“Single vineyards are the essence of all our efforts. Just by focusing on them you can work on the marginal differences offered by the diversity of soils. That’s what wine is all about: details, subtleties, and character.”
When Urban and Dominique Stagård took over the family estate in 2006, they set straight to reimagining its potential. Their vision had four elements: reclaiming obscure vineyards, reexamining the possibilities of iconic sites, farming based on a close study of soils, and making wine by drawing on knowledge and techniques of the past. Some of these approaches—such as the use of Steinzeug, or thick-walled stoneware fermentation vessels—are so arcane their rediscovery feels more like innovation. Riesling, the variety the Stagårds say “speaks most to us,” is their clear focus. Grüner veltliner, more traditional and far more widely planted in the Kremstal, naturally finds a place in their work as well. Both varieties are grown organically (certified since 2009) on 17 hectares of exceptional sites scattered around Stein and in the Wachau. The Stagårds are dedicated to amplifying biodiversity and intensifying hand work among the vines, and restoring traditional practices to their ancient cellar. They rely on native yeast fermentations and minimal sulfur, as well as long aging on the fine lees to promote texture and protect against oxidation. They also embrace skin maceration and stem inclusion when they feel this contributes to site expression. “Above all,” says Urban, “we trust in time.” This allows each wine to find its own individual rhythm and equilibrium. These are true wines of terroir – crystalline, tense, and intellectually satisfying, not to mention delightful to drink.
The Stagård cellar is nearly 1,000 years old. While you pause to take that in, a few details: Dominique says wine was not made here continuously, but documents show that Benedictine monks planted this land with a mix of vines and apricot trees. The estate, first mentioned as “Lesehof Tegernseer,” dates to 1424 – making it roughly as old as the village of Krems itself. In 1786, the winery came under the ownership of the current family, who continued to grow grapes and produce wine under the “Tegernseer” name. Then in 1981, Kenneth Stagård traveled here from Sweden and married into the family. He and his wife, Elisabeth, started the Swedish branch of this estate and renamed it Lesehof Stagård. Kenneth’s son, Urban, and Urban’s wife, Dominique, took over in 2006, making them the seventh generation to run the estate. They immediately began the crucial transition to organic viticulture, with certification gained in 2009.
Urban and Dominique Stagård
The Stagårds, along with their young twin daughters (born in the Mosel as it happened), are keenly aware that they’ve stepped into “a lot of tradition and also the duty to continue,” as Urban puts it. Urban came to Austria from Sweden when he was seven, started oenology school at 15, and then went on to work in Luxembourg at Domaines Vinsmoselle and in Austria at a few small wineries near Stein. He also put in some time at Wein & Co, Austria’s biggest wine retailer, to round out his understanding of the wine market. In 2005, he took a class in organic winemaking, setting him on his present course. He loves German riesling (“and also German winemakers!”), among them fellow Schatzis Johannes Leitz and Matthias Knebel, as well as Andreas Barth, Mark Barth, and H.O. Spanier. Dominique does not come from a wine background, but her training in marketing and administration fits in smartly with the family business, which she’s been part of since 2003.
As a family, the Stagårds are closely attuned to the abundance of life in and around the vineyards. Given the history of the estate they work on every day, long-range thinking is elemental. This combination has made them pioneers of organic farming in the Kremstal. Their emphasis on soil health also stems from their belief that a site’s distinctive character can only be expressed if the soil is fully alive. This all goes hand in hand with their relationships to local monasteries, which have enabled them to lease some of the most iconic and sought-after sites in Stein: Hund, Kögl, Pfaffenberg, and Gaisberg. Urban and Dominique have folded these old-vine parcels into the Stagård family estate, growing it from just 4 hectares to its present size of 17, which has allowed them to increase production in an extraordinarily thoughtful way.
The Kremstal and the Wachau
This part of Austria is quite Burgundian, down to the unique qualities of its many lieux dits, strong influence of monastic tradition, and domination by two varieties – writ small and rocky on the banks of the Danube. The Kremstal is split into three zones: the city of Krems, the eastern areas, and the villages on the south bank of the Danube. The Stagårds work with parcels in all three. Their mindset is that riesling and grüner veltliner are what hold together and give clear identity to such diverse topographies, microclimates, and soils.
Riesling, on the steep slopes of primary rock that rise from the Danube here, accounts for just 10% of Kremstal vineyard area, making it the subject of extreme focus. Two of Austria’s most acclaimed Riesling vineyards, Hund and Pfaffenberg, are in Stein. The Stagårds vinify parcels of both. They also work with the extraordinary sites at Gaisberg, Kögl, and Schrek.
Deep loess banks to the north and east of Krems explain why grüner veltliner dominates the valley, as the grape thrives in the water-retaining loess, protecting it from hydric stress and giving it tension and finesse.
Climatically, the Kremstal, like the Wachau, is at the crossroads of dry Pannonian warmth from the east and cooling drafts of Alpine air from the north, all moderated by the temperature-regulating effects of the Danube’s large surface area. Though it is slightly warmer than the Wachau, it experiences the same diurnal extremes that account for the freshness and aromatic intensity of the region as a whole.
