Hearts on Fire – A Summer Tradition in Alto Adige (#ItalianFWT)

For a country of its size, Italy is wonderfully diverse. Home to two mountain ranges – the Alps, which dominate the northern border, and the Apennines, which form a longitudinal spine down the center – Italy also boasts beautiful beaches, exotic islands, and fertile farm land. Any student of basic geography would tell you that this results in a wide array of climates and soils, all leaving their mark on the wines of a particular place. And that’s before we consider the staggering number of grape varieties that call the peninsula home; indeed, many of them are grown nowhere else in the world.

While each region offers vinous temptations and delectable food pairings (all worth delving into, by the way) today my sights are set on the far northeast corner of Italy: Alto Adige, aka the Südtirol. Its Alpine location abutting the Swiss and Austrian borders offers a clue to its culture, which gives more than a cursory nod to Germanic tradition. Even today, nearly two-thirds of its inhabitants are native German speakers.

Geisler Summer in South Tyrol
Summer in the Südtirol (http://www.suedtirolerland.it/en)

So let’s take a trip to the snow-capped peaks of Italy’s Alpine wine regions. With mountain vineyards spanning from Piemonte and Valle d’Aosta in the west, to Friuli-Venezia Giulia in the east, wines come in all colors and styles – what an adventure! The wine bloggers from the Italian Food Wine & Travel group thought so, too, and we decided August was the perfect time for a virtual trek to the top of Italy. Interested? Here’s how to participate:

Saturday, August 5th at 11:00 am EDT, log into Twitter and search for #ItalianFWT. Click the “Latest” button and you’ll see all of the tweets as they are posted. And feel free to jump into the conversation if you’re so inclined. Just make sure to append #ItalianFWT to each tweet so we can welcome you. It’s that simple!

For a preview of our blog titles and an overview of the wines we’ll be sharing, scroll down to the bottom of this post. FYI, the Italian Food Wine & Travel group meets for a chat the first Saturday of each month. It’s always good fun and we love to bring new folks into the fold. Next month we’re headed to Emilia-Romagna and we’d love for you to tag along.

Alto Adige or Südtirol?

The fact that this area goes by two different names provides us a window into its history. To this day it has deep cultural ties to Austria that date back to medieval times. In some ways, it resembles the Alsace region of France: while technically French, its proximity to Germany (and the fact that it has changed hands between the two powers multiple times) has left an indelible impression on the culture.

France has left evidence of her presence as well. During the Napoleonic Wars, local residents found themselves in the unenviable position of sitting squarely between Milan (where Napoleon was) and Vienna (where he was going.) But more on that in the next paragraph. Südtirol remained Austrian from the beginning of the 19th century until the end of World War I, when it and Trentino were officially annexed to Italy as  Venezia Tridentina, part of the larger Tre Venezie region. And so it has remained.

Napoleon: The Invasion that Wasn’t

In 1796, Napoleon sat in Milan plotting his attack on Vienna, the heart of the Hapsburg Monarchy. His plan was to move troops to Innsbruck, where they would convene with regiments stationed nearby, then coordinate forces to invade and sack the capital. That was terrible news for the inhabitants of the Südtirol: they were directly in the path of the invading army!

Local government and religious leaders fretted about how to protect their land and citizens from Napoleon’s forces. They brought everyone – from the village elders to the young children – together to hatch a plan for survival. Realizing they had neither the resources nor the manpower to resist a massive army, they agreed on a simpler solution: they swore an oath of perpetual love and allegiance to god if he would protect them. They prepared to face the enemy and to fight honorably, regardless of the result.

Whether it was god or good luck, things went their way. Napoleon made a last-minute change to his plan, opting to travel eastward from Trento, through what is now Friuli-Venezia Giulia, rather than continuing northward through the Südtirol. The citizens rejoiced at their good fortune, and collectively reaffirmed their dedication to god. It’s a celebration that recurs in the region every summer.

Sacred Heart Festival Alps NatGeo
Fuochi di Sacro Cuore photo: National Geographic

Fuochi di Sacro Cuore/Herz Jesu Feuer

Should you be lucky enough to visit the Südtirol toward the end of June, you’ll bear witness to a spectacular celebration that fêtes Napoleon’s fateful decision to head east. The Fuochi di Sacro Cuore translates to Fires of the Sacred Heart, and calls to mind a grand promise the villagers made to god more than 200 years ago.

