WineWriting.com & French Mediterranean Wine
Richard Mark James' wine and travel blog

Austria: Moser, Michlits, Pfaffl, Grüner Veltliner, Wachau Riesling, Styria, Pannobile, Thermenwinzer, "Austrian adventure", "I’ll be back"; Riesling: Müller, Weszeli, Huber, Malat; Blaufränkisch: Groszer Wein, Eisenberg...

Links to latest from Austria:
Riesling & Blaufränkisch (March 2015): Müller, Weszeli, Huber, Malat, Groszer Wein - Eisenberg...
Weingut Sepp Moser (April 2012)
Werner Michlits (May 2012)
More Austrian wineries to follow: Styria - Pannobile - Thermenwinzer - Wachau Riesling - even more Grüner Veltliner... And read on (below) for two hot features: "An Austrian adventure" and “I’ll be back...” (all from an inspiring trip in 2004).

Weingut Pfaffl - Weinviertel
Pfaffl (Pe-faff-el) is yet another groovy-looking (those Austrians are rather good at designing wine-making and selling 'spaces') family-run estate, located about 15km north of Vienna; so within easy striking distance of Austria's fine capital city. Their wines - see snapshot below with my tasting notes and comments - are available from Astrum Wine Cellars in London SW18 (020 8870 5252), but don't appear to have US distribution at the moment (wrong! see update below), although certain lucky Canadians can find them in the Liquor Control Board of Ontario shops. More info @ pfaffl.at. These three gems were tasted in May 2007:
2006 Hundsleiten Grüner Veltliner (13.5%) - spicy pear with tangy yeast edges and powerful aromatic floral baked apple notes; full rounded mouth-feel v juicy peppery fruit, cider and creamy roast nut flavours v zingy and fresh; powerful finish v zesty mineral bite. 88-90
2005
Riesling am Berg (13.5%) - powerfully aromatic linseed oil, honey, citrus and mineral notes with almost a touch of botrytis? (noble rot character), intense and complex; powerful (again the alcohol certainly adds weight) with rich concentrated peach fruit and some sweetness v very fresh, mineral length v oily texture; lingering maturing Riesling fruit v medium dry finish although clean thanks to that acidity. 90-92
2004 'Excellent' (
Blauer Zweigelt Cabernet Sauvignon Merlot 14.5%) - this modestly named red shows fragrant Black Forest gateau fruit - plum cherry and choc with light vanilla tones, commanding palate with fresh bite and nice depth of minty fruit; the oak is quite well integrated (often a fault with Austrian reds) set against bitter/sweet fruit and dry finish. Would perhaps rate it higher but the alcohol's a bit heavy, although with food it's fine. 88
Update December 2009
Apart from a name-tweak perhaps, to Weingut R&A Pfaffl (maybe always was and I didn't note the full title, as in husband & wife Roman, and son R junior too, and Adelheid?), they appear to be winning a lot of awards at the moment. Something which doesn't normally interest me (why should I be interested in rehashing someone else's ratings without trying the wines myself, especially some big commercial competition?), but I reacted to their press release prompting a sample to wing its way to deepest southern France. The tasty GV below in fact.
Distribution news: now available from Tanners as well as Astrum in the UK, and Palm Bay International, NY, in the States. And Hong Kong, Iceland, you name it really (they've been busy obviously): visit their site as in first paragraph above.
2008 Grüner Veltliner "Goldjoch" Niederösterreich (13%) - very aromatic and gummy with quince, white peach and gooseberry/kiwi fruit plus spicy & yeast-lees undertones; juicy and lively vs rounded/oily with fair depth and milky lees edges, finishing with refreshing acidity and peppery notes adding nice crisp length, coupled with zesty vs "sweet" fruit. 87-89

Grüner Veltliner galore

More than thirty of Austria's signature grape variety tasted and reviewed, "so you don't have to." Most of the Grüner Veltliners below are grown in the regions of Weinviertel, Kamptal, Kremstal and Wachau, to the north and west of Vienna (bordering Slovakia and the Czech Republic). GV broadly falls into two style categories: racy zesty and peppery or richer creamier and concentrated (but still with fresh acidity), the latter usually from the best sites and/or old vines (alte Reben in German).
It might not necessarily be Austria's greatest variety or wine - arguably the country's Rieslings or sweet wines could claim that trophy, although certain GVs and occasionally red wines come awfully close. But GV is often attractive, modern, full of character and gives Austrian growers a 'unique point of difference', to lapse into marketing babble. Which, in a world of samey grapes and wines, has to be a good thing. These wines were tasted at the austrian.wine.co.at annual London bash in February 2007 (this report posted July 07). Stars of the show include Prager, Angerer, Graf Hardegg, Wieninger, Bründlmayer and Gritsch Mauritiushof.

