In Merano luxury is about intimate access…

Merano is a quaint village perched at the base of the Alps in Alto Adige in the north of Italy. Here the air is smooth and clean and the scenery is breathtaking. Well known to high-end German and Swiss tourists, Merano has not really been discovered by Americans or the British. This is where the Austro-Hungarian Hapsburg Empire nobility had their second homes. This is also the region that made the wine for the Hapsburg Court. In Merano you can taste wine with the makers, have a late night snack with the chef, and spend the day skiing with a count without knowing it. As a high-end luxury vacation spot for generations, Merano and the surrounding region really understand the meaning of luxury.

South Tyrol is an exclusive tourist destination for Germans, Swiss and Austrians in summer. This is both positive and negative. On the positive side the region is set up for tourists with 5-star restaurants, spas, botanical gardens, castle tours and many excellent places to stay. On the negative side, it can be a bit crowded during the summer vacation season. Biking and hiking are very popular here and a wine/ bike enthusiast is in heaven.

The small town of Merano is picture perfect and idyllic. There is a beautiful small town square where you enjoy the sunshine while sitting in front of the ancient church. Many excellent spas also call Merano home. The public spa is one of the best town spas in Europe. Co-ed and nude it offers at least half a dozen different types of saunas and steam rooms. There is also an ice room and an ultra hot communal sauna that is run by a sauna master. Outside (with clothes back on) there are lovely pools, plenty of grass to lounge on and children playing in the water and the sunshine.

In the town itself there are many amazing restaurants. Merano cuisine includes both traditional Austrian and Italian foods. Prior to 1918 this area was part of Austria and the people still consider themselves Austrian rather than Italian. However, the rich mixture of cuisines and cultures gives a tourist a little bit of both. As an English-speaking tourist you will want to brush up on your German or Italian. However, there is some English spoken and the chefs commonly come out and spend time talking and socializing with the guests. Compared to the more tourist-ridden sections of Italy the atmosphere is casual, elegant and intimate.

The wines around Merano are grown according to traditional agricultural methods. This in not vino monoculture. Apples (hence the grappa) and other fruits are grown in the valleys, while the vineyards climb the surrounding hillsides especially those with southern exposures. The region’s latitude also gives the wines that special something provided by the precarious knife’s edge of growing conditions.

Hiking buffs and wine aficionados should seek out Reinhold Messner’s Castle Juval located a short distance outside of Merano. Messner’s Castel Juval, museum, and residence are at the very top of the sheer cliffs where Martin Aurich grows the grapes for Unterortl wines. Many hiking enthusiasts come every day to pay homage to Messner. Considered by many to be the best climber of all time, Messner was the first to climb Everest without using supplemental oxygen and the first to climb all 14 mountains higher than 8,000 meters. Messner’s fans walk or drive past the small winery of Tenuta Unterortl without knowing they are passing another maverick in the field of wine.

While visiting Castel Juval it is well worth your time to visit the winery, have lunch at the small cafe Schlosswírt farther up the mountain and then take a small hike up to Messner’s museum to take in the breathtaking scenery of the valley and the Dolomite peaks. A walking path near the cafe runs along a small ancient spring filled aqueduct, called a ‘waale.’ Schlosswírt also offers a few rooms if you wish to spend the night. The cafe serves Unterortl wines by the glass so you can taste them paired with food before buying. An added bonus is the scenic outdoor patio with a small playground for children.

Martin Aurich and his wife Gisela founded Unterortl in 1992. They were already living in South Tyrol when they were introduced to Messner through a neighbor. At the time Messner was looking for someone to manage the apple fields surrounding Castel Juval.  Martin, who was working in Lana producing juices and marmalades, was a perfect candidate for the apples. However, he had a different vision for the steep hillsides of Castel Juval. Martin, who is from Berlin, was trained in wine, beer and distillates at the Geisenheim in Germany and vines, not apples, were his passion.  During the late 80’s he was involved with the Laimburg Institute of South Tyrol and it was here that he honed his skills and developed his ideas while conducting experiments in micro vinification. Aurich saw the steep cliffs, the southern exposures and the unique soil and he knew that Messner’s land was perfect for producing top quality Pinot Blanc (bianco). He explained his ideas to Messner and in Messner he found a kindred spirit. Both men are risk takers, purists and perfectionists. Martin and Gisela started with one hectar of grapes in 1992. The house was built in 1994. Slowly but surely the apple orchards were replaced with grape vines. The dizzying elevation of 600-850 meters with vines marching across slopes as steep as 45% produces an ideal microclimate for growing Pinot Noir, Pinot Blanc and Riesling. The terroir has been cultivated for at least the last 500 years and Iron Age remains have also been found here. The soil composition is mostly porphyry and granite and it is substantially unique in that it contains no calcium. Martin and Gisela have matched the special terrior with equally individualistic choices. They have chosen to stay on the cutting edge of wine production since Unterortl’s inception. For example, in laying out the vineyards Martin chose to run many of the fields vertically rather than horizontally. This gives the grapes more light, drainage and air. This is strictly against tradition and many people thought he was nuts. His idea has paid off handsomely producing some of the healthiest vines in the valley. Some other experiments include the introduction of screw caps and using only stainless steel tanks. Aurich is also the first to release Riesling two years after harvest. Other producers will tell you their Rieslings are best 14 months later and that they would prefer to exclusively use screw caps but Aurich is enough of a risk taker and individualist to actually do these things. Martin will admit that not all of his experiments have paid off but from the depth and character of the wines it is clear that he is right a great deal more often than he is wrong.

