New World, Old World – By Jack Simmonds, Hahndorf Hill Brand Ambassador

Hahndorf Hill brand ambassador, Jack Simmonds

As the Brand Ambassador of an Australian producer of noble Austrian varieties, I have a bit of a Love/Hate relationship with the term ‘New World’. The main source of my consternation – like so many things in this fantastically fickle business – is that I can rarely find two or more people who can agree unconditionally on its definition.

At first the question ‘What does New World mean?’ seems rather obvious; but the more I scratch this itch, the more nuance and inconsistency I find.  As I asked around the more varied the responses became, and while there were groups that might agree on broad terms, it often took very little probing to uncover a Rubicon most would absolutely not cross.

A number of conversations started out with what I thought was the broadest possible definition: ‘New World is any non-European region’; this declaration often being followed by something like: ‘The Europeans have centuries of viticultural tradition.’

‘OK, so if it is a question of time, how many centuries would you say a region must be under vine in order to count as Old World?’

‘I don’t know, three or four.’

‘Well, there is archaeological evidence of organised vinification in the Middle East from as far back as 5000 BC, South America’s first vineyard was planted in the 1540s, and there are a number of estates in South Africa that were established in the mid-late 1600s.’

It would be at this stage that the focus would narrow, conditions placed and exemptions made. I even had a friend eventually define the New World as any region producing wine from a varietal not traditionally (there is that word again) grown there. The example he gave was that a Chardonnay from Languedoc would qualify. I can only imagine the face of a Languedocien should he read that an Australian was calling him New World!

So, if my industry friends and colleagues could not hold fast to a position, what do our more esteemed leaders have to say? Jancis Robinson says in her book ‘The Oxford Companion to Wine’ that the term New World was initially used somewhat patronisingly but with increasing admiration in the last quarter of the 20th century to distinguish the wines from the colonies established by European exploration.

She then goes beyond the broad geographic definition to highlight how the term has come to encapsulate several of the underlying cultural, practical and market influences on non-European producers. And for me, it is in these differences that the core of the distinction might be found.

Vineyards have been tended in Austria for about 3000 years. Pic courtesy of Austrian Wine & WSNA

The regions established in the age of European exploration were planted by men steeped in the practices and procedures of the time and place from which they came. They took with them the varieties they knew and did their best to replicate the wines they made at home, with varying degrees of success. As time passed, the producers in these new colonies began to drift away from the rigid structures of their forebears in order to better survive in the often radically different climates or conditions to a variety’s ancestral home.

Once this cord was cut there was no turning back, and a more forward-looking attitude quickly became a signature of vintners in Australia, New Zealand etc. Once the shackles of tradition and bureaucracy were broken, producers could truly embrace their terrior and make wine that spoke of their place in the world. The best minds were resourced to advance the science behind what previous generations had quite literally left up to the gods, and we looked first to making wines we could enjoy at home rather than trying to carbon-copy the French or Italians.   

Julie Arkell goes one step further in her book ‘New World Wines, the complete guide’. She writes: ‘The winemakers of the New World have never been afraid to experiment. Indeed, in many respects they have deliberately set out to overturn some of the Old World’s most sacred cows of winemaking technique and practice.’

As a result of this willingness to experiment, the wines of the New World were at first easily distinguishable from their more ancient relatives. Australian and North American wines would often be described as ‘bottled sunshine’ and, while this was at first looked down upon by the European establishment, no one could deny that the people had spoken. The drinking public had developed a taste for wines of energy and attitude!

Producers outside of the European institutions enjoy a wide range of freedoms that I am positive many a geographically-controlled chateau would secretly envy. We can select from a cornucopia of varieties, sites, styles, labels, closures and bottles. Modern winemakers have absorbed and applied the hard lessons of the past and can now turn their attention to just making the best wine they can without falling foul of appellation regulations.

Gone are the days of ‘plant and pray’; early Australian wineries would habitually plant marquee French varieties such as Cabernet or Shiraz in regions that bore little resemblance to their homeland, and it was these wines that were often panned on the global stage and described as non-varietal. As we have learned to listen to the land and thoroughly researched other less obvious options, we have excelled; and wines from Australia, South America and New Zealand are now regularly winning silverware at the most prestigious wine competitions in the world.

I don’t think the irony of our more recent appreciation of terroir is lost on anyone. I suspect it is in part because of this conscious rejection of Old World tradition that we have in some ways come almost full circle. Advocates of the various European appellations make terroir the basis of all their arguments; and I agree, but for different reasons. Their systems were set up to enshrine, protect and exclude. The colonial movement towards a terroir-first mentality is driven by a desire to move our industry forward, onward and upward. We celebrate innovation and new ideas are welcomed.

It would be foolish to suggest we have completely turned our backs on – or have nothing to learn from – those with a millennia or more of experience. But it would be equally foolish to ignore what is right in front of our faces. The Barossa is not Côtes du Rhône and Tasmania is not Burgundy, but we have made it work. Houses from the Adelaide Hills are now regularly competing with the best Gruner Veltliner producers in the world precisely because we looked, we listened and we learned.

Gruner Veltliner vines aglow at Hahndorf Hill’s vineyard in the Adelaide Hills

The Hahndorf Hill White Mischief Gruner Veltliner is the product of this complex process. On the one hand, acknowledging the accumulated experience of Austrian Gruner Veltliner producers, but also allowing our unrestricted and free-spirited experimentation to lead us to an exciting and different expression of this noble variety. We studied for years the work of Austria’s finest and we travelled, tasted and interrogated. But then, in the true spirit of creative Australia, we aligned specific clonal selections, viticultural practices and fermentation techniques to create something new and different.

The wine that emerged celebrates an extraordinary range of complex and exciting aromatics and flavours that are unlike those found in more classic versions of this variety, yet still offers the all-important textural and spice-driven components. And so, White Mischief – our New World version of Gruner Veltliner – was born, and we have always been confident that it would melt the hearts of our local drinkers.

This wine is a celebration of who – and more importantly, where – we are. Exuberant, vibrant and a little bit tropical. Think Carmen Miranda in RM Williams. Gruner’s three pillars of stonefruit, citrus and white pepper are all here, but are complemented by guava and ruby-grapefruit – and even some sliced pear in the current 2021 vintage. Combine all this with an explosive mineral twist and you have Chica Chica Boom!

The Hahndorf Hill White Mischief Gruner Veltliner served at Oyster Bar restaurant in Adelaide. Pic courtesy of Simon Potts, Oyster Bar, Holdfast Shores

Regular readers of this blog will by now be very familiar with Gruner Veltliner’s affinity with food. No other grape I have worked with comes close to Gruner’s ability to lift a meal, and the 2021 White Mischief is no exception. It is a treat with South East Asian dishes, salt and pepper squid, and robust grazing platters – but it is especially critical that you have a bottle or two handy if you have any grilled Barramundi in your future!

Most would agree that simply drawing a circle on a section of Europe to define the Old World is not enough. Europe itself is a deceptively dynamic place; how they define themselves and their own borders is nothing if not fluid. The word tradition (or lack of) came up again and again when I canvassed opinions on how to define the New World; but as I mentioned above, there are non-European regions with thousands of years of vinification history.

Tradition is important: you cannot know where you are going if you do not know where you came from; but only looking backward is a great way of tripping over. When we practice a tradition we are in fact casting a spell, a choreographed incantation that lifts the veil and helps us commune with our ancestors in the language they themselves created. A tradition is a way that we, in the here and now, can for a moment live like those from the then and there.

We invite the past into the present in order to honour it, but like all guests, the past can get stale and not all attitudes age well. Tradition in the wine industry manifests itself in many ways, but its greatest glamour is not always in the glass but rather in the prestige we place in a name or label.

So, in conclusion, I would like to propose a new perspective: The New World is not a place but a state of mind. A state in which we can credit the wins of our ancestors and simultaneously celebrate our terroir. Let us listen to the soil under OUR feet, the sky above OUR heads and the dynamic culture pulsing down OUR streets.

The New World can and does compete on the highest stage, but our greatest successes come when we embrace what makes us unique: our indefatigable forward momentum.

Prost! Jack.

Posted in Adelaide Hills, Adelaide Hills best Cellar door, Adelaide Hills Gruner Veltliner, Adelaide Hills wine, Adelaide Hills wine region, Blaufrankisch, cool climate wine, dessert wine Aelaide Hills, Diurnal variation temperature, Gruner Veltliner, Gruner Veltliner Australia, Hahndorf, Rosé, Saint Laurent, St Laurent, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Trio of Tempting Blaufrankisch wines – By Jack Simmonds, Hahndorf Hill Brand Ambassador

I am at an awkward age; I am young enough to see the value of social media but old enough to lament the often all-consuming influence it can have. I enjoy feeling connected to family and friends far away, especially in these isolating times; but I have also stopped counting the number of rich discussions and dining table debates that disintegrated after a single digital ding or ping.

These scales were momentarily tipped this week when the algorithms behind my Facebook page reminded me of some pictures and comments I had posted on my first trip to Austria in 2017; some supercomputer half a world away had put together a montage of my time spent in the Blaufrankisch powerhouse of Burgenland and even set this 60-second trip down memory lane to nostalgic music.

I think deep down I knew I had been manipulated and had a millennial been watching they would no doubt have been grinning from ear to ear; but despite this, by the end of the video I was in my cellar selecting bottles of Blaufrankisch to share with you, firm in the belief it was totally my idea. 

The six DAC wine regions of Burgenland. (Map courtesy of the Austrian Wine Marketing Board.) Click the pic for greater clarity.

The region of Burgenland is a broad rolling plain that has seen constant human habitation since prehistoric times. Over the last few millenia it has caught the eye of many tribal chiefs, Roman generals, religious zealots, a handful of emperors, one Führer and a Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Much to the relief of its modern-day residents and visitors, the region is now held firmly in the bosom of the Republic of Austria and enjoys a rising level of prosperity.

There is evidence dating back to the Bronze Age of Celtic people harvesting grapes and making wine in what is now Burgenland, but as is often the case it was the Romans who initiated a systematic form of viticulture in Austria. Since then, the region has been ruled by benevolent visionaries and greedy tyrants; reaped bountiful harvests and been decimated by blight; suffered scandal and enjoyed global success for producing wines of power, presence and prestige.

The verdant slopes of the Kirchberg vineyard under a luminous sky

Today Burgenland is home to a number of varietals but it is for Blaufrankisch that she is famous, maybe even synonymous. Let’s play a little word association: bacon-eggs, salt-pepper, Gruner-gorgeous, Blau-Burgenland! And before you say it; yes, I expect Carl Jung would have had a field day with me.

From the cellar I selected three wines that each proudly fly the flag for Burgenland but are distinctly different. Burgenland has six DAC wine regions, each of which vary slightly in topography and geology but all fall under the influence of the consistently warm climate. Most of Austria’s wine producing regions bank on their profound diurnal variation common to that latitude but Burgenland has two aces up its sleeve. The immense but remarkably shallow Lake Neusiedl helps to take the edge off the brutal summer sun, and the cool evening air that tumbles onto the plain from the mountains to the west both collude to smooth out the day-time high temperatures and night-time lows.

