Slurp Tour of Austria
Sit back and allow Slurp to take you on a guided tour of the wine regions of Austria. A recent visit by our head of sales took in all the major regions and involved visits to 10 different producer’s estates. That is a lot of tasting in four days, but the quality and freshness of the wines meant that palate fatigue was never a problem – almost!
The journey began in Styria in the far south eastern corner of the country, at Weingut Erich and Walter Polz, just a short bus ride from Graz airport. It has been said that the Sauvignon Blanc produced in Sudsteiermark (South Styria) can rival that of anything produced in either the Eastern Loire Valley, or indeed Marlborough, for quality, although it has its own distinct style. The region also produces excellent Chardonnay, known there as Morillon. Polz’s finest vineyard is the Hochgrassnitzberg site, which faces south and slopes steeply from the Polz residence, some 500 metres down to the Slovenian border.
The Hochgrassnitzberg Sauvignon Blanc is picked very ripe, and matured in old oak barrels which lends a lovely broad texture and subtle complexity to the wine. The 2008, a barrel sample, was intensely tropical and generous on the nose and similar on the palate. It had a stony, flinty character and clean, refreshing acidity that underpinned the wine superbly.
The 2006 Hochgrassnitzberg shows the cooler weather conditions that year. The wine is leaner, more mineralic and does not have the pungent tropical fruit of the 2008. I personally preferred it though and it demonstrates the natural approach to winemaking adopted at Polz, i.e. do not interfere too much and let the wine express the terroir and conditions from a given year.
The Pinot Gris 2008, Sauvignon Therese 2009 and entry level Sauvignon Blanc are all crisp, fresh and seriously well put together wines!
The final wine I tried at Polz was their 2007 Sauvignon Blanc Reserve. This they ferment and age it in new oak barriques which is arguably not the best treatment for Sauvignon blanc. To me the new oak tends to mask and overpower the aromatic character and delicacy of the grape.
Next it was a three hour bus journey north and slightly east to the Neusiedlersee (Lake Neusiedl) in Burgenland and a date with Gehard Pittnauer. ‘Pitti’ as he is known, produces sublime wines from exclusively red grapes, and specialises in traditional Austrian varieties such as Blaufrankisch, Sankt Laurent and Zweigelt. He also has some worthy Pinot Noir, and farms all his vineyards biodynamically. Truly though it is the Blaufrankisch and the Sankt Laurent that shine and sing with their purity, sour red cherry fruit, intense freshness and immaculate structure. The sense of place and typicity is palpable in these wines. The top bottling, Panobile, is a blend of Blaufrankisch, Sankt Laurent and Zweigelt, and shows more power and concentration. All the wines are capable of graceful bottle ageing.
Gehard is an interesting character to say the least. The tasting began at 10.30pm and I was greeted by a large fire roaring in the garden outside the entrance to the winery. As I entered my eyes were drawn to a photograph of a giant pair of female legs (very nice legs in fact!) printed on the huge doors that led into the cellar. As I toured the cellar with Gerhard - and made murmuring noises of approval at the ornate oak casks and fascinating contraptions for spraying the various biodynamic preparations in the vineyard - I thought all was fairly normal, until that is I turned around and saw another huge photograph printed on the other side of the door, but this one was of the same girl removing her knickers! Whatever gets you through those dull days at work I suppose!
After a good night’s sleep it was off to taste the sensational Ice Wines and botrytis influenced sweet wines of Helmut Lang (not the fashion designer!) on the Eastern side of the Neusiedlersee, near the famous wine town of Illmitz.
Helmut produces many wines in each vintage, always sweet, and in different styles; Beerenauslese, Trockenbeerenauslese and Eiswein. He is like a mad scientist in his cellar surrounded by various fermenting vats and barrels. The tasting began at 9.00am and was intense but magical. One after the other I was presented with an incredible array of wines including some fascinating mature vintages; Samling 88, Chardonnay, Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, Welschriesling and more... The range of flavours was exhilarating and intense – flowers, minerals, fruits, candies, nuts, stones, petrol... the list goes on.
The wines are some of the most idiosyncratic I have ever tasted, and in a wine world of ever-increasing homogenisation, this is to be celebrated. The prices are also reasonable – more than reasonable!
