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Growing up in a Loire Valley-centric household, I wasn't exposed to much Austrian wine, just a lot of Muscadet and Chinon. Well into my tenure at the family shop, I was aware of tall bottles of Gruner Veltliner that I packed into orders during my "stock years," and of course the occasional Wachau Riesling, but my inexperience with the wines of Austria stretched on for quite a while! Eventually, as I developed a palate and an interest in wine (mostly from meeting the winemakers and becoming enamored with their humility, hard work, and dedication to regenerative agriculture), I attended some tastings and found I quite liked the wines and the people of Austria. This came as no surprise, as I had long ago decided my favorite composer was Gustav Mahler, and my favorite writer Robert Musil (I'm not as unwavering on these now that I've lived, listened and read a bit more, but for a time I was convinced that Vienna was my spiritual home!). Still, my knowledge of the Austrian wine scene was embarassingly underdeveloped. This all changed when I had the great honor and pleasure of working with our esteemed former colleague and manager, Cari Bernard. Her enthusiasm for the new generation of winemakers from lesser known regions of Austria was contagious, and she opened and shared so many delicious bottles with me, that I began finding myself gravitating to a good Blaufrankisch as much as a Loire Valley Gamay (of course why not both!).
Of the wines Cari recommended to me, I found I was generally always happy with a bottle from Brigitte and Gerhard Pittnauer or Claus Preisinger. Until I spoke to both Gerhard and Claus last week, I had no idea that they were a 5 minute walk from each other, I just found their wines made me feel good and also impressed me with complexity and depth. I'm excited to be involved now in the selections in our Austrian section here at Chambers Street, and thought it would be fitting to make my first email on Austrian wines a exposé on these two estates.
First, a bit about the place, brought to you by our own Ben Fletcher:
"You are far from alone if “Austrian wine” conjures ideas of mountain vistas and high-altitude vineyards, but the east side of the Neusiedlersee in Burgenland is far from alpine. Here, at the heart of the western Pannonian basin, summers are hot and dry with plenty of sunlight, and winters are mild, with little snow. The terrain is largely flat, and the soils are young and predominately composed of silty and sandy gravels. Traditionally, these soils have been planted with Rotburger (also called Zweigelt), Blaufränkisch, and Sankt Laurent."
And now, a bit about the people:
The Pittnauer family traditionally practiced mixed agriculture, with vineyards and wine production as a part of the output. Gerhard left school at 16 years old and 2 years afterwards, his father unfortunately passed away, leaving him and his older sister in control of the domaine. A bit later they decided to split the enterprise. In Burgenland there was always a tradition of polyculture, with fields and vineyards split between children equally. In the beginning, he had 3.8 hectares, but was ambitious and figured it would be hard to make a living from such a small surface area, especially if focusing on quality. Now, Gerhard and his wife Brigitte farm about 18 hectares in total, along with some long term agreements with organic and biodynamic famers in the area.
The winery is located on the eastern shore of the Neusiedlersee. The soils on the eastern side of the lake are quite light, says Gerhard, with concentrations of iron, sand, clay and limestone. Typically the Blaufrankisch is planted in clay, and the Pinot and Sankt Laurent usually favor chalk and limestone soils. South of the village of Gols, there are plains that are warmer, and in the north is a plateau. The soils and exposition on this plateau are best suited for wine growing. When Gerhard took over the family estate, 3.2 of the 3.8 hectares were in the plain (my guess is all of their crops were in the fertile plain), but as global warming has influenced the climate, and due to Gerhard's dedication to high quality grapes, most of their vineyards are now planted on plateaus.
The estate, which has been organic for a long time, converted to biodynamic farming in 2006, with certification (Respekt/Biodyvin) coming in 2009. In terms of winemaking, Gerhard says the winemaking approach is in general not "technical." The Pittnauers believe in "creative potential" and are very artistic in a way, with more tasting and talking, and less analysis. Fermentations are always with native yeast, and sulfur use is minimal. Having tasted the Pittnauer wines over several vintages now, it's clear that they are adept at making wines that are honest, edgy, and always presentable and stable. When you consider that Gerhard's curiosity led him to try skin fermentation in 1997, well before the orange wine craze grew to it's current level, and that they have worked with no or low levels of SO2 for so long, this shouldn't come as a surprise. They've spent some time in the game, as they say, and in my opinion, they're only getting better!
Claus Preisinger was born about 2 decades after Gerhard Pittnauer, so the history of this young domaine is obviously different, but given their vicinity, and a similar state of mind, the wines sing a very familiar tune. Claus' family was not involved in winemaking, though they always had a little vineyard like every small family in the area. He got his start in wine in 2000, working as an assistant at Nittnaus, an estate with deep history in the region, not just in terms of farming and winemaking practices, but in the mentorship and nurture that Hans Nittnaus has offered to younger winemakers in the region. When he decided to set off on his own and establish an estate, there was no possibility to rent vineyards, so he had to go looking for them. He ended up finding sites from varied micro-climates and diverse soils. Some are on the northern shore of the Neusiedlersee, others on the western shore (more limestome and schist), as well as some on the eastern shore (more gravel and loam). Now, Claus has about 20 hectares in his estate, with an additional 10 by contract with a local organic grower who allows Claus to do Biodynamic treatments. Apparently this particular grower doesn't believe much in biodynamics, but he doesn't mind the results!
