Image featured above: “Grüner Veltliner – An Anthology of Great Wines” tasting at Vienna’s beautiful Palais Niederösterreich 02 June 2015.
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In part one of this series, we learned about the most important grape varieties of Austria. In this second installment we’ll explore some of the more esoteric varieties. Let’s dive right in!
Blauer Wildbacher is an old variety that has been documented for several hundred years in the Weststeiermark (Western Styria) region. The variety is named after the village of Wildbach located about thirty kilometers (nineteen miles) southwest of the city of Graz. “Blau” (blue) refers to the color of the ripe grapes. There is a similarly named and nearly extinct variety, Wildbacher Spätblau, which is genetically distinct from Blauer Wildbacher. Given the promiscuity of Gouais Blanc, it shouldn’t surprise us that it is one of Blauer Wildbacher’s parents; the other supposedly an extinct wild vine. Blauer Wildbacher is also closely related to Blaufränkisch. About 520 hectares (1,285 acres) of Blauer Wildbacher are currently planted in Austria, mostly in Western Styria. About 10 hectares (25 acres) are planted in Italy’s Veneto region where it can be vinified as a red or rosé wine in the IGT Colli Trevigiani.
Blauer Wildbacher in Styria is almost exclusively vinified as Schilcher, a rosé wine renowned for its mouth-wateringly high acidity. In Styria, the Blauer Wildbacher variety is also known as Schilcher. As you can imagine, with its high acidity Schilcher can cleanse and refresh your palate of high-fat foods like sausages, hams, bacon, cheeses, and spreads typical of the Austrian Buschenschank. It can also be an interesting partner to sashimi and sushi, especially fattier fishes like salmon and tuna. The Styrians also amusingly refer to Schilcher as “Heckenklescher” (hedge crasher). So, beware: if you indulge in too much Schilcher you might lose your balance and crash into the hedge!
According to Wachau tradition, Christoph Ferstl and Franz Marchendl found a parcel of vines growing near Oberarnsdorf on the banks of the Danube River. Cuttings were later planted on the other side of the Danube in a place named Burg near the town of Spitz. Legend has it that this is how the variety acquired its name (neu = new). Neuburger has been proven to be the offspring of Roter Veltliner (see below) and Silvaner, and therefore a grandchild of Savagnin (Traminer). Popular in the last half of the 20th century, plantings of Neuburger in Austria have been rapidly decreasing, and currently there are only 253 hectares (625 acres) planted in the country, mostly in Lower Austria and Thermenregion. Although it can produce high-quality wines, it is a fussy variety that can be problematic during flowering, susceptible to frost damage, and also susceptible to downy mildew and botrytis bunch rot. But in the right hands, this golden-berried variety can produce full-bodied, soft, golden wines with notes of flowers and spices, developing its characteristic nutty note with time in the bottle. Like many aromatic varieties, Neuburger can pair well with broad range of Asian dishes.
Roter Veltliner, a personal favorite of mine, is a very old Austrian variety whose parents have still not been determined. Its name (rot = red) comes from the pinkish color of the ripe berries as well as the coppery red shoot tips and leaf stalks. It is not at all widely planted but is considered important as the parent of the Veltliner group of vines, although Grüner Veltliner is not part of this group. It is another finicky vine requiring a warm site with good ventilation and drainage, meaning that it prefers the deep loess soils mainly occupied by the far more popular Grüner Veltliner. Currently, there are only 191 hectares (472 acres) planted in all of Austria, the majority in Kamptal, Kremstal, and Wagram, with small plantings in Weinviertel and Vienna. It can be a very productive vine producing rather neutral wines, but with controlled yields can produce must high in extract yielding high-quality wines capable of ageing for years, wines developing complex and exotic fruit notes. I have personally tasted Roter Veltliner wines more than forty years old that were exceptional. Try a Roter Veltliner wine with a pork loin roasted with a spicy dry rub. Or for a more traditional pairing try it with Wiener Schnitzel and potato salad.