Burgenland has its share of grand old houses and vineyards that have for generations proven themselves to be sites of consistently excellent fruit. For this article I selected two wines from especially prestigious single vineyards and one from a DAC region that has achieved extra recognition.

The Kirchberg is an especially pretty vineyard draped across a gently undulating slope that is perfectly positioned to drink in the warm sun’s rays by day and relax in the cooler air that pours off the neighbouring Leitha Mountain range by night. Originally planted in 1203 by Cistercian monks (an order with Burgundian roots), the site is now under the stewardship of the Höpler family and provides the fruit for their signature Blaufrankisch.

The Höpler Kirchberg Blaufrankisch will only be made in exceptional years and the 2015 is the first since 2007: that’s nine years between drinks! It is that commitment to quality and integrity which has made the Höpler wines so consistently delicious and highly rated. Winemaker Christof Höpler is now head of the family business and has said that the six-week long heat wave in 2015 paired with a cool autumn and fortuitous rains were the perfect conditions to create a full-bodied Blaufrankisch with ‘modern’ appeal – and thus the 2015 Kirchberg Blaufrankisch was born.

The 2015 Hopler Kirchberg Blaufrankisch matched to Jack’s seared beef fillet under a creamy porcini mushroom sauce and mashed sweet potato

Hand picking late in the vintage and a full 18 months in 2/3rds new French oak has allowed this wine to fill out to its full potential. Plump red-black fruits, vanilla and tobacco fill the nose and carry through to the palate where they are teamed with earthy, nutty and gentle spice characters. This is a full-bodied wine but is not remarkably heavy; it has bearing but is no bully. Its cheeky confidence puts me in mind of the pirouetting hippos in Disney’s Fantasia; substantial but sure-footed, balanced, poised and possessing a grace and elegance all its own.

I found this wine comforting, approachable and pleasantly familiar. I paired it with seared beef fillet under a creamy porcini mushroom sauce and mashed sweet potato; the earthy porcinis and rare beef perfectly matched the ripe red fruits and cinnamon spice of the 2015 Höpler Kirchberg Blaufrankisch.

The Juris Winery is located near Lake Neusiedl in the famous winemaking town of Gols, and is owned by the Stiegelmar family who has been practising viticulture here since 1571; but don’t think for a second that the family is using their four and a half centuries of tradition to rest on its laurels. Current head Axel Stiegelmar and his father Georg have worked extremely hard to stay on the cutting edge of winemaking technology and world’s best practice. Georg Stiegelmar pioneered the Austrian use of maturation in small oak barrels and also initiated three landmark changes to Austria’s notoriously strict wine laws.

The Juris winery is situated in the famous winemaking town of Gols near the Neusiedl Lake. (Pic courtesy of the Austrian Wine Marketing Board.)

Today the family sources fruit from some of the region’s highest profile sites, including the famous Altenberg vineyard I detailed in a previous article. Today I would like to dive into their 2015 Blaufrankisch from another of Gols’ premium sites: the Ried Ungerberg.

The Ungerberg vineyard sits close to the banks of the massive Lake Neusiedl and is characterised by significant pockets of limestone and thick deposits of clay-rich soil. The wines that call this block home all share a firm tannin structure and minerality coupled with the warm Burgenland signature of primary fruits of red-black plum and cherry. The 2015 Juris Ried Ungerberg Blaufrankisch sits in the glass like a ruby prism, bathing its surroundings in a velvety violet hue. The nose is smoky, savoury and spicy and reminds me of the good old days when we could lounge in a comfy booth at a fine restaurant. The palate is balanced expertly between red-black stone fruits like cherries and plums, and woody spice, cool minerality and rich vanilla.

It is obvious the 2015 Juris Ried Ungerberg was conceived, cultivated, vinified and nurtured by winemakers of unimpeachable integrity and dedication. It speaks of its time and its place and I rejoiced in both, but mourned sharing the last glass. Though not obviously kin there are parallels to be drawn with the Höpler Kirchberg Blaufrankisch; it is serious yet soothing, august but approachable and unselfconsciously stately. Regional typicity, shared philosophies or primal Gaian DNA, call it what you will, but the link is undeniable.   

The DAC wine region of Eisenberg (formally known as Südburgenland) sits on Burgenland’s southern border; the Pannonian influence on the climate is strong but winemakers in Eisenberg also benefit from cooler air flowing in from the neighbouring region of Steiermark (Styria) to the south. This cooler average temperature in an otherwise warm region makes the wines of Eisenberg easily distinguishable from those of Neusiedlersee or Mittelburgenland, a distinction that was formally recognised in 2008 when they were granted full DAC status. The cooler average temperatures and a geology dominated by crystalline rocks on the sloped sites and silty iron-rich clays on the lower blocks, gives the Blau’s of the region a signature earthiness and minerally spice.

The Wachter-Wiesler vineyards are found in the wine region of Eisenberg in the south of Burgenland

Eisenberg, with its curious climate and irregular geology, has long attracted winemakers with a maverick streak and passion for the unconventional. Christoph Wachter of Wachter-Wiesler seems almost custom made to succeed in a region that could test the patience and creativity of most; he really does ‘walk the walk’ when it comes to stripped-back minimalism. The ethos at Wachter-Wiesler is to embrace their terroir and create wines that transport Eisenberg’s unique character and beauty all the way to your glass with no middle man or static.

The winery’s 2013 Béla Jóska Eisenberg DAC Blaufrankisch was handled mostly by gravity, thereby reducing pump handling of the juice before a long cool wild ferment and rest in large, almost neutral wooden barrels. This deference to nature and the will of the vineyard have produced a finished product as earthy as any Burgundian and delivers as many dark berries as a Côtes du Rhône lover could desire. I am sure this wine will polarize: if you fancy pure bright red fruit with no background noise this wine is not for you; but if you love walking through the woods after rain, have ever made your own biltong or prize the funk of the Basket Range, buy this wine.

A trio of beautiful Blau’s from Austria’s red-heart wine state of Burgenland

I very much enjoyed my time in Burgenland and look forward to drinking my way across her ancient rolling landscape again one day. To call the region a melting pot would be an understatement; for thousands of years people have come from far and wide to make a life here and the cumulative effect is profound. As the prejudices of antiquity slowly yielded to contemporary preferences, the land was tasked with keeping up and much was asked of it. First wild indigenous varieties were prized, then Roman viticultural protocols and later the French varietal influence took precedence; now they have completed the circle and are once again listening to – rather than imposing upon – the gentle rocky slopes and rich lowlands.

Varieties such as Blaufrankisch, Zweigelt and St Laurent planted by the grandfathers of today’s winemakers are enriching dining tables across the world, lubricating debate and inspiring discussion once more – that is, of course, until someone’s phone dings.

Prost! Jack.

Posted in cool climate wine, Diurnal variation temperature, Foundling Saint Laurent, Foundling St Laurent, Gruner Veltliner, Hahndorf, Saint Laurent, St Laurent, Uncategorized, wine, Zweigelt, Zweigelt Australia | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Hahndorf Hill bottles first Saint Laurent in Australia – The Foundling Saint Laurent 2020.

By Larry Jacobs, Co-owner, Hahndorf Hill

The celebrations at Hahndorf Hill were a bit like a new baby arriving into the family. After many years since importing the plant material in 2014, passing it through two years of quarantine, and then propagating the precious material into the vineyard, we finally had our first Saint Laurent harvest in 2020. It has now been bottled and will be further aged in our underground cellar at Hahndorf Hill for a few more years before being released.

St Laurent wine Australia Saint Laurent Australai
Hahndorf Hill The Foundling Saint Laurent 2020

This Austrian variety has a very interesting history. Falstaff – Austria’s wine bible – claims that it originally came from France where it was grown in the Alsace region. Then, just prior to it being completely wiped out in the great Phylloxera outbreak, some cuttings ended up in Austria where they found a home at the Klosterneuburg Monastery – Austria’s oldest winery and also the world’s first school of viticulture.

This is where the story of this beautiful variety really starts to develop. It is here at the monastery where Saint Laurent gets embraced by its new carers and starts to be adopted by vignerons within Austria. It was always thought that this exciting variety could possibly be related to the noble Pinot Noir grape because of similarities in the bunches, the leaves and the style of wines produced. But it is only within recent years that Saint Laurent has definitively been anointed as the actual daughter of Pinot Noir, via extensive genetic research carried out at the Klosterneuburg viticultural school.

This is why we have decided to call our wine The Foundling. This intriguing story of this variety fulfills all the mythological criteria of the foundling-infant who gets abandoned on the steps of the monastery, where it is enthusiastically embraced and nurtured in its new home. And then, after growing up, finally discovers that she is indeed a princess after all!

In Austria, the most well known region for this variety is the Thermenregion, with the top producers centered around the charming villages of Tattendorf and Teesdorf. These cool areas are where Austria, unsurprisingly, also produces its top Pinot Noir wines. Here, in its spiritual home, this beautiful and elegant variety is known as Sankt Laurent.

The grapes were originally named after St. Lawrence’s Day – August 10th – the day when this variety begins to change colour. Saint Laurent is also abbreviated as St. Laurent in some areas.

Larry Jacobs inspecting his Saint Laurent vines for vintage 2021

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Posted in Adelaide Hills, Adelaide Hills best Cellar door, Adelaide Hills wine, Adelaide Hills wine region, Blaufrankisch, cool climate wine, Diurnal variation temperature, Foundling Saint Laurent, Foundling St Laurent, Gruner Veltliner, Gruner Veltliner Australia, Hahndorf, Saint Laurent, St Laurent, Uncategorized, Zweigelt, Zweigelt Australia | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Austria’s ever-evolving DAC structure – By Jack Simmonds, Hahndorf Hill Brand Ambassador

I would like to bring you up to speed on recent developments in Austria’s ever-evolving DAC structure designed to classify and categorise its wines, and to flesh out some observations made in previous Gru Files articles.

So as to best appreciate the more recent developments, let us first take a quick look back at the attitudes within, and the culture of, the Austrian wine industry before the modern DAC structures were introduced. Historically, the vast majority of Austrian vineyards were devoted to ‘field blends’ – the practice of planting several varietals side by side within the one block which would then be picked and processed all together. It wasn’t until the turn of the 20th century that significant numbers of vineyards would become mono-varietal and after World War 2 producers also started printing on the label the name of the village in which the wine was made.

Highlighting the name of the village in which the wine was made was one way of taking advantage of what was already colloquially understood: that different regions had a different signature, that the wines typical of a village at one end of a valley could taste very different to those made by their kin at the other end.

In the 1980s producers of the Wachau realised the benefits to be gained by establishing strict definitions for their wine within a formalised system. In the early 2000s Austria’s Ministry of Agriculture, Regions and Tourism began work on constructing an official ‘appellation’ system which would serve to protect at the federal level a geographically defined regional signature. This was achieved by regulating a number of variables but the primary ones were defining which grape varieties could be used in a specific region and if a finished wine reflected its home – in other words, whether it was typical of the recognised style emblematic of that region.

If a wine was deemed to have met all the conditions set out in the regulations, its producer could promote its prestigious DAC status on the label. This system is similar to France’s Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC), which also defines what grapes can be used and where they can be grown.

