A year living in the small Austrian town of Eisenstadt developed my considerable love not just for one of its natives, but also for the restrained and elegant wines. The issue? Availability of many of the greatest wines is pretty sparse, or even non-existent outside Austria itself.
Inevitably, if a restaurant in London or Amsterdam lists a token Austrian bottle or two, it will be an entry-level Grüner Veltliner, or a simple “quaffing” Zweigelt. Grüner Veltliner is still very much Austria’s calling card, and thus the regions that excel with it – Wachau, Kampstal and Kremstal – have the highest profile abroad.
Austria still holds some of its biggest and best wine secrets somewhat close to the chest. Blaufränkisch from Burgenland is for my money one of the world’s greatest red grapes, while the velvety Sankt Laurent is a real gem for Pinot Noir lovers. Styrian Sauvignon Blanc can easily rival that of Friuli or Alto Adige in terms of lush, ripe fruit, and its burgeoning orange wine scene betrays a proximity to the heartlands of Slovenia and Friuli.
It was inevitable that at some stage a serious tasting session would be convened – a number of colleagues and friends requested it, so Elisabeth Gstarz (my partner, who hails from Styria) and I put together 21 wines that plotted a course across the unknown Austria.
Our aim was to showcase styles, regions or grapes that are little known in the Netherlands, so the tasting focused mainly on Styria and Burgenland. Most of the producers are not yet imported here. 14 wine enthusiasts, geeks, retailers journalists and sommeliers joined us at The Wine Spot, in the heart of de Baarsjes. Here’s a brief rundown of what we tasted, together with my notes. I’ve given the wines stars from 1 – 5, to show how they came across on the night. This is a personal score – opinions differed.
It was a fruit day, according to Maria Thun’s biodynamic calendar, and almost everything showed beautifully.
I note that a number of excellent producers and wines shown in this tasting went completely unmentioned in Stephen Brook’s recent book “The Wines of Austria”. These are annotated below (mostly in Part 2)
Styria is a land of rolling and sometimes steep hills, and relatively modest mountains. You won’t find skiers here. White wine varietals are the main focus, alongside Schilcher (see below).
A number of producers have formed a voluntary association called “Steirische Terroir- und Klassikweingüter” or “Steirische Klassik”, which has three levels – Klassik (should be an unoaked varietal), Ortswein (“village wine”, with the name of the village displayed on the label), Erste Lage and Grote Lage (Single vineyard “premier cru” or “grand cru” wines).
Reiterer – Schilcher Sekt NV
Blauer Wildbacher is a Styrian speciality, found almost nowhere else in the world, piercing in its acidity and best suited to making a rosé (called Schilcher), or a sparkling rosé as here. Reiterer’s is textbook in its fresh, light red fruit. It’s a bit like having a Kir Royale all in one package – juicy raspberry fruit, very tangy and gently frizzante. ***
Gross – Gelber Muskateller “Ried Perz” 2015 (Steirische Klassik Erste Lage)
Gelber Muskateller (AKA Muscat-a-petit-grains) is popular as an aperitif wine in Styria, or as a spritzer (50/50 with sparkling water). But Gross’s single vineyard version, grown on a gravelly soil, delivers considerably more. The nose has typical grapey, muscat notes, mingled with an almost savoury, herbal note. Despite its youth, this is already quite structured and complex, with lively acidity. ****
Stefan Potzinger – Weissburgunder “Kittenberg” 2012
Potzinger has a real knack for turning in beautiful age-worthy Pinot Blanc – this single-vineyard bottling is just getting into its stride. There are toasty notes on the nose, but no oak was used. The fruit is spicy and saline, beautifully fresh but mouth-filling too. Exemplary. ****
Sattlerhof – Sauvignon Blanc 2010
2010 was a difficult and wet vintage across Austria, but this surprisingly full, fruit-driven Sauvignon is truly exceptional. The style is ripe, with creamy apple and grapefruit and quite a bit of lees-influence. Hints of evolution are just starting to creep in, with notes of dried herb and minerals on the finish. This is probably just past its peak. ****(*)
