Flatiron's Guide to Austrian Wine, Part 4: Burgenland & Steiermark Hit the Spot
Few things are as exciting as realizing you are experiencing an undiscovered phenomenon. Like your cousin who was playing Nirvana tapes before they hit the radio, or the line cook flipping burgers next to Danny Meyer. You vibrate with the energy of the thing, you can’t wait for it to infect everyone else. You start passing out cassette tapes and inviting your friends out to dinner.
Today, that’s me and Burgenland, a wine region, finally fulfilling its potential, just waiting to hit the mainstream. I drink their extraordinary wines, write about their distinctive grapes and have people over for dinner just to show off the singular terroir and the assiduous vignerons.
What’s been holding it back?
History has not been kind to the region we now call Burgenland. This is a border land, whose rule has oscillated between kings and emperors, marauding invaders, and occupying forces. The different communities lived peacefully but their stability was often in flux. One day you are a Hungarian, the next, an Austrian.
Stability isn’t a guarantee of quality, of course. But it helps: Great wine needs patience, it needs expensive equipment, it needs talent and it needs a marketplace. Those things are hard to come by if your existence is uncertain and you must farm for survival not trade.
In spite of the challenges, the people of Burgenland have not only survived, they have thrived. Motivated winemakers could see that bulk sweet wine was on the way out, and dry reds were coming to take their place. They recognized the potential of natural surroundings to make world class wines and got to work.
The last 50 years have been spent honing their farming, investing in their facilities and education. They are now well travelled, have gained a global perspective, opened new markets and dialed in their wines to meet local and international demand.
Now is the time to clear some space in that cellar! Burgenland, here we come!
History of the Burgenland
The land we know today as Burgenland has some of the oldest evidence of winemaking in western Europe. The last hundred years of relative obscurity are just a blip in its long history. Wines were not only drunk locally but have been sought out by czars and kings, especially the sweet wines of Rust and Donnerskirchen.
Its borders have been hotly contested by the great powers of Europe for centuries. It has had at least 13 different heads of state staking claim to it since the Romans became allies of the Ostrogoths 1,600 years ago.
The fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire was especially tumultuous. The Hungarian military fought for their region but eventually the decision of who was to take control was put into the hands of the citizens. A plebiscite in 1921 gave the capital, Sopron, to Hungary, and the rest to Austrian rule.
Soviet troops occupied the region after World War II. They were unpopular among the people, in part because of economic stagnation but also because they were known to drink their way through every wine cellar they could find. Once they left, the iron curtain was figuratively and then physically erected, further dividing communities whose friends and relatives were now “other.”
The Burgenland is sparsely populated and the post-war economy was sluggish. The effects of these local challenges were felt nationwide when, in 1985, a few bad actors in the region’s bulk wine industry were responsible for the wine scandal which brought the Austrian wine industry to its knees.
The positive outcome of the scandal, as discussed in earlier posts, was a complete restructuring of the industry--away from bulk wine production towards quality. But this change happened more slowly in Burgenland than in the other wine producing areas.
However, change has come and today the winemakers of Burgenland are really coming into their own. Thanks to investments from the EU, the wineries here are some of the country’s most modern. But they are also taking advantage of the wealth of natural resources, rediscovering the once lauded vineyards and reviving old techniques to make world class wines never before seen.
Grapes & Styles in the Burgenland
Red and white grapes are found in almost equal proportions across the Burgenland. Styles range from top notch dessert wines, to dry, quaffable, light-bodied reds, whites and rosés, and even a few fun sparklers. But the sunshine, soils, and grapes give us the gift of long-lived, complex red wines and even a few age worthy whites.
Red, Red, Wiiiiinnnneee
Blaufränkisch is the top dog in these parts, even if Zweiget has more mass appeal and acreage. It’s an indigeneous grape that can make wines that are both distinctive but also that have the ineffable feel of truly great wine. They certainly have all of the technical characteristics of world class red wine: naturally high acidity with medium plus to high tannins, balanced by concentrated fruit, with excellent aging potential but very approachable in youth. A Chinese five spice note is typical, but its fruit and earthy qualities are dictated by its soil types: typically red on limestone, black on slate, blue on schist.
Like Pinot Noir, Blaufränkisch is not an especially easy grape to grow. It needs proper site selection and knowledgeable winemakers to tame its acidity and tannin. A generation ago, local winemakers were able to capture the attention of wine lovers and shine some light on its quality potential. But this coincided with critics’ obsession for power, extraction and Cabernet Sauvignon. The wines were doused in oak, turned up to 11, and they lost their inherent finesse and elegance.
Finally we have a new pool of talent, one which values the singularity of a site and the grape’s distinctive voice, that eschews artifice and is working towards expressing that in their wines. The wines are dialed in, oak is minimal and rarely new, and the wines are often vastly underpriced for their quality.
Zweigelt is to Blaufränkisch as Grüner Veltliner is to Riesling. It comes in all styles and you can spend a lot of money on big, powerful and ageworthy examples. But I prefer to shell out my cash elsewhere, like the light bodied, soft tannin, crunchy acidity, purple-fruited, sweet-tart imbued bottles. These are easy, joie de vivre wines, and whether as rosé, sparkling or red they can be delicious cold, with bbq or all on their own.
