Getting Your Teeth into Austrian Wine
Posted: 6th June 2022
I am well aware that wine tasting is perceived as a huge joke by many people, an excuse to get pissed and bandy a lot of descriptive terms about figuring a cornucopia of fruits and flowers, but I can assure you that it is actually hard work and requires considerable stamina and healthy teeth.
It is perhaps best compared to a sport. If you get out of condition and do not practise, you will rapidly lose your ability to get through major tournaments. The Covid plague meant that most wine tastings were either scrapped, or took place at home with sample bottles large or small delivered to your door. As with everything else that happened those two years, life was on the back-burner, slow and sedate; there was no need to bust a gut. Several magazines went under and there were precious few opportunities to write.
All major events were cancelled or postponed. One was the biennial VieVinum Fair in Vienna, which I have been attending since it was created in the nineties. This May, it was back on the calendar, and once again I had to gird my loins at the prospect of tasting up to a dozen wines from around two-hundred producers. Given that it would be impossible to taste two to three thousand wines over three days I decided that I would drop in on key producers whose wines I knew, taking the temperature of the vintages I had missed.
On the day before the fair opened, there was a tasting at the Palais Niederösterreich of ninety-two wines that had excelled in international competitions. I had not tasted all of them by the end of my two-hour slot (I had not broached the reds) and some did not impress me, but I was able to make a few discoveries and confirm long-held views. Among the growers who would find themselves on pretty well every list of the best in Austria, I approved a 2019 Gelber Muskateller Smaragd from Knoll, a 2018 Zierfandler Ried Mandel-Höh from Stadlmann, a 2020 Grüner Veltliner Wein vom Stein from Ludwig Neumayer, a 2019 Riesling Ried Kirchensteig from Geyerhof, a 2020 Riesling Ried Hochäcker ‘Privat’ from Nigl, a 2020 Grüner Veltliner Smaragd Wachstum Bodenstein, a 2019 Grüner Veltliner Ried Dechant Alte Reben from Rabl, a 2019 Grüner Veltliner Smaragd Honivogl (generally the best indicator of Veltliner quality in any vintage) from Hirtzberger, a 2019 Grüner Veltliner Smaragd Ried Schütt from Tegernseerhof, a 2020 Riesling Ried Zöbinger Heiligenstein from Allram, a 2020 Riesling Zöbinger Heiligenstein from Ludwig Ehn, a 2020 Riesling Zöbinger Gaisberg from Birgit Eichinger, a 2016 Riesling Ried Heiligenstein from Schloss Gobelsburg, a 2019 Riesling Ried Gebling from Sepp Moser and a 2018 Sauvignon Blanc Ried Edelschuh from Wohlmuth. Among those who had made a huge leap forward in quality I noted a 2019 Roter Veltliner from Fritz Salomon at Gut Oberstockstall, a 2018 Grüner Veltliner Smaragd Ried Zanzl from Frischengruber; and among the few I had never encountered before, I praised the wonderful 2019 Grüner Veltliner Smaragd Ried Atzberg ‘Steilterrassen’ from Atzberg Weine GmbH.
My list provided the basis for the next three days. The first port of call was Ludwig Neumayer from the Traisental. This was to be my first proper tussle with 2021: a vintage lauded in Austria as ‘the best for 15 years at least’. The growing season was long and cool, with cold nights enhancing aromas. It also meant acidity levels at over 9 grams per litre. My tooth enamel was about to suffer a blitzkrieg.
Neumayer’s 2021 Schieflage Grüner Veltliner had all the purity of fruit you’d expect, but was very tightly wrought, like most Veltliners in this vintage. The 2021 Riesling Wein vom Stein was also gorgeous, but with added refinement and a lingering taste of apricots.
The Wachau has been Austria’s leading white wine appellation since the seventies, and the FX Pichler estate has been one of the Wachau’s big five since then. FX’s son Lukas now makes the wines from 70 sites scattered over 20 hectares. They were always hard to measure in their youth, and the 2021s are no exception. The Riesling Kellerberg was showing the most charm, but none has been bottled to date. Going on past form they will be huge.
At the Domäne Wachau, Roman Horvath talks lucidly about the great many wines he has to show. He was particularly good on Grüner Veltliner, which was hard to make well. It can produce very common wines, he says, and you need to really work at it. His Veltliner Smaragd from the Kellerberg has a pepperiness typical of the year. As a co-operative, the Domäne vinifies a great many grapes, making a Neuburger, a ‘gemischte Satz’ (field blend) and a really wonderful Müller Thurgau. He uses amphorae and for ‘Steinwerk’, matures Veltliner in a huge block of Wachau marble.
