Austria’s Provençal Red Wine Region

steindorfer familyThe father and son team of Ernst and Roland Steindorfer are the best Austrian winemakers that even most Austrian fans don’t know.

That’s because instead of making wine from Austria’s best-known Grüner Veltliner and Riesling grapes, the Steindorfers focus on rich, spicy, red and wildly complex and delicious sweet wines from grapes Americans struggle to pronounce, much less recognize. Part of the problem is Steindorfer’s location in the Burgenland region, about an hour south of Vienna along the eastern border with Hungary. Burgenland 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!

BurgenlandIt’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.

The lake-effect fog makes Burgenland Austria’s best region for producing intense, long-lived, sweet wines based on botrytis – aka Noble Rot. Ernst Steindorfer got his start making wine with the famous master of this wine style, the late Alois Kracher. Now on his own, Ernst and his son Roland continue to make some of the most exciting sweet wines in Austria.

Burgenland mapBut away from the lake, plenty of sunshine and warm, sunny, days, make Burgenland a perfect site for ripe and powerful red wines. The weather is actually a bit like you’ll find in Provence in the south of France, but the grapes are definitely different. In place of Provence’s Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre, Cinsault and Carignan, here you’ll find rich, robust, Blaufränkisch, herb-laced St. Laurent, and fun and fruity Zweigelt as the main red wine grapes.

Many of you have already tasted the superb red wine Steindorfer creates with these varietals in the form of the very popular Apetlon Rouge. Picked fully ripe, gently crushed, and aged in new oak, these are wines that deliver plenty of dark fruit and spice but stay smooth and fruit-filled enough to savor solo, too.

Pretty in Pink, Too!  The same Provençal climate that makes for such great reds is pretty much perfect for rosé, too. Before the 2015 growing season, the owners of Burgenland’s important Villa Vita Panonia resort came to the Steindorfers and suggested that they create a rosé that captured the magic of the region’s climate and very best grapes. Roland Steindorfer, now the lead winemaker here, was up to the challenge and selected a few rows in the family vineyard to go pink in 2015.

Roland monitored his rosé vines all through 2015’s warm summer and opted to pick them a week ahead of grapes for his red wines – at the perfect point of full ripeness but while sugars were still a touch low and mouthwatering acids still nice and fresh. The grapes were picked by hand in the early morning hours – keeping the grapes cool and fresh – and placed into small containers – keeping the grapes from breaking in the vineyard and starting to oxidize.

After a second sorting to remove any berries less that absolutely perfect, Roland crushed his fruit and allowed fermentation to start naturally. After a day or so, when only a touch of vibrant color had been extracted, he drained the tank and lightly pressed the must. The still fermenting wine went into stainless steel tanks where it was allowed to finish fermentation at its own pace cool and slow.

That’s the process the very best Provence rosé makers use, and you’ll definitely find a touch of something Provençal in Steindorfer’s Passion Rosé. But, as planned, you’ll also find something uniquely Austrian here, including a uniquely Burgenland spice. Drink it with any summer (or fall, or winter!) food or by itself as the sun shines on and you’ll be very happy indeed.

2015: A Tenuous Bright Spot in France

As some of our previous posts (not to mention any major wine publication worth the purchase price) will tell you, it’s been a rough few years for many French wine regions. Hail storms have battered Burgundy, bringing down yields for the last several years and completely decimating some vineyards. In 2016 late-season frost in April brought disaster to the Loire Valley as well. Some producers lost nearly everything, with historic frosts hitting the region on three nights – April 18, 25, and 27.

Sancerre mapAlthough Sancerre itself escaped the very worst of the frost damage, this latest disaster combined with low stocks at wineries from lower than usual harvests for the past couple of years will mean that prices could move around quite a bit in the next few years.

Lower Yields, But High Quality. Amid all this doom and gloom, the wines from 2015 are a welcome relief. While yields were still a bit low, the wines are of great quality. A very hot summer gave the grapes a few extra notches of ripeness, creating a fuller mouthfeel, more pleasingly ripe fruit flavors, and toning down that grassy character that can sometimes get to be a little bit too much in Loire Valley Sauvignon Blanc. Rain and some cooler weather came at exactly the right time in September, preserving the freshness that makes wines like Sancerre so pleasant on a hot summer day.

The rain also came early enough that it could dry thoroughly before the very early harvest, preserving concentration of flavor. In short, 2015 is a fantastic vintage in the Loire Valley for this wonderful concentration of ripeness and acidity. The 2015 Domaine de la Chazétte reflects this delicious balance – elegant, yet still fun to drink.