Sweet wine is rarely made with red grapes, because the noble rot usually turns to grey rot, destroying the grapes. Zweigelt is one of the few red wines which fares well with botrytis and there are plenty of delicious examples.
Sankt Laurent is to be found at least in some small part in every vineyard. They are often very low in alcohol and winemakers tend to over extract or prop them up with oak, neither of which makes them any more noteworthy. Look for examples from producers who value terroir over winemaking and have old vines, some can be very elegant.
You will also come across some Pinot Noir, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah in Burgenland. Pinot Noir at least has been around since the middle age; but much of the other grapes didn’t arrive until Burgenland thought they would be useful to compete on a world stage. You can find delicious examples of all of these grapes, but I lean towards the native varieties. The best thing about Austria is its unique grapes, which have had much longer to come into harmony with the terroir.
Whites for Fun
When discussing white grapes in Burgenland, you have to divide them into grapes for dry wine and grapes for sweet wine.
Grüner Veltliner is everywhere, but the temperature is usually a little too warm for balanced wines. Cooler microclimate and limestone soils are exceptions: Moric, Claus Preisinger, Kolfok, and Gut Oggau all make amazing examples.
Pinot Blanc, better known as “Weissburgunder” around these parts, has a very long history, having arrived with Pinot Noir in the hands of the Cistercean monks. It makes wines similar to, but with less acidity than, Chardonnay -- of which there is surprisingly little planted. Pinot Blanc can age exceptionally well, especially those from old vines on limestone soils.
Welschriesling, which is not to be confused with Riesling, is prevalent throughout Burgenland. Most dry examples are innocuous, but it makes exceptional sweet wines. It is easily infected with noble rot and the acidity is very high, which balances the high sugar content. A few producers, like Straka in Rechnitz, have kept old vines on high-elevation gneiss slopes, and farm with care to make textured, interesting dry wines with very high price to quality ratio.
Traminer, Muscat and Scheurebe are also all planted, often for sweet wines of northern Burgenland. Small plots of each are scattered around and many very interesting examples (generally in tiny quantities) can be found from winemakers looking to experiment. Gelber Muskateller, is Muscat Blanc a Petit Grains (the best of the Muscat grapes) and always vinified dry for a super refreshing, aromatic treat.
Furmint is the last little engine that could, finally having made its way back from Hungary to its old stomping grounds around the Neusiedlersee. It is famous as the main grape in Tokaj, one of the world’s most famous sweet wines made from botrytized grapes. A few growers replanted cuttings from across the border, once they were reopened. Like in Hungary today, some winemakers are making gorgeous dry wines as well, which are fresher than most due to the high levels of acidity naturally present. Think Chenin Blanc from Saumur.
The Burgenland’s Climate
The biggest difference between Niederosterreich in the north, and Burgenland to its south, is the climate.
Each region in the north is characterized by its proximity to the two competing cold and hot weather patterns. Once we head south from the Danube to Burgenland we face the Pannonian plain and the full brunt of its warm westerly winds.
This heat is what allows red grapes to ripen at such a northerly latitude and the whole reason we cross over from primarily white wine country into red wine country.The climate does vary slightly from north to south.
- The northern tip, at the Slovakian border, gets a touch of cooling influence from across the Weinviertel.
- The southern Eisenberg is the coolest section, as it gets some slightly colder air from the eastern ends of the Alps and occasionally north blowing wind from the Mediterranean.
Of course, temperatures decrease the higher in elevation you go, so vineyards on mountains and even hillsides tend to retain more acidity.
One of the most beautiful aspects of the landscape is the old forests encroaching on vineyards. They transport you to a more tranquil time on earth and support biodiversity. Importantly for wine, they are temperature regulators, cooling things down, offering shade and buffering winds from both the alps and the pannonian plain.
Burgenland has slightly more rainfall than Lower Austria, but it is mitigated by the higher temperatures and higher degrees of evaporation. This means drought can be a problem for many winemakers and you will find irrigated vineyards. Many of the best wines come from water retaining clay or loam sites which can be dry farmed, reducing yields but increasing quality.
Geography of the Burgenland
The Burgenland is a 103 mile long, thin strip of land stretching from south of Bratislava at the Slovakian border in the north, to Slovenia in the south. Its entire eastern edge faces Hungary’s Pannonian plain while to the west are the subregions of Carnuntum and Thermenregion and the state of Steiermark.
For a long time Burgenland was divided into three sub regions: Burgenland, Mittelburgenland and Sudburgenland. But with the DAC system there have been new names and subdivisions which I will detail a little further down.
The landscape is made up of lakes, thick forests, plateaus, rolling hills and mountains. Soil types, aspects, elevation, temperatures and wind are all affected by these features. You will find quality wines from north to south, but certain areas have been distinguishing themselves the last 30 years as truly top notch.