The Weinviertel (Austria’s largest wine region) was the first to be granted official DAC status. Pic by Gerhard Trumler, courtesy of Austrian Wine Marketing

Austria’s Districtus Austriae Controllatus (Controlled Austrian District) or DAC system of classification was designed to identify and regulate the regionally-typical, Qualitätswein (quality standard) wines produced in specifically defined geographical regions. The first wine-producing region to be awarded DAC status was the Weinviertel in 2003 and there are now 15 distinct and varied regions within Austria that have committed themselves to meeting the strict standards negotiated with the industry’s governing body, the Ministry of Agriculture, Regions and Tourism.

Early DAC models broke the regionally typical wines into two distinct categories: either Classic or Reserve. Although the specific requirements varied slightly from region to region, the Classic category would typically represent the fresh, friendly and versatile wines, and the Reserve would embody the region’s richer, riper and fuller-bodied wines.

A traditional winzerhaus in Eisenberg, Burgenland. Pic by Gerhard Trumler, courtesy of Austrian Wine Marketing

The DAC template is designed to be tweaked and customised to best highlight what makes the premium wines of each participating region special and unique. It is this combination of flexibility coupled with cast-iron rigidity that has seen the now familiar regions of the Weinviertel and Burgenland finally achieve the legitimacy and international acclaim which they deserve. These earlier structures performed well for their signatories and created the foundation for the next evolutionary step on the journey to best showcase what a defined premium location was capable of.

The most recent progression to the DAC system shows a move away from the traditionally embraced Germanic model of classification which classifies a finished wine based on its style, residual sugar, alcohol content and perceived quality, to a system that recognises the intrinsic value of specific sites which are capable of consistent excellence and which can be classified within a three tiered pyramid-like structure.

This seismic shift in priority away from the Germanic system with all its deeply held cultural connections towards a provenance-based appellation system which firmly establishes origin and typicity as its guiding principles, demonstrates Austria’s commitment to a tireless evolution of its wine laws.

The first step to assembling the pyramid is to clearly define the wine-producing region itself; then the varieties that best represent the character and signature style of that place must be identified and used exclusively. Once these factors have been agreed upon, the wines will be labelled according to where in the region the fruit was sourced. If the fruit came from a range of sites within the defined region and was blended together it will form the base of the pyramid and be called ‘Gebietswein’ (regional wine). If the fruit was grown entirely within the boundary of a recognised wine-centric village it will be labelled ‘Ortswein’ (village wine), thus forming the middle strata of the pyramid. The apex of the new structure is reserved for wines that were made using the fruit raised in single vineyards of particular acclaim; this top shelf tier is called ‘Riedenwein’ or single-vineyard wine.

Since its formal inception in 2003, the DAC system has evolved to become more inclusive, further fulfilling its mission of letting each of its new or prospective signatories shine in their own particular way. Examples of this dynamism can be seen in the list of regions which have recently achieved DAC status. In the last three years the regions of Styria and Carnuntum have signed up and even the famously independent producers of the Wachau have now entered the fold.

The state of Styria is located in the south-west of Austria on the border with Slovenia; parts of it can be characterized as a series of ‘wine islands’ atop the peaks which crown the slopes of a chain of extinct volcanoes. This combination of particularly rich soil and a climate influenced by several alpine ranges has created the perfect conditions for growing crystalline whites and piquant rosés.

In 2018 Styria and its three recognised sub-regions famed for their Welschriesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Blanc and Chardonnay (which they call Morillon) embraced the updated DAC structure and gave it their own twist by mandating firm dates at which their classified wines can be released.  The dates set for the release of each style are the result of many generations’ accumulated experience. These traditional dates have been formally recognised as the points from which each wine style has had sufficient time to develop enough to honestly express the region’s signature qualities.

There have been prized vineyards in the Carnuntum wine region since Roman times. Pic by Klaus Egle, courtesy of Austrian Wine Marketing

The producers of Carnuntum are by nature a very patient bunch; they saw the benefits their compatriots in the DAC-recognised regions were receiving but were reluctant to sign up just for the sake of it. For more than a decade they carefully and deliberately built up the skeleton of a system that would best reflect their exceptionally varied terroir, culture and regionally typical style. In 2019 the officially defined wine-growing region of Carnuntum was awarded formal DAC status. It takes into account their six distinct geological features which they believe have a profound effect on their wines and contribute significantly to their signature palate, whilst still conforming to the evolving Region, Village, Vineyard classification structure.  

Regular readers of this blog will be no strangers to the work of the Vinea Wachau and their seminal Wachau Codex. This document written in the 1980s laid out six rules that defined the region and cemented this already respected area onto the most exclusive wine lists in the world. The region’s winemakers of today recognise the tremendous debt of gratitude they owe their visionary forebears but they also became aware of the limitations of their Codex which was based on the traditional Germanic classification model.

In 2020 the Wachau officially joined the DAC family, customising the modern location-focused template to work alongside and complement their existing Codex with its older-style principles. One charming detail in the new Wachau DAC agreement is that all wines, regardless of tier, must still be harvested entirely by hand. Here we see another case of evolution over revolution and a region’s cultural and historical priorities still being valued.

So far, we have seen a journey of eager early adoption of the DAC system which then facilitates gradual and incremental adjustments; other bodies such as the Vinea Wachau went their own way until the different entities-values and priorities overlapped to the point where teaming up was the obvious and logical next step.

Michael-Moosbrugger of the fabled Schloss Gobelsburg. Pic by Regina-Huegli

Another valuable initiative that strives to differentiate the ‘Monday night’ wine from the magnificent and the ‘everyday’ from the elite is that spearheaded by the Österreichische Traditionsweingüter (Austrian Traditional Wineries) association (ÖTW). This group, led by Michael Moosbrugger of the iconic Schloss Gobelsburg in the Kamptal, has sought since 1992 to create a hierarchy of Austrian wine inspired by the Cru system made famous by regions such as Burgundy and Bordeaux.

The ÖTW started as a small group of producers along the Danube who shared a common vision: they believed Austria’ss best vineyards should be classified according to their significance, which in this context refers to their consistent reputation for excellence, their historical influence, the site’s economic value and its geological make up. The ÖTW has spent almost three decades exhaustively exploring the geology of high-profile single sites, examining varietal selection and conducting vertical tastings – all in an effort to identify and rank consistently over-achieving single vineyards in order to establish an Erste Lagen or ‘First Location’ labelling system.

This system of specific site acknowledgment and stratification is, as I mentioned previously, strongly influenced by the French ‘Cru’ platform. Parallels can be drawn between the Erste Lagen and the Premier Cru tier; the top step of Grand Cru and the association’s ambitions of a ‘Grosse Lagen’ class for the very finest sites, is still under construction.

The ÖTW hopes in time to persuade the Austrian Wine Marketing Board to enshrine their classification into law and while this still may be some time away given the amount of work involved, there are already examples of over-lapping philosophies being officially adopted. The Austrian Wine Marketing Board allows the ‘Ried’ designation to highlight if a wine is from a single, culturally significant named vineyard. (Further information on the history and implementation of the Ried system can be found in my Gru Files article titled ‘The revered fruits of Altenberg’ published on April 22 of this year.)

With these changes we once again see a further evolution and while there are a number of shared values between the official DAC program and those of the ÖTW , the two bodies are yet to consummate a formal agreement. It is my belief that the ongoing process of incremental change and development of the two systems will eventually lead to a harmonizing of visions.

While the producers of Austria are proud and delighted that the varieties so dear to them are now also breaking hearts in many other parts of the world, they also recognise the need for cementing the connection between their indigenous varieties and the significant vineyards that have traditionally grown them. The Austrians have chosen a path that cycles through systemic assessment – flexible adaptation, disciplined implementation and regular revision – and it is this commitment to constant improvement through considered evolution that is proving to be a winning formula for their wine industry.

The Heiligenstein mountain looms over the renowned Kamptal wine region. Pic by Marcus Wiesner, courtesy of Austrian Wine Marketing
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The Wachau: A Lesson in Discipline – By Jack Simmonds, Hahndorf Hill Brand Ambassador

How did certain geographic regions become synonymous with quality? Why do sparkling wine producers fixate on Champagne; what is it about Piemonte wine that hypnotises dry red drinkers; and why do lovers of Gruner Veltliner obsess over the Wachau? There is a handful of regions around the world that are instantly recognisable to vinophiles and teetotallers alike as centres of excellence and prestige; and in this piece I will attempt to riddle out how this enviable status is achieved and, perhaps more critically, maintained.

Just as in most other professional spheres, long-term players in the wine industry rely on reputation; it is easy to write a poetic back label full of buzz words and hyperbole but the lazy and disingenuous are quickly exposed and relegated to the clearance bin. Socrates once said: “The way to gain a good reputation is to endeavour to be what you desire to appear”; in other words, in order to talk the talk, you must first walk the walk, and in the wine industry that can take generations.

There is no silver bullet or short cut to prestige, and there is also no one-size-fits-all template to follow, but there are three distinct denominators common to the elite regions that, when combined and strictly adhered to, can set the foundation for success.

  1. A commitment to regional typicity comes up again and again. Modern vintners are the beneficiaries of centuries of tweaking and tinkering; our forebears may not have fully understood the cause and effect of what they were doing but over time it has shaped our understanding of what works well where. This process of elimination evolved into styles embraced first by neighbours, then villages and eventually whole regions.
  2. Non-negotiable minimum standards are typically adopted informally at first, with producers of inferior wine expected to cop an earful from those trying to build a region’s reputation for quality. Later, DAC, DOCG and other modern statutory administrations were established to regulate and certify that a wine wishing to claim elite geographical provenance was made to the highest standards and in a manner consistent with the region’s values.
  3. A ‘we’ over ‘me’ philosophy is key. When like-minded people team up and work together towards a common goal, the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts. Co-ordination and co-operation will always triumph over fractured self-interest. 
The fabled Danube river wends its way through the glorious landscape of the Wachau (photo by Herbst, courtesy of the Vinea Wachau)

The perfect example of what can be achieved when these three tenets are embraced is the world-famous Wachau region in Lower Austria. The Vinea Wachau association was formed in 1983 by a group of Wachau growers and winemakers dedicated to protecting and promoting the valley’s reputation for quality; they restricted outside influence and mandated strict vineyard management and cellar practices through their Wachau Codex.

The Wachau Codex is a set of rules by which producers in the region who wish to trade on the valley’s fame must live and breathe; it consists of six iron-clad rules that govern every aspect of a wine’s viticulture and vinification and maturation. The goal is to ensure that the wines approved to bear its famous Vinea Wachau Nobilis Districtus badge were made in accordance with their incredibly exacting standards and will sing of their home in a clear and certain voice. The Codex classified the valley’s wine into three distinct styles.

 ‘Steinfeder’ is the lightest with a maximum alcohol level of 11.5% from early-picked grapes and is prized for its forward fruit and light airy elegance. This style takes its name from the wispy, gossamer-like Steinfedergras or ‘feather grass’ that grows between the vines. Wines classified as Steinfeder are fragrant and also lighter and leaner than those in the other categories.

