Ancient wonders abound in South Tyrol. But only one can stake the claim as one of the oldest operating wineries in the world. Nestled just to the north of South Tyrol’s oldest town lies the Abbey of Novacella (also known as “Abbazia di Novacella” in Italian and “Kloster Neustift” in German).
This cultural treasure near Brixen was founded in 1142 — more than 875 years ago. It is among the most stunning historic destinations in South Tyrol. A symphony of sights beautifully orchestrated amid rolling vineyards and forested slopes.
Anyone admiring the Abbey of Novacella, from near or far, will be immediately struck by its architectural splendor spanning centuries. The monastery boasts a labyrinth of structures, courtyards and walls showcasing Gothic, Baroque and Rococo character from various epochs.
The history of Novacella alone is enough to justify a visit, but we were drawn to it for reasons that please the lips as much as the soul. We sought to discover how a monastery adhering to a monastic rule dating back to the 4th century, the strict religious order of Saint Augustine, produces some of the most highly regarded wines in Italy.
Wandering the Vines of Novacella
We arrived at the Abbey of Novacella late in the morning on a day when the South Tyrolean sun blessed every waking moment. Walking into the main courtyard we encountered a foreboding building. This castled structure stood etched with medieval menace. You could be forgiven for thinking a mere cracking of its door would unleash the Dark Ages.
We later learned this stone marvel was far from sinister. The Castel Sant’Angelo (Castle of the Holy Angel) was originally a chapel dedicated to St. Michael but took on its imposing castle facade in the 15th century when the monastery was fortified to protect against invading Turks.
Elias Holzer, the sommelier of Novacella, soon greeted us as we stood eyeing an outdoor patio off the courtyard. Its enticing setting looked ripe for unwinding and losing all sense of time. After a quick introduction, Elias led us on a tour of the property.
We passed through a massive arched doorway into the vineyards encircling the abbey. Stone walls staggered up the slopes creating a terrace of vines running from 1,970 ft to 2,950 ft. Different grape varieties clung to the rising plots allowing them to flourish in their own unique microclimate. Elias noted the dry stone walls not only make the steepness less severe for workers but also release captured daytime heat to warm the vines at night.
Kerner grape was planted at the lowest elevation followed by Sylvaner and then Gewürztraminer, which is in a position to receive the most sun. Beyond the rows of Gewürztraminer grapes, laid Pinot Grigio, Riesling and finally Müller-Thurgau.
As we walked on, Elias explained why the wines of the Abbey of Novacella (officially labeled as “Abbazia di Novacella” in your wine shop) are celebrated for their excellent expression of the variety’s individual location. Novacella continuously cultivates these characteristics thanks to its long-standing principle “it’s better to have less but good”.
Following this tenet has guided Novacella through the centuries. But it’s not the only principle contributing to the winery’s success in making wines with great character year after year. Novacella also achieves award-winning quality by allowing its winemakers to embrace change as much as tradition.
Mastering the Fruit of the Vine
During the Middle Ages, Novacella monks mainly produced red wine. But at the turn of the 20th century that all changed. Novacella began planting white grape varieties around the abbey. The winemakers found the large temperature swings between day and night along with the fertile glacial moraine soil much better suited for producing mineral rich, aromatic whites.
Today, the abbey’s vineyards give rise to seven different white wines: Sylvaner, Müller-Thurgau, Kerner, Grüner Veltliner, Pinot Grigio, Riesling and Gewürztraminer. Red wines still comprise part of Novacella’s portfolio. However, the red varieties now come from vineyards the abbey owns further south near Bolzano and Girlan. These yield Pinot Noir, Lagrein, Schiava and Moscato Rosa.
We wandered on until overlooking the historical gardens of Novacella. Below us lay a kaleidoscope of flower beds and plants dotted among manicured greenery. The gardens, we discovered, possess gingko trees, a redwood and nearly a hundred herb varieties. Strolling through it undoubtedly invites moments of pure serenity.
Becoming One with the Mountain
Next, we walked up to a plot of land bearing virgin vines. Elias pointed out that underneath all the fresh earth was their new winery production facility. Out of solemn respect for preserving the historical character of the monastery, Novacella expanded their operation by tunneling beneath the slope. Upon finishing construction, one meter of soil was spread over the roof for planting vines. Harvesting the first vintage is expected in three years.
As impressive as an underground winery is, it turns out Novacella’s earthly binds do not end there. Wood chips from its own forest lands heat the entire estate. Furthermore, Novacella relies on its own hydropower station to power the complex. These sustainable practices allow the abbey to operate with a net zero carbon footprint. A feat achieved in 1992 long before many other wineries around the world.
According to Elias, Novacella extends the idea of sustainability to winemaking itself. Strict production procedures minimize waste yielding “wines with as little residuals as possible.” Novacella even conserves water with a state-of-the-art irrigation system that disperses water to precisely where needed.
