Wojciech Bońkowski
Wine & tea writing

Pichler-Krutzler: high fly

In four vintages Elisabeth Pichler and Erich Krutzler have risen from zero to the status of undisputed stars. Meet Austria’s hottest double name.

Knoll Loibenberg Grüner Veltliner 2002

Knoll Ried Loibenberg Grüner Veltliner Smaragd 2002: the heights of traditional winemaking in Wachau. Drinking superbly now – still lots of power left. And far better balance than many more recent superalcoholic Loibenberg Veltliners.

In the Wachau: why genes matter

Spent a day in the Wachau region in Austria with its spectacular scenery of terraced vineyards in the narrow valley of the Danube, and its beautiful Rieslings and Grüner Veltliners. We visited some of the region’s giants: Franz Hirtzberger with his powerful, late-picked, botrytis-affected wines from Spitz; Rudi Pichler with his meticulous, modern, puristic approach and transparent wines (the 2009 Kirchweg Riesling has fantastic punch and dimension, and is one of my wines of the vintage); Knoll with his very classic, long-maturing, alluringly spicy wines from the warmer Loiben vineyards. 

 Franz Hirtzberger Jr. in the spectacular Singerriedel vineyard.
But it was a 2-hour tasting with Toni Bodenstein at the Prager winery that proved the most memorable. Though defining himself as Homo rusticus, Bodenstein has a fantastically thorough approach and one of the deepest knowledge of the vine and terroir that I’ve come across. If you think the geological difference between gneiss, paragneiss and amphibolite have nothing to do with the wine in your glass, taste Prager’s two Rieslings from the Achleiten and Klaus vineyards: basically coming from adjacent parcels on the same hill but on different rock formations, the wines are like night and day, the Klaus an acidic, skinny, inquisitive, stern creature and the Achleiten its solar, open-minded, high-spirited opposite. 

Toni Bodenstein: Wachaus deepest mind?

The 2009 Rieslings here are impressive but the Grüner Veltliners are simply awesome (especially in the context of other 2009s, often excessively soft and rich). Bodenstein made the wise decision of acquiring many old vineyards when he took up the property: now these 1940s and 1950s plantings are delivering wines of great depth and complexity. It has also encouraged Bodenstein to reappreciate and saveguard the old clones of Grüner Veltliner that can be found in those old vineyards. The Wachstum Bodenstein, from a small parcel in the Achleiten that was replanted in 2003 with selected old cuttings from a variety of sourced in the Wachau and other regions in Austria, is a glowing testimony to the complexity and dimension that is lost when just a few ‘approved’ clones are reproduced by vine nurseries and replanted on a large scale by wineries. And yet this wine is towered by the 2009 Stockkultur Grüner Veltliner: painstakingly farmed at a record 16,000 vines/hectare on high narrow terraces are forgotten old clones going back to 1937, giving amazing complexity with a vibrant vegetal sappiness and spicy reminiscences of the Orient. 

Rudi Pichler (not) posing for a photo.

No relation to the wine in your glass? On the very contrary; the genetic diversity of our grape varieties is a crucial issue for the future of viticulture and winemaking. 

Accomodation during my stay in the Wachau is paid for by the Austrian Wine Marketing Board. All wines were provided by the producers.

Austrian marvels

I’m in Austria for the VieVinum event, the major tasting opportunity for Austrian wines. VieVinum has a more relaxed feel than similar trade fairs and combined with the near-perfect organisation (if only air conditioning was improved…) this makes for a memorable vinous experience.
The VieVinum takes place in the spectacular interiors of the imperial Hofburg palace.

My tastings this year focus on the 2009 vintage which is looking very promising for the white wines from Riesling and Austria’s signature grape, Grüner Veltliner. A warm, dry vintage, it has actually favoured Riesling a bit more, with some Veltliners crossing the thin line between rich and excessively soft. On the positive side, many of the lighter less expensive Veltliners will provide spectacularly good early drinking.

But in general I have a preference for the Rieslings which are both more aromatic and fresher in taste, with a good balance even at high ripeness. There are some lovely wines from the usual suspects such as Willi Bründlmayer in the Kamptal region (his Heiligenstein Lyra is a masterpiece of harmony and completeness), or Prager and Franz Hirtzberger in Wachau. But I’ve also tracked down some lesser-known estates with great bargains. Franz-Joseph Gritsch from the town of Spitz in the Wachau has a lovely range of Veltliners and Rieslings, and overdelivers also in the Federspiel categories (which will cost you less than 10€). Andreas Lehensteiner from Weissenkirchen has an attractively clean, firm style, and at 14€ his Hinterkirchen Riesling Smaragd is one of the region’s bargains. High up in a remote side valley in Viessling, Josef Gritsch of the Graben Gritsch estate is making some impressively puristic mineral wines including a range of lovely Gelber Muskatellers (it’s rare to see so much minerality in a Muscat), and at 14€ his Setzberg Riesling Smaragd 2009 might well be the best bargain of the fair. 

Josef Gritsch proudly presenting his Riesling.