WEINVIERTEL
Norbert Bauer 2005 Haiberg (13% alc) - maturing oily fruit with exotic, almost 'botrytis' notes; mineral freshness v weight v perfumed fruit. 87+
Graf Hardegg 2006 Veltlinsky - nice crisp green fruit v oily style, zippy and fresh. £7.50 85-87
Graf Hardegg 2006 vom Schloss - richer and gummier than above, chalky v gooseberry and spicy, zesty length. 88-90
Graf Hardegg 2005 Reserve vom Schloss - peachy and quite exotic nose, herbal zesty mouth-feel v creamy and powerful, tight peppery steely finish. Wow. 94+?
Friedrich Rieder 2005 Alte Reben (14.5) - ripe oily exotic nose leads to spicy green fruit, big rich mouth-feel with crisp backdrop; almost a wow but a bit too alcoholic. 88-90

KAMPTAL
Jurtschitsch-Sonnhof 2006 Kamptal (12.5% alc) - zesty celery and mineral tones; rounder mouth-feel with lightly oily, quite soft texture v crisp length. 85+
Jurtschitsch-Sonnhof 2006 Dechant Alte Reben (13.5) - richer gummier palate, more concentrated and intense with fine peppery length plus weight too. 89
Jurtschitsch-Sonnhof 2006 Schenkenbichl (13.5) - creamy peachy fruit, weightier still with a touch of residual sugar balanced by subtle linear acidity, nice bite and elegant length. 89-91
Laurenz V. 2005 Charming GV (12.5) - riper more complex nose than the two 06s below, herbal v exotic with creamy oily development, quite weighty. 87+
Laurenz V. 2006 Friendly GV (tank sample, 12) - creamier fuller style than below, round v crisp mouth-feel with grapey v peppery fruit. £6.99 85-87
Laurenz und Sophie 2006 Singing GV (tank sample, 12) - zesty yeast-lees depth with gummy ripe green fruit notes, quite soft and attractive now. £6.99 85
Maria Angeles Hiedler 2006 Spiegel - spicy fennel aromas set the scene for a juicy fresh green fruit palate v oily lightly weighty texture. 89
Rudolf Rabl 2004 Käferberg - fennel aromas with oily maturity, greenish fruit v fatter dimension too; interesting to try an older one, although perhaps lacks panache. 87
Matthias Hager 2004 Seeberg (13.5) - creamy and oily v celery crispness and spice, fair weight on the finish and still fresh too. 89-91
Fred Loimer 2006 Lois - racy green fruit set on its oily texture, crisp spicy finish. 87+
Kurt Angerer 2006 Kies (12.5) - aromatic juicy blackcurrant leaf tones, spicy v creamy lees palate, incisive fresh length. 90
Kurt Angerer 2005 Loam (13.5) - nutty white peach tones turning more vegetal and mineral; creamy texture and maturing fruit v fresh dry bite. 88-90
Kurt Angerer
2005 Eichenstaude (14) - richer and concentrated, light toffee notes v tight fresh length, weighty too. 92-94
Kurt Angerer
2005 Unfil (14) - floral nose moves on to light toffee and lees fatness on the palate, weighty (again that 14% makes its mark) but rounded with light toast, power v dry bite. 92-94
Willi Bründlmayer 2006 Terrassen (12.5) - zesty perfumed celery and gooseberry, richer palate with gummy cream v subtle zingy finish; tight spicy mineral and zesty length. 90-92
Willi Bründlmayer 2005 Alte Reben - lovely combination of oily mineral and fennel v richer peachy fruit, crisp and lively v rounded and full. 90-92

KREMSTAL
Sepp Moser 2005 Gebling - aromatic vegetal v creamy nose leads to peppery palate set on juicy fruit, showing oily maturity too. 87
Sepp Moser 2005 Breiter Rain - richer more concentrated wine with oily, light toffee flavours v greengage and fresh elegant length. 89-91
Petra Unger 2005 Alte Reben Oberfeld (13.5) - peach v celery tones, quite soft with underlying subtle crispness. 85-87
Lenz Moser 2006 Selection (12) - crisp green fruit with zingy spicy mouth-feel, attractive 'commercial' style. 85
Stadt Krems 2006 Weinzierlberg (13) - creamy v tight and zingy style, chalky extract v citrus zest and spicy finish. 85-87
Martin Nigl 2006 Senftenberg Piri (12.5) - quite lively gummy nose with crisp mineral bite, zesty and long with nice extract too. 89-91