A Chance Discovery. A chance encounter led Stephane Defot, relative newcomer to the importing scene in the DC area, to this family-owned producer – and we’re glad it did! His father stumbled upon Domaine de Chézatte during a hike, and introduced Stephane to the wines.

This introduction came at just the right time, as Stephane needed a Sancerre producer to add to his portfolio. He always thought maybe he’d drop the estate for something he’d picked himself, but the wines are so delicious that they’ve become a best seller for him that he wouldn’t dream of dropping – and now we wouldn’t either!


More Disaster in Burgundy

Pretty much every time we’ve written about Burgundy in the past five years, we’ve had to tell you about another round of terrible weather and limited yields. Between 2010 and 2013, the average Burgundy producer saw yields down 20-35% (higher in Pommard and Volnay) – essentially, growers have lost at least one full harvest over the past four years.

The news in 2014 was exciting – fine weather, fine yields, and very, very fine wines. After seeing Burgundy prices moving up 10-25% annually, the large and excellent 2014 vintage promised some relief for the market and financial recovery for growers. We’ll see those wines start to arrive soon and should have some choice selections for you over the next few months.

A Short 2015
The 2015 vintage was a “back to the future” experience. On the plus side: it’s an indisputably great vintage, with many experts calling it a cross between 2009 (wonderful richness) and 2010 (impeccable balance, fantastic purity, and ageworthy structures). On the down side, it’s yet another short crop as bad weather during flowering plus a hot dry spell in summer driving down yields 20-30+%.

Given the early praise for the 2015s, continued strong Asian demand, and vignerons’ need to make up for small harvests since 2010, we’ve known for a while that prices will take a jump. Events of the past six weeks will ensure that the “jump” will be more like an “explosion.”

Hail damage

Hail Damage

An Epically Bad 2016 – Frost, Floods, Hail …  
Between April 24 and 26, clear skies and plummeting temperatures created severe frost conditions from Champagne through Chablis, Burgundy, west to the Loire, and even as far south as Austria. Nearly half of Burgundy vineyards suffered damage, including higher elevation sites like Chevelier-Montrachet that are normally spared. Within affected sites, losses for the 2016 vintage range from 30% to 100%. The frost was so severe that it may have actually killed thousands of vines – the long-term impact won’t be known until growth starts next spring.

Then in mid-May huge storms pounded all of France, leading to the floods in Paris you’ve seen on TV and in the papers. In Burgundy, flooding further damaged some low-lying vineyards. But a severe hail storm on Friday, the 13th of May was the real back-breaker. Damage was scattered across the region, including in the Cote d’Or, but was worst in Chablis, Beaujolais, and Cognac. In Chablis, hail damage looks to have cut 2016 yields by another 10-20% – again, before accounting for damage that won’t be felt until 2017.

… Means Now’s The Time to Buy
What does all this mean for you? Simply put, if you hope to buy fine Burgundy anytime in the next three years or so, then you should do it this year. Prices on the 2014s were largely set 6-9 months ago, and while almost all are up a bit, the increases are still manageable.

Prices for 2015s were already likely to go up 10-20% based on the quality of the vintage and growers need to make up losses on earlier short crops. Now many estates face the prospect of having half as much 2016 to sell as they’d hoped and some may not have any wine at all. Both to offset 2016’s losses and ensure there is wine in the cellar to offer long-time private clients, winemakers will have no choice but to increase 2015 prices to historic levels.

Perhaps we’ll get lucky and early estimates of frost and hail losses will prove too high and conditions will come together for great and plentiful harvests in 2017 and beyond. Well worth hoping, but not a scenario Burgundy lovers should bet on.

Click here for this week’s “Limited/Collector’s” offer on one white burgundy and three reds.

Be Picky About Picpoul

Early growers gave this golden green grape the name Picpoul – or “lip stinger” – for the bracing acidity the fruit retains even when grown in the hot Languedoc sun. In the 1600s Picpoul Blanc (the grape comes in red and pink versions, too) was already cited as a source of quality wines. Blended with the Clairette grape, it formed the basis for a wine called Picardan heavily exported to Holland and the Low Countries through the 1700s.

After Phylloxera struck in the late 1800s, growers moved away from Picpoul because its susceptibility to fungal diseases and fairly low yields – as Languedoc became first the main source of affordable wine for France and then the font of the mid-20th Century European “Wine Lake,” volume, not quality, was seen as key.