Vineyards and farming
“Working organically,“ says Urban, “means above all to observe, because it is possible to read the soil: its breakages, its compressions, its root penetration. All the things that happen in the soil and on its surface are fundamental for every other development in the process of wine production. This is why we try to understand every detail of our vineyard, to know all of our vines and to treat them as gently as possible.” The Stagårds use no herbicides or pesticides, work strictly by hand in the vines, pick relatively late, and select intensively when it comes to the quality of fruit that goes to the winery.
In the cellar
“Our idea of organic winemaking does not end at the cellar door,” say Urban and Dominique. “We work with minimal intervention and, above all, we trust in time. That’s why we leave our wines on the lees for a long time – to harmonize structure, give them stability, and embrace their own specific character. In addition to heavy sorting, 10% of the fruit is manually de-stemmed for the single parcel wines. The grapes macerate up to 48 hours before they are pressed and begin their spontaneous fermentations. The ferments take place in stainless steel or, in select cases, Steinzeug.”
The Stagårds are not focused on producing wines that fit into the classic categories of “dry” or “sweet.” They normally finish with +/- 5 grams of residual sugar and fall between 12.5 and 13% alcohol, showing a certain Germanic influence and making them laser-sharp, mineral expression of poise and elegance. They have three lines: Handwerk, single sites, and Tradition. Within each line is an impressively pinpointed assortment of bottlings, expressing a different facet of Kremstal or Wachau terroir and winemaking.
Handwerk grüner veltliner originates in a selection of the Stagård’s south-facing mountain and terrace vineyards, all in the Pfaffenberg. It’s a steep site that climbs to 300 meters above sea level (about 900 feet) on the south bank of the Danube near Mautern (very near where fellow Schatzi Georg Frischengruber explores the terrains of Rossatz). The wine is fermented in stainless steel and shows veltliner’s classic snappy crunch and cayenne spice.
Handwerk riesling also comes from parts of the Pfaffenberg, including the Braunsdorfer terrace, which rises 400 meters above sea level (about 1200 feet) on Urgestein, here primarily schist and gneiss soils. It is also sourced from lower terraces below the Schreck, where there is more blue slate, and from sites near Mautern. The wine is fermented in stainless steel, yielding a briny, linear riesling, showing lime oil, cherry and citrus.
“Single-vineyards are the essence of all our efforts,” say Dominique and Urban. “Just by focusing on them you can work on the marginal differences offered by the diversity of soils. And that’s what wine is all about: details, subtleties, and character—what the particular vineyard can tell about a wine.”
A quick tour is in order, starting with Grillenparz. The Stagårds believe riesling grown on this wildly precipitous slope belongs to the very best of the Kremstal. “The terraces are narrow and extremely difficult to work,” Urban says, “as there is very little topsoil and the crystalline rock below can be treacherous.” Riesling from this site is a bit of an outlier for the Stagårds – rounder, with a hint of marzipan aroma, though the predominant aromas are savory and of apricots.
Schreck is steeper still – the most sharply angled of all of the Kremstal sites. Everything must be done by hand here and the yields are naturally low. The soils are blue slate and there is something particularly Germanic in this wine. Like the best of Germany’s dry rieslings, Stagård’s are detailed, pure, and juicy, displaying apples and a hint of apricot stretched over a linear structure. (A parcel of Schreck will be replanted in coming years with riesling cuttings from a trio of Schatzis: Johannes Leitz, Killian and Angelina Franzen, and Matthias Knebel.)
Nikolaihof made Steiner Hund famous. It’s a loess and loam site over conglomerate and it can produce powerful riesling. Instead of oxidation to balance the intensity of the site, Urban preserves the freshness with spontaneous fermentation in steel. The result is a yin-yang riesling of intensity and elegance, depth and lift, concentration and utter drinkability.
Kögl is pure Glimmerschiefer (mica-schist), and it produces some of the most structured wines in the Kremstal. There are five terraces of 60-year-old vines here that Urban harvests and macerates for 48 hours before pressing with the stems. He does this in healthy years because ripe stems contain antioxidants and because he likes grip in his riesling. He wants you to feel the wine all the way down to your gullet. This riesling spent ten months on the full lees before racking, and was sulphured only twice: once after alcoholic fermentation and again after racking. It is carries the most texture, hold, and length.
Gaisberg consists of 12 terraces surrounded by trees and bushes that act like a clos. It’s one of the warmest sites in Stein, situated very close to the Danube, benefiting the full effect of the river’s solar reflection. Like the Kögl, it is all Glimmerschiefer and it, too, undergoes 48 hours maceration before pressing with the skins. The palate is salty and schmaltzy with cayenne pepper spice and lime citrus zing.
Goldberg grüner veltliner is a mouthful. Whereas the Handwerk is bright, crispy, spicy, and “green,” the Goldberg is rich, persistent, juicy, and “yellow.” The Goldberg is entirely south-facing and rises 400 meters above sea level, making it the highest grüner veltliner vineyard in Stein. Stagård’s vines there are 40+ years old. The soil consists of Glimmerschiefer, loam, and loess, and it is the site that is picked last every harvest. Urban doesn’t want a peppery or “classical” grüner veltliner from this site; he wants a complex wine that highlights this particular terroir. Urban oxidizes this wine (“to get rid of the pepper”) by means of exhaling into a hose in the tank. The wine is decidedly rich, but it is also extremely focused and precise. It is exotic, spicy, and above all, long.
