Monday, 15 February 2016

Austria's Wine Specialties

Producers: Wieninger, Loimer

The famous Danube river provides the backdrop to this vineyard in Wachau

In souvenir shops around Austria it is common to find T-shirts light-heartedly proclaiming “No kangaroos in Austria.” It’s a self-deprecating reference to how the small Central European country (pop. 8.5 million) is often overshadowed by the fame of its barbeque loving namesake. But this country, which holds a wealth of Baroque architecture and birthed talents such as Gustav Klimt and Johann Strauss could not be more dissimilar. A recent trip there unearthed further secrets unique to the Austrian wine landscape.

Wein, or by its English nomenclature Vienna, is the capital of Austria with the unique trait of also being a wine producing region with around 700 hectares of vineyards. It is legacy that can be traced back to when Vienna was a Roman outpost called Vindobona. The majority of Vienna’s vineyards are now found in the outlying 19th and 21st districts, interspersed with residential developments. Here Fritz Wieninger, a fourth generation winemaker, tends to vineyards bisected by the Danube river. His top sites, the Bisamberg and Nussberg, provide a fascination glimpse into the diversity of Vienna’s climate and soils. The Nussberg on the western bank is formed of weathered limestone with a higher clay content, producing fuller bodied wines with a creamier texture. Over on the eastern bank the Bisamberg has light, sandy soil with less sun and rainfall. Wines from this site display higher acidity and a fruitier character.

A specialty of Viennese wine is the traditional practice of field blending known as Gemischter Satz, wherein grapes are grown, harvested and vinified together. This flies in the face of modern winemaking where different grape varieties are planted separately, and meticulous plot-by-plot vinification is seen as the way to isolate the character of each vineyard. However, Fritz argues that Gemischter Satz is more complex and a truer reflection of the terroir.  “If you blend the different varieties and harvest at the perfect time, you will get some grapes which are a little overripe and some which are a little underripe, so you will have different flavours – pure fruit, freshness, botrytis, with equal alcohol and acidity.” To qualify for the Gemischter Satz DAC appellation, at least three white grape varieties from an approved list must be planted in a single vineyard, with no variety comprising more than 50% of the blend and the minimum representation at 10%. With so many permutations, picking at the right time is crucial to achieve balance. Fritz states that “underripeness should not be unripeness” – he looks for grapes that have freshness and spiciness without green notes. Georg Grohs, Wieninger’s Marketing Manager, adds that the haphazard planting of Gemischter Satz is a reflection of Viennese thinking. “Sometimes, we make decisions before we have all the information, and sometimes we make them too late. Not everything needs to be rationally though out”. His words echo the thoughts of maverick Austrian artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser, who proclaimed that “The straight line is godless and immoral”.

A line-up of Wieninger wines

Settling down in Fritz’s well-lit tasting room, where occasionally his black Labrador wanders over to snuffle us, I receive my first introduction to Gemischter Satz. Fritz has chosen a vintage family portrait as the label, and a bottle that is somewhere between a tall-shouldered Bordeaux and a sloped Burgundy. “When I started, I figured that I had to put the wine in a different shape so that people realise that this is something special,” said Fritz. The wine, from the Bisamberg vineyard, is a blend of Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc and Chardonnay. It is at once floral, fruity and herbal, with notes of tropical fruit and a hint of yeast. It’s unlike any wine that I’ve tried before, but the texture is round and pleasing. Fritz was initially sceptical about the potential of Gemischter Satz, but his first experiment converted him into an ardent supporter. All of Vienna in one wine; is the description Fritz gives it. Wieninger’s other wines further cement Vienna’s reputation as a wine region. The lissome Pinot Noir Grand Select was the equivalent of a fine Burgundy, while the Chardonnay Grand Select from the same 2012 vintage thrilled with complex flavours of pastry, apple and cashew.

