal locals call blauburgunder enough. Even those (like Mindi) who typically prefer bigger reds will appreciate Egna’s well-balanced Pinot Noir. Whether you drink this wine or pair it with food, it’s notable for its slightly smoky flavors and light blackberry complexity.
“There’s red wine and there’s Pinot Noir.”
If you just take one cellar tour in Egna, it should be at sustainable Pfitscher Winery. Technically not in Egna, the multi-generational winery is just minutes away in the verdant hills of nearby Montagna. The winery grows grapes in six borghi, some on century-old vines.
Not only will you see some of these vines growing in the shadow of the Alps, but you’ll also taste excellent Pinot Noir wine while gazing at that same view. It’s truly one of those ‘pinch me now’ experiences that travel is all about.
Castelbello-Ciardes | Kastelbell-Tschars
Staying overnight in Castelbello has its benefits.
Located on the Val Venosta Wine Route, this village is teeming with both orchards and vineyards. It goes without saying that the juxtaposition of orchards and vineyards with Dolomite mountains is stunning. But do those apples and wine live up to their view?
We’re pleased to report that the quality of both Castelbello’s apples and wine is excellent.
We’ve eaten a lot of apples in our lives. And, with the exception of honeycrisp apples grown in Pennsylvania, Val Venosta apples are easily the best we’ve ever eaten. As for the wine, it impressed us enough that we bought six bottles at three wineries during our visit.
Staying overnight in Castelbello means that you can start your day by walking on paths surrounded by a sea of apple trees in the morning and tasting wines at neighboring wineries that dot those same paths in the afternoon.
It also means that you can complete your day with a luxury dining experience at Kuppelrain, a family run Michelin-starred restaurant, that same night. The key is to call and make advance reservations since the lauded restaurant draws diners from beyond the village’s borders.
You’ll want to taste Gewürztraminer at Weingut Köfelgut, Pinot Noir at Marinushof and both varietals at Rebhof Kastelbell. We did wine tastings at all three of these wineries and purchased bottles from each producer.
Chiusa | Klausen
Ranking as one of Italy’s most beautiful villages, Chiusa’s charms aren’t hidden. The medieval town has ancient churches and historic buildings galore. Plus, a river literally runs through the town.
But Chiusa’s charms go deeper than its pretty facade. This town has an impressive castle, an omnipresent monastery and a myriad of restaurants serving traditional Tyrolean food and a whole lot of pizza. It also has an excellent winery that’s accessible to travelers who want to do tours and tastings.
Our tasting at Valle Isarco Cellar provided us with a fantastic introduction to Alto Adige wine. That’s no overstatement since we enjoyed a generous tasting of nine different wines during our morning visit.
Be warned that you’ll likely want to buy a bottle or two if you do a similar tasting. (We bought two and somehow ended up with a corkscrew.) But this winery isn’t the only fun way to experience wine in Chiusa.
Eating dinner while sitting inside a ginormous wine barrel in Torgglkeller‘s rustic dining room may be the most unique thing to do in Chiusa. Unless you’re craving pizza, plan to eat tasty plates topped with buchweizenspätzle (buckwheat spaetzle), schlutzkrafen (spinach ravioli) and rippelen (crispy pork spare ribs) while seated in one of those barrels.
Caldaro | Kaltern
We got lucky. Our day trip to Caldaro happened to be on a day when the village was hosting a boisterous festival involving oompah bands, tons of food and flowing wine. But there’s plenty to do when there’s no festival in town.
Like many Alto Adige villages, Caldaro has a beautiful wine trail called the Kaltern Weinstrasse. It’s a picturesque route that rambles by rows of vines and offers views of the stunning Caldaro Lake. However, this village has something extra – a wine museum that encapsulates the history of wine in the region.
Caldaro’s South Tyrolean Wine Museum displays barrels, giant wooden wine presses, stained glass, chalices and drinking devices which represent centuries of wine history. While these items are interesting and educational, visitors who step out the museum’s back door can learn about wine the best way possible – by tasting a variety of wine grapes straight from trellised vines that loom over the valley’s gorgeous winescape.
If you don’t quite understand where a vintage comes from, tasting the fruit of the region’s varietals provides an excellent orientation to the fruits of its winemaking. But, let’s face it, tasting grapes is one thing and drinking wine is another.
We accomplished the latter at a Caldaro wine bar where we imbibed glasses of locally produced Lagrein served on a repurposed wine barrel. We then completed our wine mission at the town’s festival.
We didn’t just drink wine at the festival. We also ate a plate topped with polenta, bratwurst and taleggio cheese while listening to the double time oompah of tubas, baritone horns and trumpets. These might not be the types of food or entertainment favored in cities like Rome and Florence and that’s okay. Caldaro is in Alto Adige after all.
Follow our polenta recipe and cook the creamy dish at home.
Termeno | Tramin
Termeno is a must-visit for wine enthusiasts who travel to Alto Adige. The village has a unique claim to fame as it may be the birthplace of Gewürztraminer wine.
Like most origin stories, this one is debatable. After more than 1,000 years, there are no witnesses who lived in Tramin, the town’s original name, back in the day. But the argument has credibility considering that the word gewürztraminer includes Termeno’s original name.
Visiting Termeno is one thing. Tasting its wine is another.