Historians believe this ritual, like many others, has its origins in pagan times, when tribes gave thanks to the sun gods (maybe to help ripen the grapes?) Early Christians celebrated the annual feast of St. John, whose name day occurs on the summer solstice at the end of June. Residents of the Südtirol followed suit, choosing to celebrate the Fuochi di Sacro Cuore around the same time.

Residents of the Adige and Isarco River valleys prepare for the festival for weeks, selecting and clearing out favored patches high on the Alpine slopes where they will build enormous (controlled) fires representing their dedication to god. The idea is to create a blaze visible for miles, perhaps in the shape of a heart or a cross or, oftentimes, both together. It’s truly an amazing thing to see!

For a closer look at how locals celebrate the festival, please check out the video below.

And for stunning photos that give you an idea of the scope of the spectacle, please see this article which appeared in National Geographic.

Schiava: A Family of Grapes from the Südtirol

This tends to be white wine country (75% of production) but all types of wine are made. Red wines depend heavily on two native grapes: Schiava and Lagrein, which weigh in on opposite sides of the style scale. Deeply colored, with aromas of black fruit and a strong tannic structure, Lagrein crafts a full-bodied wine. Schiava, on the other hand, makes pale red wines with delicate aromas of red fruit and violet. What’s interesting about Schiava is that it is actually a family of grapes, with three major sub-varieties.

The Schiava family (20% of current production) dates back at least to Roman times. In fact the name Schiava derives from a roman term cum vineis sclavis, meaning “with vines enslaved”; a reference to how the vines were trained to an external support or stake. Evidence of viticulture during medieval times suggests that early Schiava wines were white – interesting because no white Schiava grapes exist today.

If you manage to find a Schiava wine, chances are it will be a blend of the three sub-varieties with perhaps another native grape thrown into the mix. Local DOC regulations don’t require that the Schiavas be listed separately. Here’s what each contributes to the final wine:

  • Schiava Gentile – highly perfumed; light-bodied; high acidity; important in rosato production.
  • Schiava Grigia – taking its name from the thick bloom that gives a grayish tint to the berries, this Schiava is renowned for being the most refined as a (rare) varietal bottling.
  • Schiava Grossa – the most common and highest-yielding of the three, it has more delicate aromas and higher acidity than the others. It’s also the parent (with Riesling) of the Kerner variety, used in the hallmark wines of Köferhof, Pacherhof, and Manni Nossing, also in the Südtirol .

In general, Schiava wines are fresh, with moderate to intense aromas of strawberry, almond, and violet. They tend to be light-bodied and are pale ruby in color. Most are intended for early drinking alongside the lighter dishes of this Alpine region: air-cured bresaola, cheeses, and salads featuring local apples.

Appetizer of bresaola and arugula
Bresaola, an Alto Adige specialty perfect with Schiava

Minor Blending Grapes

As with most of Italy, native grapes still play a major part in local wines, and Schiava, hardly a household name to wine lovers, is one of the better-known varieties from the Südtirol. Yet there are two even more obscure grapes blended into the wine I tasted for this article. Neither one takes up more than a few rows in any vineyard, so we should be grateful to the vintners who dedicate themselves to keeping these vines alive.

Negrara and Rossara

Another family of grapes whose sparse plantings lie mostly in Trentino, the southern sibling of the Südtirol, Negrara puts forth wines redolent of red currants, sour cherries, and herbs. Hard to imagine it on the brink of extinction, isn’t it? Unfortunately, Negrara’s charms have little to do with its fortunes in the vineyard: phylloxera practically wiped it out and it adapted badly to American rootstocks. Once grafted it tended to grow vigorously, resulting in thin, uninteresting wines. (As initially happened with Malbec vines in Cahors, France, by the way.)

Rossara, another grape relegated to individual rows rather than hectares, is appreciated for its spicy aromatics and the fresh, lively character it imparts to any blend it graces.

Niedrist Schiava Bottle and Glass

2015 Südtirol Kalterersee Auslese Ignaz Niedrist (13% abv; $26 retail)

Predominantly Schiava, with a tiny percentage of Negrara and Rossara, this wine comes from 15-year-old vines perched on sand and clay soils. The slopes of Cornaiano (450 – 500 meters) afford the vines an ideal ripening position: air circulates freely, protecting the plants from pests and disease, and the soils retain daytime heat, protecting them from frost. The wine was fermented in open-top oak vats for two weeks, then aged on its fine lees for six months.

