I was in Austria for a short holiday for three nights last week. This city is so famous with its Christmas markets and the delightful restaurants. We took the time to coincide this little get away with the most anticipated Bruegel exhibition in the Kunsthistoriches Museum. Even though I have seen some of his most famous paintings such the Tower of Babel a few years ago at the same place, I thought it would be a once in a lifetime moment to see all of his paintings together. To my surprise, it was not as I expected at all, there were not many new things for me here and it was way too crowded despite having a timed ticket.
Well, as I thought Austria is such a small country and the wine regions are not very far away from the capital Vienna, I thought I would organise a day trip to some of the distinguished wine regions here. In fact Vienna itself has some vineyards. But I wanted to drive to Wagram, Kamptal and Wachau. For me these three regions produce very particular wines and I wanted to further explore the uniqueness in each region.
But before I set on this trip, I thought what is next for me? I want to learn more and take the next step in my wine journey. And that is without a doubt, studying Master of Wine. So I started to focus and start gearing up for Stage 1 of this study programme. To have some insider tips, I recently met a Stage 2 student Jim Gore who is also a WSET educator. Jim told me that interviewing wine producers and getting the best out of these visits are keys to success in the programme. I thought in that case I must set up my interview questions that would typically last two hours. I did that before my visit to Austria. I was ready to choose my wine producers.
My approach was simple. I had the great pleasure of fine dining with wine pairing of Austrian wines last year in Salzburg. Some of the wines I tasted during the dinner at Dollerer were outstanding. Those two producers were Josef Ehmoser and Loimer. I already noted those. I also discovered Nikolaihof at the Annual Austrian Wine Tasting in London in February this year. Therefore I wanted to visit these three producers in three different wine regions and learn more about them in depth.
Before I give more details about my visit to each producer, I would like to describe a bit Austrian Wines as a whole for those not very familiar with them. Austria sits right in the heart of Central Europe. There is Pannonian basin in this region. There is a particular weather pattern, it is cold and dry in winters and hot and windy in summers. The major water effect is from the Danube river. Austria only produces around 1% of the wine in the world with a vineyard area of around 46000 ha. There are 36 grape varieties – 22 white and 14 red – officially approved for production of Qualitatswein. The mostly planted grape variety is their signature Gruner Ventliner. But Welschriesling and Riesling have sizeable production behind Gruner Ventliner. When it comes to black varities, it is Zweigelt followed by Blaufrankisch, Blauer Portuguese and St. Laurent. As we can see the local grape varieties are very important to Austrian wine. I love this fact. In the big wine world, it is very important to have a USP, and Austria has plenty of this. Another interesting thing to note is their Gemischter Satz. This is a field blend. There is even a highly regulated appellation The Wiener Gemischer Satz DAC which permits at least three white Qualitatswein varieties but not to be more than fifty per cent. Wines are produced in 4 regions and in 17 subregions. Austrians love their wines, and drink 75% of it while the rest is exported to many countries all around the world.
Nearly half of the planted vineyards are in Niederosterreich. This is perhaps the most important wine region of Austria. My first visit was to Josef Ehmoser in Wagram. I met Martina Ehmoser, the wife of Josef who kindly showed me around, answered my long questions with patience and we tasted some of their delicious wines together. When I asked Martina to describe their style in few words, she told me “ Our wines are fine and elegant with good acidity, true to the region and reflect the soil characteristics; not too loud and too many flavours. We bottle late, and keep on the gross less which provides creaminess.”
When we walked around the cellar, which was built by Josef’s grandfather, I was particularly drawn to the soil display. This was the famous loess soil which provides the perfect conditions for Gruner Ventliner. When I touched the soil, it feels like a sand castle with a lot of moisture. The texture of the soil is soft and creamy and I think this truly reflects on the wines from the region. I also noticed two concrete eggs. Martina explained to me that their Reid Hohenberg 2017 Gruner Ventliner is a blend of stainless steel tank, oak barrel and 7% of concrete eggs. This wine has a very nice herbaceous and sweet notes on the palate with white pepper and black tea aromas and flavours lingering for a few minutes. We then tasted the single vineyard Gruner Ventliner Georgenberg 2016. This is an outstanding wine with a lovely floral and perfumey nose and a much more complex palate. It is a delicate and elegant wine with many layers of fruit aromas and lovely and rich palate.