Domane Wachau’s Roman Horvath MW

Wines in the second of the three classified styles are labelled ‘Federspiel’, which was the lure swung in circles high above one’s head to attract a hunting falcon back to its master’s heavy leather glove – falconry being a once popular sport amongst the Wachau nobility. Federspiel wines are restricted to alcohol levels of between 11.5% to 12.5%, an admittedly narrow band, but for a variety as nuanced as Gruner Veltliner there is still ample room for self-expression. Federspiel-style wines will lead with white pepper and orchard fruits such as apple and pear; and, according to Domane Wachau’s Roman Horvath MW, they can display a precise expression of terroir combined with a fresh, lively elegance.

‘Smaragd’ wines are the fullest and most textural of the Wachau; they are left to ripen longer on the vine and must have a minimum alcohol level of 12.5%; notice I said ‘minimum’ level as it is not unheard of for a Smaragd to reach as much as 15%. That may sound extreme but, when expertly handled, these powerful wines are still balanced and will routinely command top dollar across the world.

One of the captivating features of the Wachau – a Unesco World Heritage Site – are the dry-laid, stone-walled terraces that were hand carved into the valley’s impossibly steep walls. These narrow strips of flat land often no more than three metres wide were sculpted into the hillsides to create arable but only slightly more accessible land; each terrace is retained by a meticulously maintained stone wall. In addition to reinforcing the terraces, the stone walls help to reduce the threat posed by cold snaps; during the day they drink in the warm sun and in the cold of the night they gently radiate that heat back towards the vines. It is in these warm stone walls that a bright emerald or ‘Smaragd’ coloured lizard can be found soaking in the sun, and it is after this sun-loving lizard that the Wachau has named its ripest and richest wines.

Three styles of Gruner Veltliner – a Steinfeder, Federspiel and Smaragd – from three iconic wineries in the Wachau

Like all formal and structured classification systems, the Wachau Codex is complex and exacting; there are rules that govern every step from bud-burst to bottle and beyond, and I have quite deliberately only painted the broadest of strokes here because even Byzantium would marvel at the bureaucracy of a modern wine classification system. I would much rather line up examples of each style and drink them; that is after all, what they are for!

We in Australia are very fortunate to have several elite examples of the Steinfeder style easily available, one of which is the 2016 Emmerich Knoll Loibner Steinfeder Gruner Veltliner. Emmerich Knoll Senior, father of current winemaker Emmerich Jnr, was a founding member of the Vinea Wachau association and contributed heavily to the Wachau Codex. A deeply instilled sense of place and rock-solid commitment to excellence has propelled Weingut Knoll to the highest echelons of Austrian winemaking; few have earned such a prominent reputation and even fewer work as hard to keep it.

The Knoll family were well established in the Wachau winemaking scene long before they released the first bottles of their own wine in the 1950s; in the decades that followed the business grew and demand for their wines expanded globally. The now classic label featuring a baroque style image of Saint Urban, the patron saint of winemakers, was created in 1962 and is now the cover letter to the most impressive CV you can read.

Unterloiben is one of several wine villages strung along the banks of the Danube in the Wachau

Their 2016 Loibner Steinfeder Gruner Veltliner sources its fruit from several carefully selected sites from the twin villages of Unterloiben and Oberloiben. Ripe white stonefruit and summer blossoms make up the nose and front palate, delicate spice and custard apple soon join in and a Pinot Gris like mouthfeel rounds out the party. This wine initially presents as rather simple and brief but a patient drinker who takes their time and affords the wine an opportunity to stretch its legs, will be rewarded with bonus layers of texture and complexity. The spirit of the Steinfeder style is to be fresh, friendly and approachable; this wine is all those things and more. This lighter style which promotes its fruit and sprightly enthusiasm is the perfect match for char-grilled or spicy foods, especially Indonesian and Malaysian cuisine.

Domane Wachau, a smart wine cooperative, is the largest producer in the region and has been in the vanguard of Austria’s emergence onto the international stage. Established in 1938, the business is now managed by winery director Roman Horvath MW and winemaker Heinz Frischengruber, two men for whom authenticity and a faithful interpretation of terroir is paramount. In conjunction with its 250 growers and partners, Domane Wachau strives to make the most of hard-won lessons learned by preserving the traditions and culture of their region whilst always forging forward.

The castle at Domane Wachau sits surrounded by its famous vineyards

Domane Wachau sources fruit from a great many of the region’s most acclaimed vineyards and produces a number of wines in each of the three classified styles, but I have chosen to write about their Reid Kaiserberg Federspiel Gruner Veltliner for two reasons: firstly, because it is readily available in Australia, and secondly, because I know it to be delicious.

On my first trip to Austria in 2017, I visited the beautiful town of Durnstein which hugs one of the many bends of the Danube river, about thirty minutes’ drive west of Krems. While there I visited the Domane Wachau cellar door and was immensely impressed; the modern building sits on one of the few stretches of flat land between the towering hillsides and surging Danube River and blends seamlessly with its medieval surroundings. It was here that I was guided through a tasting tour of their wines and the region’s long history by the welcoming, generous and knowledgeable staff.

The acclaimed Kaiserberg vineyard rising from the river’s edge up the mountain

The first documented reference to a vineyard on the Kaiserberg slope is from 1450 AD and the Emperor Charlemagne is said to have camped his army on the spot around 800 AD, but both of these dates are mere heartbeats in the site’s full history which spans epochs. Volcanic rock created under extreme heat and pressure was later semi-buried by metamorphic rock dragged into the valley by ancient ice-age glaciers. This mineral-rich, rocky soil and the unique Pannonian influence on the climate make this particular bend in what is a very bendy river an especially prime place to grow Gruner Veltliner in the Federspiel style.

Matching Gruner with delicious cuisine is a favourite pastime of Hahndorf Hill Brand Ambassador Jack Simmonds

The 2016 Domane Wachau Kaiserberg Federspiel Gruner Veltliner has ticked every box required of an elite Federspiel; pale straw in colour and with a nose humming with green apple, ripe Tahitian lime and a hint of allspice. The palate has presence, nuance and is perfectly balanced between citrus, custard apple, nectarine, white pepper and anise. This is the perfect wine to pour for a Riesling tragic; if this doesn’t open their eyes to new possibilities, nothing will.  I would love a glass with a rare steak or a slab of crispy pork belly but it is especially delicious with scallops; here I paired it with blanched asparagus, scorched chorizo and butter-seared scallops. When I tasted them together the whole world just fell away; I went to a place free of Coronavirus, kids on school holidays and even that demonic mosquito that has moved into my bedroom. A very happy place indeed.

In its 122-year history, the winery of FX Pichler has seen a lot. Small localised challenges and worldwide crises have tested the family but nothing has shaken its passion for, and commitment to, the Wachau. A quick glance at their portfolio, which is heavy with the most challenging style classified in the Wachau Codex, is all the proof you need to know that they mean business. Current winemaker Lucas Pichler took over the reins in 1999 from his father, Franz Xaver, and under his stewardship the brand has gone from strength to strength.

A ‘Smaragd’ wine is the most challenging style to produce because it requires the fruit to have achieved maximum physiological ripeness before being picked by hand; this is exceedingly risky because as the season progresses the chance of adverse weather becomes much higher. When fully ripe it doesn’t take much for fruit that looks perfect at breakfast to be ruined by dinner. Despite this risk, FX Pichler are so firm in their belief that much of their land wants to produce Smaragd-style wines, that they have persevered with this tradition for decades – and with spectacular results.

Winemakers Lucas Pichler (right) and his father Franz Xaver of the renowned FX Pichler winery

The 2017 FX Pichler Durnsteiner Smaragd Gruner Veltliner, with its 14% alcohol volume, is a masterclass in texture. The fruit which is sourced from several small plots around the village of Durnstein is treated to extended time on skins before wild fermentation and then left to mature in large oak casks before being bottled without fining. This slow and steady approach gives the fruit time to collect its thoughts and compose a tribute to its birthplace. Golden peach, pear and apple are partnered with creamy vanilla and white pepper spice which build and build to peak in crescendo. Just as the character of Calaf rallies in his stirring aria, Nessun Dorma, in Giacomo Puccini’s opera Turandot, this wine left me elated, energized and exhausted (in a good way).

Three distinctly different wines which, in my opinion, represent the elite of three distinctly different styles. So much variation and nuance but still consistent and representative and that is the key. Co-ordination and co-operation are critical but so is having the flexibility to work with the whims and mood swings of Mother Nature. The Wachau, united in common purpose, institutionalised a set of practises and procedures that enshrined what they value: purity, provenance and regional typicity; and by having three distinct classifications they have allowed themselves enough room to make world-class wine and still embrace their unique set of variables.

Almost 40 years ago, the producers of the Wachau took it upon themselves to install a system that would highlight their assets and protect their legacy; this system and its participants’ steadfast commitment to it, have served to shield the region from reputational harm. This was a gift from one generation to another. Today’s producers now reap the benefits of their fathers’ and grandfather’s vision – but to rest and think the job done is not the Wachau way.

When ultra modern meets the ancient past … The futuristic FX Pichler winery set against the primordial rocks of the Wachau

The gospel-like Wachau Codex is now evolving and the ink has dried on a formal DAC (Districtus Austriae Controllatus) agreement, which aligns the Wachau with Austria’s other wine regions under the aegis of the country’s national wine classification system. As of the 2020 vintage, eligible wines will bear the title of Wachau DAC. The Codex category titles of Steinfeder, Federspiel and Smaragd will still be used as stylistic guides, while the DAC’s focus on place of origin will better guide the consumer through the region’s 22 registered villages and 157 elite single vineyards. The hope is that the established Wachau Codex with its focus on vineyard management, vinification and distinct styles, and the new DAC structure with its emphasis on geographic definition, will act as two sides of the same coin and ultimately complement each other; a case of the whole becoming greater than the sum of its parts.

The great regions did not achieve their renown overnight, nor was it easy. It took generations of hard-working visionaries who refused to take short cuts and instilled in their children the passion and discipline to maintain that most hard won of things: a good reputation.

Prost, Jack.

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The revered fruits of Altenberg – By Jack Simmonds, Hahndorf Hill Brand Ambassador

In global terms the Australian wine industry is still in its first flush of youth and while the approximately 200 years since our first commercial vintage seems like a long time ago to us, there are regions in Europe that – thanks to those ever-roving and rapacious Romans – can boast a link all the way back to antiquity.

Having a millennia or two headstart can be a bit of a double-edged sword for our European colleagues. The intervening centuries have given them ample time for trial and error; generations of winemakers and viticulturists have scoured their continent for prime sites; and over time regional typicity and signature styles were steadily established. This premium site selection process eventually evolved into the ‘Grand Cru’ and ‘Erste Lagen’ systems of designation, in which exceptional sites of similar composition and conditions were given a name so as to make the wine made from such blocks easily identifiable.

One downside of a long history is, as is so often the case, politics. Many modern European wineries are still dealing with the ghosts of the medieval feudal system of government and Austria is no exception. Serfdom in Austri’s Habsburg empire was only truly eradicated in the decades following the revolutions in 1848. Until then, much of the land was owned by the aristocracy, with farmers required to pay rent in the form of 10% of their harvest and an additional 10% paid to the church.

Once emancipated, Austrian farmers had the opportunity to purchase land for themselves, including so-called ‘named blocks’ which had a reputation for producing premium fruit; these blocks were extremely desirable and their ownership would bestow considerable prestige on a family. It was for this reason ownership rarely left a family but would instead be handed down through the generations, each time getting broken up into smaller and smaller individual inheritances until eventually you might inherit only a handful of vines.

