Place over grape: making wine waves in Southern Styria (p. 1)

By Panos Kakaviatos for wine-chronicles.com

Take a walk along the sinuous and sumptuous Southern Styrian wine region in Ratsch today and it is hard to believe that but 40 years ago, it was a very poor area with few if any winemakers and many more farmers. Taxes were paid to local officials with oxen or farm produce. “There was no money,” remarked Tamara Kögl of the domain that bears her family nameI met Tamara in May 2014 at the 8th Symposium of the Institute of Wine Masters in Florence where she poured some of her wines and invited me to come visit.

Welcome to Weingut Kögl

Although just a weekend in July 2014, the visit was packed with walks, tastings and great meals. Heartfelt thanks to Tamara for showing me the fine terroirs of Ratsch and explaining more generally trends in Southern Styria while hosting me at her gorgeous family estate. In addition to tasting her wines, she introduced me to many other wines of the region including those from Weingut Gross and  Weingut Tement, which will be discussed in more detail in parts 2 and 3 of this blog. 

Pastoral wine and food setting

Pastoral wine and food setting over 400 meters high

Fellow #winelover Elisabeth Seifert joined us for part of the visit. It was fascinating to walk along the border of Slovenia and as we shall see in part 3, some Austrian domains including both Weingut Gross and Weingut Tement, have Slovenian vineyards as well – and are obliged by law to have Slovenian language labels for their vineyards in Slovenia. 

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Pleasure in and through a glass of crispy and fresh Welschriesling 2013 at Weingut Kögl

When I arrived after taking trains and a plane from Strasbourg via Frankfurt Airport, I entered a cosy world where people relax and enjoy traditional local cuisine prepared by Tamara’s mother on the 450-meter high Stermetzberg, where Weingut Kögl is located, high in the village of Ratsch, around which the best vines grow to yield grand cru level wines. In recent years, winemakers deem certain single vineyard sites grand crus. Since 2012, her estate has been producing three levels of wine from its 10 hectares of vines modeled after Burgundy appellations: regional, village and grand cru. Her wines are divided according to Südsteiermark as regional, to Ratsch reflecting the village where her domain is located – some 500 inhabitants and 15 domains – and to the aforementioned Stermetzberg.

Consumers, especially many local buyers, are trying to get used to this change that stresses terroir quality, Tamara explained. The soil types of the Stermetzberg range from calcareous marl, lime-free marl, sandstone to grey Opok (or grey lime marl). Located at an optimum altitude of 430-480 meters, the vineyards face south-southeast. The first rays of the morning dry the grapes here very quickly. Along the slopes, it can get windy and that dries out humidity or rainfall. And as we walked – straddling the Slovenian border – Tamara pointed out hail nets because the region often gets hit by hail. Hand selection is thus often a matter of course, never mind the steep slopes and high planting density.

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Tamara Kögl clutching gooseberries in her garden – yes indeed they do give off an odor of “Sauvignon Blanc” 😉

The setting at Weingut Kögl – which has its origins as a pure vineyard about 20 years ago, established by Tamara’s parents – is entrancing with a typical Klapotetz windmill that makes a noise meant to scare starlings and other birds off the vineyards so that they do not peck grapes. I grabbed my glass of her delicious old-vine Welschriesling 2013 and snapped some photos of the gently sloping scenery that is sometimes compared to Tuscany. But Tamara dismisses such comparisons as facile. Yes, one can see Cypress trees but the wines are totally different.  We also tasted fresh cassis and gooseberry growing in her garden, and it was uncanny to sense how both fruits can be reflected in Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc.