This was a unique experience for me. The tasting was with Zalto glasses. Even though I am familiar with Zalto from London, this was the first winery I experienced showing their wines with Zalto. These glasses are light as feather and brings the best of wine in the experience. Martina told me that Austria produces these glasses.
I then continued to my next visit to Kamptal. Here I was welcomed to Weingut Loimer by Fred Loimer. Fred is the third generation of this producer. He briefly explained to my that his style is clean, pure and salty. When I asked about if they had any innovations either in the vineyard or the winery, Fred explained to me that there were three big innovations. First they switched to Biodynamic viticulture. Loimer’s first vintage of the Biodynamic wines were in 2009. They are certified by Respect. The second innovation was the change of the training system of the vines. Instead of Lenz Moser training system they are now using a VSP. The third is soft pruning. For me the second and the third were interesting to hear and probably an introduction as I never came across of these two before. Here in Kamptal DOC the soil is rocky which perhaps provides deep roots to vines and the minerality that is perfectly prescribed in the style of Loimer.
We tasted a sparkling wine and three different Gruner Ventliner (GV) whites. The first GV was from single vineyard Spiegel 1 OTW Gruner Ventliner 2016. The soil here is loess and the weather is extreme. The wine had a pronounced nose of aromas and pronounced palate of flavours. It has a creamy texture. A delicious wine with a lot of character. We then tasted a single vineyard Kaferberg GV 2016. This vineyard is a rocky soil. It was much more complex, spicy and full of minerality. I loved this wine. Finally we tasted the mit Achtung GV 2015. Fred explained to me that they have two Georgian qvervis and these vessels were used in the production of this wine. I thought it a great food wine. When I asked what kind of food he would pair his wines with, Fred told me classic Austrian dishes, beef and even steak would go well.
My final visit was to Nikolaihof in Wachau. This winery is very special with origins going back to 2000 years old. There is a lot of history which is visible in the cellars. Some of the walls were from two millennia ago. Anna, the girlfriend of the current winemaker Nikolaus Saas who is the son of the Saas family, showed us around and kindly explained the style of the wines. We also tasted some of the most amazing Rieslings I have ever tasted in my life. The flagship varieties are Riesling and Gruner Ventliner. Nikolaihof produces only white wines. These are fine elegant precise light wines usually with a 12.50 % alcohol. What is also very interesting is that they practise biodynamic viticulture since 1971, the very first winery in Austria. Mrs. Christine Saahs was convinced by the ideas of Rudolf Steiner right away and immediately perceived it as the best way of working close with nature to achieve best quality in their wines and keeping soils alive for future generations. In the 1960s there was no economic possibility for Nikolaihof to even start with synthetic and chemical sprays. Therefore the transition was beneficial also economically. The very old technique using a single 13 metre span beam press is still in practice for some of the wines used. The massive oak vats contain some very matured wines. This is their style. The wines usually have a long maturation period in the cellar before getting bottled.
Anna kindly showed us 14 wines. We tasted some Gruner Ventliners but mostly aged Riesling wines. For me, the Steiner Hund Riesling 2014 was a remarkable wine with a very interesting and different flinty nose. But the highlight of the tasting was the Vinothek Riesling 2002. This is an outstanding wine with many layers of fruit and complexity. Still so fresh with a piercing acidity, a well balanced beautiful wine. After all, I think Riesling is the white wine I love most in the world.
In my short day trip in Austrian wine regions, I witnessed how individuality of the winemaker with the culture of the region and winery can be reflected in their wines. Austria certainly provides that.