Italian Wine, American Roots – No, Literally

Day 2 at Brunnenburg Castle – Traditional Alpine Farming

(Approximately 3 min read)

The commute today was a little bit slower… my bus got trapped behind a tractor chugging uphill at its own pace, unperturbed by the line of cars in its wake. But once I arrived, the stop-and-go bus was quickly forgotten because I discovered it was a grape harvesting day!

I, along with Anna (the lead farmhand) and the American exchange students, grabbed some bright red bins and followed Nik the farmer down the steep hill to the grapes on the property edge closest to the valley. There we got a thorough lesson about all things grape vine related.

At the start of the pep talk we were introduced to the two different types of grape we would be working with that day: sauvignon gris and gold muskateller (the farm has experimented with upwards of 40 different varieties). Then we jumped right into methods for developing organic fungi resistant plants.

Nik pointed towards a knot at the base of the vine stocks and explained that American roots were grafted onto different varieties of grape in nurseries before planting. The term grafting is brand-new to me and summoned images of old-school Graf skates and Jofa helmets.

So for the beginners (hand raised), grafting is the farming practice employed for combining two plants. In full Frankenstein style, two different species are cut and bandaged together such that they grow into a single plant. American roots are resistant to an invasive bug (phylloxera) that nearly wiped out all Italian vineyards when accidentally imported in 1840. The visible knot Nik is showing us, is the delineation scar between the American root system and the Italian grape variety.

But it gets even more “Abby Normal” than that… many of the grape vines at Brunnenburg are actually three different plants grafted together. Because grape vines typically take 4-5 years to mature for harvest, experimenting with different varieties can become far too prohibitive. However, by grafting new species on the top, new varieties can be grown, harvested, and fermented for tasting within a years time.

Interestingly, we were told of a vineyard across the valley that was home to the sole surviving Italian-rooted vine. Located in high altitude and protected by another local castle, this 360 year old vineyard alluded the American phylloxera pest.

One challenge of experimenting with varieties to test for drought, fungi, and mildew resistance is the Italian authorities, who closely police wine production in the country. New species must be registered and petitioned for addition to a list of accepted wines before being permitted to be bottled and sold. In fact, the government can oversea the uprootal of illegal plants and perpetrators can face hefty fines. This adds to the challenges of finding optimal grapes to grow organically and under changing climate conditions.

After the lesson, we got to harvesting! We picked several buckets of grapes.

The afternoon was spent dislodging piles of branches to clear the vineyard aisles. It felt a lot like trying to detangle my hair after a day in the sea. The branches were deeply tangled together and dislodging them from the regrown brush required all of my strength. Even thought the pitch forking was tough, it was a satisfying workout in the afternoon sun. To cap things off, we stacked some fire wood for drying.

We had a brief discussion about the castle’s conversion from medieval fireplaces, to oil-burning furnaces, and subsequently to high efficiency wood burning furnaces. The castle now uses locally produced wood pellets or harvested-on-site logs with a high efficiency burner that allows for more complete combustion and fewer emissions.

The day ended with some post-work Frost beers from the brewery in the valley. As the group chatted with well-deserved beers in hand, the local geese took offense to our presence. Advice that you will surely need one day – when a goose tries to bite you, grab it’s neck.

Hey there!

I’m Jacquie and I’m an American hockey player living in Bolzano, Italy. I write about hockey, sustainability, and food.

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