Posted: 1st September 2017
At the end of August I enjoyed a glorious five days in sunny Austria. When I arrived it was a modest and bearable 27 degrees. When I left it was a sweltering, unbearable 34. Most people were predicting a very early harvest, probably in the first or second week of September. I went east first, to the region of Carnuntum which is only half an hour away from Vienna, beginning near the airport at Schwechat and ending just beyond the walled town of Hainburg and not only in sight of the screaming spires of Bratislava but of both Slovakian and Hungarian Borders.
Carnuntum is the hottest part of Lower Austria and has developed a justified reputation as a red wine area – Zweigelt in the west and Blaufränkisch in the east; but there is the usual story – Viennese wine lovers like to stock up on a range of different wines from local producers – and that means that many growers offer a gamut of up to a dozen, and not always the ones that might reasonably be expected to prosper. Many plant Grüner Veltliner in soils that are simply too dry.
It was naturally not my first visit to Carnuntum, as long ago as 1991, I spent a day there organised by the German vet Florian Kruse and tasted some of the up-and-coming producers. Those people have now truly upped and come. Walter Glatzer was one, and the Artner family, as well as my friend Hans Pitnauer, who seems to have beaten his own path and left the organisation that is planning to produce a vineyard classification for the region.
By the time I wrote my second book on Austrian wine (1997) other names had emerged: Gerhard Markowitsch, Hans Grassl and Franz Netzl. There are now about 900 hectares of vines in Carnuntum, and some 270 growers. Only a small percentage of these people actually bottle their wines, the rest sell grapes or wine to the others.
I was familiar with Göttlesbrunn, but it was my first glimpse of the rocky outcrops that mark the eastern part of the region and they are indeed impressive. The day I landed we had a nice tasting and picnic on the Spitzerberg where Dorli Muhr and Dirk van der Niepoort have their vines and which is rapidly regaining some of the reputation it used to have in the old days, when it was served at state banquets. In that tasting Robert Payr and Gerhard Markowitsch appeared the best among the whites, with Muhr-van der Niepoort and Auer, Gratzer Sandriesen and Lager topping the simpler reds.
The following morning we visited the region’s most easterly vineyards on the south-facing slope of the Braunstein within spitting distance of the ruined castle of Hainburg. These are now exclusively farmed by Michaela Riedmüller. On the way to Göttlesbrunn we passed the granite slopes of the Hundsheimberg in Hundsheim where most of the vines seem to belong to the Lugschitz family. They produce very promising Blaufränkisch.
After scaling the heights of Göttlesbrunn with Gerhard Markowitsch I sat down to a tasting of 132 wines, sampling each village and slope in turn. It seemed to be that the leader in Stixneusiedl was Trapl on the Gaisberg; on the Göttlesbrunner Altenberg it was my old friend Glatzer who also excelled on Kräften and the Schüttenberg. On the Haidacker, the laurels go to Lukas Markowitsch and F & C (formerly Frank) Netzl. Martin Netzl makes nice wines on the Steinriegl (Grüner Veltliner) and Ott (Chardonnay) on the Hagelsberg.
F & C Netzl are the top producer on the Höfleiner Bärnreiser (Weisser Burgunder) along with Walter Glatzer (Blaufränkisch), while Grassl (Chardonnay) is best on the Rothenberg. Payr comes into his own with Zweigelt from the Steinäcker and Auer with the same black grape on Bühl. Gerhard Markowitch had an excellent Zweigelt from Kirchweingarten; he didn’t show his famous Pinot Noir. On the Spitzerberg in Prellenkirchen, the leaders are without doubt Muhr-van der Niepoort, but there are good things from Payr as well. The right grape to plant is obviously Blaufränkisch.
If I had to choose a collection I should name Hans and Philipp Grassl, who make lovely reds on the Schüttenberg and whites on the Rothenberg. The most flavoursome whites are probably Weisser Burgunder (Pinot Blanc). The best reds in the west are mostly Zweigelt, in the east Blaufränkisch, but it will be years yet before they eliminate some of the weirdos – not just Grüner Veltliner but Merlot and Syrah.
We were working towards an exploratory classification for the region. When it comes to the Danube Valley around Krems, however, the structure is pretty well in place even if it has yet to be sanctioned by State or Federal Government. The Traditionsweingüter organisation encompasses some of the top wine estates in Austria – particularly for white wines and they have already selected their ‘premier cru’ sites much like the VDP in Germany and are hoping to decide what will become ‘grand cru’ before a couple of decades are out. It is all part of the process of changing Austria over from a ‘Prädikat’ system based on sweetness to one where the right grape is chosen to represent the correct soil and exposition. This is not only derived from growers’ experience of where the most interesting wines hail from, but also the cadastre of 1823, which had already designated the better soils, I presume for fiscal purposes. Producers from the regions of Kamptal, Kremstal, Traisental and Wagram (the Wachau won’t play the game), have got together to encourage the process and that means the selected grapes are Riesling or Grüner Veltliner.