The Lake: Magic in the Burgenland
Throughout Lower Austria, especially Wachau, the Daube river was the most important part of the landscape. Large bodies of water regulate temperature, allowing vines to survive cold winters, and to stay cool during hot summers.
Burgendland starts south of the river and doesn’t benefit from its positive effects (it also didn’t benefit from its use as a trade route, one reason the region has always been poorer with less investment). Its single most important defining physical feature is the quirky wonder of the Neusiedlersee, or Lake Neusiedl. You can see this lake in the map below. Notice that part of the lake is claimed by 3 different sub-regions.
The reed-rimmed lake varies from 3.5 to 7.5 miles wide but stretches 22 miles down the top third of the region. It is Austria’s largest lake with the bottom third crossing over to the Hungarian side of the border.
One quirky aspect is its depth, usually a mere 3 feet deep! (5 feet and 11 inches was its record setting depth). This means you can actually walk across the entire thing and the water will barely reach your chest!
On top of that, its entire existence is a mystery. It is not fed by any rivers or springs and has dried up over 100 times, most recently in 1866. No one can figure out why it dried up, or why it suddenly refilled itself 5 years later (after farmers had started to grow crops in its silty bottom).
Besides being a mysterious wonder, it creates a magical climate for the local wine. It’s so shallow and heats up throughout the growing season, creating very humid conditions with lots of morning fog, a playground for spores of mildew to propagate. But, because this area also has 2,000 hours of sunshine a year and constant afternoon breezes, the fog burns off by mid-morning, drying out the grapes.
This is the dream recipe for botrytis to set in.
**The quick recap on botrytis: Also referred to as noble rot, it is a fungus which desiccates grapes, concentrating their sugars. When those grapes are fermented, the “bot” imparts a spicy, saffron, orange note to what become intensely sweet wines. They are long lived and often the world's most expensive wines to make (thanks to high labor input and low quantities from the partly dried berries).
No other wine growing region on earth has such consistently prevalent noble rot year after year. Not Sauternes. Not Tokaj. Not the Mosel. These regions, though more famous for their botrytis-friendly micro-climates, actually produce it less regularly than the Neusiedlersee. And although the historically important wines made from these grapes have gone out of fashion, they are wonders to behold and will always be sought out by wine aficionados.
Which is why, here in Burgenland, the regularity of grapes infected with noble rot, year after year, made the locals very wealthy, especially in the towns of Rust and Illmitz.
Mountain High, Valley Low: Elevation in the Burgenland
Historically, Burgenland’s most sought after wines were the sweet botrytized ones, made in the humid lowlands around the lake. In today’s market, it is the dry wines which are favored by most wine drinkers in the US. The best of those are mostly grown on slopes; here in Burgenland, the same is true.
Elevation varies greatly across the region, as does quality. The lowest point in the entire country, Apetlon, east of Lake Neusiedl, is marshy, rife with ponds and lakes and some very good sweet and simple dry wines can be found from those vineyards.
Geschriebenstein is the highest peak in the Günser mountains and in Burgenland, at 2,900 feet along the border with Hungary. The town of Rechnitz on its western slopes is a choice spot for nervy white wines.
All of the best red wines come from either the mountains or the elevated sloping plateaus. Leitheberg to the east of the lake, Eisenberg in the far south, and terraced vineyards of Neckenmarkt in the center of the region are top sites. The Heideboden, a plateau north of the lake and Lutzmannsberg, a plateau south of Neckenmarkt have all been hotspots of excellent dry red wines.
Get Your Hands Dirty: Soil in the Burgenland
You can imagine with such undulating landforms that the soil types are probably varied-- and right you are! Sand, clay, loam, gravel, limestone, slate, gneiss and schist are to be found, some layered right on top of each other and whose combinations make for some interesting mineral underpinnings.
In Lower Austria we discussed loess a lot. The water retaining, high carbon content, sand and silty soil married perfectly with Grüner Veltliner, making it the most readily available wine. In Burgenland, producers are finding their own match-made-in-heaven discoveries, with some grapes, like Blaufränkisch, showing excellent results in multiple soil types.
Down here, vineyards are often much larger than in the north, with less defined boundaries. Top producers are slowly seeking out, defining and distinguishing those parcels that make the greatest wines.
- The sandy and gravel vineyards, like the ones around the lake, have good drainage. We’ve touched on their prevalence for great sweet wine, but they can also produce easy drinking dry reds.
- Clay, on the other hand, is great for retaining water. This is a boon in the often dry Burgenland, and can also produce silky, yet dense, long-lived wines. The Dürrau vineyard in the town of Horitschon has been prized for its deep clay over limestone soils and the Blaufränkisch grown there possess some of the sauve aspects of Pomerol (a famous clay over limestone region).
- Leitha Limestone was formed from the coral reef of an ancient warm sea. It lies in layers between the slate slopes of the Leithaberg, and is also scattered all throughout Burgenland from Heideboden, Neckenmarket, Hochäcker and Lutzmannsburg. We tend to find high acid and high tannin wines in vineyards with limestone soils.
