A Sweet History: Austria’s Burgenland

burgenlandImporter and Austria native Klaus Wittaur likes to call Ernst Steindorfer “my garage-ist winemaker” both because of his small scale and his skillful use of oak aging on powerful reds. The winery is in the small town of Apetlon in Austria’s Burgenland region, southwest of Vienna and not far from Austria’s southern 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! 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 (only 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.

burgenland-mapSeeing the Potential
Alois Kracher was the first to see Burgunland’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.

Reds of Great Distinction
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: Austrian’s 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.

The Grapes of Austria
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 the ripe and supple cookout-friendly blend of all three – Steindorfer Apetlon Rouge.

steindorfer-apetlon-bottle-flag

Romanee Conti Style, Turley Zest

adrien-roustanThe first part of Adrien Roustan’s story is traditional enough. Adrien’s grandfather planted vines on 12 hecatres of steeply sloped vineyard in rocky Gigondas and the richer soils of Vacqueyras down the hill below. Both he and his son, Adrien’s father, just wanted to farm, so they sold their grapes to other winemakers. When Adrien was preparing to take over the family business, he decided to make wine.

But…no one in the Roustan family had ever made wine, so Adrien needed to learn. He started by enrolling at the winegrowing/making program in Beaune, in the heart of Burgundy. His 3 years there culminated with a stage, or apprenticeship, at the world’s most famous Pinot Noir house, Burgundy’s Domaine de la Romanee Conti.

Adrien knew his rich, powerful, Grenache, Syrah and Cinsault vines made very different wine from Romanee Conti’s elegant Pinot Noir, so he next traveled to California to learn from America’s most experienced powerhouse winemakers, Larry Turley and the team at Turley Cellars.

Making Changes Back Home
Returning from California in 2009, Adrien had learned a lot about making wines both big and elegant. But what really impressed him was Romanee Conti’s and Turley’s commitment to organic and biodynamic farming – making great wine by nurturing healthy vineyards. So, Adrien converted his family vineyards to biodynamic farming in 2009 before making his own first vintage in 2010.

Production at Dom d’Ourea is still very small – even after growing to 20 hectares, Adrian bottles only 2,500 cases or so per year – but European praise was immediate. France’s prestigious Revue du Vin de France lauded Adrian as a “talented vigneron … full of promise.” Jancis Robinson described his 2011 Vacqueyras as, “Big – very big for its boots.” And, French merchant Terre de Vins listed the domaine as one of its “Coup de Coeurs” (“Most Favorite”) at Découvertes en Vallée du Rhone 2013, calling it “dynamique … an Eveready battery” and described the Vaqueyras as “fresh, fruity and structured … a great future for the domaine.”

With his fifth release of Vacqueyras, the 2014 vintage ($26.98/$24.98ea on a case) Adrien has clearly arrived. For the AOC Vacqueyras and Gigondas, his winemaking approach is simple: grow great grapes and then do as little to them as possible. Whole clusters are snipped from the vine during the cool of the morning, taken carefully to the winery and then layered into the fermentation tank. Once the natural yeast from the vineyard and winery starts the mass bubbling, the rising cap is punched down and broken up, releasing more juice and gently extracting color and ripe, silky tannins. 18 months rest in concrete tanks allows enough oxygen exposure to soften the wine without diminishing any of the luscious, ripe, fruit.

Just for Friends and Fun
dom-dourea-tire-bouchon-vin-de-franceTire Bouchon (12.98/$10.98ea on a case) is a bit different. Adrien’s grandfather’s plantings included not only the noble grapes of Vacqueyras – Grenache and Syrah – but also higher-yielding Carignan and two grapes not legally permitted in Vacqueyras wine: Aramon and Oeillade Noire. Both of these had gained popularity as high-yielding, “mass production” grapes following the phylloxera crisis of the late 19th Century, but neither makes serious wine and both are now on their way to extinction.

If Carignan, Aramon and Oeillade Noire weren’t good for “serious” wine, Adrien decided they could still make something fun. So he combined them with select lots of Grenache and Syrah, fermented them using the Beaujolais carbonic maceration technique to maximize fruit, and bottled the wine as a simple Vin de France.

What to call this fruit-filled, festive, red? Well, Adrien could tell right away that this was going to be the kind of wine that would be lined up for a party and have one cork after another pulled out to please the crowd. So, he called it Tire Bouchon – the “cork puller.”