Generations have changed since I first started tasting Wachau wines. A lot of the old guard have handed over to sons and daughters. My old friend Rudi Pichler was nowhere to be seen, but I spied some of the Grand Old Men of Austrian Wine floating about over the course of the next few days. Several Rudi Pichler wines shone out, such as the 2021 Riesling Kirchweg Smaragd (those fresh apricots again), the Riesling Achleiten Smaragd, and a special treat, a 2009 Grüner Veltliner Kollmütz Smaragd reeking of pineapples, roses and pepper.
Knoll didn’t disappoint either. Young Emmerich is now in his stride. It would be hard to select just one of the wines but I think I’d give the prize to the 2021 Riesling Loibenberg Smaragd with its white peach aroma. Another old friend was Erich Krutzler, who married FX’s daughter Elisabeth and is half the Pichler-Krutzler estate. The wines have come on in leaps and bounds since I last tasted them. The one that stole my heart was not a Wachauer: the 2021 Riesling Pfaffenberg; but I’d have been almost as happy with the 2021 Riesling Steinporz. Franz Hirtzberger also had a stellar 2021 Riesling Steinporz picked on 18 October, not to mention the famous Grüner Veltliner Honivogl. It’s as tight as a clock now, but will unwind.
On to Prager, another member of the original band that made the Wachau Austria’s top white wine appellation. The wines have been vinified by his son-in-law Toni Bodenstein for as long as I can remember. Bodenstein has always been experimental. In Achleiten the Veltliner is grown on stakes rather than wires, ‘Wachstum Bodenstein’ is 460 metres up, and another Veltliner in Zwerithaler is made from vines planted in 1906 and 1909. Showing best that day was the 2021 Grüner Veltliner Achleiten Smaragd, but they are young yet, and still in cask.
In the Kamptal, Rudolf Rabl gets better and better. He has lots of land, makes oodles of different wines, but they are not only all pretty good they are all good value for money. His 2021 Langenloiser Riesling is a perfect place to start. Better known, of course, is Bründlmayer, one of a few handfuls of growers who have been part of the elect for more than forty years. I was served an intriguing 2020 Grüner Veltliner Lamm that had me thinking of Ethiopian coffee, but the real treat was a vertical of Rieslings from the Heiligenstein rock: 2020, 2016 and 2014. The 2014 triumphed in its peachy complexity. Martin Nigl took the wine world by storm in the nineties. Here I had a vertical of Riesling from the schists of Hochäcker, in which the powerful, zesty 2017 came out top.
The Salomons at the Undhof between Krems and Stein also have a rock-solid reputation. Here Bertold Salomon gave me a vertical of his Steiner Kögl Riesling from 2020 to 1979. The 2011 proved sensational: limes, peaches, a bit of coffee, but the 79 (‘niners’ are particularly favoured in Austria) was also still very much on form. Another favourite estate is Schloss Gobelsburg where I tasted an impressive collection of 2021s. The last Kamptaler I tried was from Sepp Moser: the 2019 Ganstreiberin. Niko Moser told me the vineyard is just 0.6 of a hectare, but they make a first-rate Riesling there.
Fritz Salomon in the renaissance schloss Gut Oberstockstall is Bertold’s nephew. He has taken the Wagram estate down the organic route and is a paid up member of Demeter. The style is individual, with the Veltliners nuttier and often earthier than elsewhere. There is a good, concentrated Pinot Noir too.
The Geyerhof in the Kremstal is one of my favourite estates in Austria but I thought I detected a change of style, with less of the baroque opulence I liked in their Veltliners in the past. My favourites were the 2021 Riesling Sprinzenberg and Riesling Kirchensteig – both exemplary wines.
On the north bank of the Danube is the vast Weinviertel, and right in the north is a small fragment of what was once a huge estate belong to the Princes Liechtenstein, most of which fell to Czechoslovakia after the war. We were invited to the Palais Liechtenstein to taste some older vintages of the wine, chiefly Grüner Veltliners and Rieslings: a very good 1988 Veltliner and two reserve Rieslings – 2017 and 2020 – showed great promise.
The Thermenregion south of Vienna is often overlooked. It has its own green cultivars such as Zierfandler and Rotgipfler and gravel for proper reds. It is also hot. Heinrich Hartl has achieved a fine reputation for his Pinot Noirs, such as his excellent 2018 Reserve, but I remember awarding a gold medal for a white back in the old days, and would not turn my nose up at the creamy, lemony 2017 Zierfandler. Stadlmann has been famous for his whites for many years, but I think they have got even better. I particularly enjoyed the 2021 Zierfandler and three 2020 single crus: the Rotgipfler Tagelsteiner, and the Zierfandlers from Igeln and Mandel Höh. Rotgipfler can have an intriguing spicy, rye bread taste.
