Shortly before Christmas, I drove for an hour or so north, from Verona up to the Alto Adige. If you’re familiar with Verona, you almost certainly have seen the river which encircles the historic city, the river Adige. Alto Adige is the mountainous region, where that river originates. This area is also widely known by its German name, South Tyrol, because approximately 60% of the local population are native German speakers, whilst only 20% grew up speaking Italian.
It’s a dramatic and interesting route to drive because once you’ve left the fog of the Verona plains behind, the mountains creep closer and the road you are travelling along becomes dwarfed by the rocky landmasses on either side.
Head into the foothills above the city of Bozen / Bolzano and you find yourself lost in wine country. The roads are windy and impossibly narrow for oncoming traffic, and the villages have remain untouched since yesteryear.
It’s here, at approximately 500 metres above sea level, that you find Thomas Niedermayr. Thomas manages 5 hectares of vineyards (part owned, part rented) at this family-run winery. His father has been cultivating grapes and making wine, organically and with a strong emphasis on biodiversity, since the late 80s but it was more a side-project than a viable business.
Having decided to pursue winemaking as a career, Thomas, who originally studied carpentry, enrolled at the reputed Laimburg research centre to learn oenology. 2012 was the culmination of those studies and it was to prove a defining year; several months of work experience at a biodynamic farm in Austria and then a placement to learn English in London gave Thomas the drive and direction that is so valuable at the start.
It’s still very much a family effort; when we arrive, Thomas’ dad, Rodolf, is cutting back a hedge and his sister is pruning in the vineyards. Meanwhile, a menagerie of animals cluck, peck, sniff and hop around us.
It’s cold out so after a brisk walk through the vineyards, Thomas shows us his brand new cellar, which he’s made himself, almost entirely from wood – a doth of the hat to his previous passion for carpentry. In that cellar you find a range of white and red wines; some aged in stainless steel, others in wooden barrels of varying sizes…. but not from the grape varieties that you might expect! The most notable aspect that differentiates Thomas from others is his dedication to PIWI grape varieties.
PIWI varieties are hybrids, made from crossing commonly found European grape varieties with a resistant American counterpart and creating a result which is resistant to downy and powdery mildew. The advantage of PIWI varieties is that they remove the need to treat with copper and sulphur and therefore pollute the environment far less than conventional and even organic agriculture. You can find more information about PIWI varieties on this website.
Varieties that Thomas works with include Solaris, Bronner and Souvignier Gris. Each has its own completely different aromatic profile and my resolution for 2019 is to become more familiar with their typicities.
As we leave the cellar, there’s a small table off to one side which is practically hidden by the quantity of bottles, demi-johns and contraptions which lie atop. It turns out that these are Thomas’ many, many micro-vinifications. His first harvest (picked, vinified and bottled) was in 2013 but he admit that he’s still learning and still experimenting.
“If we don’t experiment, how would we know what works and what doesn’t?” Touché.
Visit: 21st December 2018