- Eisenberg, meaning Iron Mountain, has some of the biggest iron deposits on earth and has been mined since the iron age. It is still rife with ore and its blue and green slate sub soils make for spicy distinctive wines.
Sub Regions and DAC’s
Neusiedlersee is the largest subregion and covers the eastern and northern sides of the lake, with Hungary on its eastern border, touching Slovakia and Carnuntum at its northern tip. It has two distinct growing regions and styles: Sweet down, dry up.
In the south, the warm flat area between the edge of the lake to the Hungarian border is easy to farm, but great wines are not a given. The best wines are coaxed by great winemakers, with the lakeside village of Illmitz home of some of the greatest Beerenauslese, Trockenbeerenauslese and Eiswines in the world.
To the north is a gently sloping plateau of loam over sand or gravel with limestone, chalk and iron underneath. The best known village is Gols, which is also the epicenter of Burgenland’s emergence on the global stage for its red wines of Zweigelt, Blaufränkisch, Pinot Noir, and Cabernet Sauvignon.
Pannobile is just one of many producer-created wine organizations in Austria, formed to help likeminded winemakers support the production and marketing of their wines. This group banded together to show the world that they had quality terroir and skilled winemakers. Although unknown in America, their wines helped garner first the attention and then the investment needed to support the farmers here in making better and better wines.
- Starting in the 2010 vintage.
- Grape: Zweigelt. Reserve wines can be blended with up to 40% of other red varieties.
- Neusiedlersee DAC style - may contain a maximum of 4g/l of residual sugar, but usually dry, must be varietally typical, fruity and spicy. They can be aged in either a wooden cask or stainless steel tank so sometimes there may be some oak influence.
- Neusiedlersee DAC Reserve style - may contain a maximum of 4g/l of residual sugar, but will taste dry, must be varietally typical, fruity and spicy. The élevage must be in either traditional large wooden cask or in barriques, and oak influence is normal.
On the west side of Neusiedlersee is the Leithaberg DAC, which has changed its name from the cumbersome Neusiedlersee-Hugelland. Similar to the eastern shore, the western shore of the lake is covered in sand, gravel and ringed by reeds leading up to a plane which then slopes up the sides of the Leithaberg, or Leitha Mountain.
Somewhat confusingly, only the wines made from grapes grown on the mountain can be labelled as Leithaberg DAC, even though the whole region is called Leithaberg. Elevation makes this a slightly cooler region and wines tend to have higher acidity than those around Gols. The soils are Leitha limestone layered with schist and gneiss, giving the wines beautiful and distinct minerality which can show nuanced distinctions across a small area in a single vineyard.
- Starting with the reds in 2008 vintage and whites in the 2009 vintage
- Grapes, White: Weissburgunder (Pinot Blanc), Chardonnay, Neuburger, Grüner Veltliner, or a blend of those
- Grapes, Red: Blaufränkisch, but up to 15% of other grapes can be blended.
- Leithaberg DAC style - both red and white wines should be dry. They should show regionally typical bouquet, fruity, spicy and fresh with subordinate primary fruit have tightly woven texture, elegance, mineral, and no noticeable oak flavors.
Oh little Rust, a fairy tale of a village, each chimney topped with a stork nest, replete with giant storks! Located right in the middle of the lake’s western shore, Rust opted out of the Leithaberg region which surrounds it entirely.
Rust was such a successful wine region it was able to buy itself the title of Royal Free City in 1681 from the Kingdom of Hungary. This granted it certain self governing capabilities, and prevented any of the nobility from having any power over it. The region’s historical wealth is felt in its old stone houses and cobblestone streets and plazas.
It is still known for its sweet wines, mainly Ruster Ausbruch, which would have disappeared if not for another grower organization, Cercle Ruster Ausbruch, which formed to save its identity and help market it to the world.
Rust also makes dry wines, and this is where some fabulous Furmint is finally being replanted and vinified with aplomb.
There is no DAC for Rust yet. Dry wines from Rust can opt in for the Leithaberg DAC.
Mittelburgenland is, not surprisingly, the middle section of Burgenland. It starts just a few miles from the southern tip of the lake, which has some humidity influence on the vineyards. The region is surrounded on three sides by mountains with the eastern side wide open to the Hungarian plain and warm climate.
All of the best vineyards are planted on the mountainous slopes, some very steep. Deutschkreutz in the north and has the greatest lake effect. Horitschon and Neckenmarkt are farther south, with less humidity influencing the latter. These are three of the best villages with alternating limestone and slate subsoils under heavy clay at the higher elevations, and sandy loam at the lower. Wines vary greatly, from red or black fruit to light and full bodied, depending exactly which parcel you find yourself in.
This is the first Austrian region with more red than white grapes. Zweigelt is the most planted but Blaufränkisch is definitely at its best here. The high-altitude Rechnitz site is in the Mittelburgenland and the few white wines made here are some of the Burgendlands finest.
Most of the villages are clustered in the north, but lonely Lutzmannsburg is the prized southern growing area. Sandy loam over limestone and slate give the wines a Burgundian airyness. The wines from the whole region tend to be powerful but elegant, with refined tannin and intense fruit, capable of long term development.