The grape’s ability to thrive in very sandy soils, though, meant it could be grown on cheap land where other grapes couldn’t survive, and it survived mainly to make base wine for Vermouth.

Picpoul MapThe Picpoul de Pinet Wine Region. As the 20th Century went on, winemakers gradually noticed that Picpoul vines planted on the gravel and sand soils of the Bassin de Thau – a lagoon adjacent to the Mediterranean Sea – actually made pretty good still wine. The Picpoul de Pinet region – one of the few in France to include the name of its grape on the label – was formed in 1954 to include vineyards in and around the villages of Florensac, Pomerols, and Pinet.

As tourism to Languedoc grew, so did the popularity of the wine, especially from the well positioned and marketed (the sign is hard to miss!) co-op in Pinet. Here, wine from a neighboring co-op in Pomerols sold on under several labels and in both bottle and bag-in-box essentially defined Picpoul de Pinet for US consumers for years. It’s not a bad wine, but it gives a glimpse of what dedicated growers working with older, low-yielding, vines can really do.

If you’ve only ever had mass-produced Picpoul de Pinet from a co-op winery – or if you are craving something deliciously different in white wine refreshment – a good wine to explore comes from St Martin de la Garrigue, an outstanding old winery nestled in the Languedoc’s garrigue covered hills between Montpellier and Beziers. Just 10km inland from the sea, the estate gets the perfect blend of hot days and cooling breezes to deliver both gutsy, powerful reds and astonishingly vibrant whites.

From $14.98 on a case, this winery’s Picpoul de Pinet is way about average … and even more so in the great 2015 vintage. in the way above average 2015 vintage. Flavors of lemon peel, tangy pineapple, green apple and fresh, salty, sea breeze swirl across your tongue in a wine that coats your palate with agreeable richness and finishes salty, lemony, minty, and very fresh. You’ve never had Picpoul like this before, and once you try it (especially with shrimp, oysters, or clams), you’ll struggle to go back.

Dauvissat Chablis

Every great wine region of the world has many average producers, a few excellent ones, and then one or two names that represent the elite. In Chablis, the northern-most outpost of Burgundy, the two names at the top of the heap are Francois Raveneau and Vincent Dauvissat.

As Wine Advocate explained in 2014:

“Raveneau or Vincent Dauvissat? Cognoscenti seem to be split about which of these growers represent the pinnacle of Chablis, though frankly I would not complain if I found either in my glass. I have adored these wines for many years.”

Vincent Dauvissat in his cellar in Chablis

Vincent Dauvissat in his cellar in Chablis

The Dauvissat family has been important in Chablis for years, and Vincent’s grandfather was one of the first in Chablis to bottle his own wines starting in the 1930s. Vincent’s parents, Rene and Madeleine, guided the estate to greater fame and Vincent began working at the 30 acre estate in 1977 and took over in 1989.

The winegrowing here has remained more or less the same over the past 50 years. Dauvissat carefully prunes and trains his vines to give him exactly the yield he wants – he shuns green harvesting to reduce yield as a sign that the vines aren’t being farmed properly in the first place.

Harvest is entirely by hand with whole bunches going into the press for a gentle crush. The clear juice goes into tank and old wood vat for fermentation and then into barrels he purchases from his friends at Tonnellerie de Mercurey. Most of the barrels are “neutral” (some date from the 1950s!) but Vincent will use a little new oak if he believes the vineyard and vintage want that.

Once the wine is in barrel, he does as little as possible. Malolactic fermentation happens when it happens and Dauvissat is one of the few in Chablis that does not stir the lees of his wines to add richness (he believes properly farmed grapes will give enough richness for balance on their own). He leaves the wine to rest until he think it tastes right for bottling on the old, manually operated, bottling machine.

At the end of the day, Dauvissat’s wines are more than the ultimate expression of Chablis – they are flat out captivating and delicious. As Wine Advocate’s Neal Martin said after tasting the 2012s:

“Unsurprisingly, these were a set of quite sublime expressions of Chablis that leave you questioning whether it’s worth bothering with the rest of the tastings (which of course it is, but you know what I mean when you taste something that you are convinced will not be bettered.) These Chablis seem to be sculpted by the earth itself, exquisitely balanced and with more minerality than almost all of their peers.”

If you haven’t had the pleasure of tasting Dauvissat’s wines, we’ll pour the 2014 Village Chablis as part of our Friday tasting this week. But don’t wait and find them all sold by then. Reserve a selection for yourself right now – I guarantee you will not be disappointed.