He could have called it the “slurper” or “gulper” because that’s how we’re drinking it – a wine to pour heavy into a tumbler and knock back as the perfect companion to everything from burgers to fried chicken. A few of the (translated) comments from French wine site Les Grappes captures the essence:

  • “An accessible wine, typically welcome during an aperitif with friends.”
  • “Good wine for a picnic at the park in summer. Very generous in fruit, easy to drink.”
  • “Nose candy, easy and flexible, is drunk alone on grilled lamb or pork.”

Both d’Ourea Tire Bouchon 2015 and Vacqueras 2014 will be open to sample today and through Saturday. Come give them a try!

Amalie Robert: Who Planted a Cherry Orchard in My Vineyard?

amalie-robert-fallWhat happens with a pair of technology executives fall in love with Burgundy, decide to try their hands at making Burgundy-style Pinot in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, and, one day, discover someone has planted a cherry orchard on their perfect vineyard site?

That’s where Ernie Pink and Dena Drews found themselves in 1999 as they surveyed a 35 acre cherry orchard perched just above the already famous Freedom Hill vineyard just west of Salem, Oregon. So, they did the only logical thing: purchased the orchard, harvested and sold the cherries, ripped out the trees, and started planting a vineyard.

Ernie and Dena are a fun (and funny) pair who definitely know when to be whimsical and how to have fun. But they’re dead serious about growing fantastic grapes and making great Pinot Noir (and Chardonnay, Pinot Meunier, Viognier and even a bit of Syrah). The vineyard’s potential was immediately recognized by some of Oregon’s best, and for the first few years Steve Doerner at Cristom and Mike Etzel at Beaux Freres used Amalie Robert Pinot Noir in some of their highly rated wines. And Ernie extracted lots of education and advice as part of the price for the grapes!

Meticulous Elegance
amalie-robert-2010-6-packAt the end of the day, though, Ernie and Dena have learned to make wines that express their values and the character of this beautiful (if remote) site. Farming is done carefully with minimal chemical additions and lots of feeding and care for the soil and vines’ health. “The Great Cluster Pluck,” as Ernie likes to call it, is done by hand and in stages as each block and variety ripens. And if that means hanging fruit through rain and bird attacks and picking a week or two or three after everyone else…well, that’s what happens.

One of the things I love about Amalie Robert Pinots is that the extra hang time results is masses of great flavor, but not masses of alcohol. In warm vintages that means abv levels in the mid-13 to, at most, low 14% levels. In 2010 you’ll love the perfect ripeness and lush textures of each wine at elegant, very Burgundy-like, 12.4-12.9% abv.

Taking Risk and Time
Those great textures and smoky/spicy accents? That’s from risk taking and time. The risk-taking is in the form of whole-cluster fermentation (putting whole clusters vs. destemmed berries in the tank). It’s a technique Ernie and Dena admired at Burgundy houses like Dujac and mastered with trial, error, and some help from Oregon’s whole cluster guru, Steve Doerner at Cristom. Get it wrong and you have wines with too little acidity, not much color, and lots of green, stemmy tannin. Get it right and you achieve amazing velvet and mineral textures and loads of sweet spice perfume.

Learn more about whole cluster fermentation in this quick video:

 

The time comes twice, first in barrel – most of these wines spend 18 months in mostly used French oak vs. the 10 or so months more common in the Willamette Valley – and then in bottle. And that time pays huge dividends to us. Where most top Willamette Valley Pinot houses are showing 2014s and getting ready to release 2015s this fall, Ernie and Dena are just now showing the 2011 vintage of their top wines to mailing list customers. And 2010 is the current vintage for the few retailers, like us, who are able to get allocations of these amazing wines.

Featured Amalie Robert 2010 Pinot Noirs
As critic Josh Raynolds said last year, the Amalie Robert vineyard “is painstakingly farmed and yields are kept low so production of these wines is limited.” Now that Amalie Robert has settled in with a new local distributor, we should be able to get our share of these beauties in future vintages – the 2011s and 2012s I tasted with Ernie and Dena last year are certainly worth waiting for!

Meanwhile, since the last vintage we carried was 2009, we really wanted to show you their deliciously elegant 2010s and Ernie and Dena were willing to give us what they could of both, nearly sold-out vintages. So quantities here are even more limited than usual, and we’d strongly advise you to order a selection now and then come by and taste and get Dena to sign bottles on Saturday!

If you can’t decide, check out the 2010 Amalie Robert Pinot Six-Pack. It’s a great way to try some of each and save an extra 5%, too!