The closest link between the people that make wine and the people that drink it
It was only my second visit to Austria but my inaugural, and most satisfactory, encounter with the fine estates of Knoll, Nikolaihof, Ehmoser, Bründlmayer and Pichler-Krutzler; along with Prager, Schloss Gobelsburg, Moric and Wachter-Wiesler. I sense a most exciting offer beckons this autumn!
Austria’s 2011 vintage, echoed across much of Europe, was characterised by a dry spring (and season overall), tricky June/July followed by a late summer but early harvest of fruit rich in phenolics (tannins), low in acidity, relatively low in alcohol, and with little evidence of botrytis. On paper then a vintage perfectly aligned for the earlier ripening varieties of Gruner Veltliner versus that of Riesling (just as Barbera seemed to shine brighter than Nebbiolo in the Langhe…)
It was a vintage that played into the hands of those whose market relies heavily on the local ‘heuriger’ tradition of drinking the freshest wine, as served in taverns across the land from the important skiing hub of Innsbruck, before the snow’s thawed, through to the swish wine bars of Vienna. Consequently many of the Federspiel-style wines are bottled barely out of the womb of the winery, from January through to March, following the September harvest; the fact that it was an early harvest proving a bonus. Indeed one of the Wachau’s leading estates, Prager, sells almost 50% of its production locally as ‘Federspiel’ (between 11.5% & 12.5% abv), while their riper ‘Smaragd’ (dry, unchaptalized of min. 12.5% abv) wines are largely exported.
Josef Ehmoser is another impressive estate that seems to do quite well out of this tradition, being located on deep, soft loess soils of the Wagram region that lies between the Wachau and Vienna. Wagram’s a new region (to me) of 2,400 ha (vs. Wachau’s 1,400ha) that seems more adept (even more than Kamptal?) at producing creamy, white flower Gruner Veltliners for earlier drinking. And if the quality being produced by young Josef and partner Martina Ehmoser is anything to go by then we shall surely hear more about the Wagram in future, especially as the loess’s ability to retain water favours non irrigation viticulture.
Branching out from the more famous zones of ‘Lower Austria’ (Wachau, Krems and Kamptal), I headed south of Vienna to N. Burgenland where along the sand and gravel ‘banks’ of the Neusiedlersee Lake, undulating with vineyards I came across a strange, cultish movement named ‘Pannobile’; named after the hot Pannonian Plains to the east and the nobility of its native grapes. The Barbera-like Ste.Laurent thrives here while Blaufränkisch struggles in the absence of clay. Ironically the ‘Pannobile’ movement, founded during the mid 1990s, is better known for producing big black, overly-extracted blended wines that pander to a mono-dimensional, international palate. No surprise then to discover that the Pannobile producers have ties with a similarly marketing-oriented, altruistic group of Piedmontese Langhe growers called ‘Insieme’, led by cantina Elio Altare. They too like to talk ‘typicity’ while producing wines that wouldn’t look out of place among the folds of California’s Sierra Nevada Foothills. The plot (and must!) thickens when one learns that a few Austrian (white wine!) producers have adopted the ‘Insieme’ viticultural practice of cutting bunches in half to achieve higher sugar/alcohol and lower acidity levels (at the expense of regional identity and balance)!
Far more convincing are the fine Blaufränkisch reds from the Mittelburgenland (c. 2,000ha) and Südburgenland (500ha) subzones an hour’s drive south. The former benefits from predominantly calcareous clay deposits to give minerally rich noble wines that really do have much in common with Piedmontese Nebbiolo. Since the early 2000s Roland Velich at Moric has been skilfully sourcing the finest fruit from the villages of Neckenmarkt and Lutzmannsburg among others, and vinifying them in a traditional manner (long maceration in large oak) to give statuesque wines.
Further south still, on the border quite literally with Hungary, is the unspoilt enclave of Eisenberg, lying at the heart of the Südburgenland zone; a viticultural zone still emerging from the shadow of former Communist Hungary nextdoor. Its steep, almost overhanging vineyards reminded me of Chablis while the green slate soil, and the lush blueberry character of their Blaufränkisch wines speak more of Central Otago! What’s more there’s a surfeit of old vines on offer as the older generation move on, a few of which are being snapped up by the likes of Christoph Wachter, of Wachter-Wiesler. He’s a young, purposeful type who’s spent his formative years exploring the various ways of vinifying Blaufränkisch to capture its regional identity, and now is content to leave the barrique behind for the botte grande!
‘Next week I’ll be reporting on how the 2009 Barbaresco and 2008 Barolo vintages are looking ahead of our September event and offer’