The unique location means that all facets of viticulture at Castel Juval are painstaking and preformed manually. Martin and Gisela have tended each vine as if it were a child. The end results are fantastically complex Rieslings and Pinots. There are smoky overtones and mineral flavors mixed with the scents of pears and apples. The Rieslings are dry, with high acidity, mineral complexity and rounded elegance. Due to the small production and painstaking viticulture Castel Juval wines do not come easily nor are they inexpensive. Like many things rare and wonderful you have to work for them. Currently they are not distributed in the United States. The best way to secure them is to contact Unterortl directly and have them shipped or to buy and drink them in Italy, Switzerland, Germany or Austria. Also be aware that Martin usually sells out completely. Unterortl has also started seriously making grappa. If the sparkle in Martin’s eye is any indication it’s his intention to make some of the best grappa Italy has ever seen.

The wines of Tenuta Hofstatter are also outstanding. Located along the wine road of Termeno, Hofstatter’s tasting room is open to the public and English is spoken. Hofstatter wines are planted around the majestic manor houses of Oberyngram and Unteryngram. Hofstatter is particular known for their red Cuvee “Yngram”. The Yngram estate itself includes several farmhouses and a medieval church dedicated to St. Michael. Hofsatter also grows syrah, petit verdot and merlot grapes. Hofstatter was one of the first to vary the types of wines grown in the Adige Valley. Hostatter Gerwurztraminer Kolbenhof has received many awards and their wines are available in the US. Talking with the owner was fascinating because he was really interested in talking about the market dynamics of wine production and wine selling. A sophisticated businessman, we discussed the global market of wine and how tastes and fashions are constantly shifting much faster than the vines can grow. He talked about the inevitable power of large markets and how they can dictate and dominate the kinds of wines and spirits that are made all over the world.

For the more geeky scientific winos out there, there is the Laimburg Institute. Laimburg is dedicated to helping the farmers of the region with scientific agricultural support such as soil testing. In addition to the labs, Laimburg also produces wines and it has one of the most breathtaking cellars ever built blasted out of living rock. Again, English is spoken, the cellars can be toured and the wines are fantastic. Aromatic salts and herbs sold at the small store are not to be missed. These are but a glimpse of the wine culture that is Alto Adige. A small but complete guide to the region’s wines in English is available through Alto Adige Wines entitled “Alto Adige Wine Country”. Thomas Vaterlaus is the author, with an English translation by Philip Isenberg.

Take a day or two to bike or drive over to the Alps to Tirano in Lombardy. Absolutely breathtaking scenery will surround you on all sides during the journey and on the other end you will find the cellars and family villa of Conti Sertoli Salis.

Visiting the winery and the Palazzo of Sertoli Salis is a unique experience. Set in the small town of Tirano you can also easily take the train here from Milan. The town sits at the mouth of the Alps. The Count’s family villa is right in town and it is a wonderful example of another era. The tasting room and old cellars are on the grounds and a small cafe set next to the villa allows you to taste all the wines and enjoy a snack. The villa is being refurbished and for a small fee you can tour most of the villa and gardens. The Palazzo itself is worth the train ride from Milan. Unlike many castles that are open for viewing, the scale of this Palazzo is authentic and accessible. The central placement in the town and the layout are traditional and these types of fine old palace town homes are found throughout Italy. Most of these town homes are still privately held and are closed to the public. You are likely not to even notice their entrances among the streets of Milan, Rome, Venice or Florence. Unless you have friends who own one of these beautiful homes, the Palazzo Sertoli Salis is probably as close as you will get to experiencing how the elite in Italy have lived for generations. The facade of the Palazzo Sertoli Salis dates to the late 16th Century while the entrance is based upon a design by the Baroque architect Vignola.

This winery is adjusting into the change from their old oenologist Claudio Introini to  Vittorio Fiore. Conti Sertoli Salis, as the name suggests are wines produced by a Count, or at least they were. The last Count had a vision to revive the wine making of his ancestors and it became his all consuming passion until his death a few years ago. The history of wine making for Sertoli Salis extends back for generations into the mythical past as surely as their ancient cellar winds into the deep earth. Sertoli Salis’ Sforzato Canua is an outstanding wine and a testament to the prior Count’s dedication. Redolent of chocolate, berries and spices this intense yet delicate wine has consistently received high praise from Rosso and other critics.

The town of Merano is surrounded by some of the best skiing available in Europe. A short drive from Merano is a very unique ski experience among dozens of fine accommodations. During the winter season Vigilius Mountain Resort is perched on an otherwise private ski mountain that has a few privately owned cabins that have been handed down for generations. The resort and the mountain are only available via cable car. The resort is modern in style and fabulous. Red leather seats punctuate open spaces dedicated to the beauty of raw wood and chiseled stone. Vigilius is open both in summer and in winter.

Staying at the Vigilius does not limit your South Tyrol ski experience to one mountain. On the contrary, the resort has a unique ski program that offers guided ski excursions three days a week to the best skiing venues in the region. The trips take you to the best of  Sellaronda, the nearby ski resort in Ultenatl and Schwemmalm, Merano 2000 and Pfelders. Guides are available for all levels of skiers. The emphasis is on great skiing, convenience and access. The guides are also ski instructors so the small groups are also a great way to improve your technique while you enjoy the best slopes in the world.

Daniel Pott is Brand Manager at PrivateJetsCharter.com.

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Comments (2)

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  1. I was just in the lovely town of Merano to visit the botanical gardens at Trauttmansdorff Castle. They were really lovely and should not be missed by anyone visiting the area.

  2. With winter almost here, it is worth mentioning again the world-class skiing you can do from a base in Merano. Area passes to many ski resorts in the Dolomites allow you to visit a new one each day; even resorts in Austria are an easy drive. And then you have all these wonderful sights to see and taste in Merano each day apres ski!

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