Serious Eats: Drinks
Schiava: This Northern Italian Red Grape Works Magic
Note from the author: There are 1,368 varieties covered in Wine Grapes by MW Jancis Robinson, MW Julia Harding, and Dr. Jose Vouillamoz. Let's try them all. Disclosure: I recently traveled to Alto Adige with the Guild of Sommeliers on a trip for sommeliers sponsored by Alto Adige Wines.
I headed to Alto Adige, in part, to find inspiration again. I'd maneuvered a tough summer, and to be honest, I didn't care about wine much at the moment. "Try to relax and enjoy your trip," my friend told me before I took off. "Italy can do magical things," she promised.
Two days later, I inhaled deeply as I stepped off the bus into a vineyard near Lake Caldaro. I thought I sensed a moment of magic in the crisp mountain air, my face gently warmed by rays of sunshine beaming intermittently through puffs of cumulus clouds. We hiked down a pebble-strewn trail and descended into a long line of pergola-terraced vines hanging over our heads, their branches heavy with exaggeratedly plump, purple fruit. A hundred meters through the tunnel of green-and-purple peace we emerged in a cliff-side clearing with sprawling views of the calm Lake Caldaro, a milky turquoise basin below spectacular green hillsides. Freaking dreamland.
Our table was set with piles of local, smoked, spiced and cured speck alongside crunchy rustic bread peppered with caraway and fennel seed. A giant copper cauldron bubbled with golden polenta, and a bottle of wine made its way around. So pale and shimmering ruby in color, the red wine could nearly pass for rosé. It was made of Schiava Grossa, the local grape that hung all around us and that Wine Grapes describes as "giving light, perfumed, fruity wines, with hints of almonds and violets and light tannins." Not to be confused with Schiava Gentile, Grigia or Lombarda, Schiava Grossa has signature grossa (fat; large) berries that, I can confirm, are also quite tasty as table grapes. We topped up our glasses and dug into plates of sausage, polenta, and the most simply prepared and yet profoundly delicious borlotti beans you could ever dream of.
In between bites, the 2012 Kellerei Kaltern - Caldaro Campaner Schiava (named for Lake "Kaltern" in German, or "Caldaro" in Italian) swept strawberries and crushed violets easily across my palate. There was an easy, refreshing bitterness and prickle of white pepper wrapped up in a soft, compelling texture that said, "bet you can't drink just one glass." I could feel it. Italy (or was it that second glass of Schiava?) was working its magic.
From our perch, we chatted about Alto Adige, its unique position between the jagged points of the Dolomites and the southern stretches of the snow-capped Alps, and its dual identity as German-speaking Südtirol. The area has a turbulent history: formerly belonging to the Austrian crown, it became part of Italy with the treaty of St. Germain in 1918. Mussolini forced "Italianization" of the area by pushing German-speaking natives out to make room for southern Italians. Those who remained lost jobs, were forced to close their schools, and forbidden to speak their language. Today, recent generations have worked extremely hard to make amends and encourage enlightened, educated, open-minded cohabitation: residents can be found alternating between both fluent German and Italian, both of which are posted on signs, taught in schools... and written on wine labels.
As for the Schiava in our glasses, its label also read "Vernatsch," the German name for the local grape. Admittedly, heading to your own local wine shop in the U.S. and seeing two foreign languages on a label—one with umlauts, no less—could be intimidating. But please don't let the language put you off from the wine, as Schiava/Vernatsch is, like those borlotti beans, so simple yet so profoundly delicious.
Schiava is a grape grown in a cultural crossroads, yet it pushes us to embrace what we share rather than what we don't... which in this case is appreciation for a great meal, a great glass of wine and great company, no matter what language we all speak.
I glanced around at the table, my friends, the view... and pinched myself. I felt inspired, invigorated. My friend was right, Italy (and that damn third glass of Schiava) can do magical things.
2012 Kellerei Kaltern - Caldaro Campaner Schiava/Vernatsch
The Grape: Schiava, a.k.a. Vernatsch
The Region: Alto Adige, a.k.a. Südtirol
The importer: Enotec (Looking for more? Other excellent Schiava wines from Mumelter and Cantina Bolzano in the Santa Magdalena DOC are brought in by Oliver McCrum and A.I. Selections, respectively.)
About the Author: Stevie Stacionis is a wine writer and Certified Sommelier based in San Francisco. She's currently drinking her way through the 1,368 varieties included in Wine Grapes. Follow her on Twitter @StevieStacionis and check out her snobbery-free wine videos at A Drinks With Friends TV.
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