The Reds of Austria’s Burgenland

BurgenlandBurgenland was, for years and years, the poorest, most economically isolated region in all of Austria – electricity didn’t reach most homes until the last quarter of the 20th Century!

It’s also one of the flattest areas of Austria – a bump 80 feet high is called a “hill” here – and one of the warmest as hot breezes flow westward from the Pannonian Plain to the east. And, while daytime temperatures can soar, the long, shallow (just 3 feet deep!) glacial lake called Neusiedler See both cools the region at night and pumps out autumn fogs that cover vineyards near the lake.

Fine Wine Potential in Burgenland
Alois Kracher was the first to see Burgenland’s potential for fine wine, taking advantage of the alternating warm sunshine and chilly fog in lakeside vineyards to make sweet wines based on botrytis – aka “noble rot.” Kracher’s unique and exotic bottlings of Chardonnay, Scheurebe, Welschriesling, and, eventually, even red grapes like Zweigelt and Pinot Noir earned huge ratings in Wine Advocate, Wine Spectator, etc. and helped spur investment and attention for Burgenland’s vineyards.

Ernst Steindorfer was part of the Kracher revolution, both as Alois Kracher’s friend and his winemaker for many years. But he also made wine for himself, starting first with his mother’s vineyards and selling wine in bulk before gradually expanding the estate to about 22 acres of vines and bottling roughly 5,000 cases per year.

Like his good friend Kracher, Ernst and his family make some brilliant sweet wines – from botrytized Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay – and a killer Pinot Gris we are still trying to get our hands on. The real pride and joy of the cellar are Ernst’s red wines.

Discovering Austria’s Reds 
Once vineyards move far enough from the lake to escape fog, the daytime warmth and nighttime cool makes this perfect red wine country. And growers like Ernst have risen to the opportunity, firmly establishing Burgenland as Austria’s best source of reds. So why haven’t you heard of these wines before?

One reason: Austrians drink them before they can escape the country! Austrian’s love their own wines, love to visit and buy directly from winemakers, and are proud to order Austrian wine in the countries top restaurants and bars. The country only makes about 1% of the world’s wine and drinks 70%+ of its production at home. So, not much makes it here.

A Primer on Austrian Red Varietals
Another reason: Austria’s unfamiliar grapes can intimidate American drinkers more accustomed to popular “international” varietals – grapes that find vineyard homes in many parts of the world. Austria’s best grapes, in contrast, have evolved (or were created) to suit the country’s unique Central European soils and climate. The three most important are:

Blaufränkisch: The “fräkisch” in this grape’s name comes from Medieval Austrian’s assumption that any grape making good wine must have come from Franconia in Germany. It’s probably native to the region, though, and migrated to Germany (where it’s called Lemberger) later. It gives dark colored, fruit filled, brightly juicy wines that are easygoing fun when made in tank and develop more complexity and sophistication when aged in oak. Austria’s second most planted red grape and arguably its best.

St. Laurent: Another old native Austrian grape whose name probably derives from St Laurentius, patron saint of chef’s, whose day is August 10, around the time this grape starts to ripen. It gives aromatic wines of velvety structure and sour cherry fruit. There’s a faint resemblance to Pinot Noir, if with more acidity and structure, but no genetic relationship.

Zweigelt: The most widely planted red grape in Austria is also the one most often seen in the USA. It’s a different kind of Austria native, created in 1922 by crossing Blaufränkisch and St. Laurent. It’s exuberantly fruity – almost like a cross between Gamay and Zinfandel – but can be a little simple on it’s own. When yields are kept low, though, and barrel carefully used, it can deliver delicious, if a bit exotic, wine.

Ernst Steindorfer grows and vinifies all three of these traditional Austrian red grapes and bottles each of them in two cuvees. One with limited/no oak offers up pure fruit, juicy textures, and easy-drinking value. The other version, the Reserve cuvees, gains extra structure and complexity from time in barrel. All are excellent – we especially loved the Blaufränkisch Reserve – but I’m not sure any are better than this ripe and supple cookout-friendly blend of all three!

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Amarone: From Sweet to “Bitter”

amarone grapesFor those who don’t know Amarone, a bit of background. Valpolicella is an ancient wine region – the Greeks made wine here before even the Romans arrived – and the name itself is thought to be a mash up of Latin and Greek meaning “Valley of Cellars.” Situated between Verona to the west and Venice to the east, Valpolicella always enjoyed strong local demand for its light, aromatic, red wines made from native grapes Corvina, Corvinone, and Rondinella. And, today, the overwhelming bulk of wine made here is still in a light, easy-drinking, style for drinking casually and young.