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Terroir

Tamara explained that the region escaped the initial shock of the 1985 Austrian wine scandal when a limited number of Austrian wineries illegally adulterated their wines using the non-toxic substance diethylene glycol (a primary ingredient in some brands of antifreeze) to make the wines appear sweeter and more full-bodied in the style of late harvest wines. Although no one died from the scandal, it hurt sales of Austrian wines except for wines from her region, which is known for dry wines that did not need to be sweetened. “Just after the scandal, you just had to fill the bottles with dry wine and they sold because customers associated that with ‘pure wine’, it was that simple,” she explained. But as the rest of Austria reacted to the effect of the scandal, and started to produce better wines, led by grapes like Grüner Veltliner, Südsteiermark has had to deal with greater competition so it is not so easy these days to sell. Many sell locally and the pressure to keep prices low is strong even if quality viticulture along the slopes is expensive.

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Hearty Brettljause

Weingut Kögl features some nine varieties including Zweigelt and Pinot Noir for red and, among other white varieties, the grape that makes the region famous: Sauvignon Blanc. As we will see in part two, some of the wines can rival excellent Graves from Bordeaux.

After enjoying several other wines along a hearty Brettljause (a potpourri of meats and garnishes, charcuterie, liver pate, cheese, horseradish, and just a bit of vegetable served on a wooden platter), Tamara guided me around Ratsch vineyards along a meandering path.

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“For many years no one thought about the grass!” – Tamara Kögl in Ratsch

She pointed out how some properties like hers (although not all…) are paying increasing attention to do quality viticulture without herbicide spraying, including the infamous Roundup herbicide by Monsanto that she said bothered her skin whenever she encountered it. She also explained the importance of grass management. Each time grass is cut, it increases nitrogen in the soil. “You need to manage the amount of nitrogen in vineyard,” she said. “During ripening there are nitrogen curves, so if you have too much nitrogen you may have too much growth,” she explained. “For many years no one thought about the grass!” she stressed. Her domain is bio-organic since 2013 and should get its formal certification in 2015.

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Wines I enjoyed included a tasty Grüner Sylvaner 2013 (village level), which exuded a green apple freshness, more tart and fresh than opulent made from 30-year-old vines not as old as the Welschriesling vines. It clocked in at about 12% alcohol and Tamara also remarked that many local buyers do not like seeing 13% or higher on their wines, as they are more accustomed to lower alcohol levels. The 2013 vintage featured a rather “up and down” spring, cold and wet at times, followed by hot and dry weather until the end of August, when a bit of needed rain increased freshness.

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Green apple freshness from the regional level wine Grüner Sylvaner 2013

The Kögl Sauvignon Blanc 2013 (regional level) exuded lime kiwi almost raspberry like on nose and palate with a pleasing crispiness. There is indeed a sappy yellow apple aspect to the wine as indicated in the menu. A bottle costs just 5,50 euro, quite economical considering that grapes used to make this wine come from some vines as old as 60 years.

The Pinot Blanc 2013 (village level) 12% had a pleasingly green melon nose and was made via stainless steel fermentation. Smooth and short but pleasant.

The Ratsch Morillon 2012 (village level) at 12.5% is a fine village level wine made from Chardonnay (Morillon is and old word for Chardonnay. Austrian vintners who had taken grapes back home from Morillon, today a commune in the Haute-Savoie department in the Rhône-Alpes region in south-eastern, simply named the grape after that region, even though it is, in fact, Chardonnay). Aged in two parts stainless steel and one part old wood tank. This is village level wine, with a bit more Oechsle (based on the Oechsle scale used to predict the maximal possible alcohol content of the finished wine). Tamara did some malolactic in small barrels and the wine has a softness to it. Indeed, it exudes ripe red apple with a richer texture on the palate although I got just a touch of warmth on the finish. The vintage saw rain during the flowering period with a bit of coulure, but the rest of the year saw warm days and cool nights, with little stress albeit some rain during the harvest.

The Muskateller Sudsteiermark 2013 (regional level) at 11.5% was brisk and fresh, “grapey” yet strict with a somewhat floral and as well as grapey nose. It seemed to have a short finish and Tamara explained that 2013 was not an ideal vintage for that wine. A very good price at €7.70.