WACHAU
Prager 2005 Federspiel Hinter der Burg (12) - complex oily mineral notes move on to a fatter juicy palate with crisp, chalky, spicy length. 89-91
Prager 2005 Smaragd Achleiten (13) - quite rich and creamy; very intense and peppery with concentration, power then tight steely length. 92-94
Gritsch Mauritiushof 2006 Smaragd Singerriedel (13.5) - zesty and leesy, concentrated and intense with very crisp acidity and peppery tones v power and creamy green fruit. 92

WAGRAM/DONAULAND
Franz Leth 2006 Roter Veltliner Scheiben (13.5) - a sibling variety apparently: very vibrant gooseberry with floral peach notes, gummy and zesty with fresh chalky finish. 89
Toni Söllner 2006 Hengstberg (biodynamic estate, tank sample, 13) - lively yet complex aromas, caramel tones set against a spicy and very crisp length. 88-90

WIEN (ohh VIENNA, dum tet dum dud-dum...)
Fritz Wieninger 2006 Herrenholz - lovely zesty aromatic and peppery, gummy and fresh with long juicy finish. 90
Fritz Wieninger 2006 Kaasgraben (14) - deliciously rich v spicy, citrus fruit v fatter weight; power, length and finesse all roll on together. 94
Fritz Wieninger 2006 Nassberg - fuller and more concentrated, buttery v kiwi fruit, spicy and tight v rich-bodied. 92-94

NEUSIEDLERSEE-HÜGELLAND
Leopold Sommer 2006 Bergweingarten M (13) - very Sauvignon Blanc on the nose, ripe kiwi fruit with herbal edges; peppery palate then quite fat and buttery, crisp zingy finish though. 88-90

'An Austrian adventure'