The Tradition line displays the Stagård’s almost spiritual connection with knowledge and techniques of historical winemaking in the Kremstal. Steinzeug riesling exemplifies this. The family’s long connection to the local monasteries introduced them to a very traditional fermentation vessel: the Steinzeug. This is a glazed, earthenware cylindrical vessel local monks historically used to ferment beer. Urban uses them because they create a reductive environment that, owing to the vessel’s thick walls, never needs temperature control. The Stagård’s largest is 750 liters and more than a century old; Urban fills it with the best grapes from all of the top sites: Kögl, Grillenparz, Gaisberg, Schreck, and Hund. Those grapes are macerated for 48 hours, then 90% are pressed and used to fill the vessel; the remaining 10% are added whole cluster. The fermentation is all sponti and malo is not blocked. The wine stays in Steinzeug until May following the harvest, at which point it is moved to stainless steel, but not racked. The wine rests there until August when it is racked, filtered and bottled. The resulting wine is a treatise on riesling – razor sharp, steely, and taught, yet also dense, intricate, and long. Above all, it is juicy and lively.
“Only with time does one gain an appreciation for the fantastic and natural beauty of scraggly vine rows, in which all sorts of bees, butterflies, and beneficial species have reclaimed the upper hand.”
— Markus Altenburger
Markus Altenburger wants nothing more than to stoke the little flame of fascination with blaufränkisch and neuburger — yes, neuburger — in the Leithaberg. His vineyards perch at Austria’s far eastern edge, half an hour from Vienna, but seemingly in another cosmos altogether. Vast, shallow Lake Neusiedl and the low-slung Leitha mountain range wrangle for climatic influence. The wines express this tension, the influences of limestone and schist soils, and something of the wild abundance of nature, as well. Since he took over his family’s estate more than a decade ago, he’s moved from what he calls “well-behaved wines” to those that are much closer to nature and bear a far more personal stamp. Working from 30 small plots (certified organic and in conversion to Demeter biodynamics) scattered around the historic wine village of Jois, he is focused above all on blaufränkisch, neuburger, as well as old-vine grüner veltliner and chardonnay, and a few styles of distinctly Austrian rosé. There’s no doubt Markus’ blaufränkisch embodies what Leithaberg can do best: savory, mineral, complex yet drinkable reds that vibrate with freshness and energy, at moderate alcohol levels, with long aging potential. He thrives on tapping into what he calls “the yin and the yang of Jois” — 800 years of viticultural history counterposed with fairly avant-garde cellar work. We think you’ll find it hugely rewarding to follow where this takes him.
The Altenburger family has farmed land in and around Jois since the 16th century. Like most farmers in the area, they cultivated livestock, crops, and vineyards. “After World War II, my grandparents were able to increase their wine business to be the most important income of their mixed agriculture,” Markus explains. “In 1999, when my parents, Matthias and Walpurga, were running the winery, they decided to rent out the rest of the farm and keep only the vineyards. They made easy-going wines to sell to tourists.” When Markus joined them in 2006, the family had 6.5 hectares and the proportion of red to white grapes was 30 to 70.” Six years later, Markus took full control of the estate. Since then, he has doubled the holdings, flipped that ratio, and converted the estate to organics, and is now pursuing Demeter biodynamic certification. He farms with an eye to soil vitality and rampant biodiversity. In the cellar, he favors native yeasts, minimal added sulphur, long, protective lees contact, and concrete and neutral wood for aging.
“I had a basic interest in my parents’ farming when I was a boy,” explains Markus. “Back then I was fascinated by being self-employed and living and working with nature. My parents always told me to study law or economics to get a good job and salary. I did study, but never had an ordinary job with a good salary! During my studies, I met Alois Kracher, from whom, within a few evenings, I learned that there is a wine world out there beyond Austria, where extraordinary wines are appreciated and that being a winegrower and maker is a worthy job.
That was also the time when Christian Tschida, Gerhard Kracher, Erich Scheiblhofer, Florian Gayer, and I co-founded Club Batonnage. At that time, our family winery was still making well-behaved wines and me and the boys were drinking fat Australian and Californian stuff. After finishing my studies, I started to work for a big winery in Austria, where I made a lot of international contacts and friendships. We were tasting Burgundy, Bordeaux, and German riesling like hell. Nowadays, I am still a fan of Burgundy, not so much of Bordeaux anymore, and I’m far more open-minded in my drinking and tasting habits.”
The Leithaberg region takes its name from range of low mountains that are, in fact, the tapering end of the Alps, crowning the western edge of Lake Neusiedl. It is home to the recently created Leithaberg DAC, which stretches from Jois down to Eisenstadt and the Rust foothills. Soils are a distinctive mix of shell limestone and mica schist. Markus explains that “a couple of million years ago, the area around Jois looked like the Caribbean. The ocean creatures transformed themselves into what we know today as Leithakalk and that’s what gives the wines their minerality and salinity.” Today, Leithaberg’s otherwise hot Pannonian climate is moderated by the lake and cool air funneled in by the mountains. Vineyard microclimates vary depending on their proximity either to the lake or the gentle, forested peaks. The variety of soils and microclimates is the reason this tiny region can produce such a great range of grapes and styles. It may also be why, as Jon Bonné puts it, wines from this area “always contain something below the surface, a contrast of flavors found even in the simplest bottle.”