Maitz – Ratscher Morillon 2013 (Steirische Klassik Ortswein)
Morillon is the local name for Chardonnay – theoretically a specific clone. The ambitious Maitz have turned in an excellent effort with this rich, leesy Chardonnay, which was matured in large oak. Whilst not quite as opulent as the 2012, it’s long and refined with a clear nod to Burgundy. I much prefer this mid-level “village wine” to their overblown and over oaked Erste Lage crus. ****
Müller – Gewurztraminer 2011 (Klöcher Traminer) (Not in Brook)
From one of a small group of producers in Vulkanland (Oststeiermark) who have formed the “Klöcher Traminer” assocation to showcase the very specific terroir for this grape variety. Ageing very nicely, with restrained perfume on the nose and spicy, gooseberry-tinged fruit. Textually, this reminds a bit of Rhubarb, with some light phenolics coating the tongue. Easily the most terrible label of the night! ***(*)
Nikolaihof – Im Weingebirge Grüner Veltliner 2012
We broke our own rules to show this wine, which is imported to the Netherlands and is from a well known producer. However, it offers such a unique reading of Grüner Veltliner that it was included to show how versatile and superlative this grape can be.
Nikolaihof’s preferences run at odds with most of their neighbours, who tend to focus on producing ever riper, bigger, fatter wines, epitomised in the Smaragd style which can easily be overbearing in my opinion. Nikolaihof aim for elegance, precision and even a certain leanless. “Im Weingebirge” was aged in large Slavonian oak (as with all their wines), and bottled in 2014. It’s stunning, at first teasing the palate with lemon verbena and citrus zest, before rich, full Grüner fruit takes the stage. Then the finish unfolds, with very pretty hints of salt, minerals and that typical vegetal pepper note. Poised, elegant and layered. *****
Burgenland – whites
White wines from the Leithaberg area can have a Burgundian elegance to them. Producers often use French oak to strengthen this suggestion. Weissburgunder (AKA Pinot Blanc), Chardonnay and Neuburger are the varieties that scale the heights. Welschriesling is usually simple quaffing material.
Tinhof – Neuburger 2006
From a quality minded organically certified producer in Eisenstadt, this shows how wonderfully Neuburger can age. The nose is toasty, slightly evolved but very clean, the palate very fresh and citrussy, with bags of length and complexity. This still feels quite youthful! ****
Kirchknopf – Leithaberg Weiss 2013 (Not in Brook)
26 year old Michael Kirchknopf is a bit of a wunderkind, and has elevated a small family winery in the village of Kleinhoflein to some reknown. This spontaneously fermented, unoaked Chardonnay from the Leithaberg hills was his third vintage and undoubtedly one of the wines of the night. The nose is delicate and youthful, giving little hint of the fireworks to come. On the palate it explodes with ripe apple and white peach, tinged with honey. The intensity and purity of the fruit is astounding, with some lees-driven texture. The silky finish just lasts and lasts and lasts. Young, but perfect. *****
Tinhof – Leithaberg Weiss 2013
A Weissburgunder/Neuburger blend, this was perhaps unfairly overshadowed by the previous wine. It has attractive tropical fruit and a hint of oak on the nose. There’s a good sense of both varietals in the blend – spice from the Pinot Blanc and weight from the Neuburger, but this doesn’t scale the heights, and seems a tad simple. It promised more when I tasted it from barrel two years ago. ***
(Part 2 includes two orange wines, seven Burgenland reds and two sweet wines from the Neusiedlersee)
Wines for this tasting were sourced:
a) from our personal collection, mostly private purchases but in some cases gifted (11 wines)
b) from producers who kindly sent media samples specially for the tasting (8 wines)
c) specially purchased online where we could not easily source otherwise (2 wines)