This system of multiple owners each claiming parcels within the one block has in no way diminished the fruit’s desirability or prestige; in fact, quite the opposite. Because in some cases no single producer can harvest enough fruit for a viable production run, negotiations and competition for supply can get intense. The result is that a handful of wineries must buy fruit from sometimes dozens of individual owners and then each release their wines, all of which can claim single celebrity vineyard status.

Lake Neusiedl – satellite image

One such celebrity vineyard is the 52-hectare Altenberg block which hugs a south-east and south-west slope where the broad and rolling Parndorfer Platte (Parndorf Plain) finally yields and descends to meet Lake Neusiedl next to the town of Gols in Burgenland.

Altenberg means ‘old hill’ and has been under vine for more than 500 years. The lower stratas are seven million year-old shell and limestone from when the region lay under an inland sea and the upper levels are irony gravel, sand and loam dragged in by the Danube during an ice age 100,000 years ago. This block has certainly earned its name! Gravelly sand and a southerly aspect which takes full advantage of the unique climate around the lake make this the perfect spot for late-ripening reds, especially Blaufrankisch and St Laurent.

Each year there are only a handful of producers who are lucky enough to source fruit from the famous Altenberg vineyard and all understand the responsibility that they have to put their best foot forward. A wine bearing the Altenberg name has made a promise to the drinker; a promise to reflect the block’s unique terroir, a promise that no effort has been spared or shortcuts taken, and a promise to honour previous vintages by bringing life and pure drinking pleasure to any dining table. I have had the great fortune to source three bottles of wine each proudly bearing the Altenberg name and they did not disappoint. 

Hans Stiegelmar with his son Jurgen in their vineyards at Gols

In 1956 Johann and Theresia Stiegelmar established their family business Weingut Stiegelmar in the town of Gols. When the second generation took over in the 1980s, they placed significant thought and effort into selecting the right varieties for the right spots, with Blaufrankisch on the sloping Altenberg block being a viticultural open goal. The third generation is now at the helm of a house with a well-earned reputation for quality, respect for tradition and a passion for innovation.

A smokey chorizo in a slow-roasted tomato Napoli-style sauce was delicious with the Stiegelmar Ried Altenberg Blaufrankisch

The 2015 Stiegelmar Ried Altenberg Blaufrankisch sits dark and heavy in the glass yielding little to the eye but pledging much to the nose. Its earlier youth spent in stainless steel before maturation in barrel gave the bright and playful notes a window to develop and ripen; blackberry, ruby red cherry and delicate vanilla are all present and accounted for. The palate is bold and ripe; black plum, liquorice and tobacco are framed up beautifully by a dry white-pepper spice and expertly structured tannins.

I drank this wine over two days and was delighted to see how much it opened up; cured meats and five spice characters came forward to complement the now slightly muted primary fruits. I would love a glass or two with pan- seared venison or slow-cooked beef ribs, but this combo of smokey chorizo in a slow-roasted, tomato Napoli- style sauce was delicious.

After graduating from the prestigious Klosterneuburg Viticulture School and serving internships in France, Italy and Chile, Judith Beck returned to Austria to work with her father, eventually taking the reins of the family business in 2004. Passionate advocates for ethical and sustainable farming, Weingut Beck teamed up with Dr. Andrew Lorand (an expert in biodynamic farming) and began the process of shifting their viticultural practices away from sustainable to full biodynamic in 2007.

Judith is serious about growing healthy and happy vines; so vital is her need to feel connected to her terroir she actually lives amongst the vines, her beautiful home being surrounded by a lush sea of verdant and virile vines. The wines of Weingut Beck are a true reflection of their time and place; a genuine and authentic voice that speaks with sincere affection for the land and of a sophisticated subtlety.

The fruit for the 2015 Beck Ried Altenberg Blaufrankisch was sourced from 30 year-old vines on the south-west face of the Altenberg where the soils feature sandy loam with limestone. Primary fermentation was spontaneous and conducted in large 3500 litre wooden vats, then rested for two years in used and new barrels before one more year of peaceful beauty sleep in the bottle.

When terroir speaks … fruits of the Altenberg

This minimal intervention approach in the vineyard and a slow and steady approach in the winery have combined to produce a wine that is both stubbly yet seductive, earthy yet ephemeral and funky yet fun. At five years old it is already showing some of the aged qualities I adore; cured meats and funky forest-floor characters balance the red black fruits and fine acid. The tannin structure is especially beguiling; I can sense it, feel it, but whenever I try to address it directly, it flitters from view like a nymph at the bottom of the garden. 

This wine puts me in mind of comfort food; I would serve this with a beef ragu or shepherd’s pie, but it would also impress with wood-fired pizza and just about anything with earthy roasted mushrooms.

Although I have written of the wines and the man behind them several times before, I cannot talk to you of Gols or the Altenberg vineyard without also noting the contribution of Gerhard Pittnauer. Regular readers will by now be familiar with a number of his wines I have reviewed, and today I would like to add his 2013 Altenberg St Laurent to the collection. 

At the base of the slope between the famous Lake Neusiedl and the Parndorf Plain nestles the nerve centre of Gerhard and Brigitte’s operation. A state-of-the art winery and cellars offer commanding views of the surrounding vineyard-covered hillsides and down toward the giant lake. The Altenberg is the marquee St Laurent in a stable featuring several styles (even a pet nat!) and it really delivers.

Pittnauer has expertly blended his signature style with the DNA of this prestigious block; the red black fruits ring bright and sure like a clarion on a cold morning and are persistent through the nose, then the front, middle and back palate. Wild fermentation then maturation in large 500 litre French oak barrels provide texture, depth and mystique that completes the package. I have gushed over the wines of Weingut Pittnauer so many times it is getting embarrassing, but that is only because they consistently hit me in my happy place and no doubt will do so again.

Hahndorf Hill Brand Ambassador Jack Simmonds visiting the Pittnauer winery in Gols, Burgenland

Due to its Pinot Noir genetics, the St Laurent variety is inherently lighter than its Altenberg bedfellow Blaufrankisch, but that is not to say it does not also speak of its place. Although I tasted three distinctly different wines made by three distinctly different winemakers, the terroir will always weave a common tune through everything made by those willing to listen. Game meats, earthy roasted mushrooms, and a grazing platter that stars smoked pork and a mild crumbly blue cheese, will sing with this exceptional wine.

Naming premier vineyards and handing them down through a family, is the reality for many modern European vintners. Competition for access to the best fruit is a good thing and ensures that only those willing to put in the work and uphold a centuries-old standard will release wine labelled with a proud and recognised name. These systems both formal and cultural are, in the end, there to serve us – the drinkers. These restrictions are in place to give a consumer confidence that when we see a wine labelled ‘Grand Cru’ or ‘DAC’, it has passed a number of stringent tests and the industry is confident it will accurately reflect the culture, provenance and terroir unique to its birthplace.

Long story short; if you see a wine with Ried Altenberg on the label, buy it! 

Prost! Jack.

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Gruner’s recipe for success – By Jack Simmonds, Hahndorf Hill Brand Ambassador

In my last handful of articles I have written of my adventures seeking Gemischter Satz along the sun-dappled paths that crisscross the Vienna Woods and exploring the centuries-old subterranean cellars under the Gruner-loving Weinviertel region. In this edition I would like to bring you home; all the way home, to my favourite room in the house, my kitchen.

About 15 years ago I decided it was time to leave my ‘working for the weekend’ attitude behind; to grow up and do that most adult of things, pick a career. I found myself at a crossroads with a difficult decision to make; I had two passions that could each, if pursued with diligence and discipline, provide not just a living but also the job satisfaction to keep my attention for the long term. Should I head off to culinary school or could the wine game offer me more?

The learning curve is brutally steep and there are call centres and supermarkets brimming with the ghosts of chefs and wine lovers who for one reason or another fell short. Neither industry takes any prisoners or pays well in the early days, but this was before I had a wife, any kids or a house, so I had the luxury of eating poorly and rarely sleeping whilst working my way up in a new trade.

I am writing to you as a man completely content with the hat I wear and do not for one second ever think I made the wrong call, but even fifteen years later I still hear the kitchen calling to me. I take an inordinate amount of pleasure in planning and preparing a meal for friends and family and have long felt that to create something from scratch specifically designed to not just sustain but also delight, is a gift universally appreciated.

It is in this spirt that I would like to share with you three recipes that, when paired with three Hahndorf Hill wines, are guaranteed to titillate your significant other, brighten a boring Sunday lunch or have the neighbours’ heads poking over the fence silently longing for a seat at your table.

The recently released 2019 Hahndorf Hill White Mischief is the eighth vintage of our New World-style Gruner Veltliner and is beautifully bombastic and boisterous but impeccably balanced. Rarely is so complex a wine this approachable and inclusive; there are stratas of fruit and texture for the more cerebral pleasure seekers but it has still maintained its friendly and unselfconscious nature that is so endearing to those who aren’t into over thinking what makes them happy.

Hahndorf Hill’s New World World-style White Mischief Gruner Veltliner 2019 pairs beautifully with Chargrilled Paprika and Five Spice Chicken Skewers

The aromatics of the 2019 White Mischief put me in mind of the tropical South Pacific; grapefruit, passionfruit and nectarine hula over the rim and perfectly complement a palate throbbing with pear, citrus, white pepper spice and the signature rub of texture so critical to Gruners of quality. It is this dance between fruit, texture and spice that makes this wine a delicious pairing with my Chargrilled Chicken Paprika and Five Spice Skewers. This is a variation of a recipe by long-time friend of Hahndorf Hill and my favourite Vietnamese/ Australian chef, Luke Nguyen.

Chargrilled Paprika and Five Spice Chicken Skewers

3 tsp minced garlic

1 finely diced onion

1 finely sliced and de-seeded green chilli

2 kaffir lime leaves

1.5 tsp five spice (Taiwanese is preferable)

1.5 tsp hot paprika

.5 tsp turmeric

2 tsp brown sugar

1 Tbs light soy sauce

2 Tbs coconut milk

500gm skinless and boneless chicken thighs cut into bite-sized chunks

In a large bowl mix all ingredients except chicken until well combined. Add chicken and stir to coat all the chunks, cover with cling film and marinate in the fridge for at least 2 hours (ideally overnight).

Soak bamboo skewers for 30 minutes then thread chicken onto skewers, cook on a hot BBQ or grill for about five minutes per side or until browned and serve with coconut jasmine rice. Makes approximately 12 skewers.

An early mentor of mine once said: “Making wine is much like flying a jumbo jet; a delicious wine and a comfortable flight are the product of a series of minor shifts and adjustments.” The 2019 vintage of Hahndorf Hill’s classic-style Gru Gruner Veltliner epitomises that philosophy. Our tenth vintage in this classic style has evolved from its 2010 ancestor but not radically so; the genes of pear, golden delicious apple and white pepper spice are still proud but their landscape has broadened and is infinitely nuanced.

Pear, stone-fruit and citrus greet the nose and promise the palate a treat but what arrives is the grown-up version of expecting socks for Christmas but unwrapping a new bike! Pears and apples of every shade tumble across the palate carrying with them savoury notes of slate, white pepper and a waif-like breeze of anise. What separates this wine from its closest competition on the table – Riesling – is its texture.

