It’s not every day you meet a royal lady several hundred years old. But one such endearing elder thrives far below a castle in the village of Prissiano in South Tyrol (Alto Adige).
DEEP IN THE FOOTHILLS bounding between Merano and Bolzano lies one of the world’s greatest living treasures: the Versoaln vine of Castel Katzenzungen. This rare natural gem is likely the oldest and largest grapevine in the world.
Affectionately known as the “Old Lady” by the caretaker and owner of the castle, Veronika Egger Pobitzer, the vine according to viticulturists is 350+ years-old. The only known grapevine in the world of similar age is found in nearby Slovenia.
However, legend speaks of the Versoaln grapevine being even much older. It is said the Count of Schlandersperg planted the vine beneath his castle in 1379 — making her more than 600 years old. Whatever is the truth, the Old Lady is a wonder to behold when visiting South Tyrol.
Meeting the Old Lady of Castel Katzenzungen
The Old Lady of Castel Katzenzungen enthrones herself almost 200 feet below the earth where her roots enjoy the spoils of the soil all to themselves. She eventually surfaces along an old stone wall at the foot of the castle’s hill.
From there, the Old Lady’s gnarled trunk curls into a wide smile as two main branches fan out a river of foliage. We found her wrinkled grin far more enchanting than any ever unfurled by the stroke of an artist’s brush.
But as pretty as her smile is, it’s the Old Lady’s verdant veil that steals your breath. Her leafy canopy shrouds the hillside — covering nearly 3,800 sq. ft. Atop the castle’s stone arch bridge, it appears as a velvety cloak kissed with green and gold. When the sun lances her leaves she almost shimmers in the light.
Looking down on her one can’t help but be in awe of her tenacious spirit. The Old Lady has braved centuries of war, famine and fire to still dazzle the eyes today.
She rests her branches on a sprawling chestnut pergola several feet above the ground. When we first set foot under her canopy it was like walking into a hidden world.
The Old Lady enveloped us in a labyrinth of lushness. Her leaf-riddled arms seemed to pull us down the hill. Clearly, she is a curious soul. Wanting to meet all who enter her realm face to face.
While we studied the trunk of the Old Lady, Veronika shared that the Versoaln grape variety is ancient, exceedingly rare and almost went extinct. Its name pre-dates Ancient Rome and likely refers to how the canopy of vines was secured to trellises by rope. Fortunately, viticulturists from South Tyrol have been able to birth new vines from the Old Lady ensuring the variety’s future.
Vesoaln produces compact clusters of translucent medium-sized grapes. The Old Lady is still quite fruitful yielding enough grapes each year to produce 300-500 bottles of wine.
Veronika noted the castle estate does not actually produce the wine or care for the vine. The grapes are vinified at the Laimburg Research Center — a South Tyrolean agriculture institute located near the wine village of Tramin.
Tending to the health of the Old Lady is handled by the botanical experts of the Gardens of Trauttmansdorff in Merano. In addition to protecting the vine, the Gardens’ promote her as a culturally significant part of South Tyrol’s 3,000-year-old winegrowing heritage.
Despite their efforts to safeguard the vine, how long the Old Lady will be with us is not known. Unfortunately, she has been afflicted with a slow-moving wood disease called Esca, which deprives her of water. To combat this menace, portions of the vine must be removed where Esca appears each year.
Touring Castel Katzenzungen
After giving our best wishes to the Old Lady and bidding her farewell, Veronika led us across the stone arch bridge for a tour of Castel Katzenzungen. This box-shaped castle is unlike any other we have encountered in South Tyrol.
First mentioned in 1244, the castle has been held by several noble families in South Tyrol over the centuries. While its name amusingly translates to “cat’s tongue”, the name actually arises from the original owner: Henricus de Cazenzunge.
From Sir Cazenzunge, the castle passed to the Lords of Fink and the Lords of Schlandersberg, as well as the Counts of Thun and Fuchs. In 1548, Castel Katzenzungen came into the hands of Lords of Breisach, who transformed it into its current Renaissance style.
Inside, Veronika pointed out architectural clues on the original stone staircase hinting a tower may have graced the castle at one point in time. She shared that for nearly 200 years Castel Katzenzungen was among the most prestigious residences in South Tyrol thanks to the wealth of the Breisach family. When their rule ended, the castle fell into decay.