This feature was published in Harpers wine & spirit magazine on 16th April 2004.
You can almost see their eyes roll in time to the crescendo of Mahler’s 5th, when an Austrian grower is told yet again their wines are great but too expensive. But to fully appreciate Austria’s position, a cool reminder is required placing them in the context of world production. A recent visit covering regions such as Burgenland, Thermenregion, Kamptal and Wachau provided a fascinating insight into what is happening on the ground in terms of viticulture and winemaking. To date, distribution in the UK is at best niche; there is, however, no shortage of ideas or activity to broaden marketing and sales of Austrian wines. The innovative DAC ‘appellation’ system could prove an asset, and what of the potential of brands or even cult wines?
There are 48,500 hectares under vine in Austria (less than ½ of Germany, 3 times New Zealand) split among over 35,000 growers, whose number includes few large producers or co-operatives. The production figure of 250 million litres, less than 1% of the global total, roughly equates to domestic wine consumption. However, with cellar door sales decreasing over the last ten years in favour of growing share for supermarkets – where Austria holds 50% of listings as opposed to 80-85% in the on-trade – a need to export more has developed. In 2003, exports stood at 70 million litres including 20m bulk to the Czech Republic (base wines for fizz). This background, coupled with being surrounded to the east by countries that have the same varieties but lower costs and different priorities, has led to focus and investment in high quality, speciality wine.
Rust, on the west side of the Neusiedlersee, is the hub of Ausbruch sweet wine production. This part of Burgenland was in Hungary until 1921 and has a long history of making these styles. The heritage is reflected in plantings of Furmint along with Müller Thurgau, Chardonnay, Gelber Muskateller, Sauvignon Blanc, Neuburger, Pinot Blanc, Welschriesling and Pinot Gris across 500ha of gentle, mostly east-facing slopes close to the lake. It’s considered too hot here for Grüner Veltliner or Riesling. To qualify for Ausbruch, all the grapes have to be botrytis-affected and the sugar level a minimum of 27% of the must weight (+135 Öchsle), although 32-35 is preferred.
A group of 18 growers forms the Cercle Ruster Ausbruch, whose joint aims are increasing quality and international promotion. The wines can be amazingly intense yet balanced with different styles coming through. Schandl’s Essenz is more oxidative with low alcohol (7.7%), 293 g/l residual sugar and extraordinary 14 g/l acidity. Hammer’s Chardonnay Essenz shows toasty new oak and tight structure with 13% alc, 166 RS and 9.7 TA. Obviously they are long-lived yet in youth, as Kurt Feiler put it, “should have drinkability as well as sweetness, with nice texture and mouth-feel.” His 2001 is priced at €19 per half-bottle, which isn’t unreasonable in context. Despite stylistic differences, Ruster Ausbruch is an obvious candidate for DAC, which links regional identity and taste profile (more on this later).
Certain areas of Burgenland and particular varieties show impressive potential as Austria’s best red wines, perhaps even some future cult wines. In the north, on the east side of the Neusiedlersee based around Gols, Pannobile is another group initiative comprising 8 members. The word evokes the Roman name for Hungary, whose warm continental climate has stronger influence here. The idea was to create a top blend typical of the region, personalised according to the varieties planted by each grower and winemaking style.
The reds are made up of at least 85% local grapes, usually low yielding Blaufränkisch (giving tannins and structure) and Zweigelt (juicy soft fruit), and the remainder can be international varieties such as Cabernet, Merlot or even Syrah as is the case with Renner’s wine. On average, Pannobile reds undergo 16-24 months in barriques (mix of French and Austrian coopers) – 70-80% new oak typified by Nittnaus and Beck – and up to 30 months for top cuvées, such as the excellent single site wines Altenberg and Salzberg. Ex-cellar prices are between €20-25 rising as high as €48. St. Laurent, a natural cross of Pinot Noir and another as yet unidentified variety, is Austria’s answer to Pinotage but with broader appeal, as exemplified by Heinrich and Pittnauer. Wines from Leitner, Gsellmann, Juris and Achs show Pinot Noir should be taken seriously: at €15+, competition will be stiff.
The Pannobile unanimously agree the main changes leading to improvements in quality have taken place in the vineyard. Developments here include planting more red grapes at a density of 6500-8000 vines per hectare rather than 3000, and centring on the best sites. Gernot Heinrich also cited “hand picking with a second selection in the winery; this year we also did a third after destemming to get only ripe and healthy berries.” Availability of labour from the east plays a role here too. They’re all experimenting with different winemaking techniques; at his 4 year old winery in Gols, Heinrich now uses the Pulsair pumping over system (a veritable machine that goes 'ping'), originally from the US and becoming more widespread. “This is more efficient and softer; you can move 1000s of litres in a few seconds. It just uses air so is cheap to run once you’ve bought the machinery.”
