Discover the alluring world of South Tyrolean apples. 🍎 These mountain-born gems will dazzle your mouth and inspire your wanderlust heart to new heights.
When Eve plucked the proverbial apple from the tree in the Garden of Eden it very well may have been in South Tyrol, Italy. Crowning the far northern edge of the country, this mountainous haven, also known as Alto Adige and Südtirol, is blessed with some of the most stunning scenery in the world.
Here, Mediterranean valleys crash into Alpine glory producing striking snow-capped vistas illuminated by terrain ablaze with tropical lushness. One can’t help but be in constant awe of such beauty.
But beauty is not the only flourishing charm of South Tyrol. Upon arriving, you’ll almost immediately encounter apple orchard after apple orchard.
Surprised? So were we. A mountain-riddled land is not where we expected to admire apple trees. But there they are, their red, green, and gold bounty shining like gemstones against the backdrop of South Tyrol’s frosted peaks, time-honored castles, and leafy vineyards.
The Alpine Apples of South Tyrol
With over 18,000 hectares (picture 15,000 baseball fields) of apple orchards spread throughout the region, South Tyrol is the largest self-contained apple-producing region in Europe. South Tyrolean Apples, or Mela Alto Adige and Südtiroler Apfel, as they are also known, are a fundamental element of the local economy and a source of pride for the region.
Just as the French guard the sanctity of their Bordeaux with fervent intensity, so too do the South Tyroleans defend their apples. For 7,000 families, these orchards aren’t just pretty landscapes, they’re life, they’re legacy. Each year, their labor culminates in an eye-popping 900,000 tons of apples. That’s enough to fill half of Italy’s apple market, 15 percent of Europe’s apple supply, and two percent of the entire globe’s apple production. But their influence doesn’t end at satisfying your sweet tooth; these apples work their magic in cosmetics, spa treatments, and a whole lot more, both in Italy and abroad.
While “Mela Alto Adige PGI” and “Südtiroler Apfel PGI” might not roll off the tongue as sweetly as the bite into the apple they denote, these labels are more than mere words. They’re badges of honor, hallmarks protected by the “Protected Geographical Indication” (PGI) within the European Union, a stringent quality designation that is not handed out like candy at a parade. Since 2005, South Tyroleans have been perfecting their craft, producing over a dozen varieties of apples under the stringent conditions that this PGI certification requires.
When you see the “South Tyrolean Apple PGI”, “Mela Alto Adige PGI” and “Südtiroler Apfel PGI” labels, know this: it’s a declaration, a salute to a people who stand by their unique way of doing things, a way that ensures the heart and soul of South Tyrol’s is within every juicy bite.
How Geography Enhances South Tyrolean Apples
When you survey the agricultural landscape of South Tyrol, one king stands atop the throne: the apple. Apples overshadow the production of all other crops, dairy, and meats in the region. It’s an undeniable homage to the intrepid genius of South Tyrolean farmers, who, with commendable innovation and grit, have mastered the complex art of apple farming in areas soaring over 3,200 feet (975 m).
South Tyrol’s steep mountainous terrain actually elevates every mouth-pleasing quality you seek in an apple. Apples at higher elevations mature slower making them crisper and denser. Furthermore, the wider temperature swings between day and night beautify the apples even more by producing more vivid hues of red, green and gold. These vibrant colors aren’t just visual treats; they are a delicious promise of the flavor explosion that awaits in every bite.
The South Tyrol’s apple story extends beyond their journey from the orchard to the table. Every apple, nurtured by the sun-soaked alpine air and the rich soil of South Tyrol, is a testament to its origin. These apples are more than just delectable fruits; they’re symbolic of the region’s resilience, a tribute to the unwavering determination of the farmers who make the impossible possible. Every time you sink your teeth into the South Tyrolean apple, you do not just enjoy the sweet-tart crunch of the perfect fruit but also taste the hard work, resolve, and unwavering spirit of those who cultivate it.
The Art of Growing South Tyrolean Apples
In the late 1800s, Friedrich Wilhelm Raiffeisen launched the apple cooperative movement to ensure the economic survival of the apple industry in South Tyrol. The movement instilled principles of mutual help, self-governance and self-responsibility.
These tenets allowed small growers to expand their market share and foster a brand reputation that is second to none in the world of apples. Today, over 90% of apple production in South Tyrol is controlled by the cooperative system.
