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At my first Rieslingfeier Gala dinner in 2016 I had the good fortune of being seated next to a delightful and incredibly knowledgeable gentleman who turned out to be David Schildknecht. Since then, I've had the pleasure of running into and chatting with David at tastings, reading his thoughtful and informative articles and reviews in Wine & Spirits Magazine and on Vinous Media (to name but a few), and attending the ceremony where he was awarded the 2017 Riesling Fellowship from Wines of Germany. Now we get the distinct honor of hosting him at the store for a tasting with seminar: Austrian Innovators, featuring several of that country’s most intrepid young growers, plus several from Schildknecht’s generation who have already left their mark on Austrian wine growing but who never stop innovating. I'll leave it to David to elaborate:
By now, most Chambers Street regulars will be familiar with the very broad outlines of recent Austrian viticulture: how a 1985 scandal upended it but paved the way for stylistic redefinition, stringent quality control, and the first Austrian wines in more than a century to draw raves abroad. And most of you – hopefully! – have enjoyed Grüner Veltliner and Riesling from the Wachau, Kremstal and Kamptal (a trio clustered around Krems on the Danube). When a formula is successful, there’s always a risk that inertia sets-in, so as wonderful as it is that the dozen or two estates from this sector that achieved international attention during the 1990s are still widely-beloved beacons of quality, it’s healthy that a crop of innovators – like the Harms, the Langs and the Stagårds, just to name three inspiring young couples who vinify in Krems – are challenging assumptions and conventions that have accumulated over a very successful quarter century. Healthy too (whether or not one swallows the theory along with the wine) is the veritable wave of recent converts to biodynamic viticulture in an area where the Wachau’s Nikolaihof had stood almost alone that whole time.
But Cari and I decided on this occasion to concentrate on regions of Austria that are less well-known as well as rife with inspiring innovators, mavericks, and refuseniks.
Austria’s so-called Weinviertel (literally “Wine Quarter”) forms a vast arc extending along nearly half of Austria’s long, winding border with the Czech Republic; works its way along almost the entire Slovakian frontier; and extends south almost to the Danube. Part of this region can rightly be dubbed the cradle of Grüner Veltliner, and today Austrian wine has it that any “official” Weinviertel wine comes 100% from that grape ... but don’t you believe it.
Florian Schuhmann had a burgeoning Viennese career as a classical actor but spent free time pursuing his passion for wine as a well-deserved assistant and soul mate to stalwart Weinvierteler Erwin Poller. As tends to happen, Florian’s wine hobby got out of hand and morphed into his own label: Quantum Winery. “’Quantum,’” he said at the time “because that’s the smallest particle in physics and the least allowable amount of anything. And ‘winery’ because we don’t have a word in German for what I’m starting up, and it is not – repeat, not – going to be a wine ‘estate.’” Right. So here we are: Florian’s still in demand as an actor but hard to book because his devoted fans keep wanting more wine – only a smidgeon of which is Grüner Veltliner – and his imagination is firing on all cylinders. In 2016 – and, to hear him tell, from now on – every one of his wines from white grapes has been fearlessly fermented on its skins and bottled unfiltered with a request to shake before serving. And these include an astonishing, soon-to-be-released Riesling. But we’re going to taste Florian’s red, a project now in its seventh vintage and focused on rehabilitating the reputation of Blauer Portugieser, a grape still common (in both senses of that word) in Germany as well as Austria. It started out as an experiment “to see what might be possible with this discredited grape.” But you’ll taste why now “rehabilitation” strikes the appropriate note.
These being tastings of Austrian wines, and two from the Weinviertel, you might think I felt compelled to include one Grüner Veltliner. I did – but not because it’s Grüner Veltliner. Michael Gindl’s renditions are probably unlike any you’ve tasted. (And incidentally, he’s another grower about to release a wine that will make you rethink Riesling ... or at least, it did me.) Gindl’s seminal wine experience distantly parallels that of Pierre Overnoy. How can it be, he wondered, that the wines my family is bottling with as much technological assistance as an obscure, mixed-agricultural farm can afford and as quickly as thirsty Austrians will buy them, completely crap-out within a year or two, whereas some remaining one- and two-liter “jug wines” that my grandfather had basically let make themselves and bottled for the locals and family turned out to taste terrific at thirty years of age? When young Gindl was handed the family reins, he dialed back the clock to Opa-time – radically. (That included reins to three horses who now work the vineyards.) And soon enough, he got the answer to his question ... along with an international clientele thirsting to drink “natural” wines.
Burgenland constitutes a thin-waisted State that follows the Hungarian border and includes vast vineyards surrounding a curious and scientifically inexplicable 120 square mile elongation of shallow water called the Neusiedlersee, which once almost disappeared from the map. Its classification as a “steppe lake” gives you a clue to its singular flora, fauna and microclimates ... which happen to offer a remarkably diverse range of viticultural opportunities.
