Learn about wine with a sommelier on the slopes

Get an education in South Tyrolean wines while you ski.

By James Stewart
Published 9 Sept 2019, 10:11 BST
Sommelier on the slopes.
Sommelier on the slopes.
Photograph by Freddy Planinschek

It’s an evergreen topic of ski holidays: what time is acceptable for a first drink on the slopes? A so-so skier, I’ve always considered it prudent to wait until lunch. Hubert Kastlunger, however, disagrees. “It’s never too early for good South Tyrolean wine,” he says, handing me a glass of sauvignon blanc outside I Tablá ski hut, high above the Italian resort of Alta Badia. It’s 10.30. “You’ll ski better after two glasses,” he adds.

A spin-off of A Taste for Skiing, which sees chefs serving Michelin-starred cuisine in mountain huts, Sommelier on the Slopes involves skiing between huts to slurp wines with a professional sommelier. In this case, it’s Hubert, dapper in a bow tie and ski boots, with a thermometer tucked into his black apron.

Italy’s South Tyrol region exports relatively little wine, but 98% of its vineyards are reserved for the production of DOC wines. A local white, the 2009 Epokale Gewürztraminer, was the first Italian wine to be awarded a perfect score of 100 by Robert Parker’s The Wine Advocate.

South Tyrol’s valleys offer microclimates in abundance; winemakers specialise, putting quality above quantity. Take the sauvignon blanc we’re currently drinking. It’s made by Mantele, a farmers’ co-operative that produces just 750,000 bottles annually. Hubert inhales. “It’s grass and straw. A little bitter. A perfect merenda (mid-afternoon snack) wine.” We pick from a platter of speck, parmesan and schüttelbrot (fennel-flavoured flatbread), all washed down with the wine. It’s delicious — dangerously so, at 14% ABV.

Next up is a chardonnay by Lafoa, with scents of olive oil and pine trees. It’s as buttery as a croissant, and surprisingly light. Alcohol is less noticeable on the palate at altitude, Hubert explains. “It also hits your head more.”

It could be the booze or the beautiful weather, but the mountains seem more impressive than usual today, and the light more luminous. We swish down two blue slopes, then kick off our skis outside Ütia de Bioch for the reds. Once we’re settled with a bottle of wine, Hubert dips in his thermometer — “16C, ideal” — and hands me a glass. This
is a vernatsch, he tells me, which once accounted for 90% of South Tyrolean reds. It’s easy drinking. There’s a hint of almond, and it’s light at 12.5% ABV — too light, perhaps, for modern tastes: production has dropped as local winemakers turn their attention to the richer lagrein variety.

For the finale, there’s a pinot noir by J Hofstätter. I’d never associated pinot with the Alps, but South Tyrol offers ideal terroir, according to Hubert. Eyes shut, he inhales deeply. “Ah, yes: leather, earth and wet wool.”

“Wet wool?” I ask. Hubert sighs. “It’s complex. Pinot isn’t simple to make. It isn’t simple to drink. You have to think about it.” I take a sip. It’s round and sophisticated, juicy with raspberries and rich in tanins.

In truth, I can’t say Sommelier on the Slopes has transformed me into a connoisseur of South Tyrolean wines. Nor has my skiing improved. But when there are wines like this up for grabs, it’s incentive enough to get back on the slopes.

Sommelier on the Slopes costs €30 (£26) per person, including guided skiing and tastings. Ski rental and passes not included. Book via Alta Badia tourism offices.

Inghams offers a week’s half-board at Hotel Diamant in San Cassiano from £1,189 per person, including flights and transfers. 

Published in Issue 6 of National Geographic Traveller Food. 

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