Ignaz Niedrist farms just over 12 acres and produces fewer than 1800 cases of wine. This bottle was a pure pleasure to drink: enticing aromas of strawberry mingle with a subtle, smoky note that opens into something meaty and savory. Its pale red color is not a fair indication of its intensity, in my opinion; there is much more here than meets the eye! Tannins are smooth, and acidity is bright. All around, this is a well-balanced beauty that is perfect for summer sipping. A charcuterie platter, a wedge of Parmigiano, a slice of rye bread, and a glass of this. What more could you want?

Sudtirol Picnic from ST website


Here’s a glimpse of what the rest of the Italian Food Wine & Travel group is bringing to the party:


Jennifer is the author of Planning Your Dream Wedding in Tuscany. Her perspectives on Rias Baixes DO, Villa Maria winemaker Helen Morrison and Italian red wines for summer are recent blog highlights.


Recently, Susannah has written about underrated Molise, the Italian varietal Marsanne Bianco and the Argentinian winery Dona Paula.


Throne & Vine has recently covered South Tyrol’s wayside shrines, wickedly cool castles in South Tyrol and reasons for visiting Alto Adige.


Lynn’s blog covers her summer French rosé tasting, the French Basque wine region of Irouléguy and the bubbly Italian wine Franciacorta.


Peach-tomato salad with herb vinaigrette, grilled Porterhouse with pea-shoot pesto and Arròs Negre {black paella} with allioli a la catalana are some of the fresh features on Camilla’s blog.


Organic Natura wines, Vignobles Brumont, a Madiran producer in Southwest France and Italian Wine 101: Intro to Italian Wine and Chianti are topics Jeff has on the blog now.


Martin covered ten white wines from Lodi for summer, his wines of the day picks and a highlight of Southwestern France’s Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh.


Gwendolyn has published over 600 posts on her blog – this summer she covered the 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love, Spanish white wines paired with tacos and how to taste and pair wine + cheese.


Jill is an award-winning wine blogger and published novelist who features in-depth profiles of winemakers the world over. Need a virtual trip to someplace fabulous? Just click any one of the titles on her page – you’ll be whisked away without packing a single bag.


  1. Two new grapes for me- Rossara and Negrara. The world of indigenous grapes is just fascinating. By the sound of it, one would be lucky to find a wine containing these two grapes.

    And European historical rituals still practice today, fascinating too. Wouldn’t it be spectacular to experience the Fires of The Sacred Heart celebration?!? Thanks for a very informative article Lauren ;-D

    Liked by 1 person

  2. What a cool and informative post Lauren! I wasn’t familiar with Fuochi di Sacro Cuore. Schiava looks (love red of this color, which tend to take a chill well!) and sound like it’s right up my alley. Will have to keep an eye out for it! Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks so much, Martin. I’d never heard of it either but thought it was such a beautiful idea. Maybe I’ll get there to see it in person some day. As for the Schiava, I really enjoyed it. Light-bodied but far from wimpy. Reminded me of Grignolino, which I love. Have a great weekend!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks for the great history lesson, Lauren. I was never very interested in history until bitten by the wine bug. I love understanding why and how things are the way they are, and the past is the key!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Wine has a sneaky way of forcing us to learn about history, geography, chemistry, and biology, doesn’t it? Similar to how parents mix vegetables into fun foods so kids will eat them. Context is king!


  4. Wow! This is so fantastic. I loved learning about the detailed history of this area “moved history”, as Ivan Giovanett said in our chat. This is a great story — can’t wait to share.

    Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

    • This was a fantastic topic – Italy’s Alpine Wines. Everyone had a slightly different take on it so, if you’re interested, check out the other bloggers’ posts, too. Some really interesting wines!


  5. I really loved this. So much to learn, and interestingly enough, I think this is more my brother’s style of wine than mine, but definitely want to have the experience myself. Funny how you mention History, Geography, Chemistry and Biology in the comments. I loved and studied them at school, but would have applied myself more with chemistry if the emphasis had been on the world as I know it today

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I thoroughly enjoy your writing! This is making my mouth water just reading about the Südtirol Kalterersee Auslese Ignaz Niedrist paired with some Parmigiano. So I will definitely need to find a bottle and wedge of cheese! It sounds like absolute perfection!

    Liked by 1 person

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