Three individual picking runs – all of which were vinified separately – have endowed this wine with a depth of flavour and acid line of such elegance that they pas de deux through my cookbooks like Prince Seigfried and Odette on the moonlit shores of Tchaikovsky’s lake of tears. And it is this dance between complex acid and gentle white spice that makes the 2019 Gru Gruner Veltliner a spellbinding partner to sirloin steak with my signature roast potatoes and grilled broccolini.

Sirloin Steak with Roast Potatoes and Grilled Broccolini

Gently parboil quartered potatoes until a fork can slide in and out cleanly, drain and toss in the colander until all sides are scuffed up. Spread out on roasting tray to cool completely, then refrigerate uncovered overnight.

The top-secret process to making my signature ‘crunchy on the outside and fluffy on the inside’ roast potatoes is as follows:

Jack reveals his top-secret process to achieving those mouthwatering ‘crunchy on the outside and fluffy on the inside’ roast potatoes

All the ingredients for this dish are in the title except for arguably the most important, duck fat!

Preheat fan-forced oven to 220 degrees Celsius then add two tablespoons of duck fat to a roasting tray and put in the oven until the fat starts to shimmer and pop, carefully add the parboiled potatoes (tipping in away from you) and roast for 25 minutes.

Remove the pan from the oven and turn potatoes over; with a masher gently crack them open and sprinkle on sea-salt flakes, finely chopped rosemary and a drizzle of olive oil.

Return potatoes to the oven and roast for a further 25 minutes or until especially golden.

When steak and white wine combine to sublime effect … the Hahndorf Hill Gru Gruner Veltliner 2019 together with Sirloin Steak with Roast Potatoes and Grilled Broccolini

Serve steak rare (and well rested) alongside blanched then grilled broccolini and roasted potatoes. For an extra special treat, whip a clove of finely chopped garlic and a sprig parsley into a tablespoon of butter and place atop the steak immediately before serving.

The Hahndorf Hill Reserve Gruner Veltliner 2017 is a match made in heaven with Jack’s Signature Crispy Crackly Pork Belly with Parsnip Puree

Like its predecessors, the 2017 vintage of the Hahndorf Hill Reserve Gruner Veltliner has taken inspiration from the grand Smaragd and Reserve style Gruners of Austria’s prestigious Wachau and Kamptal wine regions. We at Hahndorf Hill have long been fans of their richness, power and depth of flavour; these wines stand out in the mature and textured white bracket because of their unique ability to balance two often mutually exclusive characteristics, gravitas and elegance.

The 2017 Reserve’ is a case study in the whole being greater than the sum of its parts; slightly extended ripening, 100% wild fermentation and a period of peaceful slumber in old French oak all contribute to what we feel might be one of the most complete wines we have ever made. The reserve block is the first on the estate to greet the morning sun and basks in her warming gaze most of the day; combined with the gentle influence of resting on its lees, this wine is now in its ‘happy place’.

Aromatics of ripe orange peel, peach and vanillin lazily flow over the rim like dry ice vapours from a wizard’s cauldron; the palate is full and generous but still lively and agile with citrus, pineapple, custard apple and creamy white stone-fruit.

It is this creamy yet clean and earthy yet ephemeral nature that makes the 2017 Hahndorf Reserve Gruner Veltliner a delight to drink with my Crackly Pork Belly with Parsnip Puree. My method for achieving the perfect crackling is extra top secret and really must go no further; I am trusting you!

Jack’s Signature Crispy Crackly Pork Belly with Parsnip Puree

Scrape the back of your largest kitchen knife across the pork belly to remove the top layer of skin then score the skin to a depth two-thirds the way down to the meat.

Brush over a thin coating of apple cider vinegar and rub in a generous amount of sea salt into the scores and the surface of the belly, cover and refrigerate overnight.

Remove pork belly from oven and let it warm up to room temperature. Always try to avoid cooking meat straight from the fridge; the temperature range becomes much greater and it can often cause the meat to be overcooked on the outside and still under on the inside.

Set a shelf about two-thirds the way to the top and pre-heat your fan-forced oven as high as it will go (or up to 250 degrees).

Put the pork belly into the very hot oven and cook for 25-30 minutes or until the surface of the skin has bubbled up and gone a deep golden colour. It is nearly impossible to get the surface crunchier at the end of the process so be brave and resist the temptation to move the pork until it has crackled up.

When the surface of the pork belly is uniformly ‘crackled’, turn the oven down to 160 degrees Celsius and cook for another 20-25 minutes.

In a large pot of vigorously boiling salted water add peeled parsnips and boil until soft, drain and add a knob of unsalted butter, 1.5 teaspoons of minced garlic and 1.5 teaspoons of onion powder.

Blitz with a stick blender or in a food processor until you have a smooth and creamy puree.

Remove pork belly from oven and allow to cool slightly before cutting along the score lines and serving atop the parsnip puree.

It is at this stage I strongly recommend locking all your doors and closing the curtains; it is not uncommon for all of my neighbours to suddenly have urgent and pressing matters that must be discussed at my dining table. You have been warned!

For years now at Hahndorf Hill we have preached Gruner Veltliner’s supremacy at the dining table; few if any varieties have the culinary range of this jewel of the Adelaide Hills and the dishes we have run through today are but the tip of the iceberg.  A well paired food and wine will lift every dining experience and therein lies the fun; explore, experiment, challenge yourself and remember, when it comes to food, we have a Gruner for that.

To order Hahndorf Hill wines, simply head to our secure online shop:

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Exploring Austria’s Reds – By Jack Simmonds, Hahndorf Hill Brand Ambassador

For the past decade at Hahndorf Hill we have been working to share our passion for Austrian varietals and a question I still receive with some regularity is: Why Austrians? Why in a market dominated by the so-called ‘noble’ grapes of France and Italy do we pour so much time and effort into these lesser-known grape varieties? We have always felt the answer to be quite simple but that is perhaps because we live and breathe it every day, so let me explain.

Hahndorf Adelaide Hills Wine Region Grüner Veltliner Gruner Veltliner Hahndorf Hill
The Hahndorf Old Mill in the main street in 1901

Everything we do at Hahndorf Hill revolves around our indefatigable sense of place. For us it has always been a question of topography, climate and culture. Our boutique vineyard is situated at the edge of Australia’s oldest-surviving German settlement – the small town of Hahndorf – which was founded by Lutherans fleeing religious persecution in Prussia and who sailed to Australia in 1838 under Captain Hahn. More than 180 years later, Hahndorf town still features a few buildings that bear testimony to the half-timbered Fachwerk construction reproduced by those Lutheran settlers in remembrance of what they had left behind in their Germanic homelands.

Hahndorf Hill Gruner Veltliner Adelaide Hills cellar door Grüner Veltliner
Displays of Hahndorf fachwerk can still be seen today

I have no doubt that in Hahndorf we could have made a living from producing Pinot Noir or even for that matter Tempranillo, instead of producing our ‘Austrians’. However, the rolling hills and gentle slopes and, more importantly, the warm days and cold nights of Hahndorf, provide our vineyard with an exceptional diurnal variation of up to 25 degrees; and it is this high diurnal variation which is key to the spice, texture and quality found in the best Gruner Veltliner wines produced in Austria. We knew, therefore, that Gruner and Hahndorf would be a good match.

Equally, we focus primarily on ‘Austrians’ in our vineyard because we love these grape varieties for their eminently drinkable, food-friendly nature, and because they offer something different, characterful and piquant in a world of wine that is completely dominated by the likes of Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, etc.

In a spirit of constant learning and experimentation we recently planted a new Austrian in our vineyard – the marquee red grape variety, St Laurent. Once this was accomplished, we realised of course that this meant further research needed to be done, wines tasted, vineyards walked, cellars toured and thus bags packed, for yet another exploratory trip to Austria.

In May of 2019 I made my second trip to Austria with a whole day dedicated to the Thermenregion – the engine room of St Laurent production in the country. I have written previously in this blog of my visit to the estate of Johanneshof Reinisch and how it was here that I learnt of St Laurent’s true range, for at Reinisch I was introduced to wines that championed a bolder and more full-bodied style of St Laurent than that which I had tasted in 2017 at Schloss Gobelsburg in Austria’s Kamptal wine region.

The wines of the Old World can be extremely regional; while it is common for a grape variety to be grown across whole countries, within each country the results can vary from valley to valley. Think of it like an accent; each bottle is speaking the same language but with the cadences and inflections unique to each village. And few grape varieties speak of their patch quite like St Laurent. The St Laurent of the Kamptal region is ‘Pinot-esque’ in its delicacy and elegance, while those from the Thermenregion have a gravity and length more reminiscent of Syrah.  

I have long preached of Gruner Veltliner’s stylistic range, from the lean and acid-driven Classics through to the decadent Reserves and hundreds of degrees in between. I now have a much better appreciation of how this kaleidoscope of nuance is not unique to Gruner, but rather is the rule across the Austrian palate of all its indigenous red grape varieties.

The centuries’ old cellars at Freigut Thallern in Gumpoldskirchen

 In both my trips to Austria I have always made a point of visiting as many wine bars and vinotheks as I could, not as an indulgence but in recognition that these are the best places to sample wines that will illustrate the spectrum of a variety’s stylistic limits. At the Freigut Thallern vinothek in the Thermenregion, a modern tasting bar has been opened adjacent to the cellars and in addition to their own wines the staff also pour and promote the wines of the wider Gumpoldskirchen sub-region.

While there were several St Laurents of exceptional quality which I tasted at Freigut Thallern, I was pleasantly distracted by the red blends. Perhaps not surprisingly given the winery’s Cistercian/ Burgundian roots, there were a number of ‘East meets West’ blends, in which the native St Laurent and Blaufrankisch grapes were partnered with Pinot Noir and Merlot to create wines perfect for wood-fired pizza, char-grilled lamb or venison, and deliciously dark chocolate.

Not far from the Thermenregion is the wine region of Carnuntum, which extends east of Vienna to Austria’s border with Slovakia. The Carnuntum is to Zweigelt what the Thermenregion is to St Laurent. It was the implacable Roman legions that first recognised the area’s viticultural potential; the region’s combination of Pannonian climate and rolling hills comprised of loam, loess and gravel, must have seemed to the soldiers to be a gift from Bacchus himself. Red grape varieties do especially well here and in late 2019 the region was awarded full DAC status, with Zweigelt and Blaufrankisch classified as the region’s signature reds.  In addition to shining as a monovarietal wine, Zweigelt in the Carnuntum is often blended with Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Blaufrankisch.

Jack Simmonds (right) with Roland Weiderer from Vienna’s Vinothek W-Einkehr

Due to time constraints, I could not visit the Carnuntum wine region personally; but I did the next best thing by tasting many of its best wines in a vinothek. The Vinothek W-Einkehr is in the heart of Vienna and is the perfect place to tour Austria’s wine regions from the comfort of a bar stool. Roland Weiderer is the owner and the law within this vinothek; good manners are prized above all things so Roland greeted me with a smile and a warm handshake when I arrived ten minutes early for our meeting, and I made sure to leave my dripping umbrella by the door and remove my hat as I entered. At the bar I outlined my mission and Roland was more than happy to guide me through the reds of Carnuntum, and of course Zweigelt proved to be the undeniable star.