Vineyards and farming
Markus is both fascinated and convinced by blaufränkisch, believing to be the red grape for Burgenland. He works with massal selections from old vines in his Gritschenberg vineyard, whose loose clusters and small berries are well adapted to the dry Pannonian summers and precisely express the schist, for fruiter wines that are more charming in their youth, and limestone, for length and structure. “The parcel we use for the single-vineyard Gritschenberg was planted by my grandfather in the early ‘70s. At that time, people were taught that blaufränkisch shouldn’t be planted on limestone because it brings low yields, loose-packed bunches, and small berries. Today I have to say ‘Thanks, Grandpa, for ignoring what they told you!’ Because it is absolutely true: That’s exactly how our Gritschenberg plot looks.” Markus points out that Gritschenberg is one of just a few places in Jois where Leithakalk comes to the fore in pure form: “That brings structure, length, and chalkiness to our wines — as important as salt in the soup.”
His other obsession is neuburger, a natural crossing of sylvaner and roter veltliner that has adapted itself superbly to Leithaberg’s terroir. Despite a reputation for being difficult to farm, neuburger was Markus’ grandfather’s favorite grape and he planted it extensively. Most other Austrian growers gave up on it decades ago, but Markus is now blessed with a treasury of old-vine material. He loves it for its ability to give fully ripe, but always low alcohol (sub-12% abv) wines of freshness, minerality, texture, and grip. Building on the local tradition of macerating neuburger simply as a way to soften the naturally firm grapes before pressing, Markus has evolved a practice of four to five days of skin contact that brings depth and dimension, precision and grip to a grape that can otherwise be round or wan in youth.
The Altenburger vineyards are split into more than 30 small plots. Markus notes the drawbacks of this for everyday work but also the advantages in years with frost or hail. “Most of all it’s fun to work with different soils and expositions. The vineyard comes first. I know all winemakers say that, but we really need to do that, because there is no possibility of making corrections in the cellar. We are working to increase the life in the soil by planting herbs and legumes We support beneficial species by planting trees in the vineyards and having grass or herbs between the rows. Nearly half our vines are more than 30 years old, some up to 40. So, yields are very low..”
In the cellar
“We don’t do a lot of winemaking,” Markus underscores, relying on native yeasts, ambient fermentations, and stainless steel only for blending and clarification of the wine, not aging. He has also moved away from added SO2, preferring to leave the wines on their lees as long as possible, with batonnage for some, to increase yeast contact and help the wines “stay as reductive as possible by themselves.” He adds sulphur just before bottling and only filters the everyday wines. “Single-vineyard wines age for two-plus years, so usually they are well clarified and don’t need filtration,” Markus adds. The wines are striking and edgy, but always within the realm of approachability.
“Harvest good grapes at the right point of maturity and the magic of a millennia-old process can begin.” — Johannes Gross
Gross. Let’s get this out of the way right up front. In German, gross simply means big. In modern wine parlance, it means great or grand, as in Grosses Gewächs. In Austria, it is also the proud name of a well-regarded family with more than a century of winemaking history. Johannes Gross is the fifth generation of the family to farm and make wine in Ratsch, on the poetically hilly, verdant edge of Südsteiermark (southern Styria). It’s a place defined by climatic tension between the Alps and the Adriatic with steep, terraced hillsides, a mélange of volcanic and sedimentary soils, and a range of traditional Styrian varieties, foremost sauvignon blanc. The family has holdings in some of Südsteiermark’s best sites, including the two single vineyards, Nussberg and Sulz. The terrain demands intensive handwork; yields are kept very low. In the cellar, the focus is on traditional vinification methods. The results are entrancingly aromatic, lively, by turns finessed and muscular — and revelatory in their varied expressions of Südsteiermark terroir. Johannes and his brother Michael (who leads the family’s winemaking at Vino Gross, just over the border in Slovenia) also collaborate under the name Brüder Gross (soon to be renamed Gross & Gross). Their Jakobi sauvignon blanc is a remarkable tribute to centuries of agrarian tradition in Südsteiermark. This regional sauvignon blanc is labelled with a woodcut-based pictograph that recounts the details of the vintage in iconography taken from traditional almanacs like the ones that hung in Johannes’ and Michaels’ grandmother’s kitchen when they were boys and that have been at the heart of Styrian farm life for centuries.
The family estate dates to the mid-18th century, with an ancestor’s purchase of a mixed farm in Ratsch. In 1907, Heinrich Gross bought a vineyard in the Witscheiner Herrenberg (now Slovenia), though it would be decades before the family specialized in wine alone. In the early 1980s, Alois Gross, Johannes’ and Michael’s father — inspired by “many discussions with winemakers around the world,” as Johannes explains — trained his attention on improving wine quality and is now widely regarded as a pioneer of quality winemaking in the region. Alois handed over the estate to Johannes when he was just 21; Alois knew from his own experience how important it is it be trusted to make decisions from an early age. Now Michael oversees the family’s Slovenian estate, Vino Gross in Gorca, while Johannes heads up Weingut Gross at home in Ratsch. They are two different operations, each with their own ideals and philosophies, united by shared family heritage and remarkably similar terroir and varieties.