Bottom right: The Alter Klosterkeller Heuriger
It’s not long before Fritz is called away to attend to the harvest. I’ve called in on a rainy day and the local winemakers are eager to get the grapes in before autumn showers raise the spectre of rot. Across Austria, yields are up from 2014 and quality looks to be very good according to the Austrian Wine Marketing Board. Carefully nurtured through the fermentation process, it will not be long before this vintage is ready to be bottled. And what better way to enjoy a glass of Viennese wine than in a traditional wine tavern? These Heurigen were made possible when in 1784 Emperor Josef II enacted a law that allowed producers to sell their own wine directly to the public. Traditional Heurigen indicate when they are open for business by hanging a bunch of evergreen branches outside. A casual vibe and hearty local food accompany the wine. Expect to see the tangy cheese spread known as Liptauer, slabs of roast pork and Wiener Schnitzel, the breaded veal cutlet that is omnipresent in Vienna. Popular locales for Heurigen in Vienna include Grinzing, Stammersdorf and Döbling, the latter two which are frequented more by locals than tourists. The concept has spread to other places in Austria as well. At the Alter Klosterkeller in Dürnstein I found myself swapping stories with a spry 70 year old German while drinking wine that had been made from a vineyard right outside the tavern.

The concepts of Gemischter Satz and Heurigen may not be well known outside of Austria, but the grape variety Grüner Veltliner has long since earned its passport chops. In the 1990s it surged in popularity as the darling of the New York wine community and has now sunk its roots in places as far-flung as New Zealand and the United States. Boon Heng, director of Wein & Vin which specialises in Austrian wine, noted that “Sommeliers, especially those in fine dining restaurants, almost always have Grüner Veltliner in their wine list. Its medium acidity and ripe fruit profile make it appealing to consumers.” Wines made from this Austrian native possess a markedly green note. Imagine fresh salad leaves – a mélange of arugula, sugar snap peas and crisp lettuce, tossed with grapefruit segments and a squeeze of lemon. Oaked examples are rare, as the wood tends to mask the natural exuberance of this variety. 

Loimer is built upon an ancient cellar (photo credit: Weingut Loimer)
Grüner Veltliner has a strong affinity with loess (an unstratified mix of clay and silt particles) that is found throughout much of Lower Austria. The ability of this brownish-yellow soil to retain water benefits the thirsty Grüner grape and results in higher alcohol, richer wines. To taste some examples of this grape, I travelled to Weingut Loimer in the Kamptal region. The minimalistic black concrete and glass edifice sits starkly amidst the verdant greenery of the vineyards while inside high ceilings and plenty of natural light lend an airiness to the tasting room. The winery is built upon an ancient cellar which at one point in its rich history also served as a bomb shelter and military assembly plant for the Nazis. In one section of the winery small portholes are cut into the walls, allowing for telescopic views of the vineyards beyond.

The quality of Loimer’s wines have won them international acclaim, and the Langenlois Kamptal Grüner Veltliner earned a spot as one of the top ten wines in the Business Times Wine Challenge in 2014. Riesling and Grüner Veltliner form the backbone of production, with smaller bottlings of Rotgipfler, Traminer, Chardonnay and Zweigelt. The entry level Langenlois Kamptal Grüner Veltliner forms around a quarter of production, and displayed spring water clarity with citrus elements and peppery spice. Several steps up in intensity is the Langenlois Spiegel Kamptal DAC Reserve, a premier cru level wine that showed ripe stone and tropical fruit with a bright, citrus finish. As I reviewed my tasting notes later, one of the key things that stood out was how refreshing the wines were, due to their snappy acidity. Winemaker Fred Loimer is known for his unorthodox approach to winemaking, from employing biodynamics in the vineyard to producing offbeat wines such as the Achtung! range of orange wines (white wines made with skin contact in the mold of red winemaking).

Loimer and Wieninger exemplify the new generation of creative, driven producers who are shaping the Austrian winemaking landscape. Through observing past practices and adapting them to suit the modern palate, they have created individual wines that offer excitement and diversity. The siren call is being spread around the world. You can’t find kangaroos here, but Grüner, even in Australia, is catching on.

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