Although Roter Veltliner plantings have been steadily decreasing, some growers are determined to bring back this ancient variety. Ten bio wineries have even formed an association dedicated to producing Roter Veltliner wines, the Roter Veltliner Donauterrassen Austria (https://roterveltliner.bio). According to the association’s research, Roter Veltliner is truly an ancient variety first brought to the region during the Roman occupation. Because of its dedication, the association became a member of The Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity in 2020. Read more about it here (https://www.fondazioneslowfood.com/en/slow-food-presidia/danube-terraces-roter-veltliner/)
In the photo taken 08 June 2018 in Vienna: At the event, “Roter Veltliner and Vegetarian Cuisine”, all the wines served were 100% Roter Veltliner. One of these, the Mantlerhof Roter Veltliner 1973, was still fresh and lively at nearly 45 years of age.
Rotgipfler was first mentioned in the early 19th century in Lower Austria’s Thermenregion. DNA profiling has determined that it is a cross of Savagnin and Roter Veltliner, which likely occurred spontaneously. Its name (rot = red; gipfel = summit) refers to the reddish color of the tips of the vine’s shoots. The veins of the leaves are also reddish in color. Rotgipfler is a specialty of the Thermenregion, where nearly all of Austria’s 112 hectares (277 acres) are found. Producers around the town of Gumpoldskirchen are especially proud of this variety, which was traditionally blended with the Zierfandler (see below) variety, although this is less common nowadays with Rotgipfler generally bottled as a varietal wine. The vine requires vineyards with a favorable exposure with some calcareous content, but repays this requirement with consistently high yields. Although the grapes ripen mid to late in the season, they attain high levels of natural sugar and extract while maintaining their acidity for several days even after reaching maturity. Consequently, the wines can achieve high alcohol levels and take to ageing in oak barrels. Once bottled, the best examples can age for years. Although it is not particularly susceptible to the botrytis fungus, Rotgipfler is occasionally used to produce noble sweet wines of the Beerenauslese and Trockenbeerenauslese type.
Another specialty of Thermenregion, Zierfandler, like Rotgipfler, counts Roter Veltliner as one of its parents. The other parent has never been determined, but it is widely assumed that it is a relative of Savagnin. The grapes ripen later than those of Rotgipfler, and when ripe take on a reddish hue hence its synonym “Spätrot” (spat = late; rot = red). And just like Rotgipfler, Zierfandler is loved by its growers around the town of Gumpoldskirchen although there are only about 62 hectares (153 acres) of it planted. Unlike Rotgipfler, however, it is susceptible to frost and because of the grapes’ thin skins, botrytis bunch rot as well. It also does not always ripen consistently which is one reason it was traditionally blended with Rotgipfler in the past. It does, however, produce highly distinctive, aromatic, powerful wines, a motive for more and more wineries to bottle it varietally. The grapes can attain high levels of natural sugars while maintaining very high levels of acidity (think Riesling), and in many cases the finished wines will contain some residual sugar to balance the high acidity although will taste dry to the average consumer. This high acidity helps the wine maintain its freshness and youth for many years. What do Zierfandler wines taste like? As mentioned, the wines can be powerfully aromatic with notes of citrus, ripe apricot, honey, and baking spices. Sometimes a slight oily note is present. Try this rich, aromatic wine with equally rich fare such as pastas with a creamy wild mushroom sauce or a cheese fondue.
Just like its sibling, Neuburger, Frühroter Veltliner is a natural crossing of Roter Veltliner and Silvaner. Unfortunately, it lacks some of the quality aspects of Neuburger. As the name suggests (früh = early), the vines bud early and the grapes ripen early. The wines tend to be rather neutral in character, showing a slightly floral aroma occasionally with a note of almond; hence, the wines are sold young, sometimes not even bottled. The fresh grapes are often sold as table grapes. For the past twenty years, plantings of Frühroter Veltliner have been steadily declining. A decade ago there were more than 600 hectares (1,483 acres) planted in Austria. Today, that number has fallen to 244 hectares (603 acres).