 Zweigelt is the love child of Blaufrankisch and St Laurent, and the essence of its nature is an easy-going, cherry charm, which probably explains why it is Austria’s most widely planted red grape. I tasted light, fruit-driven wines in a ‘nouveau’ style made to be drunk slightly chilled in the sunshine, all the way through to rich, oak-cloaked, spicy wines that put me in mind of Coonawarra Cabernets from the 90s. Roland wanted me to taste for myself all the bases that Zweigelt could cover, and he hit a home run. Thanks to his instruction, I left the intimate Vinothek W-Einkehr much richer in knowledge about Austria’s most popular red grape.

This experience was further enhanced by a visit to Vienna’s Artner am Franziskanerplatz restaurant, which is run by the Artner family from Weingut Artner in the Carnuntum. The estate of Weingut Artner dates back to 1650 and like most farmers in Eastern Europe they ran for many generations a mixed farm growing a variety of crops, together with raising livestock. In the 1980s the family decided to focus on wine production and today they also manage several good restaurants in and around Vienna. As I was dining alone, I asked for a table by the open kitchen so I could look in on the culinary works of art being created as I sipped on a glass of the house Gemischter Satz. I explained my mission to better understand the reds of Carnuntum to the sommelier and entrusted myself to his care.

Beautiful , food-friendly red wines from Artner winery in the Carnuntum

Over the next two hours I was totally spoilt with course after course of perfectly matched red wine and delicious food. There were several highlights but the meal reached its zenith with the pink-seared venison, rhubarb, coffee and lavender gnocci being paired wonderfully with a glass of the Artner 2016 Rubin Zweigelt, with its black cherry notes and velvety tannins. The term ‘Rubin’ is a brand name for select, quality Zweigelts from Carnuntum and these wines carry the region’s symbol – the triumphal Roman Heidentor arch – on the capsule.

On this most recent trip to Austria my red wine focus was on St Laurent and Zweigelt but nothing happens in a vacuum, and this visit also provided invaluable context and depth to my understanding of Blaufrankisch which I had gained on my trip to Burgenland during my first trip to Austria. I came home to Australia even firmer in my belief that the red varieties of Austria have a place on Australian tables.

The red wines of Austria range from the ephemeral and refined to the brooding and powerful. Several factors have kept the red wines of Austria from gaining the attention of the wider Australian drinking public and while the number of Austrian red wines available here is limited, I hope this article goes some way to encouraging you to try something new and challenging to pronounce.

When I am asked why we grow what we grow, I ask in return: Why not? At Hahndorf Hill we have long felt our land wants to grow Gruner Veltliner, Blaufrankisch, Zweigelt and now St Laurent. Some of our neighbours may have trophy cabinets bursting with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay awards, and we are more than happy to toast their success – but with a glass of one of our own, award-winning ‘Austrians’!

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Vienna’s vinous delights – By Jack Simmonds, Hahndorf Hill Brand Ambassador

Hahndorf Hill Gruner Veltliner Adelaide Hills cellar door
The verdant vineyards of Vienna’s Nussberg sub-region

Vienna regularly tops the list of the world’s most liveable cities and I can’t help but think that having hundreds of wineries right on its doorstep might be a contributing factor. Despite modern Vienna’s status as a major metropolis, its residents are no stranger to grape vines; for centuries they have been an almost daily part of life and were even cultivated within the city walls until the late Middle Ages. Today there are almost 700 hectares of vineyards within the city limits. The famous sub-regions of Bisamberg and Nussberg form links in a great green chain that wreaths the city, a vista that is both beautiful to the eye and exciting to the palate.

The slopes that garland the city and suburbs are a verdant tapestry of every green in the book; trails and tracks climb over forested hillocks then gently wind through valleys of bravely disciplined vineyards clinging to the undulating landscape. It only took fifteen minutes to get from my hotel in the centre of town to the foot of the Kahlenberg hill whose city-facing slopes make up the Nussberg sub-region.

Hahndorf Hill Adelaide Hills best wine
The Heurigen Express takes you on a vinous journey

Here I paid the modest fee of five euros to jump aboard the Heurigen Express which clattered its way up the tight switchbacks until we reached the summit. The full route takes the Heurigen Express through several villages and small towns, eventually returning to Nussdorf; but the view of the city and surrounding woods compelled me to jump off and stare for a while, and as the rest of the loop was all downhill from there, I decided to complete the circuit on foot.

The vintners of Vienna have been blessed in that the region is capable of growing a wide range of varietals, and this flexibility was of tremendous help to early winemakers who planted many different varietals in the same vineyard as insurance against unpredictable ripening conditions. The fruit of these different varietals would be co-picked then co-fermented into a fresh but simple and inexpensive wine. This field blend went on to be called Gemischter Satz and would become the signature style of Viennese wine, being consistently and reliably delicious.

Until about 15 years ago, Gemischter Satz was not always given its due recognition as there were those who dismissed it as being merely ‘tavern wine’. However, for the Viennese vintners who tweaked and tinkered with their pet style, and who worked hard and persisted, the reward came in 2013 when the ‘Wiener Gemischter Satz’ achieved formal DAC status. Today, the wines that carry this DAC status are as elegant and sophisticated as those to be found in the swanky regions, but these wines have not forgotten that their roots or natural habitat lies in the heuriger.

A heuriger or wine tavern is a Viennese institution; for generations the only way a small producer was able to sell their product was to build their own tavern where they would serve their wines with platters heaped with cold meats, cheeses and pickles. Over time some evolved to offer warm food and even buffets and on the day I arrived one heuriger was serving up a full spit-roasted pig! Regular readers will know there is little I won’t do for roast pork and on this day I discovered I left my moral compass in Australia when I expertly crashed an 80th birthday party and shamelessly tucked into more crackling than was seemly. I am not proud of my actions but I regret nothing!

Today the hills and suburbs surrounding Vienna are peppered with heurigen that run the spectrum from timber shack to fine dining but one thing is constant: The heuriger is a place for groups of friends or extended families to let their hair down. The famously reserved Austrians’ volume increases, their smiles widens and hard edges soften.

Hahndorf Hill top Adelaide Hills cellardoor cellar door
The bucolic setting of heuriger Mayer am Pfarrplatz
Gruner Veltliner Southern Hemisphere Hahndorf Hill
Beethoven still resonates in Vienna’s heurigen

Mayer am Pfarrplatz in the outer suburb of Heiligenstadt is typical of the smarter style of heuriger with a central courtyard lined with picnic-style tables and benches surrounded by dining rooms and a small museum dedicated to Ludwig van Beethoven, who stayed on the property in 1817. At that time there was also a sanatorium in Heiligenstadt which Beethoven visited regularly in hopes of finding relief for his deteriorating ear condition. It was during this time that he worked on his Ninth Symphony. A connection to the region’s most famous son is claimed by several heurigen in the region; Beethoven’s ghost is even said to be a regular visitor in the heuriger of Schubel-Auer which is only two doors down.

Delectable wine flight at heuriger Schubel-Auer

Schubel-Auer is a casual and cosy heuriger owned by a husband and wife team who form the tenth generation to run the business which is in its 308th year. The wines are all delicious but I would like to single out their Gelben Muskateller which hypnotized me with waves of rose water, apple and lime.

Michael Edelmoser’s heuriger has been rated as the best in Vienna

The heurigen’s significance to Viennese culture cannot be overstated and no trip to Vienna would be complete without a visit to Edlmoser winery, which was recently recognised as the best heuriger in Vienna by Falstaff magazine. Current custodian Michael Edlmoser greeted me at the door and treated me to flight after flight of his beautifully crafted and considered wines. I arrived on a busy night and the dining room was energized by people of a common purpose: To relax and enjoy themselves over platters of deliciously roasted meats with the ubiquitous potato salads and the fruits of Michael’s hard work in the winery. 

Tuck in! Mouthwatering roast pork and sensational potato salad at the Edlmoser heuriger

The Edlmoser vineyards are to the south of the city where red grape varieties thrive and where Riesling and Gruner Veltliner are prized. The Gemischter Satz wines reflect this and are leaner and more acid driven than the Muskateller-dominant styles to the north. Here I tasted exciting wines so razor sharp I could shave with them through to opulent and generous wines that I could easily believe were more sunlight than grape. But such hyperbole would only embarrass Michael Edlmoser who would much rather discuss what music to pair with his wines and who completely rejects what he sees as just the highbrow bollocks of wine journalism. I very much enjoyed my evening at the Edlmoser heuriger and can see why the whole package is so highly regarded. 

Rainer Christ is one of the vinters instrumental in the rise of Vienna’s Gemischster Satz

The sub-region of Bisamberg is relatively small but rich in geological variety; loess, shale, glacier ground gravel and compacted ancient sea shells are all tugging on the thin quilt of top soil. It is this mix of mediums that gives the fruit grown here a distinctive acid and floral aromatics, characteristics prized by Rainer Christ of Christ winery and heuriger. Here the modern seamlessly complements the traditional in every way; the winery is state of the art but also deceptively low-tech. The fruit and must progress through five expertly designed climate zones without ever seeing a pump; gravity is the master here and the result is wines of quiet power and subtle authority.

Gemischter Satz forms the heart of the portfolio with several examples being among the best I have tried; I was especially smitten with the Bisamberg Gemischter Satz DAC, from the Ried Wiesthalen vineyard. White blossom and ripe orange spring from the glass while toasty, nutty rye bread notes stroll in at their own pace. The vineyard is over 70 years old and is thought to be planted with over 10 varieties; no one is quite sure, but one thing is certain, I want more.

Originally home to fresh cheap wines that were served ice cold in large carafes as soon as possible to the ordinary people of Vienna, the heuriger evolved over the past 100 years to become an integral element for everyone in any successful spring and summer. Long afternoons sipping Gemischter Satz in the sun with friends and family has become as essential to the Viennese as enjoying wiener schnitzel, and while the heuriger is not a uniquely Viennese venue, it is they who have mastered it. An afternoon spent sipping, munching and chatting in a heuriger is good for the soul, and I have already pencilled in several more to visit on my next trip.

The Vienna wine region is rich and varied;  several sub-regions that sit on a myriad of soil types has gifted its winemakers with a broad palate from which to paint wines that have stood the test of time. I have long been a fan of field blends and I can now confirm that Vienna Gemischter Satz sits at the zenith of the style.

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Reappraising the Weinviertel – By Jack Simmonds, Hahndorf Hill Brand Ambassador

I have a confession to make: In my life I have taken as gospel many things I have read or heard with little to no first-hand experience. I believe man went to the moon fifty years ago this month; in my heart of hearts I am convinced that if given a competitive car Daniel Ricciardo could be a Formula One world champion; and I accepted that the Weinviertel region in Lower Austria made only cheap bulk wine but for a handful of maverick producers making wines of quality.  On a recent trip to the region I was initiated into the truth beyond that last and what I now know to be utterly erroneous statement and quickly committed my sword (or in this case pen) to help correct this widely held misconception.