A couple of thousand years ago, though, the Greeks and Romans liked their wines strong and sweet – in part because they are better able to withstand storage in porous containers like clay amphora – so they invented a style of winemaking today called appassimento. Ripe grapes were harvested in autumn and then laid out on straw mats (today more hygienic plastic mats or slatted wooden bins are used) under the roof of a shed. As the cool breezes blew over the grapes, they gradually lost water, leaving sweeter and sweeter juice behind. When the dried grapes were made into wine, they had more alcohol than regular wine and, usually, a big slug of residual sugar as well.

That’s “Amaro!” Winemakers in the Veneto continued making this strong, sweet, wine – called Recioto della Valpolicella in modern times – right through the mid-1950s. Then, something strange happened, although no one really knows how. We’ll go with the most popular legend: a winemaker left his fermenting batch of Recioto in the vat for several weeks longer than usual. The yeast in that vat somehow found the strength and muscle to keep working through the heavy sugar load past 12% alcohol, through 13% and all the way to 14% or so. At that point, there was no residual sugar remaining, and when the winemaker tasted it, he declared it “Amaro” – or “bitter” – compared to his normal sweet red Recioto.

This dryer style of wine – called Recioto della Valpolicella Amarone at first and today simply as Amarone della Valpolicella – found fans and soon became Valpolicella’s most famous and important wine. It’s one of the biggest, most intense, wines made in Europe, commonly coming in at 15% abv and often reaching 16% and beyond. Usually, it’s so jam-packed with the flavors of dried fruit, balsamic, earth, leather, crushed flowers and more, that it needs to be paired with big, rich, foods (Osso Bucco is a classic match). Or, as is often done in Italy, enjoyed after the main course with strong cheeses and dried fruit.

Back To The Future In The Vineyards. Begali is a small family estate located in the Valpolicella DOC in the Veneto region since the early 20th Century. The family farms about 10 hectares of vineyards on the rolling hills near the tiny town of Cengia. As with most of the better vineyards in Valpolicella, the better sites are quite rocky and poor, with richer patches of soil planted with cherry trees. The vineyards are planted mainly to Corvina and Rondinella, although some of their older vineyards include some more obscure local varieties.

In 1986, then young Lorenzo Begali and his wife, Adriana, decided to break with family tradition and keep some grapes to make their own wine. While over the years, Lorenzo has been joined by his children, Giordano and Tiliana, and gained a lot of experience, his basic winemaking approach remains unchanged. Ripe grapes are harvested in September/October and the best bunches pulled out for Amarone. These grapes go into slatted wooden bins that are stacked in an open-sided shed to allow the cool Autumn breezes to blow through every day. They rest there, giving up their water and gaining in concentration, from October – January, when they go into wooden fermenters and yeast is allowed to go to work.

Once the Amarone fermentation is almost done, the must is pressed and the wine placed in large, neutral, oak barrels to finish fermenting to dryness. It then ages for three to three-and-a-half years in barrel before blending, bottling, and aging a further year in bottle. A simple, straight-ahead Amarone winemaking process that turned out excellent results from the first vintage.

Amarone PergolaThe Pergola Secret? But Lorenzo wasn’t satisfied and began to look at his vineyards in search of still higher quality. Traditionally, Valpolicella vineyards were trained in a manner called Pergola Veronese. The vines run up 5-6’ poles in the vineyard and then leaves and grapes run flat across an overhead structure creating a canopy over the vineyard soil. This made it easy to graze livestock in the vineyard, kept the grapes well ventilated, and made vineyard work a bit easier – reaching up to pick grapes vs. bending over towards the ground.

In the 1970s and 1980s, most Valpolicella growers abandoned Pergola Veronese in favor of the horizontal training along wires commonly seen in France and California. Some argued that these international trellising systems allowed for higher vine density, decreased vigor, and improved ripening of fruit. Others admitted that the main attraction was that horizontal trellising allowed for the introduction of mechanical harvesting in flat, high-volume, vineyards.

The Begali family had retained some Pergola Veronese vineyards and noticed that they were better able to manage yields and achieve slow, steady, ripening of the grapes – especially in hot, sunning, years with the Pergola left grape bunches in mottled shade. Today, all of Begali’s Amarone grapes come from Pergola Veronese vines because, as Wine Advocate explains, “Begali will tell you that his secret is in overhead, pergola-trained grape vines. This traditional growing system has gone out of fashion only to return to fashion more recently. It is commonly thought that pergola allowed for too much vigor, but Begali argues that this system actually reduces yields when managed properly.”

A Gem From A Great VintageWhile the critics haven’t published reviews of 2011 Amarone wines yet, there’s already a strong consensus that this is one of Valpolicella’s best harvests in recent years. A warm Spring brought early flowering, then a cool early summer let the fruit mature slowly before an outright hot September brought the grapes to full, luscious, ripeness.