Grosshöflein, west of Rust on the Leithagebirge hills, is home to another groovy winery: Kollwentz. The estate grows Chardonnay and Sauvignon for dry and sweet styles, along with the Blaufränkisch, Zweigelt and Cabernet that create their classy Steinzeiler red (€34). The cellar is equipped with a vacuum distillation machine (cost €55K), which can concentrate smaller batches than a reverse osmosis unit without the need to settle. Andi Kollwentz believes you get better concentration and no volatile acidity while minimising the risk of oxidation (greater with RO). “In 2002 and 2003, we did less than 5% must concentration: it’s used as insurance and only for reds. This is newer technology and has become cutting edge.”
Kollwentz is one of 15 members of an association called Renommierte Weingüter Burgenland, which covers the whole region so there’s a greater diversity of styles represented, the focus being quality and reputation. Each uses the RWB logo on their capsules and pays a share of marketing costs. A comprehensive tasting included complex barrel-fermented Chardonnays from Velich, Kracher’s incredible TBAs and a wide range of flagship reds from Umathum, Igler, Pöckl (who described Zweigelt as “Austrian Merlot”), Schuster, Kerschbaum, Krutzler, Gesellmann and Leberl. Each of the latter growers offered a recent and older vintage for tasting and, although the maturing examples were attractively complex, they mostly displayed herbaceous red pepper notes making the younger wines more seductive. The principal reason is better physiological ripeness achieved in the vineyard by effective canopy management (more open, training up to 2.2m with foliage from 50cm, timely leaf plucking).
The Mittelburgenland has also spawned a ‘brand’ phenomenon called Juwel (jewel) that’s already reached cult status in Austria and Germany. Debuting with 2000 vintage, its 17 partners have created blockbuster reds from 100% top quality Blaufränkisch. These sought-after statement wines sell for an extraordinary €29-€60 a bottle.
The climate and topography of Styria in southeast Austria match the production of sometimes world-class white wines. Near the border of Slovenia, Maria Polz cited the positive effects of “10 to 20° temperature differences between day and night.” They make classic Sauvignon Blanc and Burgundian/Californian Chardonnay, labelled as Morillon for the domestic market. Gerhard Wohlmuth, who’s worked in New Zealand, offered a couple of barrel-fermented Sauvignons, some of which is grown up to 650m altitude; their Pinot Noir shows potential too. Neumeister also makes good Sauvignon along with a toasty Grauburgunder (Pinot Gris), which is full, juicy and could forego the oak. Strohmeier specialises in wines made from the local red variety Blauer Wildbacher, such as a weighty, fruity and very dry rosé called Schilcher.
Thermenregion to the south of Vienna is home to the rare indigenous white varieties Zierfandler (possibly a cross of Traminer and Grüner Veltliner), Rotgipfler (Traminer x red Veltliner) and Neuburger. One third of the vineyard area is planted with red grapes. The 9 members of the Thermenwinzer group demonstrate the diversity of winemaking techniques and styles on offer. Rotgipfler responds well to oak treatment, as typified by Alphart’s Rodauner and Aumann’s Flamming, and is equally successful vinified in a more Alsace style such as Biegler’s Ried Brindlbach and Spaetrot’s Grande Selection. Zierfandler with its higher acidity ranges from Stadlmann’s floral, peachy and steely wine to the richly sweet, impeccably balanced examples of Schaflerhof’s TBA and Schellmann’s Ausbruch. Red highlights take in Fischer’s Grasdental made from Zweigelt, Merlot and Cabernet, and Pinot Noir Grande Reserve from Johanneshof-Reinisch.
Northwest of here sandwiched between the Weinviertel and Wachau districts, the rocky subsoils of Kamptal and Kremstal suit Grüner Veltliner and Riesling well. A spot of pruning in Willi Bründlmayer’s snow-covered vineyards near Langenlois illustrated his viticultural philosophy. “Pruning has more to do with canopy management than quantity control.” Here they employ Double Guyot but with a higher trellis; later it’s trained to a lyre “for a large canopy and more light. Eventually, you have to avoid creating shadow so the vine switches from wood and leaves to grapes as soon as possible.” The advantages of the lyre include growing a proper canopy quickly and better aeration; disadvantages are that it’s complicated, expensive to install and takes longer to crop. “By June, you need to form the shape properly. Once the structure is there, you can remove lower shoots and leaves (by hand) and machine trim the top and sides.” Irrigation has been in use here since 1992, as rainfall in this area is less than 500mm per annum, half that of Styria. Humidity measurers are placed in the ground for carefully judged drop irrigation to prevent the vines from being too stressed.
Two Grüner Veltliners (click on the bunch above for lots more) from Schloss Gobelsburg demonstrate the differing vinification methods applied to this variety. Their Renner undergoes modern reductive techniques, whereas the Tradition is made in an oxidative style fermented at 23-28° in cask. The former is zestier and intense (preferred style in Austria), the latter weightier and more complex. Fred Loimer ferments and ages his Spiegel in casks for 10 months with batonnage. Over in Kremstal at Dr. Unger, New Zealander Brendon Boyle uses only stainless steel without MLF to highlight Grüner Veltliner’s “phenolic structure.” Martin Nigl also makes two styles with longer lees contact for the old vines cuvée.
