A journey through Austria (1) – introduction

Last week, I joined a group of sommeliers, educators and people in the wine trade for a short but intense trip through the vineyards of Austria. The coming days and weeks, I will be posting a few highlights of this magnificent and underrated wine country, starting with a brief general introduction to some key aspects of Austrian viticulture.

Viticulture in Austria, as in most central European regions, dates back to Antiquity and survived in the middle ages thanks to the clerus, notably the Cistercian monks coming from Burgundy. The major cesure in the modern history of Austrian wine making, however, is the ill-famed wine scandal that broke out in 1985. High concentrations of diethylene glycol, a (toxic) compound similar to what is added to fuel to prevent it from freezing, and meant to give wines more smoothness and body, were found in Austrian wines. The sales understandably plummeted. “Never waste a good crisis”, the Austrians must have thought, and they seized the moment to elaborate what is probably one of the strictest wine legislations in the world.

Today, Austrian wines have reached a high level of quality and a worldwide reputation, albeit predominantly among more knowledgeable wine consumers. In 2014, just over 20% of the total production was exported, but while the export has stabilized in terms of volume, it has steadily risen in terms of value, indicating that the more expensive wines find their way to international markets.

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The Zieregg vineyard of winery Tement in south-eastern Steiermark, overlooking the Slovenian border

Austrian vineyards, totalling just short of 50.000 hectares (a surface comparable to Champagne in France), are situated between 47 and 48 degrees latitude, implying a cool to moderate climate, with freshness and elegance as an essential hallmark – even in the full-bodied reds from Burgenland. Macro- and meso-climatic influences for Austrian wine, other than vineyard latitude, are the warm currents from the Pannonian plain, cold air from the north, Mediterranean (Ilyric) influence (mainly in the Steiermark), proximity of the Alps, and the tempering effect of large water masses, like the Neusiedlersee and, of course, the Danube. These factors will be discussed in more detail in the posts on separate wine regions.

 

Austria’s main wine regions ((c) austrianwine.com)

In terms of geology, and without going into too much detail here, we can say that Austria has a wide diversity of soil types: primary rocks that surfaced through collisions of tectonic plates (granite, gneiss, schist, quartz, …), alluvial material and debris carried by rivers (gravel, …), weathered rock (löss, sand,…) and organic (limestone) deposits originating from the big sea that once covered what is today the Pannonian plain. These soil types obviously have an impact on the vine and the wine it produces. That is not to say that we can smell or taste schist, for example (for the record, I smelt and licked a piece of schist – it tastes of nothing, I can assure you), but that the water, heat and nutrient retention capacities of the soil are determining the vine’s metabolism and hence the taste of the wines.

Geology of Austrian winegrowing regions ((c) austrianwine.com)

The country produces a broad range of wine styles, from crisp, aromatic or complex and ageworthy whites, over fruity or more robust and tannic reds, to lusciously sweet wines (Austria’s “liquid gold”) with great acidity and balance. I tasted around 260 wines in the 5 days of the trip, and while there were some mediocre wines, the overall quality was impressive. I hasten to add that many of the wineries we visited are not exactly representative of the bulk of the market, as they mainly produce premium and ultra-premium wines, but they do show the greatness that Austrian wines are capable of.

Like many other winegrowing nations, Austria can boast a few “signature grapes”, native to the country and not that frequently cultivated elsewhere. In white, by far the most important grape is grüner veltliner, yielding wines with high acidity yet complex texture. For reds, there is sankt-laurent and blaufränkisch, and of course the crossing of those two, zweigelt (named after the professor who did the crossing). But more international varieties shine just as brightly. Riesling gives outstanding results, notably in Wachau, Kamptal and Kremstal. Some pinot noirs definitely attain Burgundy quality. And the sauvignon blancs of Steiermark are an international reference point on their own.

Conscious of its assets, Austria has set up a strict system of protected denominations of origin, the so-called “DAC’s” (Districtus Austriae Controllatus). Besides that, there is also the hierarchy in terms of sugar ripeness, much like the German one (Kabinett, Spätlese, Auslese, etc.), but a detailed discussion of this would lead us to far. Eager readers may want to have a look at the website of Austrian wines for more details.

