14 Mar 2012

History in the making (Niederosterreich, Austria - Day Two)

Niederosterreich is Austria's largest and most important wine producing area, covering just over 27,000 hectares of vineyards across eight distinct regions from the Wachau until Carnuntum. The majority of the premium wine comes from three of these regions along the Danube River; Wachau, Kremstal and Kamptal, with the top wines being made from fruit grown on steep and terraced vineyards. There are over 4,000 different producers in Niederosterreich, but the average vineyard owner only holds a few hectares of vines. The largest producers are often cooperatives or wineries owned by the state, and many of these produce large volume wines for the Austrian market. The wine consumer in Austria is very patriotic, consuming 80% of domestic production at a level of 30L per capita per year. Austrians actually consume as much as they produce, so the 20% of production that is exported is replaced by imported wine, mostly German.

Modern art along terraced vineyards above Unterloiben
For those who haven’t heard the name Lenz Moser (IV), but his influence on the global wine industry has been quite profound. He made his mark by modernising viticulture in the 1950s by designing the “Lenz Moser System”, which involves training the vines on a cordon wire at least a metre above the ground, which is valuable for high density plantings in regions prone to frost. Considering the hundreds of thousands of hectares planted around the world that utilise this system, the impact that this has had on vineyard management cannot be measured. The Lenz Moser estate was taken over by twin sons Laurenz and Sepp, but the business was forced to be sold in the 1980s due to economic hardships related to the Austrian Wine Scandal. Sepp Moser then established his own estate in 1987, and made the centrepiece a Classical Roman atrium using materials from ruins bombed in WWII. The first task was to dramatically reduce the amount of vineyards to only 33 hectares, in an effort to shift the focus to quality wines rather than quantity.

Roman classical atrium at Sepp Moser
Sepp’s son Nikolaus Moser runs the estate today, and truly believes that the best way to translate the unique terroir of the estate in the wines is by using biodynamic practices, and has thus made the decision in 2003 to convert the vineyards to biodynamic Demeter certification. Demeter certification applies to their vineyards in the Kremstal DAC as well as their vineyards in Neusiedlersee in Northern Burgenland. The majority of the wines are fermented and stored in stainless steel tanks before bottling, but there are some old barrels and some new barriques for a few special wines. These are the Minimal wines (gruner veltliner for white, zwiegelt for red), and they are made in a truly traditional way; indigenous yeasts, barrel fermenting and ageing for several years, bottling with almost no sulphur. The wines themselves are very unique and of great quality and personality, particularly the white.

Display in the tasting room at Sepp Moser
Tasting through the Sepp Moser range with Nikki Moser just proved again how ridiculously underpriced Austrian wine is, or how low the taxes are in Austria for wine compared to Australia. A mixture of 2011 and 2010 vintage wines were included in the white wine tasting, and again the 2010 wines stood out for their concentration of acidity and fruit, and yet their balance purity and elegance. Comparing the Gebling Erste Lage Gruner Veltliner between the vintages showed that whilst the 2010 had a slightly smoky spicy nose with a slightly grassy tropical palate, the 2011 was more soft and broad with stone fruit approachability. The Gebling Reserve Riesling 2010 was very vibrant in the floral and tropical citrus aromatics, had wonderful length and minerality, and superb ageing potential. Over lunch we tasted a few of the red wines which come from the Burgenland vineyards, and typical for Austria they were soft yet full with black fruits and delicate spice notes.

Cellars at Sepp Moser
The Emmerich Knoll winery based in Unterloiben has one of the most dedicated cult followings of any Austrian estate. With one of the most unique and recognisable labels in the world, you are hard pressed to find any die-hard Austrian wine fans who are not familiar with the Knoll name. They own a total of 15 hectares in some of the best vineyards in the Wachau, including Schuett, Loibenberg, Kellerberg, Kreutles and also the neighbouring Kremstal vineyard of Pfaffenberg. The winemaking philosophy is not to create blockbuster high alcohol and powerful wines, but rather to make fully developed yet restrained and elegant wines of distinction. As a member of Vinea Wachau Nobilis Districtus they produce regionally distinct wines in the Steinfeder, Federspiel and Smaragd quality, but always aim to over-deliver at the price.

Knoll vineyards
I met Emmerich Knoll III and his wife Anja at Prowein in Dusseldorf, and right off the bat they were some of the most genuine and generous people I have met on my trip. They were very happy to meet me when I was down here, and upon hearing that I hadn’t arranged my accommodation yet made a call and booked a room at one of their neighbours who run a B&B out of the winery (not uncommon here in Niederosterreich). The morning after I arrived I knocked on the door and Anja not only let me use a computer to check my emails, but upon hearing that I had received no response from some wineries about appointments, she called them on my behalf to arrange them. This was before I had even visited their estate! When I did come back the next day Emmerich took me up into the vineyards to show the unique and beautiful terrain, then down in to the cellars before sitting down for a brief tasting.

Unique tank shape at Weingut Knoll
There are only four wines that remain to be sold from the 2010 vintage, and they are all smaragd wines. The first is the Ried Schutt Gruner Veltliner, which has a very bright and juicy floral nose with high minerality but also delicacy. The palate is very textural and concentrated, showing a flinty element with great line and length. The Loibenberg Gruner Veltliner is much earthier and more brooding, with intense berry notes on the nose. There is more volume and depth of ripeness on the palate, with a more savoury texture but no less vibrant. The Riesling from the same vineyard has a very delicate nose of citrus blossom and a slightly sweet sap and toast complexity. It is opulent and rich on the palate, quite broad and yet bright and delicate at the same time. The Schutt Riesling has a much zestier citrus spritz to it, coupled with that same reductive freshly boiled pasta nose I had seen previously. There is volume and texture in this wine, but it is all about the concentrated fresh tropical citrus fruits and bracing acidity. Wines of purity, elegance and depth, and well worth the investment in cellaring.

Tasting at Weingut Knoll
Click here to see more photos from Day Two in Niederosterreich, Austria.

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