Austrian Wines Round Table: Thoughts from Canada

by John Szabo MS

This feature was commissioned by the Austrian Wine Marketing Board

In what seems like a lifetime ago, back on May 7th, 2020, I hosted a virtual round table discussion on Austrian wines with a panel of top Canadian wine minds. Around the table we had: Jennifer Huether MS, co-founder of the Social Herbivore and author of an upcoming book on plant based food and wine pairings, Krysta Oben, proprietor/sommelier of Paris Paris Wine Bar/WineShop and one of the Grape Witches (wine shop, events), Christopher Sealy, head sommelier for the Alo Food Group, and Bruce Wallner MS, proprietor of the Grand Cru Deli wine bar and Sips bottle shop as well as the SommFactory wine school.

All have travelled to Austrian wine country and have been buying, selling, serving, and enjoying Austrian wines for several combined decades, so they were well positioned to muse and enlighten on the subjects broached. Watch the full replay here. Or read on for the highlights recapped.

The far-reaching discussion covered such topics as the future of hospitality, sustainability/organic/biodynamic winemaking, vegan wines, skin contact and natural wines, and grapes of the future. Six wines were selected to illustrate the themes, while weaving in discussion on vintage variation, regional diversity across Lower Austria, and typical varietal characteristics. See the full list of wines with pricing and importer information.

The Future

To lead off, Sealy told us how he had been re-thinking about the future of the wine and hospitality industry. “I’ve been musing and meditating”, he said, “about how somms might need to re-imagine what they do, what their role in the restaurant could be, as in, not just somming, but managing, assisting, and more. The future is bright, it’s an opportunity to re-examine.” These are words that still hold true, as so many in the hospitality industry have had to re-invent themselves.

Foreshadowing more discussion, Sealy also pointed that Austrian wines are on the cutting edge of sustainability and biodynamics, and how we can learn many lessons from what people in Austria are doing. “It’s about getting back to the roots, changing the way we do things. We’re part of the problem, but we’re also part of the solution.”

Huether described the changing retail landscape, which at the time was only beginning to shift, but her predictions have been fully borne out. “Wine clubs are flourishing. Somms are putting together their own selections and selling them [through restaurant bottle shops]. Agents have had to really ramp up their private client business.”

Oben agreed that direct to consumer sales have become critical, noting how, through events run by the Grape Witches, she had already established a strong connection with consumers so was thankfully ahead of the game. Her preferred method of communicating and promoting? “Instagram, of course!”

For my part, I shared the success that the WineAlign Exchange wine club had enjoyed in these otherwise dark times, with membership exploding, while suggesting that wineries need to position themselves to take advantage of the growing DTC market. It’s a sink-or-swim moment for many, then as now.

Another positive change I observed is how we can enter, if we take advantage of it, a golden age of wine communication and education. Though the technology for virtual meetings of course pre-dates COVID, I had never used it, nor ever even been part of any webinar or virtual tasting. Now, it’s the only option. But it has become so much easier to connect with winemakers and wine professional around the globe, bringing the world closer together. The added bonuses are many: huge cost savings for regional associations/PR companies by eliminating travel expenses, a lower carbon footprint for everyone, a broader range of voices that can be involved from around the world, and a permanent record of the webinar that can be viewed after the event, to name but a few.

Wallner pointed out that reaching out and staying connected is crucial. “We’ve gotta keep doing this. Don’t leave anyone behind.”

Styria & Sauvignon Blanc

With that we moved into tasting the first wine, the Weingut Tement 2017 Ehrenhausen Muschelkalk Sauvignon Blanc Ortswein from southern Styria (Südsteiermark). The region is challenging from a growing perspective, with the steepest vineyards in all of Austria, and hail a regular and constant threat. But Sauvignon Blanc has found home here, producing some truly thrilling, fresh, aromatic wines.

Südsteiermark gained DAC (appellation status) for just over 2500ha, and aside from Sauvignon, you’ll find Welschriesling,  Morillon (Chardonnay), Gelber Muskateller, and Traminer, in addition to excellent Riesling.

Armin Tement in the Grassnitzberg Erste Lage. Copyright AWMB

Tement is a leading producer, and though this is a ‘village’-level wine (Ortswein), and not one of his top crus, the panel was mightily impressed. “I don’t know what you’d call it if tasting it blind,” confessed Wallner. “I guess Sancerre or Pouilly Fumé would be the most sensible, and that comparison has to be made. It’s absolutely singing in acidity, very fresh, very bright, also great minerality. This is what I look for in a Sauvignon Blanc.”