“When I was six, I wanted to become an astronaut,” says Johannes. ”But I left the idea when I heard how long it takes you away from home. Today, it would be unthinkable for me.” Johannes wasn’t much older when, “listening to my father speaking about his wines,” he realized winemaking would be his future, too. “I didn’t study at university, but have done lots of work in the vineyards and cellars, travelled all over the world, and spoken with interesting people in the business.” Johannes and his wife, Martina, with support from Alois, now lead the estate. For them, “happiness is … living amidst vineyards, wild orchards and groves, surrounded by family, doing affectionate and dedicated work.”
Ratsch / Südsteiermark
Südsteiermark is a poetically verdant, hilly region that stretches from the regional capital of Graz, east to the edge of Burgenland, and south to Austria’s Slovenian border. Nestled between the Alps and the Adriatic, steep amphitheaters of vines alternate with meadows, forests, and small fields for a storybook landscape and unique wine culture. “Viticulture has been practiced here since the Romans and is still the number one economic factor in this region,” Johannes explains. Under the Habsburgs, Styria extended into what is now Slovenia, creating a vast viticultural area, split when political borders were redrawn in the aftermath of the two world wars.
Johannes explains the geologic history behind the distinctive terrain: “When the primal ocean retreated around nine million years ago, clay and lime were piled up in criss-cross layers. Rivers and winds carried in gravel and sand, modelling hill after hill.” Soils are now a highly diverse mix of primal ocean and alluvial deposits: sand, gravel, marl (known locally as opok), and shell limestone, even some volcanic soils.
Ratsch is in the heart of Südsteiermark, one of three Styrian subregions, this widely regarded as best suited to the sauvignon blanc that is typically planted on the best parcels. Aromatic whites — including gelber muskateller, furmint, and welschriesling — are among the subregion’s calling cards.
“There are two major challenges to viticulture here: the climatic and the topographical,” notes Johannes. “Unpredictable weather, extremely steep hills, and a wide variety of soil formations in our vineyards are both a challenge and a gift. We need 600 working hours per hectare, which is a multiple of other wine regions. The high location of the vineyards near the Alps makes us a true cool climate area. Aromatic, fresh wines with natural acidity and energy grow naturally with us. The grapes become fully ripe in this Alpine-Mediterranean climate, and due to diurnal temperature variations of up to 20°C, they possess both freshness and aroma.”
Farming and vineyards
In a delicate climate, responsiveness is key. “We work each year a little bit differently according to crop, leaf, and soil management. We want balance in our wines, so we need balance in our vineyards. This also means less crop per vine – about 1-1.5 kg per vine. We are looking for a perfect grape according ripeness, without botrytis. We believe that there is a perfect ripeness window. This window we try to catch.” The wines are above all fresh, driven by natural acidity and energy that, in Johannes’s words, “grow naturally with us” thanks in large part to the heat-trapping function of the bowl-like vineyards and the nightly inflows of starkly cooler mountain air.
Johannes points out: “We find big differences between the soils in our village of Ehrenhausen, which are strongly calcareous, with marl and limestone, and our vineyards in the neighboring village of Gamlitz, where you can find gravel and sand, and very aromatic, early accessible wines grow” — foremost gelber muskateller.
The Gross family was able to purchase the Nussberg, a named vineyard since the 15th century, in 1986. (The prior owner left behind a bottle of “Nussberger” from the 1868 vintage.) It’s a bowl-shaped basin ranging between 370 and 460 meters (1,200 and 1,500 feet) above sea level, with slopes as steep as a startling 85%. Even within this single Ried, there is limestone, marl, and a flank of volcanic origin. Its exposures are south and west, and it opens to the Koralpe mountains in the west, allowing in cooler air.
Sulz is a south-facing site, sheltered from the Alpine climate in the west and open to the east. As a result, it’s one of Südsteiermark’s warmest sites. Its range of elevations is similar to Nussberg’s and only somewhat less steep. Soils are heavy chalk-bearing clay and conglomerate.
In the cellar
“In the cellar, we take many steps back to the techniques my father had at the beginning of his time as a winemaker,” Johannes says, echoing the sentiment of his generation.” In short: “Do not try to make a wine that was not already in the grape.” All the sauvignon blanc wines are destemmed and given a short maceration following by gentle pressing, slow, spontaneous fermentation in traditional wooden barrels, 12 months’ maturation in large traditional wooden barrels and another six months in stainless steel tanks. (Johannes strongly recommends decanting the single-vineyard bottlings.)
Ratscher Sauvignon Blanc, from limestone and loam soils, is given a brief maceration and longer aging in wood and steel for structure, balance and marked length. Ried Sulz Sauvignon Blanc comes from a very large vineyard (Grosslage) comprised of many small single vineyards (Einzellagen). Here the soils are limestone and clay, and vines are 27 years old. The wine is complex and muscular, showcasing the great aging potential of the family’s wines. Ried Nussberg is the top wine of the Gross estate, hailing from the eponymous small single vineyard. The soil is a mixture of clay and limestone and vine age ranges from 7 to 37 years. Nussberg is vinified just like Sulz, but where Sulz is muscular, Nussberg is all about finesse; it is elegant, with a refreshing saltiness, and incredible length and aging potential.