Welcome to the Weinviertel – Austria’s largest wine producing region

Finding an interesting article or recipe in a well-thumbed waiting-room magazine, discovering a hidden bonus track at the end of your favourite album or flicking over to a genuinely funny comedian on late night TV, can all excite and gift a flare of thrill. You have found a diamond in the rough, an unexpected treat in the most unlikely of places. Now imagine that diamond is not the exception but the rule and you are not toiling away in an underground mine but strolling through Aladdin’s Cave, a sparking place stacked with gems. Welcome to the Weinviertel.

The rolling fertile plains of the Weinviertel

I began my journey through the Weinviertel in the centuries-old town of Poysdorf. A Google search suggested a travel time from Vienna of around 50 minutes but as I hired a local Uber driver to whom speed limit signs were more of a suggestion than a restriction, I arrived at my hotel about twenty minutes earlier than predicted. After changing into some fresh trousers and confirming my will was in fact up to date, I made my way to the local Vinothek.

The bright and airy Weinmarkt tasting bar at the VinoVersum Wine Museum & Tourism Centre rotates through around three dozen bottles of local wines at any one time. White wines are dominant in this area but a few wines of a more pronounced complexion are also opened to taste. The Weinviertel is Gruner Veltliner country but she has graciously made some room for Welschriesling, Riesling, Muller Thurgau and Zweigelt. The staff were very friendly and knowledgeable with excellent English. Attached to the vinothek is a very good museum detailing the region’s rich history with a special focus on its grapegrowing and vinification traditions.

The flight of wines I tried in the Vinothek left me a little confused; I had expected to find tooty-fruity Sauvignon Blanc-like wines with little finesse or structure, but the first bracket of wines were anything but, so I kept tasting, then I tasted some more. Something was afoot here; almost all of the two dozen wines I tasted had been made with care and by people who prize things like balance, texture and spice. It was at this point I took down a handful of addresses of local producers and set off down Poysdorf’s sloped and winding laneways in search of answers. Was the selection at the Vinothek really representative of the region? Did we have this place all wrong?

The “Aspergerhaus” is one of the prettiest buildings in the region and has been a functioning winery for centuries; no-one is quite sure exactly when it was built but it is known to pre-date the parish church consecrated in 1640. The Taubenschuss family took up residence in the 1850s but was already well established in the wine industry, being first mentioned in 1670. A modern winery and cellar was built under the rear wing of the house in the 1990s, and the marriage between old and new is seamless.

Tasting with Thomas Taubenschuss of the highly regarded Weingut Taubenschuss

I met Thomas Taubenschuss when I accidently interrupted a tasting he was presenting to a group of Hungarian restaurateurs in the family’s beautiful tasting room. We met in the courtyard of what I now know to be the private residence. Upon realising my mistake I quickly introduced myself and outlined my mission: “As a fellow producer of Gruner Veltliner I have come all the way from Australia to learn for myself the real Weinviertel.” Only too aware of the region’s reputation for “entry level” or fruit-driven bulk wine, he insisted I stay and join his group for lunch. I apologised for interrupting and tried to arrange a meeting for later in the day, but Thomas refused to let me go. He saw someone as serious about his passion as he was, and he would not let me out of his sight until he was confident I really understood what they were trying to do.

The ancient Hermannschachern single vineyard block features very deep loess

After a delicious lunch in a local restaurant with the Hungarians, Thomas and I strolled back to the house and toured the underground winery and cellars. Here I got to see first-hand the care and attention paid at every step of the process; this cellar produces delicate and pure wines that truly speak of the terroir. A short drive from the winery atop a gently sloping hill is their premier Hermannschachern block; deep loess with a limestone and gravel sediment provide flinty minerality and the region’s signature white pepper spice.

Thomas generously guided me through his whole range of whites and I can honestly say I enjoyed every one; this was Gruner Veltliner in her Sunday best – fresh, complex and textural. I must give the 2015 Grosse Reserve MX Alte Reben a special mention; had I been at home with this bottle I would have turned off the lights, locked the door and pretended I wasn’t home. If you are lucky enough to have a bottle of your own be sure to only open this around people you like; every drop is to be jealously guarded. The 2015 “MX” is ripe and creamy but so much more; an almost briny minerality expertly balances and freshens the richness … a Reserve style in the truest sense.

I have spoken already of the Taubenschuss generosity but it didn’t stop with lunch and a comprehensive tasting; keen to show me more of his favourite local wines, Thomas started to work the phone and we drove to the other side of the village to visit his friend Melanie of Weingut Weinrieder. Thomas offered to stay and taste with me as Melanie doesn’t speak much English and I quickly sensed between the two a mutual respect and shared passion for the land both families have loved for generations.

Some impressive beauties from Weingut Weinrieder

Like Taubenschuss, the Rieder family source their fruit from several of the region’s premium blocks – and it shows. The Classic styles of Gruner Veltliner are elegant and sophisticated with fresh spice and acid; the Reserve wines are leaner than the Smaragd style of the Wachau but no less textural and cultured. White pepper, stone fruit, citrus and pear all link to pique turn across the palate. I especially enjoyed the 2013 Hohenleiten Lagenreserve which would pair perfectly with roast pork, charcuterie or fresh fish.

Weinrieder was originally founded on Ice Wine and the 2014 vintage excited me immensely as it reminded me of our own dessert-style Green Angel Gruner Veltliner. Honeyed pears and white pepper are the signature of this surprisingly light wine and at only 180 grams of residual sugar, I was glad to taste a kinship and shared philosophy.

My second day in Poysdorf dawned clear and bright; the golfers on the course next to my hotel were out early and I enjoyed a hearty breakfast in preparation for another big day of tasting.

My first meeting was with Monika Neustifter, fourth generation winemaker of Weingut Neustifter, one of the largest producers in the region. Carved into the hillside, the winery and cellars extend deep underground and are home to barrels of all sizes. It was there that I was let into a little secret; all around the village I had seen pictures and sculptures of a stylised black cat which had over time become an unofficial mascot of the town. Legend has it each winery had a pet cat that would guard what it judged to be the best wine in the cellar by sitting atop the barrel all day long. The locals would then put a black cat on the bottles drawn from that barrel.

Discovering the secret to the black cat phenomenon in the cellars at Weingut Neustifter

Modern vintners noticed the barrels selected were always the dessert styles still going through their long slow ferment and therefore radiating heat; hence the cats had simply found the warmest spot in the cool cellar. The Keller Katze or Cellar Cats were also thought to have supernatural powers. Their refusal to enter the underground cellars warned of an often deadly build-up of “evil air”, which we now know to be carbon dioxide.

Weingut Neustifter produces eight distinct Gruner Veltliners ranging from the fruit forward, to the lean and minerally Classics, decadent Reserves and a Natural. The white pepper prized in the Weinviertel is a constant; the Classic styles revelled in their white blossom, musk and tropical fruits, while the Reserves balanced spice with chalky tannins and creamy orchard fare.

The 2018 DAC Klassik with its lifted pear and lychee put me in mind of our White Mischief, perfect for sharing with friends in the sun or to accompany an intimate take-away curry for two. The 2015 Hermannschachern Reserve with its custard apple, crystallised orange peel and almost oriental spice, is a wine to be sipped with roast chicken, buttery Morten Bay bugs or the deepest dark chocolate.

Fourteen years ago Erich Schreiber resigned from his high-flying banking job in Vienna and returned home to take over the family business. His family had been in the wine industry for generations but Erich’s passion lay in the pouring, discussing and drinking rather than in the making. In Poysdorf he converted the family home and cellars first recorded in 1609 into the Wino Vinothek & Wein Bar, and never looked back. I emailed Erich before I left Australia to book a table and asked if he could put together a flight or two that would in his experience best represent the Weinviertel region – and he did not let me down.

Man with a mission – Erich Schreiber of Wino Vinothek & Wein Bar in Poysdorf

I could listen to Erich for hours; his passion for his region is all consuming and he knows each of his 129 suppliers personally. He knows the back story, philosophy and production methods of every bottle he sells and I can almost see him swell with pride that others are starting to take notice of what, is in his mind, the most under-represented region in Austria.

I tasted through five flights of six wines apiece, each expertly assembled to highlight a theme, style, vintage or sub-region. I tasted Classics, Reserves, a few Natural wines and even a couple of Gemischter Satz wines, a style made famous by the Viennese but also embraced here in the north. The Wino Vinothek & Wein Bar is a warm and welcoming place that puts no value in snobbery. Erich personally welcomes every customer with a handshake or kiss and a lucky few get both! The wine list is carefully considered and I can highly recommend the platters of meats, cheeses and pickles. I very much enjoyed my afternoon/evening at Wino and will definitely call through again in the future.

The Weinviertel is Austria’s largest wine producing region but, as much as I enjoyed the wines of Poysdorf, my brief was to really get to grips with the region as a whole. It was time to move on; an hour or so down the road is the town of Retz. First mentioned 900 years ago but officially incorporated in 1278, Retz has deep roots. Through a combination of location, logistics and a series of privileges granted by successive monarchs, Retz has been at the heart of the Eastern European wine trade for centuries.

The twin fountains in Retz flow with red and white wine respectively during the town’s end of vintage festival

The town sits on a deep layer of highly compacted quartz sand which once formed the bed of a primordial inland sea. This sand which is very stable but easily excavated is perfect for tunnelling out cellars, and that is what the people of Retz have been doing for centuries. There are over twenty kilometres of passages under the town; a network more extensive than even the road system above and new tunnels are still being discovered and charted.

The remarkable Althof Retz Vinothek showcases over 200 wines from 80 local producers

A guided tour of the cellar network finishes in what was the basement level of a 700 year-old castle but is now home to the Althof Retz Vinothek, which ranges over 200 wines from 80 local producers. The manager of this space is the delightful Doris who, upon hearing my mission, insisted on looking after me herself, and look after me she did. Under Doris’ watchful eye I was treated to seven flights she personally curated to best demonstrate the underlying DNA but also the variation in the Weinviertel DAC.  Winemaking is all about embracing and highlighting the variables unique to your patch and in a region as large as the Weinviertel, the variations can be profound. But, after following Doris through dozens of vineyards, large and small, high and low, warm and cool, I am now tuned into the underlying bassline of this place.

The wines and winemakers of the Weinviertel have been put down and misrepresented for centuries. Until relatively recently the region was mostly mixed farms with grape vines growing alongside other crops and livestock; a necessity in a poor agrarian region. It was this diversification that kept the locals fed but also caused the more prestige Austrian regions to look down on these so-called “amateurs”; but, as is so often the case, the high took their eye off the low. In that time a passionate and dedicated few inspired the enthusiastic many into a complete rejection of the status quo. Those who once looked down their nose are now looking over their shoulder at a Weinviertel that can more than hold its own at any black-tie dinner.

If this article achieves just one thing, let it be to not believe everything you hear. I accepted the words of others and in not seeking my own answers I very nearly missed out. The Weinviertel hears the gossip and whispered slights but has committed itself to rise above it; to make wines of subtlety, elegance, texture and soul.

Weinguts Taubenschuss, Weinrieder and Neustifter, and the vinotheks Wino and Althof Retz, are representative of a proud Weinviertel that is not only the power-house of the Austrian wine industry but is also its flagbearer for some of Austria’s most exciting wines. I have never been so glad to have been so wrong.

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