From enjoying his wines and chatting with him on the phone, one gets the sense that Claus is curious and still growing very much as a winemaker in the region. He has plans to plant Furmint, and expressed some interest in Chenin Blanc and Savagnin (yes please!) as the latter is indeed part of the Traminer family, and should do well in some of his parcels. Sulfur use is very low, with some wines receiving no addtion of sulfites and others (most of the reds) seeing 5mg before bottling (truly a small amount!). In 2014 he stopped filtering most of his wines. As he explained, from the drinking side, he felt "why take something out that gives the wines more flavors and texture?" Farming has been without pesticides or herbicides for a long time now, so the future of this domaine is bright!
Well there it is folks! My first Austrian-themed newsletter. I truly hope you enjoy these wines as much as I do and do stay tuned for more articles in the future.
Ciao, Servus, Pfiat di! -Eben Lillie
** Thanks to Ariel and the Savio Soares team for their ongoing work with Brigitte and Gerhard Pittnauer, Volker Donabaum from Volker Wine Company, for his work with Claus Preisinger, Ben Fletcher for the geology and history lessons, and of course a big thanks to Brigitte Pittnauer for her thoughtful and informative emails, Gerhard "the Dude" Pittnauer, and Claus Preisinger for spending time on the phone with me after long days at work! **
Unusually slender for a red wine bottle, the Puszta Libre! bottle shape takes its inspiration from vintage soda bottles, a cheeky nod to how chuggable this wine is; and if that's not enough we are also instructed by the label to "drink cold"! Mostly Zweigelt with Sankt Laurent, fermented in stainless steel and aged in large (600L to 1000L) used oak barrels. The 2019 just arrived about one month ago, and is singing! Great for summer BBQs and responsibly distanced parties! -EL
'Perfect Day' is an orange wine for every occasion. The unique blend creates a balanced, easy drinking, skin-contact white with just a touch of tannin to give it some structure. This bottling is 40% Chardonnay, 30% Muscat Ottnel, 20% Gruner Veltliner, 10% Traminer all from the Altenberg Vineyard in the abundantly sunny Neusiedlersee region of Austria. Each variety undergoes its own fermentation; for the Gruner, mostly destemmed grapes and a few bunches spend ten days in open vats on the skins, the Muscat and Traminer spend a little less time on the skins, and the Chardonnay is direct-pressed to add freshness and minerality to the blend. They are each aged separately in barrique for six months and then blended right before bottling. The nose is abundantly aromatic with wild flowers, peach, and some tropical fruit as well a rustic savory quality. The palate is clean, like biting into a perfectly ripe nectarine with a touch of lemon pith and savory finish. 'Perfect Day' was a great companion to miso-glazed portabello with avocado and carrot slaw to hit all those bright, juicy, and savory notes in the wine! Michelle DeWyngaert
The Pitt Nat Rose is a blend of Blaufrankisch, Merlot and Syrah made without the addition of sulfur. The wine is a beautiful pale hazy pink, and in the glass it's full of grapefruit, wildflowers, and fresh strawberry. The palate is wonderfully fresh-- a bracing acidity balanced by fresh grapefruit and melon. There is also a hint of citrus pith, which brings a pleasingly gentle bitterness to the finish. Enjoy this bottle very cold with a selection of raw bar seafood or a vinegar laced pasta salad.
This is a friendly little rosé of mostly Blaufrankisch, with a small percentage of St Laurent and Rotburger. Accessible, and easy-going, with a bit of red berry fruit on the nose, good balance, and a touch of mineral cut to the finish. Three months of lees aging dons complexity and some weight in the mouth, but aging is all in stainless steel tanks so the wine retains freshness and acidity. A great food rose, and plenty good on its own too! -EL
The Dogma is back! A fascinating and singular rosé, this is all Blaufrankisch from three prized parcels in the Ungerberg vineyard, close to Lake Neusiedl (Neusiedlersee). Grapes are carefully sorted and destemmed. Indigenous yeast fermentation, and aging in stainless steel, along with a portion aged in old oak and amphora. There are rosés that I rely on for summer quaffing and don't expect the world from, and rosés that transcend the category, and stand out among my favorite whites and reds. This is certainly the latter! A complex and textured rosé with notes of rhubarb, sour cherries, and plums, and an lovely evolution in the mouth and glass. -EL
The ‘Pitti’ is a blend of 50% Rotburger (formerly known as Zweigelt), 40% Blaufränkisch, and 10% Merlot coming from younger vines. Before I even poured this wine into a glass I could smell baking spice, particularly clove, jumping out of the bottle. That intensity calmed down and along with the aromatic spice the nose was full of bramble and blackberry jam. The palate is a little denser than I expected and was full of stewed plum, ripe strawberry and black currant jam. Serve this bottle with a chill next to some some bratwurst or smoked meat. -Ian Tennant
Sankt Laurent, Blaufränkisch, Rotburger, and Merlot sourced from higher parcels in the Rosenberg, Altenberg, and Ungerberg vineyards, hand-harvested, the grapes ferment spontaneously and age separately for 18 months in neutral 500L barrels, blended and bottled unfiltered with low sulfur added. Black plums, soy sauce, black pepper, deep savory spice wafts up from the glass, belying the fresh and juicy palate of tart raspberries, plums, violets with well-integrated structure. Cari BernardFun fact: The name Pittnauski is an homage to Gerhard's favorite movie, the Big Lebowski.