Gamlitzer Gelber Muskateller hails from the neighboring village of Gamlitz, where the soils are gravel and sand, giving highly aromatic and easy-drinking wines. The grapes are briefly macerated before undergoing a gentle press cycle. Spontaneous fermentation takes place in stainless steel tanks where the wine remains and matures for six months on the fine lees.
Gross & Gross: Jakobi
Johannes and Michael created the Jakobi project to honor a signature variety of Südsteiermark — sauvignon blanc — as well as the traditions and history of the region. The label is a woodcut-based pictograph that recounts all the significant details of the vintage — weather, lunar cycles, planting, pruning, harvest — in traditional iconography. It is based on the age-old Mandl (little figures) calendar, once created for the illiterate and still a feature in many homes in the region today. The wine takes its name from Jakobi (Saint James) — whose culturally significant feast day typically coincides with veraison — celebrated in Ratsch on July 25 each year. According to tradition, on this day, wooden windmills are erected in hopes that their rattling noise will keep birds away from the ripening grapes. The label represents a fascinating intersection between faith, agrarian custom, and modern winemaking that is well worth further research and study. The wine behind the label is a fresh, super drinkable sauvignon blanc sourced from Styrian and Slovenian vineyards.
“I wanted to be a winemaker since ever. The first time I wrote it down was in elementary school.”
— Georg Frischengruber
In the heart of the Wachau, on the slightly obscure south bank of the Danube, Georg Frischengruber is realizing his dream. Georg is the fifth generation of his family to steward their estate, now 10 hectares, mostly old vine grüner veltliner and a smaller quantity of riesling. Since taking over from his father, Heinz, in 2010, Georg has trained his attention on meticulous handwork in the vines, incorporating organic viticulture, and focusing on natural fermentations, gentle pressing, and extended fine lees aging in the cellar, to gain added texture, complexity, and clarity. Rossatz – directly across the Danube from Dürnstein –- is where the mighty river tapers to its narrowest span as it makes an ancient bend. Vineyards here slope gently upwards from the riverbank to meet the undulating edge of the Dunkelstein forest. The microclimate combines some of the world’s starkest diurnal shifts with a growing season that can stretch well into November. These are ideal conditions for grüner veltliner, on loess, to pick up tension and finesse, with an unmistakably piquant and vivid Wachau profile. Georg’s Smaragd veltliners reach a salty, sappy, spring-loaded ideal. Riesling, grown on Urgestein (primary rock) and in cooler sites, gains body, yet remains focused and fine-boned. Above all, the through lines at Frischengruber are purity, precision, and clarity of vineyard expression.
While wine growing in the Wachau dates to the period of Roman settlement, the first golden age of wine was under Carolingian rule. Later, the majestic Benedictine monasteries of Melk and Göttweig housed avid viticulturists, devoted to understanding and developing varieties and methods of cultivation suited to this terroir. By the Middle Ages, Wachau wine was already known far beyond Austria’s borders. The Frischengruber estate dates to about this time – 1563 – when the land (“an old winefarm,” as Georg calls it) now owned by his family was held by Austrian aristocrats.
“Because of the great history of making wine in the Wachau and the long tradition of making wine in our family, it was clear I would work on the farm,” says Georg. Even at the age of eight, when asked at school what he wanted to be when he grew up, he responded presciently: “I want to be a Winzer.” He studied viticulture at Klosterneuburg, staged in South Africa, New Zealand, and the Pfalz, then returned home to Rossatz. “My father produced the wine until 2010. Then I took over and started my own way.” His way excludes herbicides and pesticides and embraces a philosophy of “working softly and giving the soil and vineyards what they need.” In the cellar, “we have also made big differences from the previous generation. I use natural fermentation a lot. It’s a bit difficult, but in the end you get very different notes, from floral to fruity. And the wine gains creaminess.”
Rossatz and the Wachau
“If ever there were a region which justified a geographical approach to wine, it would be the Wachau,” writes Hugh Johnson, mapper of the wine world. Citing its “complex meeting point of northern and southern climates and rich mosaic of different soils and rocks,” Johnson argues that the specific intersections of climate and terrain in the various Wachau villages are articulated in their wines. Rossatz is at the geographical center of the Wachau, nestled on the south bank of a prominent U-bend in the Danube — directly across from Dürnstein and just downriver from Mautern, home to Nikolaihof and a few sites belonging to fellow Schatzis, Urban and Dominique Stagård. Here the slopes are gentler and soils more varied — mainly Urgestein subsoil topped by gravel, gneiss, mica-schist, and, crucially for veltliner, loess.
The microclimates of the Wachau are extraordinarily differentiated due to variations in topography. In a span of just 15 kilometers (some 9 miles) harvest times can be as much as two weeks apart. Rossatz is climatic crossroads: the Pannonian climate of hot, dry summers and moderate winters, extends, “like a tongue,” as Georg says, into the area from the east. Cool, wet air masses, rich in oxygen, flow down through little, forested stone valleys known as the Wachauer Gräben. This draws in a continuous flow of cool, oxygen-rich air and contributes to some of the world’s sharpest diurnal temperature swings, strongly influencing the aroma precursors that form in the grapes and later characterize the wines. The Danube moderates temperatures sufficiently to enable record hang times – well into November for the Smaragds –even in this recent era of foreshortened ripening.