From the Vine to the Glass
Elias led us into the wine production facility through a building cleverly disguised as an Alpine barn. Here, he walked through how two machines automatically destem the grapes before one of four pneumatic wine presses gently compress them to extract the juice destined to become magic in the glass. During the grape pressing, the unwanted parts of the grape are separated to ensure the utmost wine quality.
We followed Elias down into a cellar filled with massive stainless steel fermentation tanks. He showed us how Novacella custom tailors the vinification environment of each wine through a touch-screen interface. This allows Novacella to masterfully reveal the expression of every single vineyard plot time and time again.
From there, we walked into another cellar chamber lined with French oak barriques for maturing specific wines. Our final stop in the winery was in the bottling area where Novacella corks 2,500 bottles of wine per hour. In total, the winery produces 700,000 bottles per year (70% white and 30% red), 25% of which is sold outside of Italy. Novacella’s wine is sold in 40 different countries with the U.S. representing the largest export market.
A Stroll Through the Ages
We stepped out of the winery greeted by a green soccer field. Elias could tell our surprise. He shared that Novacella is also a boarding school for 90 boys. Quite the place to hit the books we thought.
Crossing over the field we entered the abbey complex again passing by a small parish cemetery filled with wrought iron crosses. Here, monks of the abbey from times past lay in peace. Elias ushered us into a courtyard where a Romanesque clock tower cast a massive shadow over us. This looming giant we found out is the collegiate church of the abbey.
Despite being completed in 1218, the interior was anything but medieval. Striking Baroque decor met us the moment we walked in. A renovation in the 1700s brought bold ornamentation to every aspect within its hallowed walls. The level of artistry and detail was awe-inspiring. Among the finest in South Tyrol. The high ceiling paintings by the renowned Matthäus Günther alone are worth a visit to this church.
Towards the end of World War II all of this artistic brilliance was almost lost. The Germans put the monastery in the sights of Allies when they used it to store armaments. In March 1945, the Allies bombed Novacella damaging a portion of the church. Thanks to restoration work it now stands in its former glory.
Another sight worth seeing near the church is the Gothic cloister. It runs to the right of the church unfolding over 19 arcades decorated with medieval frescoes telling the tales of various saints.
Where Ancient Wonders Lie
Leaving the church we passed into another courtyard. An octagonal gazebo structure from 1669 called the Wunderbrunnen (“Well of Wonders”) sat in its heart. On each side below the eave is a depiction of one of the seven Ancient Wonders of the World. With eight sides to decorate, the artist conveniently added Novacella as the eighth wonder — clearly an artful attempt to cement his place in heaven.
Next, we crossed through an arched passageway under a two-story building clad in sprawling ivy. Elias noted this as the abbey’s famous library. It houses approximately 98,000 volumes within 42 intricately-carved bookcases.
The library has been a treasured repository of knowledge since the Middle Ages. Its shelves hold some of the oldest manuscripts and maps in Europe. Over the centuries intellectuals from theologians to scientists to philosophers and more have culled wisdom from within.
Discovering the Wines of Abbazia di Novacella
After our tour through the winery and historic walk, we were anxious to sample wines clearly produced with a balanced eye on the past and future.
We followed Elias into the Stiftskeller. This cozy building invites visitors to sit under ancient vaulted ceilings with soft lighting akin to candle glow. We found it a perfect setting to enjoy wine as well as other sumptuous goods from Novacella. An elegantly set table welcomed us with a basket holding an assortment of South Tyrolean breads.
Elias informed us we would be sampling wines from each of Novacella’s lines: Classic and Praepositus. The Classic line offers wines ready to drink young with a price-to-quality ratio that makes them an outstanding value. The Praepositus (“prior of an abbey”) line of wines represents the finest characteristics of Novcella’s vineyards — grapes cultivated from the very best locations where temperature and soil allow producing wines of sterling quality.
The Whites of Abbazia di Novacella
We began the tasting with the Abbazia di Novacella Sylvaner from the abbey’s Classic Line. Neither one of us had sipped Sylvaner before. As an ancient variety, introducing us to this mysterious white first was rather fitting. Sylvaner thrives in the Isarco Valley where Novacella is located. It is a grape variety born from the Middle Ages in Transylvania.
We found it to be elegant and fresh. A wine we could easily sip in summer. It imparted fruit-friendly notes of pear and apple. Elias indicated it was an excellent wine to pair with cold cuts, soups, pasta and chicken dishes. After sipping the Praepositus Sylvaner, we were ready to abandon Pinot Grigio as our go-to summer white. It was tantalizingly refreshing.