Pannobile is a special group of winemakers who are all located in the Pannonian plain, east of the Neusiedlersee, in Burgenland. The group was formed in 1984, in an attempt to highlight the unique climate and soils of the region. Brigitte Pittnauer sent me this interesting background on the group: "all members are from Gols and all are Protestants, and since I grew up in another place and am Catholic, if not practicing, I can see the big differences Since the people of Gols have always been a minority for centuries, they have learned to stick together and work better together to stand up to the other villages, and they can do that better than anyone else today. It is the common, the matter in the foreground and the mutual fertilization. Therefore, as one who has come from outside, I can say that this is the best winegrowers' association in Austria." As for the wine, it is equal parts Blaufrankisch and Rotburger (formerly known as zweigelt) from separately fermented batches of the Pittnauers' best vineyards in Weiden and Gols. Aging is on the lees for 18 months in old barrels. On the nose, there are deep dark aromas of baking spice and pepper, and smoky black cherry and plum. On the palate, it's medium-full, with nice ripeness and concentration, and a delicate finish. 2016 saw hot summer weeks alternated with cool, rainy weeks, and the autumn was dry and warm, as Brigitte explains, so the conditions were quite good in the vintage. A special red from a special place!
We love the wines of Gerhard and Brigitte Pittnauer, Biodynamic farmers and winemakers in the town of Gols, Burgenland, Austria. Grapes for the Dorflagen are hand harvested from a mix of vineyards (Salzbergacker, Goldberg, Edelgrund) where there's a decent amount of gravel which provides better drainage through the humus and iron-rich soil. Fermentation and aging occurs in 500L neutral barrels (12 months). Saline minerality, dark violets, black raspberry, black plum skins and earth on the nose and continued on the medium-bodied palate, along with a meaty savoriness, black tea leaves, and structured finish. Cari Bernard
For fans of the Puzsta Libre, or fans of Claus Preisinger, or anyone who likes delicious rosés... the Rozsa Libre is here! Mostly Zweigelt, with a bit of Sankt Laurent, fermented and aged in stainless steel, with no malolactic fermentation. Noticeably lighter than the 2018, the new vintage is super fresh, with a hint of strawberry on the palette, and overall addictively thirst quenching. -Eben
The name Kalkundkiesel designates the use of sites that are rich in chalk (kalk) and pebbles (kiesel). The blend is 60 % Weissburgunder, 30 % Grüner Veltliner, 10 % Chardonnay. The fermentation occurs with the skins, and then the wine is aged for 6 months in neutral oak barrels on the lees. This wine opened up my eyes to the potential of Austrian whites, and I will always thank our esteemed former colleague Cari Bernard for bringing in interesting and "outside the box" wines from the country. Everything about this wine asks for patience and focus. The nose is envoloping, with stone fruit (white nectarine) and bright citrus notes, the texture on the palette is both rich and crispy/crunchy with mineral backbone. A lovely wine to sit back with and a very approachable (and clean) wine, particularly commendable as it's produced without added sulfites. -EL
Claus Preisinger's winery is right outside the tiny town of Gols, on the northeast corner of the Neusiedlersee. Biodynamic since 2008, Claus has embraced the methodology to consistently produce delicious, layered, composed wines, showcasing the unadulterated terroir of Burgenland and often showcasing autochthonous varieties. The name 'Kalkstein' is in reference to the shell limestone soils found in the vineyards where the Blaufränkisch grows. Average vine age is 30-years-old, grapes are hand-harvested, and spontaneously ferment in stainless tank followed by aging sur lie in used large wooden barrel for six months before being bottled with low amounts of sulfur. True to form, his Blaufränkisch shows bright minerality and great texture through the layers of juicy plum, black raspberry, and savory herbs. -Cari Bernard
50% Welschriesling, 50% Pinot Noir from vineyards around the Neusiedlersee. The profile is super dry, but with bold red fruit on the nose, and a fine bead. The Pet-Nat category is not always known for "serious" wines, as I've found many winemakers make a Pet-Nat when they don't know what else to do with fruit, or others just make them for easy money (they are pretty hip right now). With Preisinger's bubbles, there is clearly a commitment to making real wine, whether it's sparkling or still. I know the price is in that "why not Champagne" realm, but I dare say it's worth it based on the quality of the wine. -EL
This is all St. Laurent, from gravel and limestone vineyards on the slopes of the Leitha mountains. A long, complex, and finessed Blanc de Noir Pet Nat.