Farming and vineyards
Some 900 named vineyards, or Rieden, as they known here, line the Danube in the Wachau. Frischengruber’s principal Rieden are Zanzl, Steiger, Kirnberg, and Goldberg. All are farmed with organic practices and particular attention to the match of variety and site.
Steiger faces the Danube and is a prime example of a so-called “footslope” location, a slightly concave feature at the base of a hill that collects erosive deposits. Here, accumulations of paragneiss (gneiss derived from sedimentary rock) are several meters thick. This layer ensures a balanced water supply to the vines, even in the hot, extremely dry summers that are typical here (no rain fell for a full 10 weeks during growing season 2017). A humus-rich topsoil further improves both water absorption and storage capacity, protecting the vines from hydric stress while steadily supplying nutrients. This brings out a fruitiness in grüner veltliner that is especially suited to the expressive, mid-weight Federspiel style Georg makes from this site.
Zanzl sits at the foot of the Dunkelstein Forest. This is Georg’s coolest site for veltliner, as it faces westward. It is mostly loess over primary rock, so veltliner, which has a strong affinity for the deep, water-retentive loess, is the natural choice. Georg points out that at this site, “the variable rock shows its colorful side. The reddish-orange horizon represents a matrix of weathered, crumbly material coated with iron oxides, with some fist-sized feldspars. Underneath, the rock transitions from a dark mica-rich layer to a hornblende-rich amphibolite. The 50-cm topsoil layer consists of sandy, stony material enriched with humus in the upper 15 cm.” He attributes the fruitiness and “greenness” of veltliner grown here to the unique soil mix and exceptionally cool microclimate.
Kirnberg is a warmer, eastern plateau, less shielded by the forest. It is predominantly planted to grüner veltliner, though riesling does find its place on the cooler, western edges of the site. Georg notes, “The rock has the character of a mica schist with lots of dark mica and magnesium- and iron-rich biotite. The topsoil is mixed with loess. The dissolved carbonate was leached out and partly precipitated again in the light-colored areas between the mica schist layers.” This, he believes, accounts for the greater concentration and, in Georg’s words, “more mineralic notes, not typical of Wachau wine” found especially in the Kirnberg Smaragds.
In the cellar
The dry wines of the Wachau are categorized into three styles, defined by must weight and finished alcohol. Steinfeder is the lightest. The more substantial two are Federspiel (a term taken from falconry), brisk and bantamweight, and Smaragd (named for an emerald lizard often found basking on the drywall stone terraces that are the region’s hallmark), harvested last, and consequently more fulsome, built for depth and aging.
These stylistic differences play out within a very precise and focused range in the Frischengruber wines. They are not in the vein of many Wachau producers, who embrace botrytis and full-bodied expressions. Georg is much more interested in purity and vineyard expression than power. To achieve this, all of the wines are fermented spontaneously and aged on the fine lees until late summer, adding extra texture, complexity, and clarity.
Steiger and Kirnberg are picked in mid-October and November for Federspiel and Smaragd, respectively. The grapes are crushed, then gently pressed for four hours. The Steiger Federspiel then goes into stainless steel tank. Natural fermentation takes about 100 days, with bottling in May. The Kirnberg Smaragd goes into neutral oak barrels, with natural fermentation taking about 120 days. After a maceration period that varies depending on vintage, grapes are gently pressed at a maximum 1.8 bar. Afterward, the wine stays on its fine less until late spring/early summer, with bottling in May. For the Zanzl grüner veltliner Smaragd, harvest comes last, typically in mid-November. The grapes are crushed and gently pressed for six hours. After 24 hours, the must goes into neutral oak barrel, with natural fermentation taking about 120 days. Bottling is held back until August.
“The wines are kind of a mirror of us. They are harmonic, they have freshness, they are deep, they need time to show their great character, they are not everybody’s darling, and they turn better with age.” — Gerhard Kracher
Aldo Sohm and Gerhard Kracher, two Austrians, first met in New York, in 2004. Their friendship was cemented over a shared devotion to great food and wine. It wasn’t long before they realized this love extended to the dry grüner veltliners of their homeland — and a desire to make them. A few years later, at a tasting, Aldo had an epiphany when he was asked by several winemakers to critique their wines: “I found myself thinking: I have never made wine! Who am I to criticize it?” Over a long lunch later that year, the Sohm & Kracher project was born. Given the strength of the partnership and shared vision, Aldo and Gerhard had little trouble honing their concept: grüner veltliner grown in the Weinviertel — a region they recognized as underestimated, given its old vineyards, diverse soils, and unique microclimate — and made in accordance with two basic principles: the wines should be (low to) moderate in alcohol and should never be unctuous in character. Since their first vintage in 2009 they have kept a sharp focus on grüner veltliner, even as they have widened the scope of exploration across sites and styles — from the brisk, peppery “Lion” to the Chablis-like “St. Georg.” They now work with several crus in the Weinviertel and one pure limestone parcel in the village of St. Georgen, Burgenland, almost directly across the Neusiedlersee from the Kracher family winery in Illmitz.