In terms of winemaking practices, there is a growing consciousness of the need to work in a sustainable way, which has led to the creation of a certification “Nachhaltig Austria“, whereby sustainability is defined not only in ecological, but also in social and economical terms. Moreover, 10% of the vineyard surface is cultivated organically, making Austria the world leader, as explained in a report on the ProWein website. That is no mean achievement in a country with a relatively cool and in many places also humid climate!

Climate change is obviously not unheard of here either, but Austria may perhaps be counted among the wine regions that are likely to benefit from slightly warmer temperatures. Where problems would arise, solutions are already being sought in the form of later ripening clones, or adapted vine training, irrigation, and canopy management practices.

The following posts will each highlight a region or a set of regions within Austria, discussing the main wine styles and sometimes individual wineries. Next up: one of the coolest (literally at least) spots in the country, the Weinviertel. Stay tuned!

Domaine Jean Fournier, Marsannay “Les Longeroies” 2013

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Rode Bourgogne is allerminst een evidente wijn voor de doorsnee wijnconsument. Daar zijn verschillende redenen voor. De druif, om te beginnen. Terwijl zijn Bourgondische zus chardonnay eerder een allemansvriend is, heeft pinot noir een eigenzinnig, wat weerbarstig karakter. Hij gedijt op niet veel plaatsen in de wereld, en als men het toch buiten die paar bevoorrechte zones probeert, levert dat vaak weinig soeps op. Hij heeft een dunne schil, wat hem gevoelig maakt voor ziektes allerhande, en waardoor hij er ook wat bleekjes uitziet in het glas – niet-ingewijden verwachten ongetwijfeld maar een flauw brouwsel bij het aanschouwen ervan. Hij heeft, kortom, niet die onmiddellijke “no nonsense”-charme van een Bordeaux. De tweede reden voor de mindere populariteit betreft de streek. Bourgogne is erg ingewikkeld, met een immens versnipperde wijngaardstructuur en bijna dubbel zoveel oorsprongsbenamingen als Bordeaux. Tot slot, en niet onbelangrijk: de prijzen van écht goede Bourgogne swingen de pan uit. Als je in de gereputeerde dorpen en bij goede producenten gaat zoeken, dan is het schier onmogelijk om iets onder de 25 euro te vinden, om nog maar te zwijgen over het andere einde van het spectrum.

Voor liefhebbers van pinot noir die geen vet gespijsde portefeuille hebben maar toch in Bourgogne willen blijven, zit er maar één ding op: op zoek gaan naar de verborgen juweeltjes. De wijn die ik vandaag bespreek is er zo eentje. We bevinden ons in Marsannay-la-Côte, in het noorden van de “Côte d’Or”, de heuvelrug die enkele van de beroemdste wijnen ter wereld voortbrengt. Marsannay behoort tot de Côte de Nuits (genoemd naar het dorp Nuits-St-Georges), waar vooral rode wijn wordt gemaakt – al bestaat de AOP Marsannay zowel in wit, rood als rosé. Les Longeroies is een van de beste “climats” in Marsannay, en geeft (in de handen van een getalenteerd wijnmaker) diepe, volle wijnen met veel structuur en intensiteit.

Dat is hier niet anders. Ik proefde de wijn blind en neigde heel even de piste Bourgogne te verlaten, maar deed dat uiteindelijk niet: ondanks de kracht en concentratie die van deze wijn uitgaat, blijft hij de typische lichtvoetigheid van goede pinot hebben. Puur donker kersenfruit, kruidnagel en een hint van kaneel, samen met wat toast in de neus. In de mond is hij van een merkwaardige intensiteit, maar zonder ook maar een moment te vermoeien, met stevige, rijpe tannines die, in combinatie met de zuren, een grote toekomst laten vermoeden. Een meesterlijke balans tussen kracht en elegantie.

Deze fles evenaart moeiteloos de kwaliteit van een zeer goede Gevrey-Chambertin, misschien zelfs van een premier cru uit dat dorp. Wie niet op de grote namen kickt, moet deze wijn absoluut eens proberen. Het Franse wijntijdschrift La Revue du vin de France deelt die mening, en gaf een “coup de coeur” aan deze Marsannay.

Af en toe kom je bij het proeven een wijn tegen die je iets doet. Wijn die je weliswaar objectief als goed gemaakt kunt beschrijven (perfecte balans, rijpe tannines, puur fruit), maar die deze formele eigenschappen overstijgt en een stukje van een andere wereld in zich lijkt te dragen. Voor mij voldeed deze Marsannay aan dat criterium. En 24 euro voor een beetje transcendentie wil ik af en toe wel betalen (YOLO, en het leven is te kort om slechte wijn te drinken, enz. enz.).