Sad as I was to say goodbye to Helmut there was no time to waste. It was a short trip north to near the town of Frauenkirchen, and a visit to Weingut Umathum. The tasting took place in the ancient Ried Kirschgarten (Cherry Garden) vineyard which was first planted to the grapevine in the year 1214. Umathum owns several vineyards around the Neusiedl Lake, including one that produces one of the finest red wines I have ever tasted – Ried Hallebühl. The 2004 Zweigelt produced from this vineyard has an intensely perfumed, smoky and savoury aroma profile, with secondary earthy notes just starting to come through. The palate was smooth yet powerful, complex yet elegant and the integration of the 100% new oak was totally seamless.
Maybe there was something in the air that day, or perhaps it was the phases of the moon (?), but all the wines showed wonderfully well. The Hungarian native 2009 Harslevalu is only 11% ABV but had texture and weight suggesting more – something many producers worldwide would love, and do well, to emulate. Other highlights included the current release Zweigelt which was bursting with sour cherry fruit, and the aromatic and floral native ‘Yellow Traminer.’ To finish there was a couple of lovely sweet wines including the Trockenbeerenauslese Scheurebe (Germanic name for Helmut Lang’s Samling 88). Again, the recurring theme here is wines of individuality and character - isn’t that what it should all be about?
After a stop on the western side of the Lake in the famous town of Rust, and a lengthy combined tasting of the wines of Feiler Artinger (amazing sweet wines) and Prieler (incredibly age-worthy Pinot Blanc), it was on to the celebrated regions of Lower Austria: Kamptal, Kremstal and Wachau. In the latter - a UNESCO World Heritage site since 2000 - we dropped in on Franz Hirtzberger and sampled a plethora of wondrous Rieslings and Gruner Veltliners – it should demonstrate the sheer variety and fabulous depth of Austrian wine culture that it has taken me 1,115 words to mention Gruner Veltliner, Austria’s most famed vinous export! That is not to say that Gruner Veltliner is not deserving of its exalted status, and Hirtzberger’s are one of reasons why.
They produce majestic wines in all the categories unique to the Wachau – Steinfeder (max 11% alcohol and grape sugar levels of 15°-17° KMW) , Federspiel (11-12.5% Alcohol & min. 17° KMW) and Smaragd which is the most valuable category of Wachau wines, made from the ripest fruit on the best sites. The wines must have a minimum alcohol content of 12.5% and can often age for up to 20 years. Hirtzberger’s wines sing with bright and luscious fruit, peppery and complex spices, and minerals.
Further visits to Schloss Gobelsburg in Kamptal, a chilly tasting in the cellars of Rainer Wess (Wachau) and a fantastic visit to Weingut Stadt Krems (Kremstal) finished off the whirlwind tour. Schloss Gobelsburg is a magnificent and ancient Monastery with a recorded history dating back to the 11th Century where winemaking has been taking place on a commercial scale since 1786.
In 1996 Michael & Eva Moosbrugger, along with Willi and Edwige Brundlmayer, took over the management of the property on a long term lease from the monks, and the quality of winemaking rose significantly. The Gruner Veltliners here were some of the best I tried on the whole trip, perhaps not as luscious as some of the Smaragds from Hirtzberger, but unbelievable fruit definition and poise.
We picked a bad day to visit Stadt Krems. Their cellar roof had collapsed and destroyed tanks containing 20,000 litres of wine. Since the visit, to their huge credit, they have started to rebuild both physically and financially. It cannot be overestimated how big a blow something like this is to a winery, at any time, let alone in one of the worst economic periods in history! Even more amazingly we were greeted with a smile, and taken through the full range of wines including two Rieslings from the 1970s which were both still beautifully balanced – sadly not for sale! However the rest of the range was wonderful. A really marked leanness and a bracing acidity and mineral streak flowed electrically through the wines - particularly the Rieslings.
To sum up, Austrian wine is in a good place. The country, for the most part, is producing without doubt some of the very finest white, and red, wines in the world right now. They are distinctive, diverse, natural and exhilarating, and the people involved in their production are committed to quality, progression and sustainability. Since I returned I have been drinking more Austrian wine and advocating it to colleagues and friends. Do yourself a favour, and dive in!