“I caught the ‘wine bug’ at 19,” Aldo relates. “I was working in a restaurant as a server and two Swiss couples asked me every morning what to drink with their dinner that night. They were super passionate about wine, and in wanting to do right by them, I read [up on wine] during my afternoon breaks and stumbled upon the beginning of my career.” Soon after, Aldo enrolled in tourism school near his hometown in Tyrol. After graduating, he worked at restaurants throughout Austria, pausing only to fulfill his military duty and to study Italian in Florence. Aldo passed the official Austrian sommelier exam and then invested a few more years working and teaching in Tyrol. In 1998, he attended, but did not compete in, the World Sommelier Competition. What he saw there fascinated and frightened him, but he recognized that “my curiosity was stronger than my fear.” In 2002, Aldo won as Best Sommelier in Austria, a title he defended until 2006. He then moved to New York, in part to improve his English for international sommelier competitions. In 2007, he won Best Sommelier in America and joined Le Bernardin, New York’s longest-running four-star restaurant, as Chef Sommelier. He now serves as wine director at Le Bernardin and as head of the eponymous wine bar he opened in 2014. “I love to eat and drink, and being at Le Bernardin allows me to keep learning and pushes me to improve myself … It’s hard for me to imagine leaving the floor, so I’ve always looked for other ways to expand my knowledge in the wine world,” he notes. In his free time, he applies his energy and intensity to road cycling, tackling some of the most grueling courses in the Alps on his “vacations.”
Gerhard is the son of the late Alois Kracher Jr. — a profoundly influential force in Austrian winemaking. In the 1980s, Alois recognized that Seewinkl, home to the sweet wine-producing area of Burgenland where the Kracher Winery is located, had the climate and geography to make world class Trockenbeerenauslese. It took some clever efforts to convince the world that he had elevated Austrian sweet winemaking to a level worthy of their regard, but once he did, this otherwise unremarkable wine growing subregion has been inked on the map. Alois passed away in 2007, leaving the estate to Gerhard, who, fortunately, had already been deeply involved in its workings since age 19 and has ably maintained and his father’s standards in making some of the world’s top botrytised wines. Outside the cellar, Gerhard’s “always on the hunt for culinary treasures,” as well as fishing and cycling — though “not as professional as Aldo,” he quips.
The Weinviertel and St. Georgen in Burgenland
The Weinviertel (“wine quarter”) is a quintessential European landscape of rolling fields and vineyards dotted with tidy, attractive villages. It is quite large — easily four times the size of the Kremstal, for instance — comprising the northeastern corner of Austria, from the Czech border the Slovakian, from the edge of Kamptal and Wagram to the Vienna city limits. It encompasses a correspondingly broad range of elevations, climates, and soils. Although grüner veltliner has a fairly brief history here, it is undoubtedly the grape of the Weinviertel. Nearly half of all vineyards are planted to this variety, which gives a signature expression of white pepper and vibrant acidity distinctive enough to have earned it Austria’s first DAC. Soils here tend to loam, gravel, and limestone; the climate is cool, shielded from the heat of the Pannonian Plain by the Slovakian hills.
Burgenland, on the other hand, is better known for its noble sweet and red wines. But St. Georgen, near the low Leitha mountain range, is an exception — for more than one reason. This is the village where the second parent grape of grüner veltliner was discovered in 2000 (traminer is the mother vine, St. Georgen the father). The parcel Aldo and Gerhard work with is a cool, mid-slope site of pure Muschelkalk (shell limestone), characteristics that inspired them to make a beautifully textured, distinctly saline Chablis-style grüner veltliner.
Aldo and Gerhard partner with growers who cultivate a combined six hectares in both regions. “It was not so easy to find the right guy who owns this type of vineyard and farms it with our vision,” Gerhard has said. Vine age is an important consideration; it ranges from 10 to 25 years for “Lion” up to 40-plus for “Single Vineyard.” The first wine they ever made, the “Single Vineyard,” comes from a half hectare about 25 minutes northeast of Vienna, in Wolkersdorf. It’s a south-facing hill of chalk-rich soils. For “Alte Reben” and “Lion,” the vineyards are an hour north of Vienna, in various south-/southeast-facing crus spread over five hectares in the Pulkautal. For St. Georg, the grapes are sourced from the Muschelkalk soils of a southeast-facing 0.4 hectares at the foot of the Leithagebirge, in St Georgen. All vineyards are 100% hand picked.
In the cellar
Gerhard makes the Sohm & Kracher wines at the Kracher family winery in Illmitz, Burgenland. All fermentations are spontaneous and temperature-controlled. Fermentation vessel is determined the style objective of the wine. Gerhard’s philosophy on SO2 is a blunt “as much as needed.” All of the wines remain on the fine less until very shortly before bottling and are fermented bone dry. “Lion” spends seven to eight months in stainless steel and gives a classic expression of grüner veltliner’s primary aromas, brisk character, and potential for length. “Alte Reben” spends two years in 50% in stainless steel tank, 50% in used barrique for altogether greater length, breadth, and complexity. “St Georg” is raised in 1,000-liter cask and third-use barrique, yielding an amply textured and superbly gastronomic wine. “Single Vineyard,” raised in 1,000 or 1,500-liter Slavonian oak casks for 3 years, represents a truly exalted style for grüner veltliner. All of the wines are “quite reductive,” notes Gerhard, “So decanting is something I would always recommend. But these wines can also stay open for two or three days, no problem.” Gerhard believes the aging potential of the Sohm & Kracher wines range from five years for “Lion” up to 20 years for “Single Vineyard.”