“It’s so terroir driven,” enthused Huether. “It’s like drinking rocks.” She also remarked, interestingly, that when blind tasting Austrian wines, she finds that she often “tastes Austria first. After that I try to figure out the variety. There’s something so Austrian about these wines”. Is there an “Austrian character” that supersedes variety?

Sealy added that this Sauvignon is worthy of being listed on a restaurant wine list: “with time, food and decanting it really opens… If you’re a Chablis lover, you’ll love the springtime freshness.” Oben agreed: “it’s a special wine to offer guests at a restaurant. You can take them on a cool journey with a grape they’re familiar with, and it makes you look like a hero.”

Wachau, Kamptal and Grüner Veltliner

The next two wines featured Austria’s most planted white grape, Grüner Veltliner. The discussion turned towards the striking landscape of the Danube Valley, the hundreds of kilometers of sinewy stone terraces that have been here for nearly a thousand years, and the climate particularities, shifting from warmer in the east in Kamptal, where there’s more influence from the Pannonian plain, to the cooler, narrower west end of the valley and the Wachau region, where cold night air descends from the tree-covered hills above the vineyards and delays harvest in places like the side Spitz Valley by up to three weeks.

Tausendeimer vineyard, Spitz. Copyright AWMB

Also noted were the two main soil types, and their impact on Grüner. The vineyards with deep loess, blown up the valley from the Hungarian plain and deposited in leeward sites, are favoured for Grüner, providing for a rounder and more voluptuous style. The few more stony vineyards (mostly metamorphic gneiss) scoured clean on the windward sites that are planted to Grüner (most are planted to Riesling), produce tighter, more angular and sharp examples.

The wines used to illustrate these differences were Nikolaihof’s 2017 Grüner Veltliner Terrassen from the Wachau and Weszeli’s 2018 Grüner Veltliner Langenlois (Ortswein) from the Kamptal.

Austria & Biodynamics

The discussion quickly turned to biodynamics, however, as Nikolaihof is the second oldest biodynamic winery in the world, having converted in the early 1970s, and Weszeli is currently in conversion to Demeter certification.

1000 year-old cellar, Weingut Nikolaihof. Copyright AWMB

“It makes sense,” I say, pointing out that the father of biodynamics, Rudolf Steiner, was after all Austrian. There are currently 77 biodynamic wineries registered by Demeter International, an impressive number, a total second only to France, where there is 15 times more land under vine. There are also another 16 biodynamic producers registered under the Respekt association, an organization formed in Austria in 2007 (more on that later). Read all about Green Austria in my other recent article.

“When you taste this,” said Sealy, referring to the Nikolaihof Grüner, “I find that there’s something more than just technically well-made wine. There’s a spiritual, philosophical energy that is part of the household and the Saahs family. This is the entry level, so you can only imagine how much more significant and energetic the upper tier wines are.” It’s a common observation I find, when tasting BD wines – there’s an intangible tension, energy, which makes many BD wines among the most intriguing on the planet.

Wallner adds more specifically: “It [Nikolaihof] has that bizarre thing that the best Niederösterreich wines have: that incredible impression of fruit ripeness, but then, on the palate they go so dry. You think, is there some RS here? But no! It’s quite remarkable. Very distinctive.” Ripe fruit, bone dry palate is an apt general description for Austrian whites.

Langenlois OeWM Komitee-Kamptaljpg. Copyright AWMB

As we move to the Weszeli from vineyards around the town of Langenlois, Austria’s largest wine town with some 4000ha of vineyards and its notable Loisium Hotel and Spa, a mecca for wine lovers, Sealy is quick to point out the big differences between the 2017 and 2018 vintages: “2018 being much warmer, the hottest on record, and the earliest harvest on record in the Kamptal.” The result in the glass is: “a wine that’s more immediate on the nose, with orchard fruit, stone fruit, peaches and apricots, there’s a softer tone in the wine.”

The Loisium Langenlois OeWM Komitee-Kamptal. Copyright AWMB

It’s also from pure loess soil, which Huether finds lends “a broadness to it, a lemon peel flavour, whereas the Grüner from the Wachau [and its mix of loess and stone] was just very fresh and racy and delicate with incredible tension. Both delicious, but different.”

As I point to the Vegan-friendly certification on the Weszeli label, Huether tells us how Europe has embraced vegan certification and is putting the “V” label on wines more so than the new world. As for the details of what it means, “it has to do with production techniques. There are recommendations for vineyard practices, but the label means that during production there were no animal products used.”