- Starting with 2005 vintage
- Grape: Blaufränkisch
- Wines can have 1 of 3 labelling designations:
- DAC with a Ried (vineyard) name attached to it
- DAC Reserve
- The major differences are:
- legal minimum and maximum alcohol requirements. Wines are required to have more alcohol as they go up the designation ladder.
- Wines with more alcohol have more body.
- Release dates. Wines cannot go on sale until August the year following harvest, the October the year following the harvest or March the second year following the harvest moving up in designation.
- Wine will have had more time to age and develop before release.
- Style of all three levels - fruity, spicy, powerful and must be vinified in traditional large oak cask, used barriques or stainless steel tank with little to no appreciable cask flavors.
Eisenberg has been renamed from the aptly named Sudburgenland for its southern location. It is the most mountainous, most forested, least populated and coolest of the Burgenland sub regions.
There are only 515 hectares under vine but here you can find some of the most distinct, spicy and mineral expressions of Blaufränkisch. The soils have heavy iron deposits, which account for some of the spice, and have more shale, slate and quartz rather than limestone.
Most producers here are part-time farmers or engage with it as a hobby. The few that have large enough operations to have more than weekend farming are making some incredible wines.
- Starting with the 2008 vintage
- Grape: Blaufränkisch
- Eisenberg DAC style - fruit-driven, mineralic-spicy, hardly any noticeable oak flavors.
- Eisenberg DAC Reserve style - fruit-driven, mineralic-spicy and robust
Producers in the Burgenland
The story of Roland Velich, the man behind Moric, mirrors the evolution of Burgenland as a whole. He started out working at the family estate in Apetlon, to the east of Neusiedlersee, making the sweet wines the region was once famous for. But Roland saw the potential in Blaufränkisch and its ability to express the dynamic terroir of Burgenland early on. He struck out on his own.
He’s done more to expose the world to the incredible aging ability and intricacies of the wines of Burgenland than any other producer. His old vine parcels in Neckenmarkt and Lutzmannsburg are ethereal, vinified in an elegant Burgundian style, and yet very clearly of their place.
Roland’s commitment to terroir expression is so strong that he finds himself at odds with the governmental tasting panels each year. Several of his wines are regularly refused DAC status because they don’t follow the tasting panels stylistic interpretation. The panel wants classically clean and clear wines, fined, filtered and with plenty of SO2. Roland refuses to engage that much manipulation, feeling it mars the sense of place. So his wines are often labelled simply as Osterreich or Austria.
Someone asked Roland last year why he keeps fighting, why not just leave the wines generically labeled now that they have a following? He replied that nothing is more important than place. His whole job is to express the place he is making wine from as clearly as possible, not to adhere to a regulated style by people who’ve become accustomed to manipulated wines.
Few winemakers here have been making wine long enough that we can have them with age and see how they stand the test of time. But Moric has been around a while and back vintages are occasionally available. If you really want to understand the potential of this region, drink Moric.
I am infatuated with the wines of Weninger. Every single wine from Franz Weninger is a little dollop of terroir in a bottle. Most people assume all Blaufränkisch just tastes like, well, Blaufränkisch. And for the majority of mass-produced wines imported to the US, that's true. But the deeper truth is, in the hands of a master, there are few grapes capable of transmitting terroir in such a focused manner.
When Franz took over the family estate a decade ago, he quickly made a series of changes: He stopped using purchased fruit, converted their vineyards to biodynamics, stripped away excessive winemaking techniques and new oak, and (most importantly) bottled each of the best sites individually.
All of this is a reflection of Franz’s own obsession with showcasing the distinctive value in each of his beloved vineyards. With a 50-hectare checkerboard of limestone, clay, gravel, mica-schist, gneiss, iron and volcanic basalt, he doesn't lack for choice. And while he's not the first of his compatriots to explore his wealth of indigenous grapes and soil types in this fashion, he is making the most compelling case for their place on the world stage—and in your cellar.
Alois Kracher was a legend. He was living in Vienna as a chemist when he realized he needed to go home to his tiny town of Illmitz and take up the mantle of winegrower. For 30 years he crafted some of the greatest Beerenauslese and Trockenbeerenauslese this world has ever known.
There is real skill in making sweet wine balanced and the magic here is equal parts farming and blending. Alois perfected the practice of using different grapes at various degrees of ripeness to impart enough acidity that the wines, although sweet, were never cloying. After his untimely death, his son Gerhard has continued on the family legacy. He is expanding into dry wines and creating partnerships with other producers around the world.
The sweet wines are still the ones to look out for. These are bottles which age nearly forever; I’ve yet to find one past its prime and I’ve been lucky enough to experience 35+ year old bottles on several occasions. Dessert wines may not be to everyone's liking but it’s hard for me to imagine anyone finding fault with a sip of Kracher after a long meal.
Heidi is like the cool aunt who bought you beer in highschool and introduced you to Janis Joplin and Stevie Nicks. This maven of Rust has spent her life fostering its culture and traditions. A place she has intimate knowledge of as the 8th matriarch of her family estate.
