Simon Staffler
Sommelier and wine journalist
Simon Staffler

Simon Staffler

Wine-writer and sommelier

Born in 1988, wine-writer/sommelier, Simon Staffler, has what’s referred to as a “dream job”. As the Falstaff wine and lifestyle magazine correspondent for Italy Staffler regularly visits one Italian winery after the other, appraising their wines.

Since you spend most of the year visiting Italian winegrowing regions, what do you think makes South Tyrolean wine stand out in this wine-savvy country?
At the moment, South Tyrol wine is considered incredibly sexy in Rome, Florence and Milan. There are two factors involved: the very high quality of the wines and the focused, targeted marketing of the distributors. Combined, these two factors are like dynamite that knock down any barriers. Add to that the unity and cohesion of South Tyrolean winemakers which, of course, is real and you have an unstoppable force. But let’s not forget that, as a wine-growing region, South Tyrol is vanishingly small and continuing to go it alone might end up in oblivion.

In recent years, Vinschgau Valley wine production has developed from a local South Tyrolean phenomenon to an authentic wine-producing sub-region in its own right. Does that come as a surprise or was it already on the cards?
Vinschgau Valley’s success is largely due to its two heavyweight players: Franz Pratzner (Falkenstein Winery) and Martin Aurich (Unterortl Winery). It’s mostly thanks to this pair that the Lower Vinschgau Valley has been catapulted onto the wine map with their top-notch wines. Funnily enough, many locals aren’t even aware of this. To them, Franz Pratzner is just a local winemaker, or someone they’ve only heard of. But in Milan, he’s considered a rising star! The Vinschgau Valley is a young wine-producing area with a lot of potential. As far as I’m concerned, the main problem is that a critical volume of wine produced needs to be reached for this sub-region to gain credibility as a serious winegrowing region. But due to its particular topography, the Vinschgau Valley has limited scope for expanding its existing vinicultural areas. Since wine-farmers and winemakers are practical types, they’ll think twice before planting vines on steep slopes!

What is it about the Vinschgau Valley as a wine region that makes it stand out? How would you describe it to someone who’s never been here before?
Growing vines here is very challenging and requires a lot of skill: there are the steep slopes, a dry climate, unusual wind conditions and different soil types to contend with. These are just some of the adverse factors. The vineyards are also very small in size and there aren’t any large contiguous cultivation areas that you’ll find in other winegrowing areas. In such a situation, winemaking is derived from pure passion and conviction, otherwise you wouldn’t even attempt it. Obviously, some of the other factors affecting other wine-growing areas in South Tyrol also applies to the Vinschgau Valley. For example, extreme weather events including hailstorms have been on the increase in recent years – further complicating the work of the winegrowers.
“The very fact that the Riesling pioneers in Italy all come from Vinschgau speaks volumes.”
The inhabitants of the Vinschgau Valley are known as lateral thinkers and free spirits. How would you describe winegrowers in the Vinschgau Valley?
The people of Vinschgau Valley are certainly very headstrong – who like doing things their own way. The very fact that the Riesling pioneers in Italy all come from Vinschgau speaks volumes. What’s also special about the Vinschgau Valley vines is their high percentage of new fungus-resistant PiWi varietals. This is may be due to the fact that viticulture is on the rise here, and these new varietals are capable of defending themselves against the fungi. Also, PiWi varietals require few or no chemical inputs. However, vinification of PiWi grapes is quite complicated, due to their broad spectrum of flavours and absence of distinguishing features. For example, if you take 3 bottles of Solaris from different wineries, each would taste completely different from the other. I think this is where things are going to get more interesting in future.

While on the subject of PiWi wines, we’ve seen new trends such as biodynamic, vin naturel, vegan, etc. What’s your take?

Are winemakers always trying to keep up with new trends, or do they get involved through genuine conviction? It’s a bit of both. Some winemakers follow trends while others take no notice. When it comes to biodynamic or organic wines it’s a bit different, but in the end the wine has to be up to par. If the label on the back of the bottle says “organic”, and if the wine is undrinkable it behoves neither the consumer nor the winemaker. Personally, I think there’s a lot of potential in biodynamic wines. Yet it’s hardly discussed, because for most winemakers the focus remains on making good wines. There are also others who use biodynamics as a handle to promote their wines. But in general, what you see is a return to local and traditional winemaking.

When I'm selecting wines for my private use, which three South Tyrolean labels should not be overlooked?
I’d say these young, up-and-coming contenders: Abraham Winery, Bergmannhof Winery and Pitzner Winery.

And what’s your favourite wine estate in the Vinschgau Valley?
For me it’s Falkenstein Winery. Franz is a super winemaker and Magdalena a worthy successor with lots of fresh ideas. Their wines are really excellent. Not just their flagship wines such as Riesling, Sauvignon and Pinot Blanc, but also their Pinot Noir. A lot has happened there recently. Despite all their interesting developments, this winery has remained rock solid.
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