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There's History in the Glass

By Michael Schiaparelli · January 9th, 2008 · Fermentations

Last night I had dinner with my in-laws -- spaetzle with butter and onions and big, fat knockwurst.

A typical German meal like this works great with a nice pilsner, but I felt like drinking wine. An off-dry Riesling would pair well, and dependable wines from Germany's spectacular 2005 vintage are still on most store shelves. A 2006 Austrian Gruner Veltliner also would be a fine match.

But I was looking for something a little more … unusual. So I picked a 2006 Stroblhof Strahler Weissburgunder ($13), which was terrific -- full-bodied and slightly waxy-textured with floral aromas and fruit that reminded me of spiced apples. It went perfectly with the smoky sausages and sweet, caramelized onions in the spaetzle.

Now, Weissburgunder is also known as Pinot Blanc -- or Pinot Bianco in Italian. Despite its distinctly Germanic name, however, this version actually hails from Italy -- from the Südtirol ("Southern Tyrol") or "Alto Adige." You might wonder why an Italian wine sounds so German. The story is nearly as interesting as the wine.

Tucked away in the far northeastern corner of Italy bordering Switzerland and Austria, the vineyards of the Alto Adige are planted on the steeps and in the shadows of the towering Dolomites, a branch of the Alps. This mountainous area had been part of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, but in the waning days of World War I a miscommunication among Austrian troops left the area largely undefended against the advancing Italians.

According to the Treaty of Saint-Germain, Italy annexed a large chunk of the Tyrol -- to the south and west of Innsbruck -- along with its population of German speakers. An adjacent area of primarily Italian speakers called Trentino was also ceded to the Italians, which is why you'll often see wines labeled with the place name "Trentino-Alto Adige."

As a result of these long-ago vicissitudes of war, the area's culture and cuisine still have much in common with the Germanic traditions of its neighbors. For instance, a typical meal here might include barley soup and poached trout washed down with local beer -- maybe finished with a slice of apflestrudel.

The vineyards, too, are often planted with less-familiar grapes, including Gewurztraminer, Kerner, Veltliner and Muller-Thurgau. Pinot Grigio is also common, and examples from this cool-climate mountainous region are usually superior -- crisper, more intensely floral -- to lesser versions hailing from farther south.

So, why does all this matter? Next time you buy a bottle of wine, talk to your retailer about the twists and turns of fate that conspired to create it. Maybe even do a little digging of your own on the Internet.

Then, when you take time to really smell the aromas and consider the flavors in your glass, you'll be able to look beyond the taste, the smell, the color and the complexities to find that there's actually a little bit of history in your glass.

CONTACT MICHAEL SCHIAPARELLI: mschiapa@cinci.rr.com. Fermentations runs in this space once a month.



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