Entering the Wachau, the sheer terraces rising high up on either side of the Danube are reminiscent of the northern Rhône or Douro. The vineyard surface area is comprised 45% GV and 40% Riesling. The town of Spitz forms a backdrop to the Riesling cru Singerriedel, perched on a granite hill and planted at a density of 7000 vines/ha. Harvesting in mid November isn’t unusual, despite hot summers, because of the altitude and poor soil. “Leaving it so late to pick,” Emmi Knoll explained, “isn’t really to get extra sugar but to concentrate the mineral acids… the purity of fruit gained from full physiological ripeness.” Rigorous selection is normally done entirely in the vineyard relying on experienced pickers. Franz Hirtzberger’s sensational Riesling Singerriedel (which sells in Austria for around €40) has typical yields of 800g per vine or 5.5 tonnes/ha. For Smaragd quality level, some botrytised grapes may be included to add richness to these very dry wines.
Hirtzberger does extended cold maceration then ferments for at least 3-4 weeks at 18° using indigenous and cultured yeasts. He racks back into stainless steel or large casks for 2 months on the lees. Knoll goes for more oxidative winemaking for his Riesling Schütt with 12-14 hours on the skins and fermentation at 23-27°. “We try to avoid the malolactic, and leaving Riesling on the lees enables us to use less SO2. You lose aroma but improve complexity, mouth-feel and flavour.” These two and a dozen other producers form the association Vinea Wachau, which in 1986 created the Steinfeder, Federspiel and Smaragd categories thus linking quality description with indication of style.
Attitudes towards export and the British market are realistic but generally positive. Ruster Ausbruch wines are mostly sold in restaurants in Austria, but a little is exported to Italy, France, UK and USA. The Pannobile group exports 10-20% to Germany, Switzerland, Denmark, US and some to the UK. RWB members quote a similar proportion (except Kracher who’s the opposite) and are aware of the difficulties. “For us it’s not a business to export,” Josef Umathum commented, “we can’t compete in the UK and don’t want to go in at lower prices just to get a presence.” Martin Nigl, who’s doing well in America after 10 years there, believes “the timing is right as there’s now a lot of interest in Austrian wines.” No doubt the country’s most famous export, Governor Schwarzenegger, has helped nurture their fashionable status in restaurants in California and New York ("... absolutely will not stop ever until you... buy some Austrian wine.").
So, most consider Britain a worthwhile market (surprisingly perhaps), understand the narrow path they need to tread and seem prepared to compete on this level. At €10-20 or more ex-cellars, the hand-sell status of these wines could be a feather in the caps of independent merchants and the likes of Oddbins or Majestic. It’s hard to see the supermarkets getting excited, apart from the odd listing in a couple of prestige stores for image.
The main strength of the DAC (Districtus Austria Controllatus) scheme is that it was conceived from a marketing rather than production perspective. As the name suggests, they wanted to make a distinct move away from German wine law to clearly communicate where a wine originates from and what it tastes like. This route is considered more effective than focus on grape varieties alone, “which are exchangeable” as Michael Thurner (Director of the Austrian Wine Marketing Board) put it, or proprietary brands, as “each small winery lacks the money to build strong brands individually.”
Thurner alluded to Chianti, Chablis and Sauternes as comparative examples: “We want to make the buying decision easy for the consumer. The idea is not to harmonise production and style, but to market wines of a similar style from a particular region.” He realises the need to be flexible to make DAC work, but the wines have to fulfil the legal criteria for ‘quality wine’ and will be labelled as such. “Top producers will sit on the tasting committee, i.e. those already making classic styles.” In addition, a second tier could be introduced for fine wines by developing a classification based on vineyard sites or properties.
Weinviertel (north of Vienna) is the first DAC district on sale with the spotlight sensibly on Grüner Veltliner, backed up by a ‘white pepper’ advertising campaign emphasising the wines’ spicy aromatic character. Hopefully this will be a success, but what does Weinviertel mean beyond national borders; arguably the starting point should be ‘brand Austria’ ahead of regions? However, getting the flavour message across is a real plus, and crucially the grape variety has been retained, something UK consumers are used to. Feedback from the industry is positive but raises questions. “If the decision is made to move to DAC, we all have to go.” Michi Moosbrugger of Schloss Gobelsburg commented. Bründlmayer also believes it could help his region but touched on potential difficulties: “we have many terroirs, microclimates and varieties here; but the single vineyard labelling ideas could work focusing on GV first then Riesling. However, reds have become more important too.” At the end of the day “it’ll be up to producers in the regions if they want to adopt DAC; it won’t be imposed,” Thurner concluded.
It’s obvious the formation of like-minded, quality-focused associations is another cost effective way of marketing for individual growers. Taking Pannobile as an example, their specific ‘brand’ identity could easily be transformed into a DAC. Cult wines such as Juwel reds or Opitz sweeties enhance Austria’s image at the top end by attracting a lot of press attention. Packaging is something else Austrians are getting right, judging by the stream of stylish labels offered. There’s no longer a generic campaign in Britain, but the industry is proactive in wine education. The Austrian Wine Academy, based in Rust and headed up by the enthusiastic Pepi Schuller MW, runs the WSET Diploma course and has become a major sponsor of the Institute of Masters of Wine.