Te koop bij Wijnen Sanders voor €24

Harvest time in the Languedoc-Roussillon

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The Languedoc-Roussillon has many faces. Historically an important source of France’s wine lake, with still a massive 220.000 hectares under vine (it used to be much more), and home to what is by far the most sold IGP (previously “vin de pays”) wine in France, Pays d’Oc, it is also a prime source of sweet fortified wines (vins doux naturels), and since a few decades a pioneering area for ambitious growers who, rather than, as the expression goes, « faire pisser la vigne », want to craft premium wines from the various terroirs that the region can boast.

The landscape here is of a stunning beauty and ruggedness, as a ride through the heart of Corbières reminded us. It offers a huge diversity in climate, soil, exposition, wind and maritime influence, making this one of the most interesting winegrowing areas in France, with a big potential for top quality wines, besides the not always very exciting bulk wines that most of us have tasted. Interestingly, while we tend to think of Languedoc-Roussillon as a Mediterranean area with the corresponding grape varieties, the western outskirts of the region are exposed to Atlantic influences (the westernmost AOC, Cabardès, is close to the water divide between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean bassins) and offer some of the highest altitudes in the region, making it suitable for sparkling wines, Bordeaux varieties and even cool climate grapes like pinot noir.

I recently had the occasion to spend a long weekend in Limoux, one of these “Atlantic” zones, where I stayed in Borde Longue in the company of wine merchant Bruno Desmet-Carlier, amidst the vineyards of Jean-Louis Denois, whose family originates from Champagne. Surely one of the most original (and hard-headed) winegrowers in the region, Denois makes a range of truly excellent sparkling wines (in a blind tasting we did on Saturday, one came out on top of the basic cuvée of Bollinger), as well as a beautiful pinot noir and a chardonnay that have nothing to envy to some of their much more prestigious Burgundian counterparts.

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It was a great time to be in the vineyards and the winery. Only some of the grenache remained to be picked (here as elsewhere, 2015 was quite precocious in comparison to normal years), but the winery was brimming with activity. We got a close view of some of the intricacies of the winemaking process, from semi-carbonic maceration to pumping over and punching down the cap. Tasting wines from different vineyard parcels, different press strengths, or at different phases in the fermentation, and at different times in the barrel ageing process is quite enlightening, and a pure delight for any wine aficionado.

Denois is a restless soul, always looking for innovation and perfection in his range of wines. Some years ago, he planted gewürztraminer (!) in the area, to the outrage of the established bodies of the INAO. In the meanwhile gewürztraminer has effectively been allowed as a grape in IGP Pays d’Oc wines. His most recent enterprises include biological and biodynamic winemaking, as well as the production of wines without adding any sulphites.

In the three days we spent on the domain, we tasted countless wines. It would be somewhat pedantic to list all the tasting notes here, so I limit myself to a few of the most striking moments. First of all, a very enlightening lesson about degrees of dosage in sparkling wines. Minimal differences in dosage gave completely different results in a “blanc de noirs” sparkling syrah (“bulles de syrah” – a curiosity in itself). Without any sugar, the wine was too edgy and sharp. A few grams more transformed it into an ideal partner for, say, oysters. And yet a few more turned it into a delicious and crowd-pleasing festive drink.

A memorable tasting was the line-up of older vintages of pinots noirs from the neighbouring Domaine de l’Aigle, previously owned by Denois and for which he used to make the wines (now taken over by Gérard Bertrand, who joined us for a tasting that weekend). Several vintages of the nineties were still going strong. At one point we compared a Domaine de l’Aigle to the same vintage of a Nuits-Saint-Georges 1er cru. It was a close match, but not if you know the price difference. The furthest back we went was 1985, and the wine, though maybe past its peak, was still more than agreeable. Which Burgundy could claim that? Probably only the ones at premier cru or grand cru level.

In short, it was a useful reminder of what Denois forcefully argues himself: that the French appellation system and the prestigious crus of Bordeaux and Burgundy are more about history, marketing, and protection of commercial interests than about actual wine quality.

But beyond the lessons learnt, the weekend was about passion and emotion. Three days of endless wine talks with like-minded souls, it does not get much better than that. As Jean-Louis said when we parted: “à l’an prochain, Jérusalem”.