We followed Sylavaner with Abbazia di Novacella Kerner from the Classic Line. We were somewhat familiar with Kerner as we had enjoyed this brightly aromatic white a few times in our exploration of wines from South Tyrol. Elias shared the Kerner grape originated in Germany and is a cross of Riesling and Schiava (also known as “Vernatsch). Its name stems from Justinus Kerner, a poet who penned odes to wine.
The Kerner from Novacella was golden yellow in color with hints of green. We noticed peach on the nose and delicious green apple flavors. It was pleasantly crisp with a full, mineral-rich finish.
Elias then poured the Praepositus Kerner. To us, it had an intriguing spicy, exotic bouquet and the palate was noticeably more expressive and juicy. We caught a glimpse of ginger on the finish.
Next, Elias introduced another white that was new to our lips: Grüner Veltliner. Grüner Veltliner hails from Austria but is another variety that excels in the Isarco Valley. A versatile, food-friendly wine, Grüner Veltliner we learned makes an enticing alternative to Chardonnay.
The Grüner Veltliner from Novacella’s Classic and Praepositus line had a quite likable subtle tangy character. Unlike Chardonnay, Grüner Veltliner does not age in oak, which is perhaps why we found it far more interesting. The lively gold color of the Praepositus Grüner Veltliner made it as fun to look at as to sip.
The Reds of Abbazia di Novacella
Our journey with Novacella wines continued to Schiava — a South Tyrolean favorite. Schiava is an every-day wine. In fact, Elias’s grandfather would uncork a bottle of Schiava while playing cards. The Kalterersee Auslese Schiava from Novacella was joyfully light and fruity. Easy to sip on its own or with a meal. Elias recommended it as a red that if chilled makes a great companion to a hot summer day.
Next, we sampled another red beauty of South Tyrol: Lagrein. If you have not recognized the charms of Lagrein yet, the Praepositus Lagrein Riserva is an excellent place to start. It is surprisingly juicy with a riveting deep purple color.
Novacella matures their Lagrein for 18 months in French oak barriques, which imparts a toastiness to it with tobacco and licorice notes. It has a strong structure and tannic finish. Definitely a wine to uncork on any table serving hearty meats like venison or aged cheese.
Our final wine was Novacella’s Moscato Rosa, which is a unique and rare wine in South Tyrol according to Elias. Only 12 hectares of Moscato Rosa exist in the region. Novacella owns 15 percent of it. Elias promised that “to taste it once, is to remember it forever”. He was absolutely right.
On the nose, this lovely dessert wine reminded us of the roses we smelled while walking the vineyards. Elias shared that Novacella’s Moscato Rosa takes its sweetly decadent shape through precise temperature control while it ferments in stainless steel tanks for 7 months. We found the wine to be a gem. Delicious and balanced extremely well. It was silky sweet yet had the right touch of offsetting acidity and tannins.
We could definitely order a bottle of this the next time we craved an afternoon treat of apfelstrudel. It is one of the rare dessert wines that encourages you to pour a second glass.
Elias also noted with a smile that Novacella’s Moscato Rosa is always a welcome alternative to roses on Valentine’s Day. We couldn’t argue with such a wise proclamation.
Monumental History You Can Sip & Swirl
After our tasting, we bid farewell to Elias. The knowledge he shared during our time with him opened up a whole new world to explore. We were grateful for his professional guidance. Elias’s passion for wine is utterly contagious. We lingered a bit in the Stiftskeller nibbling on the remainder of the South Tyrolean goodness left in the basket.
Fortunately, we still had time to explore more of the abbey complex before heading into the heart of Brixen for its annual Bread & Strudel Market. Savoring the beautiful antiquity all around is one of the things we find most rewarding about South Tyrol. We wandered for a while capturing more of its history against nature’s ever-alluring backdrop.
When to Visit the Abbey of Novacella
If you’re a lover of wine or just a fan of history, adding a visit to the Abbey of Novacella is a must on your South Tyrol itinerary. The sights and sips you’ll encounter will find a home in your soul.
The monastery can be toured year-round from Monday through Saturday with the exception of church holidays. Free parking is located just outside the complex. Tours may not be available in English on a given day so contact Novacella beforehand to confirm.
You can taste Abbazia di Novacella wines, as well as savor traditional South Tyrolean food in the Stiftskeller from 10:00 A.M. to 7:00 P.M. each day. The only exception is Sundays and holidays.
Novacella also offers guided wine tastings for groups of at least ten. The tasting includes four wines (two red wines and two white wines) and takes about an hour. Upon request, the tasting can also be combined with a brief tour of Novacella’s wine cellar and vineyard.
If you can’t make it to South Tyrol for a tasting, be sure to ask for Abbazia di Novacella at your favorite wine shop. Each time you uncork a bottle you’ll be supporting one of Italy’s greatest cultural treasures.