There were some very good Veltliners, too, especially at the Erste Lage presentation: 2009 is the first vintage for this new category, roughly equivalent to the French grand cru and German
Grosses Gewächs (see here for my post on this). Introduced in the regions of Kamptal, Kremstal, Traisental and Wagram by the private vintners’ association Traditionsweingüter Österreich, Erste Lage is a winning idea: the concept is clear (the best vineyard sites are classified and distinguished) and the quality level of the wines is high.  

I’ve tasted through 49 samples and my favourite Veltliners included Salomon’s Lindberg, Petra Unger’s Oberfeld Alte Reben, and Ludwig Ehn’s controversial and bold Titan. But one wine that outshone all others was the Renner Veltliner from Schoss Gobelsburg: after many rich, soft, slightly obese 2009s this is a marvel of crystalline minerality and freshness.
Ever wondered what becomes of opened bottles at wine fairs? …Vinegar!

I taste at the VieVinum fair on the invitation of the Austrian Wine Marketing Board, which pays for my flights, accommodation and wine tasting programme.

Austrian trade tasting

My top picks from the annual Austrian trade tasting in Warsaw, including some delicious whites from the lesser-known Wagram region.

Austrian dining

Springtime wine

Tomorrow is the Austrian trade tasting here in Warsaw; one of Poland’s most important events throughout the year. And tonight I met up with Willi Klinger and Christian Dworan of the Austrian Wine Marketing. At the C.K. Oboźnia wine bar & restaurant, we drank through some nice wines and discussed some exciting projects for the future, including a Polish food & Austrian wine matching campaign.

We ate well (asparagus risotto and spicy duck breast), drinking a mixed bunch of wines, including two reds, a very spicy (white pepper and caraway) Kirnbauer [K+K] Mittelburgenland DAC Classic 2006 that was a little green and tart, and a Heinrich Hartl Pinot Noir Classic 2007 that started as an oaky disaster and finished generous and tasty but banal. More luck with the whites: from Matthias Hager in the Kamptal came the Urgestein Grüner Veltliner 2007 that was a big, spicy animal with lots of phenolic ripeness and correspondingly little minerality (I would have preferred it the other way around), and the Schmelz Pichl Point Grüner Veltliner Smaragd 2007 which also very ripe but with better depth and poise.

Strangely enough, the most memorable wine of the evening came at the very beginning: fresh from the fermentation tank (well, almost), the Schmelz Buschenberg Grüner Veltliner Steinfeder 2008 was light (11.5% alc.), exuberantly fresh, zesty, green and positive. I never drink Steinfeder (the lightest style of wine from the region of Wachau, which by law needs not exceed 11.5%) and generally dislike drinking Austrian whites this young, but this was a good example of how youthful and invigorating these newborns can be.

I’ll be on the lookout for more of the same during the tasting tomorrow.

C.K. Oboźnia ‘wine lounge’ in Warsaw.

Fred Loimer Spiegel Veltliner 2003

Final call

Went to a friends’ house for a dinner today. And had the tricky task of providing a wine for salmon in a Mornay-like sauce. The natural choice would have been a white Burgundy or dry Chenin but I picked up the Fred Loimer Spiegel Grüner Veltliner 2003 instead. Expected this to be mature and nicely rich for this classic French butter & cream sauce.

2003 is a vintage I was heavily stocked with, and am only now finishing the last bottles of the whites. European readers surely remember the excruciating heatwave that nurtured Europe throughout August that year, and made for a fairly appalling collection of flabby, alcoholic, burned-fruity whites wines from Savennières through Alto Adige down to Danubian Austria. (Only the limit zones for dry whites wines, such as Champagne, the Mosel and Tokaj, seem to have produced decent wines in any quantity).

In their early youth these 2003 Rieslings, Sauvignons, Veltliners and Pinots were surely one-dimensional but with a certain fruity charm. With years passing, the fruit deteriorated, leaving unbalanced structure heavy on C2H5OH and low in life-giving acidity. Few have been the wines that have stood the test of 4–5 years, and 2003 has turned out to be the true ‘vintage of the devil’ as I have nicknamed it (for the white wines). To a lesser extent, I have similar feelings about 2006 in such regions as Austria, the Palatinate, or Chablis.

The Loimer Spiegel confirmed all what was wrong about 2003. Clearly it is the last urgent call for cru Veltliners from this vintage. This wine shows no minerality, no freshness, although a vestige of former green citrus pithiness perhaps. Palate is broad, alcoholic, vague. Alcohol is noticeable though perhaps not outrageous (13.5% on label; I can’t help thinking of a recently tasted F.X. Pichler ‘M’ Veltliner from 2006 which was 15+%), but it doesn’t really help the overall balance. This wine is not exactly unpleasant but has clearly lost most of its qualities.

Surely Veltliner, with its natural richness, earlier ripening, and moderate acidity was handicapped in 2003. Austrian Rieslings overall have fared better, and some are still alive. For example, the Schloss Gobelsburg Gaisberg Riesling 2003. There is no denying the devilish imprint of 2003, showing in a pervasive alcoholic warmth (despite there being only 12.5% on the label) but there is also some good substance and a whiff of acidity for nominal freshness. About recognisably Riesling, although the notes of butterscotch, honey, peach jam are really quite pushy. Don’t decant or leave sitting open for too long: chill well and enjoy with rich foods. And get rid of any 2003s you might still be sitting on.