Monday 7 February, I should have been at the Wines of Austria Tasting at London’s Institute of Directors. I wasn’t. Never mind, I’m still going to write about Austrian wines, but some of the Austrian wines you don’t often hear a great deal about. When thinking about countries which produce fizz, Austria is not usually near the top of the list. Let’s face it, it probably wouldn’t figure at all on some people’s lists.
This is hardly surprising. I read recently that in 2015 only 3,000 bottles of Austrian sparkling wine were imported into the UK, and indeed only a fraction of production goes outside of Austria. Of those 3,000 bottles, I think that my wine friends and I drank quite a significant proportion.
Sparkling wine used to be a niche product within Austria. It tended to be made by large specialists, none perhaps better known than Schlumberger, based in Vienna. Apart from one particular regional speciality, of which more later, the family wine producers who have transformed Austrian wine in the 21st Century generally ignored the sparkling option. This has all changed. Many are now approaching the style with serious intent.
There are those who have embraced Sekt as a quality product, for example Schloss Gobelsburg in the Wachau, and Fred Loimer in Kamptal. But up until now, these producers have been hindered by a lack of regulation. Sekt could be made from 35 different grape varieties and from several variant methods. About the only thing fixed was the minimum pressure level (at 20°C) of 3,5 bar (the same minimum as for Champagne, although your average bottle of Champagne might have 5-7 bar, 3-4 bar being more typical of a French Crémant). For such producers, the new three-tier system (see link at bottom for more information) for a new designated protected origin (PDO) for Sekt, just in force, will help them establish their wines on the market, should they go down this route. Especially as one of the most important facets of the new regulations stipulates minimum ageing (on lees) requirements at each level of the quality pyramid.
However, it is not really these quality Sekt wines which I’ve been drinking. As always, regulations are rigid, and they don’t always take account of the innovations already underway, the kind which smaller producers are driving, and which slip under the radar. So how the new regulatory environment, overseen by Austria’s new “Sekt Committee” (with the same standing and authority as Austria’s regional wine bodies), will affect these young guns, remains to be seen.
My first exploration of Austrian Sekt was through a series of wines made by the industry’s doyen, Schlumberger. The wines are made by the “Méthode Traditionelle”, and generally light and fresh, as exemplified by the nicely marketed Cuvée Klimt, and the Rosé, in the photos below. One of the other well known producers of Sekt, whose wines are generally available in the UK, is the Steininger family. If you are in Vienna, do look for Fritz Wieninger‘s Cuvée Katharina Rosé Sekt (they like to mix their languages). It’s a Champ…er, I mean traditional method blend of Pinot Noir and Zweigelt, a delicate pink colour, quite lacy, dosed at 5g/l. As far as I am aware, this is not one of Fritz’s wines which is imported into the UK.
My next taste of Austrian sparkling wine was that regional speciality I mentioned, which even some Austrians find strange, and one frankly dismissed by most wine writers. Yet, perhaps typically (for someone who discovered and enjoyed wines like Bugey-Cerdon in the early 1990s), I find it quite beguiling. It’s called Schilcher.
Schilchersekt is made from one grape variety, Blauer Wildbacher, which is almost unique to its region of production, Weststeiermark (Styria), in Southeastern Austria, towards the Slovenian border. The wine it makes is equally one of the world’s unique wines. Blauer Wildbacher can make a dry, still, pink wine, even a red on occasion, but the pink sparkling style is equally well known, and has something of a cult following. The only one I’ve had more than once is that of Langmann. The acidity is characteristically high, and the dryness is compensated by a very fruity strawberry and raspberry nose, replicated on the palate. Strohmeier‘s version has more than a hint of orange blossom and more citrus. The high acidity is what puts the pros on their guard, but frankly this is a gluggable fizz which will appeal to many of the Pét-Nat lovers who read this blog.
This brings us neatly onto some of the other Austrian sparklers I’ve been drinking. Some of these are even labelled with the French term, “pét-nat”, others alluding to the méthode ancestrale used to create these wines. Now, Susan Barrie MW states in Decanter’s 2017 Austrian Wine Supplement that “most of the better [sparkling] wines are made by the traditional method”, but not being tied to the quality doctrines of the Institute of Masters of wine, you’d not expect me to agree completely with the near black and white certainty of that statement.