A bite into a South Tyrolean apple is a delectable adventure unto itself, but to gain a better understanding of the apple’s importance to the people of this region, our friend and South Tyrol expert, Reka Hukari suggested touring Kurmark-Unifrut, a co-op in Margreid — a charming hamlet of about 1,000 villagers located 25 minutes south of Bolzano.
Kurmark-Unifrut is a 480-member strong co-op cultivating almost 800 hectares and producing 55,000 tons of fruit each year. Unifrut was founded in 1946 while Kurmark was founded in 1960. The two co-ops merged in 2001.
We met Reka in Kurtatsch, a quaint wine village 5 minutes from Tramin, mid-morning and took a little time to stroll through its lovely cobblestone streets in the warm morning light. Before heading to Margreid, Reka led us up a nearby mountain to get the lay of the apple production in the valley. We walked through a sun-soaked vineyard, passing a small church that looked as old as the mountain itself until we came to a sheer cliff edge.
Below us unfolded a vast checkerboard of orchards in every hue of green. From this vantage point, the importance of the apple to South Tyrol really hit home. Reka explained how the valley basin is home to the orchards while the vineyards cling higher up the slopes. We learned apple trees thrive in wet soil, but the grape vines do not like “wet feet” as she put it.
We sped back down the mountain to the Kurmark-Unifrut headquarters and were graciously met by Luis Codalonga, the co-op’s tour guide and wizard of all things apple. Luis instructed us to adorn some gnarly-looking hairnets and neon yellow safety vests, which we of course memorialized with frequent photos.
Next, we found ourselves comfortably seated as we were introduced to Kurmark-Unifrut. We discovered that their primary apple varieties included Royal Gala, Golden Delicious, and Granny Smith. Our guide, Luis, then escorted us from the central office to a nearby orchard located within the property.
Luis outlined how the co-op seamlessly integrates apple cultivation with environmental care. They employ pest control strategies such as green fertilization and pheromone traps, among others.
Luis further delved into the scientific process of determining the perfect harvesting time. The growers at Kurmark-Unifrut conduct regular tests on apples for sugar, density, and starch content. The apples are only harvested when these content levels align with their rigorous standards. While the harvesting period in South Tyrol varies depending on the apple variety, it typically kicks off in August and concludes in October.
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Perfecting Timeless Flavors
Once picked, Kurmark-Unifrut stores the apples in immense cold storage buildings. According to Luis, these behemoths were designed to architecturally mimic an apple crate. Upon walking in we were immediately thankful we brought our jackets.
Redish-orange cellar doors lined the long hallway. Within, crates flush with South Tyrolean apples sat on top of each from floor to ceiling. Each cellar can hold 1,000 crates we were told, which equates to 300 tons of apples.
Kurmark-Unifrut segments the apples with green and gray crates. Gray crates hold apples designated for baking and juicing. Green crates contain apples ready for consumption.
The purpose of the cold storage facility is to slow the physiological development of the apples without using chemicals. Low oxygen levels and cold temperatures ensure the apples stay fresh throughout the year.
This approach does not come without risk. We were surprised to learn that people have lost their lives foolishly thinking they can dart in and out of a cellar. The low oxygen levels can claim victims without warning.
Next, we toured the co-op’s apple sorting and packing facility. While the cold storage building was eerily quiet, this facility was alive with action. The hum of machinery and hustle followed us on every step. Not to mention the sweet aroma of apples! The luster of red, gold and green apples beamed against the drab equipment.
Luis informed us that timing is everything when it comes to processing South Tyrolean apples, so upon leaving cold storage the apples must be processed, packed and shipped as efficiently as possible to guarantee freshness. Kurmark-Unifrut prides itself on producing the freshest produce to its consumers and has made substantial investments in the latest technologies to that end.
The co-op uses state-of-the-art optical technology that captures 64 images of each apple as it passes through a water lane. This produces a 3D replication uncovering imperfections at a processing speed of 5-7 apples per second.
At the end of the 10 optical sorting lines, bins lower to capture the apples using a vacuum suction technique. A final inspection is performed with the human eye before packaging.
The co-op packages apples for multiple brands, which vary by the destination country. Each package includes the PGI designation mentioned earlier — guaranteeing the quality, uniqueness, and exceptional taste of the apples.