Her collection of vineyards surrounds the town on well drained slopes of gravel, sand, clay and limestone soil. She’s got a wealth of very old vines, yet continues to experiment with new varieties and training techniques, trying to stay ahead of the world’s rapidly changing weather patterns and tastes.
Heidi was a founding member of Cercle Ruster Ausbruch, an organization formed by the few remaining Ausbruch producers. Once the most famous wine of Austria, it had fallen out of fashion and was nearly lost to history. The group has also replanted Furmint, the main grape in Hungarian Tokaj, celebrated for its high acidity and sensitivity to botrytis. It disappeared after phylloxera wiped it out but is now being prized once more for not just sweet but incredible dry wines reminiscent of Loire Valley Chenin Blanc.
The dry wines of the estate are split between classic and modern cuveés, like her old-vine Blaufränkisch and wild Rosé Biscaya. The sweet wines though, especially the whimsical sounding Wings of Dawn, should be in every collector’s cellar.
Michael Wenzel is another founding member of Cercle Ruster Ausbruch, whose family has been making wines in Rust for generations. Michael carried on the legacy of making traditional sweet wines but got bored with the status quo. He started exploring new/old grapes like Furmint, skin contact, and wines without sulphur.
It turns out he was a “natural.” The wines are bright, refreshing and a nice deviation from the surrounding red options. Like many of the Burgenland producers he’s found a balance between new and old and is worth seeking out.
Much of the current reputation and quality found across Burgenland can be put on the shoulders of Anita and Hans Nittnaus. They were early champions of Blaufränkisch and the first to garner international acclaim for their intense and powerful wines.
They went on to found Pannobile with their like minded neighbors in Gols to help promote their village wines around the world. Their efforts allowed continuous investment and improvements, not just in their own wines, but all of those across the region.
Their son Martin is being groomed to take over and his influence has already been felt with their conversion to biodynamics in 2015. Vineyards are now dispersed not just in top sites around Gols, but on the east and west sides of the lake and up on the Leithaberg mountains. Most of the wines are made traditionally, in large Austrian oak casks, although top wines can see time in new smaller barrels.
These are classic wines, every bit as good today as they were with their debut 30 years ago.
Markus’ family has been in the Burgenland region for over 500 years, and like most of the farmers in the area, the ancestry farms were mixed-use with animals, agricultural crops, and wine. Markus converted most of the 11-acre vineyard into Blaufränkisch, grown in the limestone and mica schist of the Leitha mountain.
Markus Altenburger is convivial and welcoming and his wines reflect his exuberant energy. He excels at fresh, updated styles of Blaufränkisch and Grüner Veltliner, breaking from this very traditional region. Impossibly well balanced wines at incredibly fair prices are to be found, but his single vineyard wines are tense, with fine tannins and laser beam black and red fruit.
Georg takes his role as farmer and winemaker of his family domain very seriously. He is quick to laugh and can easily set a room at ease. Blaufränkisch, the Burgenland's terroir-transparent grape, is the crown jewel of the estate and they make several single vineyard bottlings from the variety.
But his Pinot Blanc and Chardonnay, Burgundian varietals, which have a centuries long history in the region, are truly fantastic. Farming is practicing organic, and cellar work is hands off with fermentation and aging in large, neutral, traditional Slovenian oak casks.
Our Little Land of Steiermark
Our regional journey ends in the far south of Austria in the bucolic land of Styria (or Steiermark). Dubbed “Tuscany of the North” by many of its admirers for its vine-laden rolling hills and the medieval castles nestled atop their apexes.
Vineyards are concentrated along the Slovenian border, which was a part of Styria until the end of World War I. Though there are three sub regions, Vulkanland Steiermark, Weststeiermark and Südsteiermark, the vast majority of vineyards are clustered in the smallest one, Südsteiermark.
This is the edge of the Central Eastern Alps with nothing but steep peaks and deep valleys in every direction. Vines are sometimes terraced, but often just planted down the sides of the hills, making for treacherous farming. Erosion was a problem for a long time, but many growers now employ cover crops between their vines, keeping the dirt from sliding down the hillsides.
Soil types are varied, like in the rest of Austria, and range from silts and marl to sands, gravels and rubble, sandstones and conglomerates, limestones, gneisses, mica schist, phyllite, amphibolite and even some marble. There are also basalt sub soils from ancient volcanoes which can layer beautiful minerality into some of the wines.
This is a region of two competing climate zones, Continental (hot summers, cold winters, rain all year round) and Mediterranean (hot summer, mild winter, rain only in winter). Cold wind streams down from the Alps which are then buffeted by the warmer Mediterranean air currents off the Adriatic.
Rain falls here all year round, about twice as much as in the Wachau. This means near constant disease pressure of mold and mildew. Frost is a big problem in early spring and random hail storms will decimate entire crops in a matter of minutes.
Even though we are south of Burgenland the cooler temperatures and mountain protection from the Pannonian climate puts us back in white wine country. But these wines are very distinct from their northern counterparts. Grace, delicacy and elegance are championed over power, structure and intensity. Grüner Veltliner is an utter rarity.