The most extreme of these wines is undoubtedly Kalkspitz from Christophe Hoch. Christoph makes wine in the part of Kremstal just south of the Danube, at Hollenburg. The soils here are chalky, and his sparkling wine is high in acidity, very mineral, and with a bit of salinity. The pressure, at a little under 3 bar, is too low for PDO accreditation, not that I presume Christoph would seek it. He treads his own path. It’s not for everyone, though if you read my blog you’ll know I like it enough to have drunk it several times. To be honest, it’s a great wine to take somewhere to provoke a reaction. You get apples, pears and red berries, and there’s even a touch of Marmite in the mix, a genuine Marmite wine.
Meinklang, based in Burgenland’s Pamhagen, on the Hungarian border southeast of the Neusiedler See, make two lovely sparklers which I know well. Foam is made from Pinot Gris as a somewhat yeasty, orange-hued pét-nat. It’s a fun wine, yet with serious intent. Prosa is quite different. Made from Pinot Noir, 10.5% alcohol to Foam’s 12%, it has juicy strawberry fruit and a sweetness balanced with acidity, which makes it a perfect wine for summer picnics. It’s rather quaintly stoppered with a string-tied cork, rather than Foam’s more traditional (for the type) crown cap, and it is styled as a frizzante. It’s dangerously bottled in clear glass, but this really is a wine to pop open when you get it home, after a spell in the fridge.
The story we are reading seems to be one of an iconoclastic approach to making sparkling wine. Old favourite Claus Preisinger, is one of several young winemakers around Gols who are worth following. Ancestral is his take on pét-nat with just 9% alcohol. It’s vinified as a blanc de noirs from the St. Laurent grape variety. Light, as the alcohol suggests, but with clean red fruits and, as someone said on Vivino, “totally f***ing smashable”. The 2015 is, I believe, sold out, but 2016 will be on its way.
After some of the above, the final wine in my Austrian sparklers roundup might seem quite ordinary to some. The grape variety is Grüner Veltliner, which is not particularly unusual for Austrian sparkling wine. Often blended with Chardonnay in some of the méthode traditionelle wines, here it sits on its own in a magnificent brut cuvée from Martin Diwald in Grossriedenthal (Wagram). He’s Arnold Holzer’s best mate and neighbour, for those of you who need your memory jogging. This is a lovely fruit-driven wine, yet with great balance (it has weight but it’s not heavy or cumbersome), and a Grüner savouriness (maybe the much over used umami?). I only drank this for the first time quite recently, sharing a sample bottle, but I have ensured I get some when it’s delivered.
For those who wish to explore further, including those who want more information on the new regulations and quality regime for Austrian Sekt, follow the link to the Austrian Wine web site’s Sekt page (with a further useful link in the third paragraph therein).
UK sources for Austrian sparkling wines include Alpine Wines (Steininger, Schilchersekt, Strohmeier, and Stift Klosterneuburg), Newcomer Wines (Preisinger, Hoch), Red Squirrel (Diwald), Clark Foyster (Schloss Gobelsburg), Roberson (Ebner-Ebenauer from Weinviertel, which I’ve not yet tried), Winemakers Club (Meinklang Foam), Vintage Roots and Wholefoods Warehouse (Meinklang Prosa, only occasionally at the latter) and Oddbins (Loimer). Check out your local independent too.
Oh, one more thing, here’s an article on Austrian wine which doesn’t mention the Austrian Wine Scandal of 1985, where a number of wines were adulterated with diethylene glycol (anti-freeze in popular parlance). It was over thirty years ago, and didn’t extend beyond a few large producers trying to cash in on the vogue for cheap but sweet. I only bring this up because the insistence of British wine writers in mentioning this in almost any article on Austrian Wine must get right up the noses of the hard working, and very “clean”, producers of today. It’s a bit like writing a restaurant review and mentioning BSE every time there’s beef on the menu. Stop it, please!