The Alpine vineyards of Alto Adige/Südtirol are among the steepest and highest in Europe. Around the Venosta/Vinschgau valley, the flora is a mix of conifers, chestnut, oak, and juniper, interspersed with a blazing array of wildflowers, from enzian to edelweiss. But a unique sub-Mediterranean microclimate makes this area equally, if implausibly, hospitable to seabuckthorn and rosehips. And it’s here that the Falkenstein vineyards perch.
“Nature is our big passion,” says Magdalena Pratzner, “Growing up right in the middle of the mountains, this is what our interests are aligned with.” Standing in the Falkenstein vineyards, which have been in Magdalena’s family for generations, it’s instantly clear why. Their 12 hectares (29 acres) of organically farmed riesling, pinot blanc, sauvignon blanc, and pinot noir are sited some 600 and 900 meters (nearly 2,000 to 3,000 feet) above sea level on the terraced slopes of the aptly named Sonnenberg (sun mountain). The Ötztal Alps rise just to the north, their prominence shielding the Venosta/Vinschgau valley to create surprisingly warm, dry conditions. A long growing season, perfect expositions, sharp diurnals, and meticulous cellar work that includes the deliberate selection of acacia for fermentation and aging of their whites, all contribute to the Pratzners’ supremely incisive expressions of the mountain terroir.
The family — Franz, Bernadette and their grown daughters Magdalena and Michaela — thrive on cultivating the balance between crop and climate. If there is an element of tension here, it is perhaps with the region’s recent past. Over-cropped schiava and international varieties grown in valley floor areas better suited to orchards than vines eroded outside interest in the wines of the region. The Pratzners are among a small cadre of growers leading a revival of quality through their dedication to a very different vision of farming and winemaking.
The Pratzner estate dates to the 12th century, when it belonged to the medieval Hochnaturns castle. The family’s work on the land here goes back almost 200 years. Franz’s mother, Filomena, was, as Magdalena puts it, “known all over town” for her excellent traditional cooking, so it was logical for Franz’s father, Engelbert, to open an inn and restaurant on the farm. In 1984, when Franz and his brother Peter took over the family business from their father, they divided the property. The farm and vineyards went to Franz, while the inn and restaurant went to Peter. “Nowadays,” Magdalena says, “the inn is surrounded by the vineyards and the winery is only a few meters from where my father grew up.”
Throughout that time, the Pratzners maintained schiava vineyards and made wine for the family and restaurant. Franz always had an interest in wine cultivation and production. His fascination grew with his studies of pomology and viticulture, though he gradually recognized that he was more intrigued by winemaking than orchardry. After graduating in 1986, he travelled to the Wachau. Magdalena says of her father, “He was so impressed by their vinification and their products that as soon as he came home, he planted his first riesling vines. From then on, his passion for his occupation grew every day.”
In 1989, Franz and Bernadette dedicated themselves solely to wine. Today Falkenstein is run by all four Pratzners. Franz is head winemaker, assisted by Magdalena, who studied viticulture, enology, and wine economics in Vienna. Bernadette is devoted to being out among the vines. Michaela, still in school, and Magdalena both love travel. Through exchanges abroad, they have expanded their perspectives and brought these back to the winery. “During an internship in Australia, I experienced whole cluster fermentation,” Magdalena recalls, “This impressed me so much that I convinced my father to try it the following year on our pinot noir.” The family “all share the love to combine the wines to the right meal,” Magdalena says, and their wines reflect this gastronomic sensibility.
The Alto Adige/Südtirol, as its official bilingual name suggests, belongs to Italy, but retains a Tyrolean soul. Sited at a critical transalpine crossing, the region was long an object of contest between Bavarian dukes and Habsburg sovereigns, only coming under Italian rule at the end of World War I. But the language, architecture, cuisine — and wines — show a clear identification with the region’s Austro-Germanic past.
If you picture the entire region as a letter y, Val Venosta/Vinschgau forms the tip of the left arm of the y as it reaches toward Switzerland. It’s in this tiny west-east valley that the Falkenstein vineyards are sited, above the village of Naturno/Naturns. The mass of the Alps curtains the vineyards from frigid cold and rainfall, while warm, dry breezes rise steadily from the wide valley floor. “Our vineyard lies in one of the driest places in Alto Adige. Naturno has about 350 ml of rain per year and most of the time the weather is windy,” notes Magdalena. The balance between the average 315 sunshine days per year and sharp diurnal shifts allow for both full phenolic ripeness and retention of arresting freshness and acidity.
Vineyards and farming
The Pratzners’s steep, south-facing vineyards have been terraced from the loose, well-draining, glacially distributed soils. Magdalena notes, “We find everywhere the same soil: sandy and clay-like, with a high amount of slate, mica, gneiss, and quartz.” Following replanting from schiava, the vineyards are now dedicated to pinot blanc, sauvignon blanc, gewürztraminer, pinot noir, and the Falkenstein flagship, riesling — grown on the highest parcels, at 700-770 meters (2,300-2,500 feet) above sea level.
Vineyard density is, in Franz’s words “very tight,” at 10,000 to 12,000 vines per hectare. In all the parcels, there are four or five different clones of any given variety, “So, each vineyard has his own diversity,” in Magdalena’s words. Vine training is all guyot and vine age ranges between 10 and 30 years.
There are two smaller old vine vineyards planted to pinot noir and riesling, the oldest vines being 25 to 30 years old. Starting in 2015, the Pratzners have produced a single vineyard riesling from a little parcel just above the winery, planted with their very oldest vines.
Magdalena says, “For five years now, we are working organic. My father does organic viticulture because he is convinced about the method, about its benefits for nature, and mostly for the human being itself. We are practicing organic because we strongly believe in these methods and we are convinced of the results.”
In the cellar
The Pratzners ferment and age all their white wines in 10 to 40 hectoliter acacia casks. Acacia is dense, tight-grained, and neutral, but tends to accentuate the delicate floral qualities of wines aged in them. Franz first encountered acacia on a trip to the Wachau. “He was impressed by the vinification,” says his daughter, “then he tried it with his own wines and was more than satisfied with the results.” Magdalena explains, “The wood allows the wines to stay as long as possible on the lees, which gives the wine its creaminess and its long-living character.” Post-fermentation, the wines stay in cask on the lees for another 10 months. “We do batonnage until February, so the wines can stay on the lees until July. After racking, we filter all the white wines, and after bottling them, they stay at the winery for another year allowing them to fully develop their character.”
The pinot noirs (known here as Blauburgunder) see a year in French barrique, then another seven months in steel tank, with a further year of bottle aging in the cellar. Magdalena explains, “We try to use whole cluster fermentation every year. Nevertheless, it depends on factors like the quality and weather conditions during the year. Normally, we do about 60% whole cluster fermentation and about 40% destemmed fermentation. The whole cluster fermentation allows the wine to develop a deeper fruit note and softer tannins.” All these practices are followed with the intention of making wines that, Magdalena says, “we hope are drinkable for 20 to 30 years and longer.”