May 31 2012 issue
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COVER STORY Burgenland Benjamin T. Weinberg
The southeastern district of Burgenland may be Austria’s youngest province, but it has a long tradition of viticulture and winemaking. Its 34,600 acres of vineyards are situated on the Pannonian Plain, a vast basin with a hot, continental climate due to prevailing winds off the grassy steppes that stretch eastward to Russia. But temperatures are moderated by an immense lake called the Neusiedlersee—covering an area of 200 square miles at a mere 6 feet in depth—and countless smaller, similarly shallow saline lakes (Zickseen) . These bodies of water also create a bathtub effect, characterized by high humidity, that encourages the development of noble rot (Botrytis cinerea) in white varieties such as Chardonnay, Scheurebe, Traminer, and Welschriesling. The region is renowned for Prädikat wines ranging from fragrant Spätlesen and honeyed Auslesen to top-quality Trockenbeerenauslesen.
Beginning in the early 1990s, a renewed focus was placed on the development of indigenous varieties for use in dry whites and reds. As Christian Zechmeister, managing director of Wein Burgenland, explains, "A new generation of winegrowers trained to a higher level, including international experience, has implemented quality-enhancing measures at an exceptional pace. It helps that wine from the Burgenland matches superbly with both national and international cuisine." Zechmeister says that when it comes to white wines, "the minerality and balance of Burgundian varieties grown in Austria are particularly impressive." The reds, he finds, are full bodied and rich—"beguiling examples of Blaufränkisch, Zweigelt, and blended wines, characterized by deep fruit and velvety tannins."
In addition to their emphasis on native grapes, local vignerons rely on meticulous canopy management and constant vineyard supervision to turn out top-quality wines. With the help of European Union subsidies, many producers have also invested in up-to-date cellar technology. As a result, Burgenland now boasts a plethora of state-of-the-art wineries that are remarkable for both their architecture and their functionality.
Perhaps the most famous winery in all of Austria is Weingut Kracher, located in the lakeside town of Illmitz. While the untimely deaths of Alois Kracher Jr. and his father between 2007 and 2010 have been well documented, the story now centers on how the former’s widow Michaela and son Gerhard have maintained and even grown a domain that was already world renowned for its sweet wines.
Other major players include Weingut Gerhard und Brigitte Pittnauer, whose spirited husband-and-wife owners focus on red wine in their futuristic hillside facility just outside Gols. Nearby, Hans and Anita Nittnaus are not only legendary winemakers (Hans’s family has made wine since at least 1684), but convivial hosts, always ready for a glass and a laugh. Pittnauer and Nittnaus are among nine vintners from the region around Gols who have banded together to form an association called Pannobile, a term used to designate a "noble" wine from the Pannonian Plain. Only one red and one white Pannobile per vintage can be bottled by each producer, as determined in blind tastings by the entire group. Also based in Gols is Szigeti, a preeminent Sekt producer whose sparkling wines are sold around the world.
In Rust, Günter and Regina Triebaumer exude enthusiasm about their region. The Triebaumers belong to one of Austria’s most venerable winegrowing families; Günter’s uncle Ernst is considered by many to be one of the five best winemakers in the entire country. Then there is the resurgent Weingut Hans Igler in Deutschkreutz, led by the talented young third-generation winemaker, Clemens Igler.
More than 300 grape varieties are currently planted in Austria—a relatively small country of fewer than 10 million inhabitants—and dozens thrive throughout Burgenland (see Burgenland’s Principal Grape Varieties), where variegated terroir plays an important role in determining wine quality.
Neusiedlersee is the largest subregion and the country’s newest Districtus Austriae Controllatus, a quality designation for regionally typical Austrian wines (see Burgenland’s DACs). Blauer Zweigelt, the dominant red variety, produces powerful and juicy wines from stony, sandy, and clay soils on the rolling hills of the Parndorf Plain in the northern part of the region. Complex blends are also derived from Blau-fränkisch, St. Laurent, and Pinot Noir (Blauburgunder). Farther south, the village of Andau, where a sappy, ripe style of Zweigelt is produced, shows great potential. Sandy soils and proximity to the Neusiedlersee and Zickseen make the triangle between Podersdorf, Illmitz, and Apetlon, known as Seewinkel, ideal for Prädikat whites and one of the best places in the world to produce botrytized sweet wines. The beautiful Neusied-lersee-Seewinkel National Park, bordering the lake, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Neuseidlersee-Hügelland is commonly known as the hill region. Along the east-facing slopes of the Leithagebirge mountains, soils of limestone and slate bring out a distinctive mineral character in white wines made from Pinot Blanc (Weissburgunder), Chardonnay, Welschriesling, and Grüner Veltliner and reds based primarily on Blaufränkisch. The area around Pöttelsdorf, northeast of the Rosaliengebirge, produces wines of particularly deep fruit and exceptional length, especially from Blaufränkisch. Rust, with its wonderful old Baroque homes, holds special significance as the home of the Austrian Wine Academy and the famed Ruster Ausbruch, an exquisite, naturally sweet wine. Apart from its great wine tradition and an abundance of nesting storks and swallows, the area offers cultural highlights such as the annual Haydn Festival in Eisenstadt.