It remained largely in ruin until 1978 when Veronika’s father-in-law, Josef Pobitzer, purchased the castle. Josef then passed the castle to his son, Ernst, who beautifully restored Castel Katzenzungen to its original character and former glory.
Today, the Pobitzer family operates the castle as a one-of-a-kind wedding and corporate event venue. Between its three floors, Castel Katzenzungen can host anywhere from a small group of 10 up to 450 guests.
Veronika led us through each floor highlighting fascinating historic details of the castle. The ground floor now holds lavish banquet rooms and a wine bar, but during medieval times it was actually the castle’s stable. Why? Residents of the castle kept livestock at the lowest level so the animals’ body heat would assist warming the upper floors.
The first floor holds a large hall for live music and dancing. The hall’s stone floor is only around 20 years old, but masterfully resembles the original including its dark red color, which long ago was dyed red with animal blood.
Additional rooms on the first floor include elegant stubes wrapped in warm wood panels from the 16th century. This rustic feature was almost lost to history. Poor farmers staying in the castle during its period of decay covered the paneling to make the rooms smaller thus easier to heat. The gorgeous woodwork was revealed during the castle’s restoration.
Our favorite room of the castle was the medieval kitchen. Its walls run black —forever scarred by woodfires lit over the centuries to smoke speck. Dining in the kitchen under candlelight would undoubtedly transport you to another time.
The second floor features additional banquet rooms for larger gatherings. In the future, the Pobitzer family plans to use part of the floor to also showcase unique artwork, rocks, gemstones, minerals and a collection of historic arms from Josef Pobitzer.
Perhaps the most peculiar part of the second floor is the medieval bathrooms. Stone seats jut out from the exterior castle wall with an opening that allowed residents to relieve themselves high above the grounds. These of course were located on the sides of the castle — not above the front gate. Whether an unlucky peasant ever received these “gifts” from the heavens above we will never know.
Tasting One of the World’s Rarest Wines
We ended our visit to Castel Katzenzungen in the castle’s wine bar with a tasting of the Versoaln wine. The wine bar shares the old world charm of the castle making it the perfect setting to sip the delightful fruit of the Old Lady.
Veronika kindly poured us each a glass and touched on the special attributes of Versoaln. In the glass, the wine sparkled with a yellowish-green hue and possessed subtle notes of green apple and exotic fruits on the nose.
In the mouth, it was surprisingly delicious. A summertime pleaser. The Versoaln wine was light and fruity with a fun touch of tart on the finish. We had to bring a bottle of the Old Lady home with us. Her story is too remarkable not to share.
If you want to sweeten your lips with the Old Lady yourself, the only way to do so is by visiting Castel Katzenzungen. Due to the small production volume of the wine, bottles are only sold at the wine bar.
So how much is a bottle of one of the rarest wines in the world? Surprisingly affordable. For only € 35 you can regale the tale and flavor of the Old Lady of Castel Katzenzungen with your family and friends.
How to Visit the Old Lady & Castel Katzenzungen
If you are a castle or wine lover, you will want to add Castel Katzenzungen and Prissiano to your South Tyrol trip plans. In fact, Prissiano is known as the “village of castles” since it is the historic home to an abundance of regal residences.
Throughout the year, Castel Katzenzungen hosts various cultural and culinary events in support of the local community. If you cannot visit during an event, a castle tour and organized tasting can be arranged for 10 or more.
An annual autumn event we have our heart set on attending someday is a torchlight hike between three castles of Prissiano which includes Castel Katzenzungen. This festive outing is a part of the Keschtnriggl (Chestnut Festival).
Of course, an even better option for you to consider is hosting a smashing gala at Castel Katzenzungen. What could be more romantic than a wedding or anniversary party at a castle amid the mountains?! If you do book such a celebration, we kindly request an invite!
To explore scheduling a visit or more at Castel Katzenzungen, connect with Veronika via the castle’s official website.
The nearby town of Lana makes a convenient base for exploring the region. You can be in Prissiano in a matter of minutes by car or bus or you can wander from sight to sight along the numerous hiking trails crisscrossing the hills and valleys. See our guide to visiting and staying in Lana for more information.
We would like to give special thanks to Veronika for taking time out of her busy day to introduce us to the wonders of the Old Lady and Castel Katzenzungen!
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