Friday, February 18, 2011


It's time to say auf wiedersehen Deutschland and benvenuti Italia.
First, though, we have to pass through Austria. Driving in Europe can be an eye opener for an American, where an hour's drive can take you through several different countries. But since the integration of Europe, border stops are a thing of the past. In fact, we would hardly have noticed that we crossed the border into Austria except that our phone receives a text message informing us that we are now roaming with a new carrier.

In any case, our visit to Austria is brief. About 45 minutes brief. We make a quick stop at a gas station just inside the border to buy some chocolate and a vignette, a highway tax sticker that is obligatory in order to use the Austrian autobahn. The minimum 7 day pass seems a bit of overkill for our hourlong journey, but at €7 it is cheaper than a fine. Not much to remark about Austria except that in our 45 minute grand tour I can't think of a single funny thing to say about it. It does seem such a serious place.

Austria gives way to Italy, and along the way the landscape is transformed from beautiful to breathtaking. Towering mountains rise from flat plains, stretching above the cloud cover so their snow covered peaks are shrouded from view. Bridges, perched thousands of feet above rocky chasms connect mountain passes to one another, giving incredible panoramic views of nature's beauty. Along these roads are a number of important ski slopes, where olympians from many countries train. This year the snow is scarce, impacting the local economies and, perhaps, the level of competition at the next olympics.

About an hour inside the Italian border, as we near Trento, our destination for the next two days, we exit the highway and proceed up a steep hill toward the village of Faedo, home to a number of Trentino wineries. We are home at last. We are going to drink wine.

As we twist our way up the windy road to the Pojer e Sandri winery, the valley below begins to disappear into the distance. This is unusual terrain, with vast flat plains, surrounded by high peaks and steep hills. The whole valley is shrouded in a damp fog, but temperatures are mild, not nearly as cold as you would expect, and the sun peeks out occasionally. We are told later that day that the cold weather and winds are the secret ingredient in the region's white wines, with a large temperature differential between the night and day preserving and enhancing the local grapes' perfume and sophistication. Further to the south, where the sun bears down upon the plants, the delicate aromas of the grapes are literally cooked away. Here they are an essential element of the area's wines, especially its white wines.

And make no mistake about it, Trentino and Alto Adige are known for their white wines. That is the principal reason why we are here - to learn about and try these wines, many of which are difficult to find back home. We start our education at the Pojer e Sandri winery, our first stop since reaching Italy, literally an hour and a half into our visit.

The winery is marked clearly enough, but there are few signs of life in what appears to be the office and tasting room complex. We are a little hesitant to start knocking on doors or to be too pushy, but our experiences at smaller, family run wineries in Umbria gives us some confidence to press on. We walk inside what appears to be a tasting room and finally see a young man in his office doing some paperwork. We ask if the cantina is open for a taste and he happily escorts us inside and begins a half hour of tasting and describing his wines. We are up front with him that Trentino's wines are new to us, but he seems to value our enthusiasm and is most willing to share his insights (and his wine). We learn of the teroldego grape, an indigenous red grape that is a staple in Trentino wine. We learn, too of the muller thurgau, a high altitude grape with a delicate, mineral bite.  The nosiola, another indigenous grape that seems to be a favorite secret weapon in the local winemaker's arsenal rounds out the bunch.

For the past several years we have been getting to know the wines and the grapes of Umbria - the sagrantino, grechetto, trebbiano spoletino. The beauty (or terror) of Italian wine is that a hundred miles to the north, you have to relearn an entire new vocabulary and a whole new sensory palate. It's a tough job, but someone has to do it.

The first thing you notice about these Trentino whites is the elegant and complex bouquet or perfume. It is also the last thing you notice about these whites, because the perfumes are so distinctive and persistent. But beyond the olfactory, there is a certain mineral quality that is distinctive to these wines, but which also varies by the grape variety. There certainly is a lot of "terroir" going on here.

Another thing you notice about Trentino wines, at least in our vast 24 hours of experience, is how much of the land is used for growing grapes. Along the drive from the north, we saw steep hills cut with shallow stone-faced terraces, wide enough for just a single row of grapes. But that land was not going to be wasted. On the hillside where Pojer e Sandri sits, the entire slope is covered with vines. Along the plains, once again vines stretch as far as the eye can see, these lowland vines mostly being red grapes. Land is so expensive and so valuable here that we even noticed a row of grapes planted along the rail bed of the railroad.

At the Bertagnolli Distillery. Mmmm. Grappa
So our education into northern Italian wine has begun. And although we enjoyed greatly the beers we were able to try in Germany, drinking a clear liquid from a stemmed glass makes us feel more at home than drinking a cloudy one from a bucket. And we haven't even started on grappa yet. More on that tomorrow, as well as our memorable evening with our new local friends.

Ci vediamo!
Bill and Suzy

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