Posted: 2nd July 2018
It has been a while since I have been in Vienna for the biennial Vievinum wine fair and a lot of things have changed in Austria. New appellations have emerged, but there is more and more spin-marketing and attempts to brand the unbrandable; also the approaches to certain grape varieties has altered, and not always for the best. Without a definite programme, I decided the most useful approach was to dip in among the very many growers I have known these past twenty-seven years, and see where they were now. In several cases the fresh, young grower of the early nineties has transmogrified into a stouter, greyer figure, cut more in the image of myself; in others the father has passed on the reins to a son or daughter and now confines himself to the day-to-day work in the vines, or has possibly taken a suitcase of cash and headed for the hills or the Riviera!
One estate where the son has been in charge for several years now, is Austria’s most famous: F X Pichler in Loiben in the Wachau. Now visitors to the fair must try to distract Lukas Pichler’s attention to taste the wines. They are famously hard to assess in their youth. None of the 2017 wines was ready. Some were brimming with CO2, the others largely inchoate. At the top end the Kellerberg Grüner Veltliner Smaragd was showing signs of life, and the Riesling Steinertal was an absolute delight. The Loibenberg was less easy to judge, but then came ‘Unendlich’ (Infinite) and the Riesling from the Kellerberg and finally Grüner Veltliner ‘M’ which was suitably massive. Time will tell, but if their track record is anything to go by, they will surely be magnificent.
The 2017s from the Wachau failed to impress me as much as they have in some years. The younger Emmerich Knoll’s wines (the new generation has also been in the hot seat for some years) seemed a little less sensational than they were but I loved the Riesling Smaragd from Ried Schütt. Franz Hirtzberger is a reference for Grüner Veltliner. The Axpoint Smaragd had varietal character at least but the benchmark Honivogl was slighter than I recalled. There was a gorgeous 2017 Riesling Smaragd from Ried Setzen, however. This new ephemerality seems to have affected Prager too, whose wines were formerly colossal and now seem but a shadow of their former selves. Is the model for these lighter wines Germany?
I went to see Rudi Pichler, whose wines I have always admired. They are wound up as tightly as clocks. There was a lovely Weissburgunder from Kollmütz, the grape that should have been number two in the Wachau, and a fine Grüner Veltliner from the same. The best of the Grüner Veltliner Smaragds was from Achleiten; the loveliest of the Rieslings from Kirchweg. Erich Krutzler of Pichler-Krutzler is F X Pichler’s son-in-law. The 2017 Rieslings were far better than the Veltliners although I liked the Klostersatz. Look out for the Kellerberg, Loibnerberg and In der Wand – a ‘cru’ marketed by Erich alone.
Leaving the Wachau I feel a particular affection for the Weingut Thierry-Weber from the time when my children were still small. They rescued us from forlornly wandering down a country lane looking for a dinner and delivered us to a well-provisioned Weingasse containing a clutch of Heurige inns. Much more than that: they picked us up later and delivered us to the cage outside Krems where we had been lodged. I like the wines too, the simple, powerful Grüner Veltliners and Rieslings that grow on the sand and loess soils to the east of Krems, although I am sceptical of the need to flavour them with oak casks. The youngest vines appealed to me most: a Kremser Veltliner 2017 with proper varietal character and a Riesling from Ried Gebling from the same year that had a pretty peachiness.
My hard time with the formerly wonderful wines of Bründlmayer continues. This chiefly affects the Grüner Veltliners that have become evanescent – I can only assume – in an attempt to pursue lightness and elegance. I can’t help feeling that they have collared the wrong horse, and that Grüner Veltliner is neither of these things. I have loved Veltliner in my time, but she is a country wench, an ‘Amaryllis’ more at home in a rustic kitchen than an urban salon. These new-style Veltliners are dressing her up to play a role she cannot act. Once again I have to say they would have been better off with Weissburgunder.
Still there were good things: Bründlmayer was always the leading name for ‘Winzersekt’ or proper sparkling wine, and they have introduced a slightly austere rose to the range. The best remains the Brut. Above all the Rieslings continue to shine, such as the Alte Reben from the Terrassen and the Heiligenstein. The only Veltliner I liked was Spiegel, made by Willi’s son Vincent. I suppose we must accept that to be encouraging, and encourage Vincent at the same time.
