Red, White and Schnitzel
If you want to experience nearly total silence, you could book passage to inner Turkey or the Gobi desert, or you could come to Südburgenland, on Austria’s Eastern periphery. That’s what I heard one night last week while standing on a squat stone wall near the top of Eisenberg, the name—it means “iron mountain”—of both a village and a high hill known for steep, iron-rich vineyards. In the valley below I could see Deutsch Schützen, a neighboring village named after the German archers that were garrisoned there ages ago and, several hundred yards off, the hamlet of Vaskeresztes, on the Hungarian side of the border. Quite recently there had been a guard post on the road there, and a fence topped with concertina wire, but now what remained was an unmanned shed with a sign commemorating the “iron curtain” beside a stand of overgrown chestnuts. The only movement below was an occasional flash of headlights on one of the switchbacks far down in the valley. The night was windless; every few minutes a bark of a dog came rolling up the slopes from miles away.
Even most Austrians haven’t heard of Eisenberg—an engineer friend from Vienna said he knew it only as a name of the city’s former chief rabbi, provoking unintended discomfort in my Russian Jewish brain. No matter; I had come here as part of a press trip—a minivan of journalists with the physiques of middle-aged adults devoted more to sherry than to the gym, shepherded by a stern PR Valkyrie—to learn about one of the most interesting things happening in European wine, specifically the appearance of world-class reds from Austria. Until just a few years ago, many wineries here made round, heavy, occasionally sweetish reds to compete in the domestic market with cheap imports from Chile and Australia. These wines are still abundant. During a jury tasting in the up-and-coming region of Carnuntum, we sampled nearly fifty local reds made mostly from Zweigelt; among a handful of superb wines, there were more than a few with cloying fruit flavors masking fierce green tannins, medicinal herbaceousness, heavy oak treatment and, in a couple of cases, volatile acidity. Yet a new strain of reds—mostly the work, not surprisingly, of young winemakers—demonstrates that the indigenous varieties, chiefly Zweigelt and Blaufränkisch, reveal their true character when finessed into sinewy and perfumed wines rather than teeth-staining barbells. So far, Blaufränkisch has turned out to be the more interesting and successful of the two. At its best, only Pinot Noir (among reds) exceeds it in the ability to reveal subtle differences among the sites where it’s grown. The exponent of this style who’s probably best known here in the US is Roland Velich, who bottles Blaufränkisch under the Moric label in middle Burgenland; if anything, the climate in the southern part of the region is cooler and even more conducive to the firm, elegant wines Velich has become known for.
When I met Christoph Wachter, the winemaker at Wachter-Wiesler at his family’s restaurant in Deutsch Schützen, I took him for a busboy or possibly the village pot dealer. That he turned out to be funny and articulate while speaking to journalists double his age—Christoph is twenty one—was impressive (I recalled myself at twenty one with a twinge of embarrassment), though not nearly as impressive as the fact that he seemed to have tasted more broadly and thought about wine more critically than many writers. The bottles he opened that night—Blaufränkisch and Zweigelt made by his father in the warm ‘06 vintage—tasted well-judged but belonged decidedly to the plush-and-round school, as though painted by Botero. The wines he poured the following morning from the ‘08 vintage appeared to have come from a different winery, in part owing to the cooler year but also due to Christoph’s increasing role in the winemaking. Christoph says that he’s moving towards the elimination of noble rot from the grapes, aging the Blaufränkisch in larger and more neutral barrels, and converting the vineyards to organic viticulture. The ‘08s were less extracted, fresher, with an appetizing stoniness. The best came from the coolest site on Eisenberg, the eastern-exposed Hummergraben (pictured above; the label reads Steinweg, or “stone path,” because Hummergraben, which means “lobster ditch,” sounds quite weird). The most exciting red was a barrel sample of the Steinweg from ‘09, the first vintage made entirely by Christoph. Only once or twice had I come across a wine that smelled so unambiguously of rocks; its lightness and perfume reminded me of a red burgundy, but it was the differences—Blaufränkisch’s structure and darker personality—that made the wine so unexpected and rewarding.
Burgenland was only the first stop. Near Krems, we dropped in on the sprawling Xanadu of Sepp Moser, a viticultural pioneer in his eighties who knows just what to do with a suede vest. The winery, with its retractable roof, desert fauna, wall-mounted antlers and mini-museum of wine kitsch, lent Sepp an air of a wealthy rancher from an Anthony Mann western. His son Niki, a study in filial contrast, turned out to be as self-effacing as Sepp was louche. When Niki took over winemaking a decade ago, he began to convert the vineyards to biodynamics. Away from the oil paintings, up in a hillside vineyard called Gebling, Niki showed us the rows of hand-tended vines standing amid a cover crop of Queen Anne’s Lace and wormwood. His neighbors’ rows looked dry and barren in comparison. But his dedication and backbone showed most clearly in the wines, particularly in the unusually leesy, vibrant Grüner Veltliners, some of the most soulful examples of that sometimes pallid grape I’ve tasted. The Breiter Rain ‘08 in particular was inward, rich and complex, having spent a heroically long spell on the lees and undergone no malolactic fermentation. I tend to think of Austrian wine as rarely being about primary fruit and more about the underlying elements, and here was a wine that did both. Moser also bottles a dark-gold Grüner from the Schnabel vineyard he calls Minimal that sees no sulfur dioxide; it reminded me of the Pouilly-Fuissés of Ferret and the white Riojas of López de Heredia in it’s oxidative richness and slight loopiness. Even Niki’s Zweigelt, from a region not especially known for its reds, was pure and elegant, and I would quit kvelling here if it were not for the fact that the prices he charges are laughably low—if I’m remembering correctly, the Zweigelt sold for under eight Euros.
Not all of the wines were quite so serious. Back in Vienna, atop Nussberg hill, Gerhard Lobner makes a distinctly indigenous wine called Gemischter Satz—a field blend—for Mayer am Pfarrplatz, the city’s best-known winery, which traces its history to the Turkish Siege in 1683. The rows of trellised vines against the backdrop of downtown Vienna and the oppressively cheesy Millennium Tower is a sight not easily duplicated. After a long fallow spell, Viennese wines, the only ones grown inside a major city, have become more popular and taste better than ever (Mayer’s New York-based importer, Darcy and Huber Selections, devotes itself almost exclusively to wine from Vienna). What does it taste like? Fresh, with a little residual sweetness and a spritz of CO2, Lobner’s Gemischter Satz is the best companion I can imagine to backhendl or schnitzel; it’s a grown-up version of the cold, fizzy whites served in good Roman pizzerias. Which is a compliment. What they may lack in complexity they make up in drinkability—to paraphrase H.L. Mencken, it’s a hundred times better to be charming than to be true.
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