This article appeared in the July 23rd 2004 issue of the retail trade paper


“I’ll be back,” as Austria’s most famous export, Governor Schwarzenegger, once put it. Austrian growers are a little frustrated with being told their wines are fantastic but too expensive. However, they do understand why and appear keen to make a come back. A recent trip across the country's main wine regions ably demonstrated what’s happening in vineyards and cellars there, and what kind of wines are on offer for the UK. So far distribution in the off-trade has been muted, but there are plenty of ideas coming out of Austria on the marketing front. Their new DAC appellation scheme looks interesting, and what about generic PR and the future for brands..?
It’s worth remembering Austria isn’t a large wine producer. There’s less than half the area of Germany under vine (although three times New Zealand) divided up among 35,000 growers, including few large producers or co-operatives. Domestic wine consumption is more or less equal to production of 28 million cases (under 1% of the global total), 20% of which was exported in 2003. This overall environment has contributed to investment in high quality niche wine.
The climate and geography of Styria in southeast Austria suit the production of occasionally world-class white wines. Near the border of Slovenia, Polz makes classic Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay retailing for £10-15. Wohlmuth does a couple of fine barrel-fermented Sauvignons and their Pinot Noir shows potential too. Neumeister also makes good Sauvignon along with a toasty Pinot Gris, which is full, juicy but for me doesn’t need the oak. Zesty aromatic whites made from Muskateller and Roter Traminer would go well with Asian cuisine. These wines stand up well against say New Zealand at a similar price level.
Rust, on the west side of the Neusiedlersee, has a long history as the centre of Ausbruch sweet wines. This part of Burgenland was in Hungary until 1921, a heritage reflected in plantings of Furmint along with Müller Thurgau, Chardonnay, Gelber Muskateller, Sauvignon Blanc, Neuburger, Pinot Blanc, Welschriesling and Pinot Gris, on gentle mostly east-facing slopes close to the lake. To qualify for Ausbruch, all the grapes have to be botrytis-affected and the sugar level at least 27% of the must weight. A group of 18 growers forms the Cercle Ruster Ausbruch, whose wines can be amazingly intense yet balanced with different styles coming through. The prices aren’t unreasonable compared to other top-notch sweeties.
Certain areas of Burgenland and particular varieties show impressive potential as Austria’s best red wines. In the north, on the east side of the Neusiedlersee based around Gols, Pannobile is another group initiative comprising 8 members: Renner, Nittnaus, Heinrich, Pittnauer, Leitner, Gsellmann, Achs and Beck. The idea was to create a top blend typical of the region, personalised according to the varieties planted by each grower and winemaking style. Pannobile reds are made up of at least 85% local grapes, usually low yielding Blaufränkisch and Zweigelt (described by Josef Pöckl as “Austrian Merlot”), supplemented by international varieties (Cabernet, Merlot or Syrah) and treated to 16-24 months in barriques. St. Laurent, a cross of Pinot Noir and another unidentified variety, is Austria’s answer to Pinotage but with wider appeal. At between €13-€25 ex-cellars, it’ll be tough going but not impossible.
Grosshöflein, west of Rust on the Leithagebirge hills, is home to another cool winery: Kollwentz. The estate grows Chardonnay and Sauvignon for dry and sweet styles, along with the Blaufränkisch, Zweigelt and Cabernet that craft their polished Steinzeiler red. Kollwentz is one of 15 members of an association called Renommierte Weingüter Burgenland, which covers the whole region so there’s a greater diversity of styles represented. Each uses the RWB logo on their capsules and pays a share of marketing costs. A tasting included complex barrel-fermented Chardonnays from Velich, Kracher’s astonishing TBAs and a wide range of flagship reds from Umathum, Igler, Schuster, Kerschbaum, Krutzler, Gesellmann and Leberl.
Burgenland can supply characterful reds offering better value, such as the newly listed Blaufränkisch selling for £6.99 in Oddbins. The retailer will also be shipping a Grüner Veltliner at about this price point. James Forbes (assistant buyer) said the previously stocked Polz wines didn’t work “despite the quality as Chardonnay and Pinot Blanc aren’t classically Austrian.” Indigenous varieties – which can be sourced more cheaply but at lower quality from countries surrounding Austria to the east – could add a point of difference to a range. Jonathan Butt of Threshers isn’t convinced: “lesser known wines from St. Laurent, Blaufränkisch etc have little, if any following here. The wines may be fine but the sell is too difficult and demand too small.”
Thermenregion to the south of Vienna boasts the rare home-grown white varieties Zierfandler, Rotgipfler and Neuburger. The 9 members of the Thermenwinzer group reveal the variety of winemaking techniques and styles on offer. Rotgipfler responds well to oak handling, as typified by Alphart and Aumann, and is equally successful vinified in an Alsace mould such as Biegler’s and Spaetrot’s. Zierfandler with its fresher acidity ranges from Stadlmann’s floral, peachy and zingy number to the super sweet, seamlessly balanced examples by Schaflerhof and Schellmann. Red highlights take in Fischer’s Grasdental made from Zweigelt, Merlot and Cabernet, and Pinot Noir Grande Reserve from Reinisch.