Skin Contact White Wines & Underground Mixed Tapes

On next to Burgenland in the far eastern reaches of Austria next to the Hungarian border. It’s a warmer area overall where many of Austria’s best reds are made. But the first wine is not red, nor is it white, but rather an “orange” (skin contact) blend from Pittnauer called “Perfect Day” from 2018.

“We’re tasting a wine that’s named after a Lou Reed song, with a bit of a party label!” effuses Oben, whose wine bar and wine shop focus almost exclusively on natural and orange wines. This wine is clearly her cup of tea. “What I love about Burgenland is that there’s a lot of room for experimentation. It’s a little bit warmer and a lot of different grapes grow and ripen. Pittnauer is one of the OG producers, originally focused on red wines, but now doing lots of cool stuff like skin contact white wines, like this one, a blend of Chardonnay, Muscat Ottonel, Grüner Veltliner, and Gewürztraminer from the Altenberg Vineyard, vinified separately. This is not a scary orange wine at all. It’s a skin contact wine with texture and a little bit of tannin, but also freshness.”

Gols, Burgenland with the Leitha Mountains in the background. Copyright AWMB

I point out that the label doesn’t bear the name of the region – the rules haven’t yet allowed for skin contact wines to come under the official appellation. So, my question to the panel is: “Should wines like this be included in the appellation guidelines?”

Oben: “that’s a good question to ask the winemakers. I’m sure a lot of them would like to see the region on the label, the place that it comes from. They’re proud of their region, their vineyard. I think it should be labelled Burgenland. This wine really is an expression of where it comes from.”

Sealy, never far from a musical analogy (he’s also a DJ), likens wines such as this to, “an underground mixed tape. It’s not going to be part of the mainstream. It’s not going to make the top 20 radio playlist. But it’s all about the people behind the wines. We pour wines like this at Alo, textural wines, and people are drinking them and enjoying them. There are good and bad wines made in this way, just as there are good and bad wines of all kinds. But I look at these wines like I look at mixed tapes: we pass them along to friends and momentum gathers.”

Appellation or No Appellation?

I ask him more pointedly: “Is the appellation relevant to you as a wine buyer?” But Sealy remains cagey. “The proof is in the pudding. It might be important for some, it might not be important for others. What’s in the bottle is where it’s at, there’s no reason why we wouldn’t use this wine at Alo.”

Oben steps in to point out that Austrian authorities are coming to embrace these wines: “I think it’s been a hard road. But I think the fact that these wines are being shown here [part of this sponsored webinar] shows that they are embracing these wines, whereas 10 years ago it would have been super weird. So, it’s a testament to what’s happening in Austria and the rest of the world.”

To which Wallner adds: “I think this wine is important in the lineup. I think it’s a style that needs to be here. It’s exciting and delicious. How much does the appellation matter to this? I think it does, we just haven’t found that definition yet. Right now, we sort of have two parallel categories, wines that are defined by their appellations, and wines that are defined a little bit more by their approach in the vineyard and the winery.”

Regarding the “regional typicity” of skin contact whites, Wallner draws on the common argument in favour of including, eventually, this style of wine in official appellations: “is it that you can’t recognize skin contact wines from a particular place, that it’s a style more than anything? Or, is it just that we don’t have enough experience tasting skin contact wines, so that we could, in blind tastings, pick them out as being obviously from here or there? We’re not there yet, but maybe we just need more time.”

On a more practical note, “I hope it’s appropriate, but I’m drinking this with some Comté,” he smiles. “And it’s wicked!”

Field Blends & Heurigen

On now to Vienna, famously the only major European city with any vineyard acreage of consequence, over 600ha. One of the favorite outings for Viennese and tourists alike is to visit one of the many heurige, wine taverns that encircle the outskirts of the city, often surrounded by vines, where local fare, and, of course, local wine, flow freely.

And the wine that flows is very likely to be Wiener Gemischter Satz, Vienna’s unique appellation for white wines made from traditional field blends of multiple grapes. Until recently, virtually all European vineyards were planted to a mix of different grapes; monovarietal vineyards are a post-phylloxera, 20th century invention. But the tradition has happily persisted in Austria.