In Carnuntum I had an appointment to see another friend, Hans Pitnauer from Göttlesbrunn whose red Bienenfresser has been a great success in Austria since it was launched in 1986. Here the focus is on Zweigelt and two premier crus: Haidacker and Bärnreiser. Haidacker is the more Burgundian, while Bärnreiser has always been the mainstay of Bienenfresser. I tasted two superb older vintages: 2009 and 2006.
Overlooking Slovenia in the south of Austria is Styria, with its rolling hills they compare it to Tuscany. Again the leaders have changed little since the eighties: Tement, Polz, Sattler, Gross are still the names to conjure with, but others are muscling in too. I went to Polz to taste a catty 2020 Sauvignon Blanc with a passion fruit finish and a sublime 2020 Gelber Muskateller from the Grassnitzberg. At Gross I had a serious 2017 Sauvignon Blanc from the Nussberg which had been aged for 50 months before release, and, continuing the theme, a grown up 2017 Gelber Muskateller from Perz which tasted of salty oranges – unlike the playful Muskatellers I am used to. Hannes Sabati’s 2021 version was spicier, with a hint of paprika. Wohlmuth in steep Kitzeck is further from the wine road and the wines have a different character. The 2020 Sauvignon Blanc Hochsteinriegl had a pronounced asparagus character.
Burgenland is Austria’s eastern frontier region, mostly facing Hungary. The wines are bigger here, and many are red. My first stop was to see Axel Stiegelmar at Juris. The first new wave Austrian wine I ever tasted was a 1987 Pinot Noir from Stiegelmar, so I had to try the 2017 Breitenteil, which was thirty years younger. It was no disappointment with its brimming cherry fruit, and rich cherry-like finish. Georg Prieler is another winemaker who rarely disappoints. He has made Weissburgunder a speciality, and produces positively Burgundian Blaufränkisch wines, as his father Engelbert did before him. The 2018 Goldberg Blaufränkisch was all leather, chocolate and cherries. Erwin Tinhof in Eisenstadt does wonderful things with Neuburger as well as making top-notch Blaufränkisch in his Gloriette vineyard.
The most famous name in Eisenstadt is Esterhazy. They make wines that are easy on palate and pocket like their Sankt Margarethen Chardonnay and their Grosshöflein Pinot Noir. Höpler too makes a wide range of wines, including a good Grüner Veltliner from a region little known for Veltliner and a super Viennese field blend from the Nussberg called Wirawaxt.
Moric is the brainchild of Roland Velich. The wines are made from antique Blaufränkisch vines in a far-flung corner of Middle Burgenland. It has become a cult and cults don’t come cheap. Roland was showing a few single cru 2019s that constitute the building blocks for Moric. I tasted Kirchberg, Schwemmer and Maissner. The first was the softest, while Schwemmer gives different results from limestone, loam and sand. Maissner is volcanic with plenty of iron. The first vines were planted here in 1908. The assembled Lutzmann’s Burg wine Roland describes as the ‘whole piece of music, not the individual partitions’ – the sum of its parts.
In remote South Burgenland is Uwe Schiefer, a rare winemaker with creative imagination, whose Weisser Schiefer wines are based on Welschriesling, together with other grapes according to the vintage. The top reds are Reihburg and Szapary. Szapary is 450 metres up and its vines were planted 67 years ago. The 2016 was a difficult vintage, but Uwe came out on top. A 2008 Reihburg showed how individual his wines could be, and how well they aged.
It had been a very hard slog. I got back with toothache from those 2021s and was in too much pain to taste anything that week. Earlier in May I had been to a Washington State tasting in the East End. The best winery I tasted was L’Ecole No 41 with its Bordeaux and Rhone Valley-style blends. Probably my favourite was the 2019 Merlot Columbia Valley. All the wines contained a whacking amount of alcohol, and that went for the 2016 Seven Hills Ciel de Cheval too, for me the best wine in the tasting. There were good wines from Terra Blanca and Saviah Cellars too.
Australia’s series of online tastings continued. The star of Riverina seemed still to be Deen de Bortoli whom I visited in 1990. His 2019 Durif Vat 1 is like drinking a Christmas cake and his 2019 Noble One possibly the ideal wine to serve with a Christmas cake: utterly delicious! The best of the Western Australian summer wines was the 2021 Flametree Sauvignon Blanc Semillon.
Finally two star buys from Tesco: a truly delicious Argentinian Torrontes (I am a sucker for Torrontes) as limpid as spring water and tasting of peaches and caramel and a 2018 Carmenère from the other side of the Andes with a hint of green pepper on the nose like a Loire wine, and the most toothsome summer-pudding palate.