Sauvignon Blanc is the superstar here, introduced by Archduke Johann in the 1820’s. The Archduke, lovingly referred to as the Prince of Styria or People’s Price, married a commoner and was banished to the region. He made it his duty to introduce the latest information in agronomy, viticultural, and technology, to the people of the region, making them some of the more advanced peasants in the world at the time.
While a French grape from the Loire Valley may seem out of place at the edge of the Alps, the steep hillsides and cold air keep this wine en pointe and in character. They don’t fall directly into any of the popular international styles (bell pepper and passionfruit from New Zealand, tropical from California) but come closer to the high acid, mineral styles from France. Considering the prices of Sancerre these days, Steiermark Sauvignon Blanc prices are more digestible.
Other delightful wines can be found from Weissburgunder (Pinot Blanc), Morillon (Chardonnay), mineral Riesling, aromatic Traminer, and simple Welschriesling. New oak is rarely used and the wines are able to showcase primary fruit and bright acidity without being marred by vanilla or smoke. Blauer Wildbacher is an indigenous red grape with very high acidity which locals make into a rosé, although it's rarely seen stateside.
This is a beautiful place to make wine, but it’s not easy, by any means. The slopes are too steep and too wet for machines and vineyards have to be worked nearly entirely by hand. This translates directly into quality. The wines here are a little more expensive than one might expect for a relatively unknown region, but they are artisanal, singular, elegant and very much worth it.
DAC in Steiermark
For detailed information on DAC’s and how they apply to Austrian wine labels, check out our section in blog 3.
Here in the Steiermark the rules get a little complicated. First they employ the 3 tier system of regional, village and vineyard designation. There are a lot of different grapes you can use for the basic DAC’s, listed below. On top of that there are a lot of single vineyard names, which have to follow their villages in terms of grapes.
This is a lot of the information you might find on a wine label, it’s detailed, and good for use as a reference if you want to know what's in your bottle, and what it might mean.
It can be easy to feel daunted by sheer volume of the information,but once you learn about this it unlocks an entirely new way to look out for wines.
Here's a handy outline:
- Since the 2018 vintage
- All grapes must be hand harvested
- Style - there are no style, tasting requirements for any of the DAC’s
- Dry - All of the wines can have up to 4 g/l of residual sugar, but must taste dry.
- Grapes: Sauvignon Blanc, Welschriesling, Weissburgunder, Morillon, Grauburgunder, Riesling, Gelber Muskateller, Traminer or a blend of these.
- Gebietswein - Territory Wine
- Wine made from anywhere in Steiermark
- Südsteiermark DAC, Vulkanland Steiermark DAC, Weststeiermark DAC
- Any of the grapes can be used
- Earlier release, wine will be young and fresh for near term drinking.
- Ortswein - Village Wine
- Village names from each sub region may be attached to wines from that specific DAC.
- The wines must be aged a few more months and are often a little more complex.
- Only specific grapes from each village are allowed, not all of them.
- Südsteiermark DAC - Villages: Grapes
- Kitzeck-Sausal: Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling
- Eichberg: Sauvignon Blanc, Gelber Muskateller
- Leutschach: Sauvignon Blanc, Gelber Muskateller
- Gamlitz: Sauvignon Blanc, Gelber Muskateller
- Ehrenhausen: Sauvignon Blanc, Morillon
- Vulkanland Steiermark DAC - Villages: Grapes
- Oststeiermark: Sauvignon Blanc, Weissburgunder
- Riegersburg: Sauvignon Blanc, Weissburgunder
- Kapfenstein: Sauvignon Blanc, Weissburgunder
- Sankt Anna: Sauvignon Blanc, Weissburgunder
- Tieschen: Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot cuvées
- Klöch: Sauvignon Blanc, Traminer
- Straden: Sauvignon Blanc, Grauburgunder
- Sankt Peter: Sauvignon Blanc, Weissburgunder
- Weststeiermark DAC - Villages: Grapes
- Ligist: Blauer Wildbacher (as Schilcher), Sauvignon Blanc
- Stainz: Blauer Wildbacher (as Schilcher), Sauvignon Blanc
- Deutschlandsberg: Blauer Wildbacher (as Schilcher), Sauvignon Blanc
- Eibiswald: Blauer Wildbacher (as Schilcher), Sauvignon Blanc
- Riedenwein - Cru Wine
- Wines from single vineyards.
- Vineyard name may be listed after the DAC
- Grapes are only allowed if they are permitted in the village where the vineyard is located.
- These are the last to be released onto the market. They should display characteristics of their vineyard, are the most complex and can often be aged.
STK - Steirische Terroir & Klassikweingüter
(Steiermark Terroir & Classic Wineries)
This is one of the many producer-led organizations to be found in Austria and similar in aspirations to the ÖTW in Lower Austria.
Currently the group is made up of 12 members whose goal is to make outstanding wines, reflective of their region. They delineate vineyards and have ranked them with their own criteria. Eight large vineyard areas have so far been designated between Sudsteiermark and Vulkanland.
