When planning a food and wine tour to Italy, the first ideas that spring to mind might be a road trip through the Tuscan hills or feasting at a sun-soaked villa in Puglia. Few would imagine themselves hurtling down a red slope amid rugged snow-capped scenery.
And yet, unbeknownst to many, the Dolomites is arguably the gastronomic (and viticultural) capital of Italy.
South Tyrol, the local region, has 19 Michelin-starred restaurants (24 stars in total) – making it the most decorated province in Italy. In the small resort of Alta Badia alone, there are four Michelin stars –all attached to one restaurant, the St. Hubertus. Up till recently it had another two star-studded eateries. Not bad for a resort with a population half the size of the Isle of Skye’s.
'The region’s climate also provides the best of both worlds in wine terms,' says Charlie Young, co-founder of Vinoteca, a London-based wine company. 'There’s plenty of sunshine and enclosed valleys providing the heat needed to ripen, and the cooling winds from the mountains extend the growing season allowing the grapes to burst with flavour and character.'
Although previously people didn’t really know the region for its food and wine, says Nicole Dorigo, of the Alta Badia tourist board, that is changing fast - thanks in particular to two events that have sprung up celebrating the gastronomy of South Tyrol.
The first is the annual ‘A taste for skiing’ festival, where Michelin-starred chefs take over the local üties – ‘mountain huts’ in the Ladin language – to serve up a signature dish. Prices are reasonable too, starting from around €15 a dish (suddenly the memories of paying €30 in Val Thorens for a sloppy pizza become all the more painful).
Some of the stand-out dishes this season include: whiskey-marinated venison with Jerusalem artichokes and dark chocolate, and a woodland mushroom pasta with mountain cheese, smoked ham and a gloopy red grape reduction.
The second event is the regularly occurring ‘Sommelier on the slopes’, where you ski from mountain hut to mountain hut with a guide and expert sommelier – tasting a different local wine at each stop. The experience costs €40 per person and includes six stop offs.
'Many of the wines are not available outside of the Alta Badia region. So it’s an amazing opportunity to try them,' says Simon Meeke of Powder Byrne, a ski tour operator who has been running trips to the area for more than a decade.
Young recommends trying South Tyrol’s premium Pinot Grigios and the local red grape Teroldego from Trentino, as well as the Kerner from Alto Adige. The combination of skiing with such decadent gourmandise is smart, too, as on a typical day on the slopes you can burn between 300 and 600 calories an hour.
It’s not just high-end food on offer either. The region’s traditional Ladin cuisine - known for its fried dumplings and hearty barley soups - is increasingly drawing visitors, says Dorigo.
Many locals have started opening up their masi (farmsteads) as b&bs, restaurants or cookery schools.
For oenophile, food-o-phile skiers, Ciasa Salares, just outside San Cassiano, is an ideal base. The hotel has its own cheese room (housing 65 different raw-milk cheeses from every corner of Italy’s Boot) and a chocolate room (with 120 varieties ranging from 30-100% cocoa). Oh three different restaurants - one of which used to hold a Michelin star before the chef moved on.
The 24,000 bottle wine cellar isn’t bad either - with the option to dine by candlelight within its cavernous vaults.
The bedrooms have Alpine wood panelling, charming carved beds and balconies with views over the surrounding UNESCO World Heritage listed landscape.
It’s ski-in-ski-out (or more like roll out after the generous breakfasts), with a lift just across the road. The pool, spa, sauna, Turkish bath and hot tub will wash away any post-piste aches and pains and detox the body after indulgent dining.
Prices for a seven-night stay at Ciasa Salares, based on two sharing on a half board basis and including private airport transfers, start from £3,373 per person (booked via Powder Byrne). Alta Badia Ski passes cost from €46 per day.
'The skiing in the area is fantastically varied,' says Meeke. 'San Cassiano is great for intermediate skiers: there’s lovely rolling scenery and great restaurants. More advanced skiers like the fact that the resort is connected to a much wider ski area.' The principal attraction is the sella ronda – one of the most famous ski carousels in the world. It links up more than 200 lifts and 500km of slopes to form a circular route which allows you to ski all around the mountain (if you’re fit you can do it in a day).
And whereas previously travelling to the Dolomites felt like an arduous trek compared with pootling over in the car to other food/wine destinations such as the Loire, it is about to get much easier. A new airline and airport are creating a super-fast gateway to the Dolomites, allowing you to get from London Gatwick to Bolzano, in the heart of the mountains, in just two hours 20 rather than flying two hours to Venice then driving another three hours from there.
Sky Alps, the new airline, is running twice weekly services on Wednesdays and Saturdays/Sundays from December to March (from £116 each way).