Northwest of here sandwiched between the Weinviertel and Wachau districts, the rocky subsoils of Kamptal and Kremstal charm Grüner Veltliner and Riesling. Grüner Veltliners from Willi Bründlmayer and Schloss Gobelsburg demonstrate the differing vinification methods used for this variety. Some undergo modern reductive techniques, and some are made in an oxidative style fermented at higher temperature in cask. The former is zestier and intense, the latter weightier and more complex. Fred Loimer ferments and ages his in casks for 10 months with batonnage. Over in Kremstal at Dr. Unger, New Zealander Brendon Boyle uses only stainless steel without malolactic to highlight the spicy aromatic freshness of Grüner Veltliner. Some of these addictive whites sell for over €15.
Moving into Wachau, the sheer terraces rising high up on either side of the Danube are reminiscent of the northern Rhône or Douro, and are planted 45% GV and 40% Riesling. The town of Spitz forms a backdrop to the Riesling cru Singerriedel, perched dangerously on a granite hill. Franz Hirtzberger’s sensational, very dry Riesling from this site retails in Austria for around €40; but not all Wachau wines are that dear e.g. Emmi Knoll, FWW. These producers are members of the Vinea Wachau association, which in 1986 created the novel quality categories Steinfeder, Federspiel and Smaragd also giving an indication of style.
Attitudes towards the British market are generally positive but realistic. “For us it’s not a business to export,” Josef Umathum remarks, “we can’t compete in the UK and don’t want to go in at lower prices just to get a presence.” However, Martin Nigl, who’s doing well in America after 10 years there, believes “the timing is right as there’s now a lot of interest in Austrian wines.” Forbes confirms this: “they want to get the quality, price and packaging spot on. They’re keen to do the right thing.” So those brand owners who consider it worthwhile are ready to compete at an elevated if restricted level. At €10-20 or more ex-cellars, the exclusive nature of many of the wines could be a feather in the caps of independent merchants and the likes of Oddbins or Majestic.
Butt agrees: “I believe the market is very much in the realms of the specialist independent, as the wine tends to be expensive and requires a hand sell to the enthusiast.” Nevertheless, a £6.50-£7 price point is possible: “you don’t get bargains but you’re not paying too much for what you get,” Forbes says in defence. I can’t see the supermarkets getting too excited, apart from listing in a couple of prestige stores for image. Helen McGinn at Tesco comments: “We have stocked Austrian wines in the past, and whilst the quality is not in question, the wines tended to be more expensive than others of similar quality. Hence sales were extremely low. However, our PDM is still looking for possible listings for the future.”
The DAC (Districtus Austria Controllatus) scheme could help, as its main strength is being conceived from a marketing rather than production standpoint. They wanted to make a clear move away from German wine law to communicate where a wine comes from plus what it tastes like, considered more effective than concentrating on grape varieties alone or individual brands. Michael Thurner (Director of the Austrian Wine Marketing Board) quotes Chianti, Chablis and Sauternes as comparisons: “We want to make the buying decision easy for the consumer. The idea isn’t to harmonise production and style, but to market wines of a similar style from a particular region.”
Weinviertel (north of Vienna) is the first DAC district on the shelves with the spotlight sensibly on Grüner Veltliner, supported by a humorous ‘white pepper’ advertising campaign emphasising the wines’ spicy aromatic character. This could work well, but you have to wonder what UK consumers will make of Weinviertel. Perhaps the starting point should be building ‘brand Austria’ first then regions? However, promoting what the wine tastes like is a bonus and using grape variety on the front label adds something familiar. Despite stylistic differences, Ruster Ausbruch is also an obvious candidate with a clear connection between regional identity and taste profile.
Feedback from the industry is positive but raises questions. Willi Bründlmayer believes it could help his region but touches on potential difficulties: “we have many terroirs, microclimates and varieties here; but the single vineyard labelling ideas could work focusing on Grüner Veltliner first then Riesling.” Forbes thinks: “DAC sounds interesting… Austria lacks a Montana or Cloudy Bay.” It’s apparent the formation of like-minded, quality-focused groups is another cost effective way of marketing for individual growers. Taking Pannobile as an example, their specific ‘brand’ identity could easily be transformed into a DAC.
Cult wines like the ‘Juwel’ reds from the Mittelburgenland or Opitz sweeties enhance Austria’s image from the top down by attracting press attention. Packaging is also an area where Austrians are often spot on, judging by the stream of stylish labels seen on this trip. The lack of generic campaign in Britain – due to limited budgets and distribution – means importers and retailers will have to be more proactive to succeed with Austria: e.g. targeted tastings or linking up with gastronomic events. There’s a brave new world of wines out there to be discovered, offering good margins for the trade and excitement for the consumer.


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