As Wine Advocate’s Monica Larner explains, “The 2011 vintage is exceptional and will give Amarone enthusiasts something special to look forward to when the bulk of these wines are released. Not only will 2011 be remembered for its top-notch quality, it has all the prerequisites for long cellar aging. The power, structure and soft tannins of these wines compare closely to the beautiful 2007 vintage.”

‘Barolo Girl’ is Born

Giulia Negri BarologirlGiulia Negri’s family have been growing Nebbiolo and making Barolo at their Serrandenari estate for about 150 years. Their La Morra vineyards are the highest up in all of Barolo, ranging from 380-500 meters in altitude. The cool climate and sandy La Morra soils give elegant, pure, wines here, and they’ve long been a favorite of Barolo fans who value sophistication and grace over pure power and weight.

Giulia grew up in the winery and vineyards and seemed destined to join Serrandenari herself. But, she as she watched many of her slightly older friends establish their own, small, projects, often working in tiny cellars or their own parents’ garages, she developed an itch to strike out on her own.

So, in here early 20s, and with her parents’ support, Giulia founded her own “Garage” winery. She set up shop in a modest shed with simple winemaking equipment. She knew she wanted to honor her family’s traditions, so she took charge of Nebbiolo vines growing on the lower portion of the Serrandenari estate and a small, east-facing sliver of the famous Brunate vineyard. And, to make her own mark, she planted Chardonnay and Pinot Noir on sites too cool for Nebbiolo.

From Barolo to Burgundy to Us. One of the most important trends in Barolo over the past 20 years is young winemakers exploring the world of wine beyond Piemonte – beyond Italy itself. And, having seen her friends do that, Giulia sought out experiences, expertise, and advice from the best non-Italian winemakers she could find. Searching for advice to make rich, powerful, but pure and site-specific Pinot Noir and how to meld this temperamental wine with wood, she called on one of the greatest Pinot Noir winemakers we know: Jean-Michel Guillon in Burgundy’s Gevrey Chambertin.

Jean-Michel was delighted to help this budding winemaker, and hosted Giulia at his Burgundy domaine for hours of tasting, talking, and training on Pinot Noir winemaking, especially on the selection of the best barrels that deliver all the benefits of fine French oak – softening, fixing color, adding complexity – without overwhelming fruit or sense of place. He was impressed by her talent and passion – and by the wines she brought along for him to taste. Recognizing the almost Burgundian style of her Barolo and learning of her very limited representation in the US, Jean-Michel introduced Giulia to his good friends and US importers, Jonas Gustafsson and Olivier Daubresse.

As Jonas and Olivier would be the first to say, the very last thing either was looking for was an Italian wine to add to their portfolios. Olivier specializes in French wines from the Rhone, Provence, and – especially, Burgundy. And Jonas is the master of rich, powerful, authentic wines from Spain and Portugal. Italy simply wasn’t in the cards.

But, after first tasted her wines and then meeting with Giulia, they simply could not resist bringing her beautiful wines to us here in the mid-Atlantic region. And, knowing our passion for fine Barolo, especially Barolo that tempers it’s power and depth with a sense of elegance and fine style, Jonas and Olivier were kind enough to bring Giulia’s wines to us.

Giula Negri the Future‘Barolo. The Future.’  I strongly encourage you to visit Giulia’s website to see pictures of her, the tiny winery, the beautiful Barolo scenery, and her dog (clearly important to Giulia, as he takes center stage on the wine label!). The wine is as charming and pretty and the pictures you’ll see there!

While Giulia is innovating with Piemonte Chardonnay and Pinot Noir (and we hope to have the chance to taste those sometime soon!), her Barolo is all about very precise and well-executed tradition. Her Nebbiolo is sustainably grown on legendary sites – the high-altitude La Mora vineyard of Serradenari and the famous Cru of Brunate. She and her team of 3 – only four people total at this project! – harvest the grapes at perfect ripeness and bring them cool to her tiny, garage-like cellar.

After careful destemming – a key part of making great Barolo! – the grapes are crushed and then allowed to ferment in large wood vats. The must spends a total of 45 days in vat, with the cap submerged for 30 days and allowed to float gently on top for an additional 15. The challenge in making Barolo is to get plenty of color and flavor complexity from Nebbiolo’s skins without extracting hard, bitter, tannins. The combination of gentle (if largely traditional) maceration and perfectly ripe grapes delivers perfect balance in Giulia’s wine.

After fermentation, the wine is aged for three years in equal parts 500 liter Tonneaux and 250 litter Barriques. Both are 100% French oak (and very high-end French oak at that!), but none of the barrels are new. The mixture of fairly small (for Barolo) casks and absence of new oak allows Giulia’s Barolo to retain color, soften, and gain wonderful complexity without overt wood aromas and flavors.