Mittelburgenland (Central Burgenland), also known as Blaufränk-ischland, is a center of red-wine production. Blends from this area usually comprise Zweigelt, St. Laurent, and Merlot in addition to Blaufränkisch. In the northeast, around Deutschkreutz, deep clay soils yield wines characterized by brambly aromas and dense textures. Elsewhere, dense loam produces powerful reds with noteworthy fruit and length. Quality is enhanced by the presence of old vineyards, skilled growers, and efficient modern cellars.
Südburgenland (South Burgenland) is the smallest winegrowing subregion. Modest wineries and some 250 Buschenschenken (quaint rural inns run by growers) only serve to amplify the romance of this picturesque, hilly landscape. The Pinkataler Weinstrasse, a wine trail that runs through the valley of the Pinka River near Rechnitz, invites travelers to discover the region’s elegant, savory, Burgundian whites. Near the towns of Deutsch-Schützen and Eisenberg, Blaufränkisch vines grown in ferruginous clay soils engender reds with deep, dark character. The Eisenberg hill in the southeast corner of Südburgenland, for which the Eisenberg DAC is named, displays complex soils and a moderate climate similar to that of neighboring Steiermark. This terroir provides ideal growing conditions for Blaufränkisch and other red varieties used to make wines with fine minerality and unmatched elegance.
Organic viticulture is increasingly important in Austria: the total number of certified organic wineries has grown by 31% since 1995, making Austria the leader in sustainable production throughout the European Union. Organic plots accounted for 8% of the nation’s cultivated vineyard land in 2008, and the percentage has increased since then, according to Zechmeister.
Recent vintages have run the gamut from excellent to challenging. In 2011, an ideally warm, dry spring was followed by cold, wet weather from late July to early August. The second half of August was hot, but a beautiful late summer resulted in fully ripe grapes that were harvested relatively early. The whites are ripe and elegant, showing extraordinary finesse, while the dark, rich reds are highlighted by perfect tannic structure.
2010 was much more difficult. In December, temperatures below 19ºF created frost damage. Flowering extended until mid-to-late June, and heavy rains impeded ripening while promoting fungal diseases. In the end, this crazy-quilt growing season resulted in fruity wines with crisp acidity.
Flowering in 2009, on the other hand, was extremely early, mostly over by May 25. A moist summer brought some coulure, but a hot and dry August ensured perfectly healthy grapes and good sugar levels at harvest, guaranteeing complex, fully ripe whites. It was also a perfect vintage for reds and a very good one for botrytised wines.
Excessive rain and even hail during the first week of July 2008 caused significant local damage. But the resulting low yields, following an early September harvest, produced fruit-driven whites and intensely colored reds with balanced tannins; sweet wines also did well.
Austrian wines offer the perfect accompaniment to a wide array of cuisines, from Central European and Mediterranean to Asian and fusion, not to mention local fare. For a suitable introduction to the region, try the lunch at Restaurant Nyikospark in Neusiedl am See, where you can groove on the traditional specialty—pepper-seasoned, lake-caught fish soup. Or dine on roasted pork loin at Restaurant Taubenkobel, one of Austria’s finest dining establishments, in Schützen am Gebirge near Rust.
In terms of wine production, the culture of innovation built by pioneering vintners is Burgenland’s greatest asset and the impetus for its successful economy. It’s reflected in the awards and accolades earned by the region’s wines in recent years, even in categories such as international varieties and full-bodied red blends. Although Burgenland may not be the first wine region—or even the first Austrian region—that springs to the American consumer’s mind, there is no doubt that its dedicated growers and producers have the requisite passion to craft amazingly elegant yet full-bodied bottlings that will please just about any palate.