Hans “John” Nittnaus, a rocker of my generation, still plays a mean guitar but has been a vintner by profession for more than three decades. John grew up lucky enough to experience the classics of Bordeaux and Piedmont but in 1990, alongside his Cabernet Sauvignon he decided to seriously showcase a plot planted with the prime black grape around the Neusiedlersee, Blaufränkisch – known for cheap and cheerful wines drunk largely by the locals. He wasn’t the first to have this idea, but was among the first; and that 1990 impressed not just him but also a host of Austrian wine opinion makers. Then again, so did John’s 1990 Cabernet. Convinced that these two grapes represented a “dream pair,” he married them off. It was more than a decade before he again gave Blaufränkisch a solo role, amplified by two turn-of-the-century developments: the acquisition of rocky hillsides on the far side of the lake and a conversion to biodynamics. The results, an example of which we’ll taste, reinforced John’s role in modern Blaufränkisch history.
Even before Burgenland’s post-1985 red wine revolution, black grapes predominated over much of the region; and aside from those still flying the flag of nobly sweet wine, few growers with serious reputations were at all focused on whites. (Heidi Schröck was a notable exception.) But that has been changing in the new millennium and a great example of why is one of his country’s most conspicuous (and, happily, fashionable) young innovators, Claus Preisinger. Although Claus’s estate is 90% red, he bottles just as many different white wines, because that’s a métier perfectly suited to his experimental spirit. Ferment them on the skins or off; intracellular or crushed; in wood, concrete, or clay; with more lees contact or less; less oxidative or more ... or maybe a bit of each in a single cuvée. Welcome to Preisinger white 101, which, incidentally, assigns the lead role to an unjustly neglected grape with sensational Austrian potential: Pinot Blanc.
Burgenland (then “German West Hungary”) rose to vinous fame in parallel with Tokaj and by focusing on the same methods and grape, Furmint. Thanks to the burgeoning reputation and price of its sweet wines, in 1681 little Rust, on the shores of the Neusiedlersee, was granted exceptional status as a Free City subject only to the Crown. Amazingly, though, this royalty among cépages barely outlasted the Dual Monarchy itself, and by the 1970s was essentially extinct in present-day Austria. (Why “essentially”? You’ll have to show up and taste with me to find out.) Robert Wenzel, the last grower in Rust to have grown up speaking Magyar, felt it was both his cultural and stylistic calling to reintroduce Furmint, and by one of several amazingly lucky coincidences involving this grape’s Austrian restoration, Tokaj’s guru, István Szepsy, was simultaneously seeking-out what precious little genetically worthy material remained hidden away among his region’s socialized- and industrialized vineyards, and soon he was sharing some of it with Wenzel. The two also shared the recognition that any serious Furmint revival must include answering: "How can you make profound dry, not just nobly sweet wines from it?” Robert’s son Michael Wenzel (like his friend István Szepsy Jr. and an increasing number of other young growers) is having a field day answering that question and exploring both the profound sensitivities of Furmint to style and soil, one example of which we’ll taste.
The important vineyards of South Styria (Südsteiermark) hug the Slovenian frontier, far from Vienna and even into the late 20th century usually accessed by outsiders, with effort, only if they were seeking the unspoiled natural beauty of endless, quiet, sub-Alpine hills. Although Styria (especially parts of it in today’s Slovenia) developed a mid-19th century reputation for quality wine and innovative viticulture subsequent decades weren’t kind to either. Yet, when wine-thirsty Austrians (possibly a redundancy) fled en masse from their country’s scandal-tainted trade, Styria and its plethora of small family estates rightly looked a safe bet for unspoiled, healthy libations. By the 1990s, these growers had set some clear stylistic benchmarks and their wines held prime positions on restaurant lists throughout Austria. Sepp Muster made a name for himself after only a couple of vintages, but disagreements with his dad, who still had final say at the family estate, disenchanted the young Muster and he embarked on a career in IT that took him and his wife Maria to India. To hear Sepp tell it, by then he wasn’t even drinking wine; but a chance meeting with a New Zealand grower as well as contact with his friend Gernot Heinrich who was achieving renown back in Austria led Muster to attend a 1997 course in biodynamic agriculture. That reignited his dreams of wine growing at just the moment when the Musters were in a position to take control of his family’s vineyards. Soon, the couple was making serious waves in the Austrian wine scene and inspiring a small cadre of young Styrian growers with their labor-intensive vineyard practices (including fidelity to “outmoded” traditional trellising) and their laissez-faire but experimental, late-bottling, low-sulfur cellar practices. As we’ll taste, chez Muster what is nowadays Styria’s star grape, Sauvignon Blanc, takes what for some tasters becomes a decisive detour.
Attendance will be limited to twelve people per 45-minute seminar (with 15-minute Q&A to follow each), times are 3:30, 4:30, and 5:30. Please sign up by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or calling us at 212-227-1434, we look forward to seeing you here! Cari Bernard