Wild, Wonderful Steiermark

5/8/15 -

(Ewald Tscheppe of Weingut Werlitsch, biodynamic farmer and member of Schmeke das Leben in Austria's Steiermark region)

There are strange stirrings in the south of Austria, encouraging whispers and exciting wines from a small group of ecologically conscientious, hands-off winemakers who are redefining the region. Styria, or Steiermark in Austrian parlance, is a beautiful locale of rolling hills an hour south of Graz near the Slovenian border. It's been difficult to categorize its wines, especially with a recent surge and success in producing an internationally palatable style of Sauvignon Blanc that is hardly the most inspiring or thrilling of undertakings in the world of wine. However, some have ventured into natural winemaking with impressive results.

Brothers Andreas and Ewald Tscheppe, along with their sister Maria and brother-in-law Sepp Muster, all work with a similar approach: biodynamic farming and vinification for at least two years on the lees in neutral Slovenian oak barrels with barely-detectable levels of sulfites added, if any. All of them are passionately committed to this method, despite failing the sensory examinations for what is deemed to be 'typical' by local wine authorities. Thus, none of these bottles don the Austrian flag on their capsules. Despite the bureaucratic case against them, they are astounding and delicious natural wines, wildly expressive aromatically. They are devoid of the common flaws associated with this type of winemaking, such as mousey, off-flavors, volatile acidity, and reduction. The stability of the wines is undoubtedly a benefit of the extended time in barrel and in bottle before being released. Though they work with Sauvignon Blanc to make some truly compelling orange wines, they are also cultivating the more historically planted Welschriesling (not related to Riesling), Gelber Muskateller, and Weissburgunder (which actually was found to have been co-plantings of Pinot Blanc and Morillon, the local clone of Chardonnay).

Franz Strohmeier is another member of this natural Styrian winemaking group that calls themselves Schmeke das Leben, which translates as 'Taste Life'. His version of the regional rosé frizzante as Schilcher is a sensational, refreshing treat – a must-try as temperatures start to climb. It's hardly typical Schilcher, but it is an example of the soulful purity that can be produced in Steiermark without heavy-handed manipulation or chemicals.

This offering is only a small glimpse into the full lineups from these Austrian iconoclasts, but it presents undeniable evidence that some of the best, most expressive natural wines in Europe are coming out of the verdant vistas of Steiermark. Jonathan Kemp

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