The latter can be easily accomplished at a range of restaurants and bars as well as at wineries like Cantina Tramin. This winery has a claim to fame too. It’s the first Gewürztraminer producer in the entire world of wine to receive 100 points from Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate.
We didn’t just taste Gewürztraminer wine in Termeno. We also hiked on the village’s Gewürztraminer Trail, a beautiful path that’s remarkable for its views of both vineyards and mountains. And the trail’s best part? It’s possible to take a wine break along the way.
Kastelaz Keller is an ideal spot for this type of break. Besides serving local wine, the popular cellar also serves tasty dishes to those who work up appetites during their treks.
Alto Adige Wine Trip Itinerary – 4 Villages Worth A Visit
Not all Alto Adige villages justify an overnight stay.
Some of these villages are homes to important sites. Others are simply beautiful spots that fill the soul with good vibes.
Accomplishing one or both of these feats, the following villages are ideal spots for day trips:
Vipiteno | Sterzing
Vipiteno is easy to love.
With a history that dates back to the Middle Ages, it’s chock full of attractions that include churches and museums. Tall and slender, its Torre delle Dodici acts as both the village’s touchstone and its timepiece.
During our afternoon visit, we wandered into a variety of churches and shops. Daryl even bought a snazzy ski jacket in one of those shops. But, to be honest, our visit was not particularly wine-focused until we hit the road and drove to nearby Novacella Abbey.
Novacella isn’t your typical abbey. Founded in the 12th century, it’s one of the world’s oldest wineries and has terraced slopes that ascend as high as 900 meters. Scheduling a tour to see the vines and learn the history is a must. Of course, tasting the wine is a must too.
During our tour, a knowledgeable guide led us through an ancient gated door to a terrace where vines were growing as far as our eyes could see. He later regaled us with stories as he guided us through a selection of wines that included Kerner, Gewürztraminer and Pinot Nero Riserva. Since the Pinot was our favorite, we bought a bottle as a drinkable souvenir.
Glorenza | Glurns
Located near the Rescher pass, Glorenza is an ancient village that exists in the shadow of the Alps. It gained fame for its salt trade more than 500 years ago and has been destroyed and rebuilt a number of times over the ensuing centuries.
If you drive to Glurns, as Glorenza is commonly called, you’ll enter the village through an ancient one-lane archway that leads into the medieval walled town. Village highlights include a simple public square, a pretty parish church and quiet arcade-covered blocks
But Glorenza has a trick up its sleeve. It’s also the home to the country’s oldest whisky distillery.
Puni Distillery distills whiskey in a modern cube-shaped geometric brick building just a couple blocks outside the city’s walls. We tasted three signature single malt whiskies during our visit.
Not your average whiskies, these smooth spirits were matured in casks sourced from the USA, Spain and Sicily. In other words, their flavor profiles mimicked flavors more commonly found in bourbon, sherry and marsala respectively.
Barbiano | Barbian
You don’t need a lot of time to explore Barbiano. It’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it kind of village. But it’s worth parking your car, traversing the stairs and catching a view of the valley and mountains surrounding the town.
Once you park your car, you can check out Barbiano’s crooked church. It’s not as famous as the crooked baptistry in Pisa, but its lack of notoriety (and possibly its lack of noticeable crookedness) adds to its charm.
Eating is another thing to do in Barbiano. We accomplished this feat at Gasthof zur Traube which proved to be a fine spot for a hearty mid-day meal.
We didn’t notice any other tourists during our weekday visit. Perhaps it was because our visit was during the shoulder season. Then again, we were more focused on eating local dishes like canaderli di spinachi and schnitzel in the traditional Austro-Italian tavern than we were at people watching.
Burgusio | Burgeis
A short drive from Glorenza, Burgusio warrants a visit for one reason – the Marienberg Abbey.
While the monks at this abbey didn’t operate a winery, they did something else special. They built their abbey at an altitude of 1,340 meters which makes it the highest altitude Benedictine abbey in all of Europe.
Alto Adige FAQs
Alto Adige is in Northern Italy. The closest Italian regions are Lombardy and Veneto. It’s also neighbors with Austria and Switzerland.
Yes. Alto Adige is a wonderful destination in Northern Italy. It’s especially worth visiting for travelers who appreciate excellent wine and enjoy mountain adventures.
Yes. Alto Adige, South Tyrol and Sudtirol are different names for the same Italian region.
Alto Adige vineyards produce a prodigious amount of wine. Red varietals include Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Lagrein, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Schiava and Zweigelt while white varietals include Chardonnay, Gewürztraminer, Grüner Veltliner, Kerner, Müller Thurgau, Pinot Blanco, Pinot Grigio, Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc.
Although Alto Adige has been part of Italy for more than a century, German is the region’s primary language. Many residents also speak Italian and a smaller contingent speak English as well.
Hungry For More In Italy?
About The Authors
Daryl & Mindi Hirsch
Saveur Magazine’s BEST TRAVEL BLOG award winners Daryl and Mindi Hirsch share their culinary travel experiences and recipes on their website 2foodtrippers. Since launching the site in 2012, they’ve traveled to over 40 countries in their quest to bring readers a unique taste of the world.
Check out the free Viaggio Italiano e-book to discover more hidden gem destinations in villages throughout Italy.
Original Publication Date: October 29, 2022