Vineyards overlooking downtown Vienna_Robert-Herbst. Copyright AWMB

Zweigelt & No-Sulfur Winemaking

The wine we pour, however, is another distinctly Austrian specialty, a Zweigelt “Natural” made by Fritz Wieninger of Hajszan-Neumann, 2018. Huether reminds us that Zweigelt, a crossing of two other indigenous varieties, Sankt Laurent and Blaufränkisch, made by Dr. Fritz Zweigelt in the 1920s, is the most planted red grape in Austria. Indeed, Zweigelt took so well to the Lenz Moser trellising system that was very popular in Austria post WWII, that it rapidly became the most planted red grape, still with more than twice the planted area, 6400ha, than Blaufränkisch in second place.

What does it taste like? “It’s kind of like Dolcetto,” says Huether, referring to the Italian variety from Piedmont. “It’s got lots of cherry and a little spice, really plush and lush, with soft tannins.” Regarding this specific example, “this winery (Hajszan Neumann) is where Fritz can play around with more experimental wines.” (Wieninger also has a winery under his own name, with beautiful, classically-styled wines from Vienna). “This Zweigelt didn’t see any new oak and spent a couple of months on the skins, and was made with no added sulfur.” Hence the “Natural” designation on the label.

Both of Wieninger’s wineries are also Respekt-certified biodynamic, and Jen points out a couple of the differences between Respekt and Demeter.  “The Respekt certification is only for wine, [not all forms of agriculture, like Demeter], and it is a little more flexible in terms of some modernisation (tools allowed in the winery).”

I have to declare that a dash of sulfur would have made me happy, as I find it a little woolly and fuzzy. But Oben is quick to say that “this is the kind of stuff that would sell out pretty quickly at Paris Paris. Wines like this with low sulfur and a wild side tend to be really popular.”

Wallner, with a slightly puzzled look, says: “The wine is lively. It’s got a vibrancy to it. It’s aromatically lifted. I think it’s amazing how volatile it is, but I kind of like it. It’s fun. I’d happily drink it. Is this the truest expression of Zweigelt? I don’t know. The level of VA here I think defines the wine.”

I step in to defend Wieninger, noting how this was purposeful neglect, i.e. intentional, not careless neglect. Wieninger knows how to make wine.

Right Place, Right Time

Controversial as it is proving to be for the panel, Sealy provides a contextual solution for dealing with wines like this, describing an experience he once had in Australia hosted by a group of young experimental winemakers making similar wines on the edge: “I would say I had one of the best meals ever with food that was prepared with the wines in mind, and the wines with the food in mind. I’m open to seeing art that may be outside of my understanding, if I’m guided in the right way. Then all of a sudden you’re like, holy mackerel! You know what, this is cool, this has a place! Having the right cuisine really showcases these wines. So, the challenge is what is the right space and place. This is a wine that I think there is a dish for…, and I’m like, I’m gonna get a bit freaky with you and present you with this wine and I think you will like it!”

Blaufränkisch For the Present and Future & Reductive Winemaking

From volatile to reductive, we close with another conversation-inducing wine, the Heinrich 2016 Leithaberg DAC Blaufränkisch. I declare that Blaufränkisch is a variety of the present and future, but not really of the past. It was, just a couple of decades ago, a rather unpopular variety with consumers. Considering that it is often, lean, high acid, low alcohol and with tart red fruit flavours, it found little love in a world seeking robust, jammy, black-fruited reds. “But now, those are all of the things that we’re looking for in red wine.”

Blaufränkisch is an authentically Austrian variety – the first known public mention of it was at a fair in in Vienna in 1862. And, like Pinot Noir, it’s a variety that reflects its origins strikingly well. It was once thought that only the deep clays of Mittelburgenland (the first DAC for Blaufränkisch) could produce worthy examples. And they remain the most robust versions. But as new areas were re-discovered, the variety’s range of nuance, from light and floral to darker red to downright spicy and angular, also came to light. Clays, limestones and schists-based soils all reveal a different side of the grape.

Heinrich’s example from the limestones and schists of the Leitha(berg) Mountain range, is clearly peppery and reductive, part soil, part house style. It’s made with minimum sulfur, so Heinrich prefers to protect it from oxygen as much as possible before bottling, hence the reductive character.

While Wallner is unsure, Huether has no issue: “what I love about it is just that intense tart, cherry fruit and this really wonderful kind of silky texture. It’s pretty elegant.” Oben points out that a lot of these wines [style] can age, and indeed need some time in bottle to show their best.

And with that, we close the session, a memorable discussion, and one we all hope to repeat.

See you around the next bottle.

John Szabo, MS

This feature was commissioned by the Austrian Wine Marketing Board.