Every couple of years, an opportunity arises to visit Austria and discover a new wine region; this year, it was Austria’s least known, Steiermark (aka, Styria).
What made this trip even more compelling was that I was also invited to watch the finals of the Best Sommelier of Europe and Africa competition live in Vienna. As a professor of the profession, it was an über-cool opportunity and an honour of the highest order. But more about that later.
Of Austria’s four wine-growing states (or, Weinbaugebiete), Styria is Austria’s southernmost and warmest. It lies at the confluence of the Pannonian climate, Central Europe’s warmest/driest influence, as well as the heat rising up from the Mediterranean ocean.
Within Styria, there are three sub-regions: Vulkanland Steiermark, Südsteiermark, and Weststeiermark. Each one specializes in something different, even though the dominant grape across all three is the singular Welschriesling. Of an unknown parentage, this grape has no relation to the noble Riesling grape, but its versatility is undeniable. It produces everything from neutral base wines — perfect for sparkling wine production — to easy-drinking whites to botrytis-affected lusciousness.
It is also worth mentioning that Styria was the first region to bounce back from the infamous 1985 diethylene glycol scandal. Prior to this time, the majority of wines produced in Austria were on the sweeter side. To further enhance this attribute, a few unscrupulous producers were illegally adulterating their bulk wines with the aforementioned substance, so as to emulate a late-harvest/richer style. However, this greed caused the entire industry to collapse like dominos.
On the flip side, it forced the country to create the strictest wine laws in the world, focusing on small producers and primarily dry wines. As Styria had always produced dry styles, the region was the least affected by the scandal, and thus the phoenix rose first here.
Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that Styria is also the birthplace of a famous Terminator/Governor of California and Donald Trump antagonist.
There are three sub-regions in Styria: Vulkanland Steiermark, Südsteiermark, and Weststeiermark. Each one specializes in something different.
A recent name change (previously Süd-Oststeiermark) has seen producers push this sub-region’s 14-million-year-old volcanic deposits to the forefront of wine labels.
Throughout history, it has also been the frontline of many border skirmishes with its European neighbours and invading armies, which is why the first things that the horizon presents are castles and fortified towns, sitting upon impressive basalt cliffs.
Steep slopes are the norm here, and even though it is a large area geographically, the majority of 1,500 hectares of plantings are concentrated around three villages: Klöch, St. Anna am Aigen and Straden. Production is usually consumed in the local taverns or through winery doors.
Myriad white grapes are grown here — more than in any other region — including Welschriesling, Weissburgunder (Pinot Blanc), Morillon (Chardonnay), Grauburgunder (Pinot Gris), Sauvignon Blanc, Gelber Muskateller (Muscat Blanc à Petit Grains) and all kinds of Traminer, with the latter being a calling card. All wines tend to show a spicy/minerally quality due to the geology. Prices are also reasonable as this part of Styria has yet to be discovered.
Styria’s western region is also its smallest (just 546 hectares) and is home to the rare and sauvage Blauer-Wildbacher. It is an ancient dark-skinned varietal, believed to have been cultivated since Celtic times. It’s first official documentation was in the 16th century, and its main requirements are heat, a long hangtime and aeration via leaf removal so as to mitigate the possibility of rot, which is its primary enemy. Although there are rare dry red and dessert renditions, Wildbacher’s main interpretation is Schilcher, a dry, crisp and fruity red-berry-scented rosé, which possesses a certain rusticity. These wines are easily identifiable via the Lipizzaner stallion on the bottle.
The bucolic countryside gives rise to rolling hills with steep grades, which makes grape growing somewhat backbreaking. This is white wine land, with Austria’s finest Sauvignon Blanc (and Chardonnay) being the calling card. It is worth mentioning that Südsteiermark Sauvignon Blanc is now being referenced alongside the Loire and New Zealand as benchmarks. Not to rest on their laurels, and to continue to deliver high quality for their signature varietal, producers travel and work abroad to learn from their peers.
Of course, the question on everyone’s lips is how did French grapes find a home here? The simple answer is love. During the first half of the 1800s, Archduke Johann of Austria became enamoured with and married a local lady, and in doing so became attached to the Styrian people. It is documented that he was a man of the people, helping to modernize the region and advance their cause. And when it came to the vine, he helped populate the land with varietals of personal predilection — which leaned towards French ones.
The region, though, is no dual-trick pony, so there are plenty of other pale-skinned varietals to be found. Pinot Blanc, which is produced in qualitative quantities, tends to be consumed within Austria, as the locals know a good thing. My personal epiphany, though, were the Rieslings from the Sausal area. Look across the rolling green hillsides with vineyards as far as the eye can see, and you could, in fact, be in Italy. This enclave of 400 hectacres is planted on steep slopes of slate (Riesling’s favorite soil), between 400 to 600 metres. These wines are truly impressive and reminiscent of top dry, mineral-tinged offerings from the Nahe and Mosel. The Pinot Gris wines from Sausal are also worth discovering as they show depth and complexity seldom found elsewhere.
Back to Vienna and Europe’s Top Somm
As mentioned earlier, the crescendo of my trip was being invited to the Best Sommelier of Europe and Africa competition in Vienna. Before the event, a walk-about of the old town was a mandatory pre-requisite. People rave about Paris and Rome, but for me, the most enchanting European capital is Vienna. A leisurely stroll through its streets, surrounded by beautiful Baroque architecture, is inspiring. Obligatory stops included the Hotel Sacher for its namesake Torte served alongside Viennese Coffee as well as an Aperol Spritz and finger food at the legendary Zum Schwarzen Kameel.
After a quick change into my James Bond outfit, our group departed for the competition. Traditionally, there are three finalists, but this year included a fourth participant, as the difference separating third and fourth place in the quarterfinals was marginal. Starting at 8 pm, contestants, working in a language other than their native tongue, were put to task. Challenges included serving a magnum of Champagne into 18 glasses, equally, in one pass; red wine decanting; multiple blind tastings; sake pairing; food and wine pairing; wine list correction; and global wine picture identification. At 1:30 am, the podium belonged to Raimonds Tomsons of Latvia, who will now move on to the World Championship, in Antwerp, Belgium, in 2019. Saluté!