Savoring Every Sip & Bite
Following the tour, Luis treated us to an apple tasting, which included sampling a glass of apple juice. Similar to boxed wine in the United States, South Tyrolean grocers carry boxed apple juice varieties.
Packed with flavor and softness, the juice wowed our lips. We loved its freshness and made a note to hit a local grocer before heading back to our resort.
Next up were the South Tyrolean apples. We were familiar with a few of the varieties, including Braeburn, Red Delicious, Granny Smith and Royal Gala, but were not at all prepared for the lush juiciness that came with every bite. We love American apples; however, South Tyrol’s apples stood a mountain apart. They were more aromatic and the flavors seem to burst in your mouth.
Kanzi and Modi were unfamiliar to us…and absolutely delightful. These two were our personal favorites. Modi exhibited a more modern taste, golden hues and a juicy burst balanced nicely with acidity and sweetness. Kanzi was both sour and sweet with a crispness that sings between your teeth. Its name means “hidden treasure”. A perfect apple to conclude our visit.
We snapped a few final pictures and thanked Luis for the fascinating tour. He made sure we took a handful of apples to enjoy for our hiking outing the following day.
Exploring South Tyrol’s Apple Country
If you’re a fan of apples (and let’s be honest how can you not be), do yourself a favor and explore South Tyrol’s treasured fruit during your visit. Towns such as Lana and Merano offer numerous hikes along the region’s Waalwegs where you can wander by numerous orchards not mention vineyards, forests and Alpine meadows. The aromas and sights you encounter will make your senses dance with joy. Villanders in Valle Isarco is another lovely apple-friendly place. Here, you can admire South Tyrolean apples set against the mighty backdrop of the Dolomites.
Wherever you hike, be sure to stop at a trailside stand or two where you can drop a few coins to sample apples, Apfelsaft, and other delicious local specialties. You will not be disappointed. By the way, we should point out, the urge to nab an apple from a tree is hard to resist. However, doing such delicious mischief would be a foolish disservice to the hard-working South Tyroleans whose livelihoods depend on apple harvests each year. Always purchase your snacks.
If you time your visit right in the spring, you’ll witness the flowering of the apple orchards. The trees awaken with white and violet blooms that blanket the valleys all the way up to the rolling hillsides. You can also time your visit in the fall to partake in harvest celebrations including the Apple Festival, Merano Grape Festival, Speckfest and, our personal favorite: Törggelen. The Apple Festival in Naz-Sciaves is held in early October each year. The festival includes a grand parade, the crowning of the Apple Queen, live music, dance and of course plenty of scrumptious South Tyrolean apples for the biting.
No matter when you go, travel to South Tyrol would be complete without trying its world-famous apple strudel. We dive into this traditional treat after almost every hike. It’s the perfect way to end a day of wandering in this corner of paradise.
Where to Stay to Enjoy South Tyrol’s Apple Culture
An excellent place to base yourself for an apple-filled adventure is the award-winning Apfelhotel Torgglerhof. This apple-obsessed oasis is located 20 minutes north of Merano. Nestled among South Tyrol’s apple-laden landscapes, the Apfelhotel Torgglerhof is Vahalla for farm and wellness aficionados. The retreat is like a love letter to the apple penned in the language of hospitality. Guests even receive their own apple tree as a loyalty gift.
The moment you arrive, you’re greeted by the alluring, sweet scent of apples, setting the stage for an immersive experience that indulges all your senses. Even the resort’s spa treatments tap into the magical rejuvenating properties of apples, harnessing their natural power to soothe, revitalize, and renew.
Another wonderful option to consider is Preidlhof Hotel & Spa in Naturns. The resort sits on a mountainside with an apple orchard running right up to its doorstep!
Preidlhof stands out not just for its breathtaking setting, but for its unwavering commitment to holistic wellness. Here, you can surrender to the restorative touch of expert therapists, partake in wellness programs thoughtfully designed to rejuvenate mind, body, and soul, and feast on nourishing gourmet cuisine prepared from locally sourced ingredients.
Furthermore, nearby hikes such as the trail leading to the mountain castle, Castel Juval, will wind you through numerous orchards and vineyards providing unforgettable views of South Tyrol’s Val Venosta. Read our review of Preidlhof to learn more.