The origins of Sankt Laurent’s (many times spelled “St. Laurent”) are shrouded in mystery! Although the variety likely was born in Austria, hypotheses include origins in France (there are several places in France named “Saint-Laurent”) and some maintain that Sankt Laurent is related to Pinot although DNA testing has shown that it is distant from Pinot. To add to the confusion, there is a grape variety known as Pinot Saint-Laurent (not currently in commercial production) which is related to neither Pinot nor Sankt Laurent. What we do know is that the grape variety Sankt Laurent was named after Saint Lawrence whose feast is celebrated on August 10th, around the time Sankt Laurent grapes begin their veraison, or turning from green to red. Another finicky variety, Sankt Laurent needs either a vineyard where its roots can grow deep or irrigation. The vine flowers early meaning spring rains can cause damage, and it is also susceptible to botrytis bunch rot and downy mildew. Yields can be erratic, and rains at harvest time can cause the grapes to swell and burst leaving them susceptible to rot. Why grow this demanding variety? The wines can be very good, deeply colored with fine tannins, and with aromas of tiny forest berries and, especially, sour cherry. The examples I’ve tasted have always reminded me of a robust or rustic Pinot Noir. The best wines are suited to oak-ageing. Try this unique wine with something as subtle as pork roast with applesauce or something bolder like barbequed meats. Currently, Austria has 596 hectares (1,473 acres) of Sankt Laurent vineyards. Other countries with significant plantings include The Czech Republic, Germany, and Slovakia.
WIENER GEMISCHTER SATZ
Gemischter Satz is not a grape variety, but a white wine produced from a field blend of different grapes. By “field blend” I mean different grape varieties planted in the same vineyard. The different varieties are all harvested and vinified together yielding a wine that can be particularly complex in aromas. This style of wine is particularly associated with Vienna, where it is produced according to the DAC regulations of the appellation and is known as Wiener Gemischter Satz (“Wien” is the German name for the city of Vienna; “Wiener” meaning “coming from or belonging to Vienna”), but you can find Gemischter Satz wines made in other regions of Austria as well. What exactly does “Gemischter Satz” mean? “Gemischt” in German means “mixed”; “Satz” has several different meanings, but in this case I believe “set” is the most accurate translation. So in the case of wine, “Gemischter Satz” means “mixed set”. According to the Wiener Gemischter Satz DAC rules, the wine must be made from at least three of the twenty-six white grape varieties approved for Qualitätswein production. The greatest proportion of any one grape variety must not exceed 50% of the blend, and the third largest proportion must be at least 10% of the blend. Theoretically, a wine could include all twenty-six white grape varieties! As you might imagine, Grüner Veltliner typically plays the starring role in the blend, but the additional varieties create a wine with a cornucopia of aromas. Wiener Gemischter Satz wines are typically drunk young, and indeed they may be sold beginning December 1st following the harvest. The wines are dry with a maximum alcohol by volume content of 12.5%. If the name of an individual vineyard (“Ried” in Austrian German) is indicated on the label, the wine must have a minimum alcohol by volume content of 12.5% and theoretically could contain some residual sugar. As mentioned, Gemischter Satz wines are produced in other regions of Austria where they are not subject to the DAC regulations of Vienna. One of the best I have tasted is Ingrid Groiss’ Gemischter Satz from the Weinviertel region. Hers is a blend of thirteen different grape varieties!
Who came up with this idea of a field blend? It is really not new at all, and the practice of planting different varieties in the same vineyard is centuries old. In earlier times, the idea was that if bad weather affected one of more varieties at some time during the growth cycle, say flowering or harvest, you would still have other varieties to harvest and make wine.
With such a complex array of aromas and flavors, Gemischter Satz wines can accompany a wide range of foods. In a more traditional setting, you can consume them fresh and lively in a Viennese Heuriger with an array of cold cuts and potato salad. But they also work very well with many foods from around the world including various Asian dishes and pastas with creamy cheese sauces. Or they are delightful drunk on a sunny terrace with a cheese plate.
Kind thanks to the Austrian Wine Marketing Board for the data cited in this article.
The strange story of Austria’s black sheep of wine, Uhudler, and why native American grape varieties ended up in Europe.
Ready to plan your trip to Austria? I’m ready to help! Inquiries about wine tours at gregory @ gregorysmith.wine.
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