The groups work within the confines of the DAC rules above, but they go a step further. They not only acknowledge the Rieds (vineyards or crus), they rank them into Erste Lage (1er Cru) and Grosse Lage (Grand Cru) sites.
The trademarked “STK” can be applied to wines that are from the different vineyards and regions, but they must meet the strict criteria that goes beyond physical boundaries.
One note about these vineyards is their massive size, especially compared to those in the Wachau or Kamptal. They are large areas that often cover multiple hills, with various expositions, aspects, elevations, amphitheaters and micro climates. Soils are the defining feature and do certainly add a mineral distinction to each large site.
This means that wines can vary greatly within one vineyard, so the hierarchical system is based on more than just a delineated place. In Burgundy for instance, a Grand Cru is a separate physical place with a different name than a premier cru. Here a Grand Cru and a Premier Cru can have the same name, and be essentially the same vineyard, distinguished by other criteria detailed below.
Grosse Lage / Grand Cru
These are wines from the very best single-vineyards, recognized for their outstanding terroir. Grapes must be fully ripe and are picked later than those from the other levels, offering more concentration and an ability to age.
Vines must be at least 15 years old (it is rare for a ranking system to mandate vine age). Yields are kept low (4,500 hl/h) and wines must be aged for a minimum of 18 months (long for a white wine) before being released.
Interestingly, they stipulate that only a cuveé which has been in the marketplace for at least 10 years, showing its potential to age that long, are allowed to be labeled Grosse Lage. The organization feels this guarantees exceptional quality.
Erste Lage / Premier Cru
These are also wines from single-vineyards and grapes which are fully ripe, offering more concentration and an ability to age.
Vines must be at least twelve years old. Yields are also kept low (4,500 hl/h) and wines must be aged for a minimum of a year. The wines have to have proven themselves in previous vintages to have the potential to mature for at least five years.
Riedenwein / Cru Wine & Ortswein / Village Wine
These don’t have the same technical requirements as the other two levels, but the wines do need to have typicity for either the named Ried or Village to appear on the label.
Producers in Steiermark
Wine has been made in this family in Styria for 200 year. Now it is in the hands of Katharina Tinnacher and her mother Wilma. They farm all of the legal grape varieties organically and own parcels in six single vineyards. All of the wines show great varietal typicity and are especially elegant. Their Sauvignon Blanc is a steal, but all of the wines are delicious.
Johannes runs the original family winery, Weingut Gross, and Michael, his brother, has purchased vineyards in Gorca across the Slovenian border, which they have named Vino Gross. They are joined in their commitment to understanding and expressing their individual sites.
Sauvignon Blanc is one of the world’s most noble white grapes, but its strong features require a deft touch to keep it poised and precise, rather than brassy or obvious. Gross’ extraordinary iterations walk this tightrope with ease; they balance subtle exoticism with pinpoint lucidity and never look down.
They have vineyards in most of the top sites with some of the best parcels. They take great care not to fall off their incredibly steep slopes, some rivaling the Bremmer Calmont in the Mosel. Planted in the pure limestone and marl, roots dig deep and even in the youngs vines the minerality is resplendent. Each plant is tended to by hand, coaxing the greatest quality from their miniscule yields.
The wines practically make themselves with a winemaking philosophy of “controlled idleness”. Spontaneously fermented in large old Slovenian oak, they are allowed to go through malolactic fermentation and don’t see battonage. Great wine needs time and aging is never less than a year with another 6 months in stainless steel before bottling.
Don’t let the name fool you, today’s wines are anything but gross.
The Tement winery was only started in 1979, young for these parts, but it has had no shortage of accolades in that time. Their entire range, from Sauvignon Blanc to their dry Gelber Muskateller to their regional blend to the dazzling single vineyard Zieregg, shows elegance, texture and stoney minerality.
Armin and his father Manfred have only been certified organic since 2018, but the vines have always been painstakingly farmed. They work very hard to allow the grapes to express their terroir. These have always been made “naturally” but long before that was what the cool kids were doing.
Flatiron's Guide to Austrian Wine
Austria is a beautiful country, ancient, yet modern and accessible with wines to match. The people are welcoming and generous, jovial, and wine is an integral part of their lives. The key to Austrian wine is quality and consistency, rather than quantity. No other country can boast such high standards across the price spectrum and throughout all of their regions.
The Wachau Valley is the epicenter of Austria’s greatest wines. In fact, to many wine consumers, the wines of the Wachau are the wines of Austria.
While that sentiment sells Austria short, ignoring many diverse and excellent wine regions, it’s not baseless. The Wachau’s vineyards, defined 1,000 years ago by local monks, are still recognized today for producing some of the world’s greatest white wines.
With such diversity it can be hard to summarize the region’s wine style. But to us, the heart of the matter is that Lower Austria gives us authentic wines, whether they are age-worthy bottles that radiate intensity or simple but tasty wines that you can easily imagine drinking at some roadside Heurigen in the fall sunlight with friends. And best of all, they do this at incredibly fair prices.
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