Like many of her friends’ wines, Giulia’s Barolo benefits from all that winemakers have learned about capturing all of Nebbiolo’s complex aromas, rich flavors, and deep power without the hard tannins that used to require 20 years to resolve. But, unlike most of the “garagiste” Barolo we’ve tried, the 2010 Barolo La Tartufaia avoids an overt sense of winemaking – no black-as-night color, no thickness to the texture, and no intense vanilla/chocolate flavors of wood.

As Giulia writes on the “Barolo Girl” portion of her website, “Now that the Barolo Boys have grown up, time may have come for us, the Barolo Girls.”

Before Chateauneuf … (A History of Lirac)

Lirac galetLirac’s 1,700 acres of vineyard are essentially the other half of Chateauneuf du Pape. Lirac sits on the West bank of the Rhone River, opposite Chateauneuf.

The climate and subsoil are essentially identical to Chateauneuf, and – like Chateauneuf – most of the vineyards are covered in large, rounded stones called “galet” left behind by the Rhone when it filled the entire valley in ancient times.

First Wines for the French Pope
When the Papacy arrived in Avignon in the early 1300s and began searching out sources of wine for communion and celebration, Lirac was quickly identified as the source of the very finest wine in the region. We know that Pope Innocent IV paid a premium for the 20 casks of Lirac he purchased in 1357.

Even after the Pope’s returned to Rome, Lirac’s fame as the Rhone’s best wine continued to grow. Both King Henry IV (late 1500s) and Louis XIV (1600s-early 18th Century) regularly served Lirac at their courts. From Lirac’s river port of Roquemaure, the region’s red wine reached England and Holland by the late 1500s and by the end of the 1700s Lirac was, as the Oxford Companion to Wine explains, “a much more important wine center than Chateauneuf du Pape.”

In History: The Southern Rhone’s Premier Wine Region
With high demand came the temptation for fraud, and unscrupulous winemakers throughout the Rhone – including in Chateauneuf – often tried to pass their “inferior” wines off as Lirac. To help stamp out this fraud, in 1737 the king of France ordered that casks shipped from Roquemaure should be branded “CDR” – for Cotes du Rhone – as a sign that they were authentic and of the highest quality.

Lirac MapLirac thrived as the Southern Rhone’s premier wine region right up until the 1860s. By the end of the 1870s, though, the vines were almost all gone and the economy in ruins. When Rhone wines began to return to fame and fortune after WWII, it was Chateauneuf that took the lead with Lirac only gradually recovering as a source of everyday rosé priced below the better known wines of neighboring Tavel.

Phylloxera, Economic Crisis, and War …
What happened? A large part of the blame falls to an unnamed winemaker at Lirac’s Château de Clary. In a well-meaning experiment with native American grape vines imported from California, he introduced the North American vine louse called phylloxera toLirac’s vineyards in 1863. Own-rooted European grapes had no resistance to the pest, and soon vines across the region began to wither and die. Phylloxera eventually spread across all of Europe, cutting wine production by 50-80% as it expanded until growers discovered how to defeat it by grafting European vinifera vines onto American lambrusca root stock.

Lirac, like the rest of the Rhone Valley, began to replant and recover at the beginning of the 20th Century, only to be set back by economic crisis, WWI, and increased competition for everyday red wine from Algeria and the South of France. As in neighboring Chateauneuf, growers began banding together in the 1930s to establish quality standards and promote their region. But, while Chateauneuf was able to complete the process and achieve legal recognition for its rules and “brand” by 1937, Lirac moved more slowly and was unable to complete the process before WWII brought an end to wine region creation. “Lirac” didn’t receive its formal recognition until 1947.

With its head start, better marketing, and – perhaps – decision to ban rosé in the appellation, Chateauneuf steadily improved its reputation and demand throughout the mid-20th Century. With more demand came higher prices, and with higher prices came the ability to invest further in quality in the vineyard and winery. Lirac growers lagged and increasingly turned to less expensive rosé wines that could be made in large quantities and turned into cash immediately after the vintage. By the 1980s, Lirac was best known in the wine world as a source of everyday red Cotes du Rhone and as a good value alternative to the more expensive pink wines from neighboring Tavel.

Recapturing Lirac’s Potential
Fortunately for us, several vigneron continued to understand Lirac’s potential and were willing to invest and take risks to return the region to fine wine status.

Christophe Delorme at Domaine de la Mordoree, Henri de Lanzac of Chateau de Segries, and Alain Jaume of Grand Venuer led the charge and, today, these three remain benchmark producers who are helping to return Lirac to the fame it once held.