As an appetiser on our first night under Toni Mörwald’s accommodating roof in Feuersbrunn, we tasted thirty-three wines from the 2012 and 2007 vintages. I should confess that I am having a bit of a problem with Grüner Veltliner at the moment (just as people in the US are getting their tongues round it): the decision has been taken – collectively it seems – to lighten the wines and try to vinify at 13%, which I believe damages the expression of the grape variety which only comes into its own at over 13.5. Grüner Veltliner has lots of character, but it has a tendency to be coarse and alcoholic. I don’t believe that it ages that gracefully either. There are some magnificent older Veltliners, but they generally come from the likes of FX or Rudi Pichler in the Wachau, who make them as tight as drums so that they take years to soften. If you want delicacy in wine, it could be that Veltliner is not your bag? Again Weisser Bugunder (Pinot Blanc) might be a better bet? That ages divinely and is much more tolerant about being vinified at a lower strength.
So, of the Veltliners that night, just these stood out for me: Martin Nigl’s Senftenberger Pellingen 2012, Bründlmayer’s Langenloiser Käferberg 2012, Fritsch’s Kirchberger Schlossberg 2012, Jurtschitsch’s Kammerer Lamm 2007 (one of the best Grüner Veltliner sites of all) and Franz Leth’s 2007 Felser Scheiben. Of the Rieslings, the top scores went to Allram’s Zöbinger Heiligenstein 2012, Markus Huber’s excellent Reichersdorfer Berg 2007 and Rainer Wess’s 2007 Steiner Pfaffenberg. My favourite wine was Sepp Mantler’s 2007 Geldersdorfer Wieland: a Riesling grown on loess (it is meant to be Veltliner that you grow on loess).
The next day we began the tasting of the 2016s. It was a difficult year with some heat and a lot of rain. The wines were only just bottled and some were a little blighted by the experience too. The sites are mostly familiar: the Gaisberg is shared between the villages of Kammern, Strass and Zöbing where according to rule, Riesling is planted on primary rock and Veltliner in the scree. The most famous site in the region is the steep Zöbinger Heilgenstein, where possibly most of the top wines come from and has much more Riesling. Steinmassl is also best for Riesling. In Langenlois, the Käferberg is mostly a Veltliner site while the Kogelberg is shared with Veltliner. Lamm and Renner are excellent Veltliner sites.
In Krems the vineyards are not always so steep or distinguished, but Frechau stands out for Veltliner; in Senftenberg the Hochäcker is Riesling-dominated. Then there are the top sites in Stein, on the borders of the Wachau, such as the Pfaffenberg and the famous Hund. On the south side of the Danube, the vineyards of Furth are often planted in the great volcanic knoll that is crowned by Göttweig’s Benedictine Abbey.
Some of the most exciting wines come from the Traisental to the west, from Getzersdorf and Inzersdorf. Crossing the river again, much of the land between between Krems and Kirchberg is loess, and favours Grüner Veltliner: Gedersdorf, for example, and in the Wagram, Fels and Feuersbrunn.
My top wines were mostly Riesling, probably for the reasons explained above.
Top golds (18.5):Hiedler Kammerner Gaisberg, Jurtschitch, Zöbinger Heiligenstein, Jurtschitsch, Langenloiser Käferberg, Bründlmayer, Langenloiser Steinmassl, Hiedler, Zöbinger Kogelberg, Stadt Krems, Steiner Grillenparz and Salomon Undhof, Steiner Pfaffenberg. I gave half a mark less (18) to Allram, Zöbinger Heiligenstein, Jurtschitsch, Zöbinger Heiligenstein Alte Reben, Jurtschitch, Langenloiser Loiserberg, and Neumayer, Inzersdorfer Rothenbarth. I awarded top silver (17.5) to Schloss Gobelsburg’s Zöbinger Gaisberg and Sepp Moser’s Rohrendorfer Gebling.
Of the Grüner Veltliners, top golds (18.5) went to Jurtschitsch’s Langenloiser Käferberg and Schloss Gobelsburg’s Kammerner Lamm. Golds (18) I attributed to Hiedler’s Langenloiser Kittmannsberg, Proidl’s Senftenberger Ehrenfels and Petra Unger’s Further Gottschelle. Top silver (17.5) I gave to Weszeli’s Langenloiser Käferberg, Jurtschitch’s Langenloiser Loiserberg, Mantlerhof’s Gedersdorfer Spiegel and Huber’s Getzersdorfer Berg.
My favourite wines of all were the Hiedler Gaisberg and Berthold Salomon’s Pfaffenberg Rieslings. “The best collection of wines came without any doubt from Jurtschitsch.”
There was some light relief: when I crawled out of the tasting into the sunshine an orchestra was rehearsing Strauss’s Alpine Symphony. I plonked myself down on a bench and soaked it up. The day before the redoubtable Frau Doctor Heinrich had marched us up to the top of a hill above the River Traisen to show us the composition of the soil in 33 degrees of heat, which left us frazzled and parched, so that we might have done a little more than justice to a whole pool filled with bottles we found at Markus Huber’s house later. And on the last day we had a special treat in the form of a concert performed by the Czech Philharmonic and conducted by Tomas Netopil: Dvorak’s Cello Concerto (cellist Truls Mørk) and his Eighth Symphony. The ubiquitous Toni Mörwald made a splendid picnic to go with it.
In four days of tasting I evaluated 266 wines, not including those consumed at lunch and dinner.