Many of the Lower Austrian estates were showing a vertical of different vintages. At Schloss Gobelsburg they were serving their top Riesling from Heiligenstein. Once again the bigger wines were the older ones. The 2016 was notably light; the 2012 had more flesh; the 2010 has a honeyed opulence; the 2008 was all peaches and lemon zest while the 1998 was perhaps dipping a bit with its redolence of lychees. I went to Ilse Maier at the Geyerhof and consoled myself with Grüner Veltliners from Ried Steinleithn which retain something of their original power. I am not a great believer in old Veltliner, but the 2006 was lovely with its aroma of rosewater, and the 2002 even better. Sadly the 1988 was corked.
I rarely miss the opportunity to taste Ludwig Neumayer’s wines from the Traisental either. Ludwig’s wines have a beautiful purity of fruit, and a most glorious finish to them. He was showing the Riesling Ried Rothenbart. They were all good, but I think I liked the 2014 best. Rudi Rabl had a good 2016 from Ried Käferberg and a lovely DAC Riesling 2017. And so it went on round the room: a 2006 Grüner Veltliner from Ried Lindberg from Salomon Undhof, a 2004 Riesling from Ried Grillenparz from the Weingut Stadt Krems, these were all wines to treasure.
I went to Burgenland, or rather I walked upstairs. There I chanced upon my friend Erwin Tinhof closeted with the American writer David Schildknecht – always a good omen. A succession of lovely wines filled my glass, from a Klassic 2017 Neuburger to a lovely Leithaberg DAC Weissburgunder. The real treat was possibly the Blaufränkisch. Blaufränkisch from the Leithagebirge tends to be more supple and Burgundian than its cousin in the Mittelburgenland. The simplest 2015 had a redolence of tobacco, the Leithaberg DAC was naturally more complex; the most luscious was the Gloriette.
I was on my way to meet Louise Höpler, Christof Höpler’s charming English wife and taste their wines, which I had not done for several years – indeed not since Christof’s succession to the role of winemaker. The estate on the northern shores of the mighty Neusiedlersee has grown immensely and has plenty of wine to sell. I was chiefly impressed by the Weissburgunder/Pinot Blanc, and the Pinot Noir. Axel Stiegelmar, despite his apparent youth, took over Juris from his father Georg a generation ago. The estate in Gols has always been tip-top. I had some fresh whites, such as a delightful aperitif-style Muscat Ottonel, a catty Sauvignon Blanc and a lovely pink Pinot Gris (the skins have a pink hue). The reds are best here, from the Ungerberg Blaufränkisch to the St Laurent Reserve. My real favourites are the Pinot Noirs, and it was a Stiegelmar Pinot that I drank in 1988 or 1989 that first alerted me to the quality of new wave Austrian wine. The 2015 Hochreit and Haide are excellent – the latter a little earthy; the best is the plush, unctuous Reserve.
My destination was the stand representing with wines of Carinthia, which were new to me. I found a couple in Tracht doling out the produce of a handful of producers, of which the best was a 2017 Sauvignon Blanc from the Weingut Vgl. Ritter. In the Weinviertel I popped into see Josef Pleil whose wines had a certain typicity in the past. I was not disappointed by his 2017 Klassic Grüner Veltliner but he had belaboured his DAC wine with new oak which I thought a terrible mistake. I preferred the Gemischte Satz made from a promiscuous vineyard planted with several cultivars which was pleasantly peppery like an old-fashioned Grüner Veltliner.
From the hot, mostly red-wine region of Carnuntum, Robert Payr makes an excellent Welschriesling that I find far better than his Veltliner. ‘Grooner’ (rhymes with ‘crooner’) is now an item in the US and people grow it to please their exporters. His best wines are naturally red: Blaufränkisch from the Ried Spitzerberg, Zweigelt from Ried Steinäcker and his cuvee: P1. Gerhard Markowitsch has enjoyed star-status since the nineties. Last year I tasted a great many of his wines, but there were exceptions like his famous Pinot Noirs. The basic 2016 was very good, but the Scheibner of the same year was excellent; possibly his best wine, however, remains the Rubin Carnuntum Zweigelt: good, honest Austrian wine without the spin.