2013 however was a fine year for Ratsch Sauvignon Blanc (village). At  12.5%, the wine was rich and suave, not heavy but not strictly varietal with a bit if musk as well as light vegetative / gooseberry and juniper fruit note. Medium body and medium finish. Certainly far more character than the preceding wine.

We then tried the Grauburgunder 2012 (Pinot Gris) fermented in 3-year old barrels and aged for half a year in stainless steel on the dead yeasts. It displayed a stewed apricot nose, some pineapple sweet orange / cooked orange, with a spice oak component. At 13% it was clean on the palate, but a just a touch cloying with warmth on finish. Readers should take my personal bias against Pinot Gris into consideration! In the end, for lovers of Pinot Gris, this is fine as it displays mid palate concentration with brisk and sap-like characteristics.

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Terroir-driven Pinot Noir in Stermetzberg (Ratsch) with Tamara Kögl

The next day, we tried still fermenting Sauvignon Blanc from the grand cru class, which Tamara said may just ferment through to March 2015. It showed concentration and freshness on the palate but hard to judge at this stage.

Her first Pinot Noir from the 2012  vintage – a grand cru level wine – was more warm strawberry to me, and more evidently fruity than, say, a Burgundian style, perhaps because she included over-ripe raisin like grapes as well? Not jammy in any way, but I did not get as much of the cool fruit expression that one gets from Burgundy. She said that the 2013 does not include the raisin like grapes in the mix but we did not try that.

Interlude with Rebenhof Hartmut Aubell

While walking along the wine route, it began to rain so Tamara decided for us to stop for some wines at the Rebenhof Hartmut Aubell, an estate located in Ratsch, in family ownership since 1924. After the wines had been vinified from 1993 to 2007 by Weingut Erich and Walter Polz, since early 2008, Hartmut Aubell took over. The vineyard area totals 12 hectares and 95% white varieties including Riesling, Pinot Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc and Morillon, and the remainder is planted with Zweigelt. The wines are produced as classics and single vineyard styles. Every year around 40,000 bottles are filled.

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Visiting Ratsch is an offer I cannot refuse

The domain features a charming restaurant where we ordered a tasty tarte flambée similar to what one can find in Alsace. I must say that while the labels were really fun, featuring graphic images of famous Hollywood actors like Clint Eastwood and Gregory Peck, I was not as enthusiastic about the wines here, which seemed a touch monotone or flat. A couple were quite interesting and tasty however. But their Welschriesling – although with enough acidity for some verve – seemed a bit boring compared to the Kögl example I had tried earlier.

The Sauvignon Blanc from Hartmut Aubell 2012: At 13% this Steirerland wine exuded grassy herbal notes, made from natural yeast slow fermentation. It was reductive but not too much, with a sap-filled mid palate. Although attenuated on the finish, I enjoyed this wine in moderation.

Then came the Sauvignon Blanc-Morillon 2011 blend – at a whopping 15.5% alcohol – with the image of Marlon Brando as The Godfather: a very thick and juicy nose with notes of clove and a honied aspect. Very ripe grapes. Sweet and floral sensations with oak derived spice. One could appreciate the structure of the tannins, with a core of Sauvignon Blanc freshness. Certainly more personality than the preceding wine but heat on the finish detracted.

Next came Gregory Peck, the same blend but from 2010 with less alcohol at 13% which had been open for a week, displayed white pepper and was a bit reductive again, smooth and juicy, but monolithic on the palate, lacking fruit expression.

I loved hearing the goodbye greeting of “Ba ba!” as we left, as the people here are friendly and the region has a real village ambiance.

In Part 2 we encounter a fascinating blind tasting that showed how some of the Sauvignon Blancs from Southern Styria can rival more established wines – in this case from Bordeaux famous Pessac Leognan appellation.

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Full moon over Ratsch

Information for readers: this blog was written following a trip I took to Southern Styria in July 2014 at my own expense. I paid for the travel to and from Strasbourg, France. My two-night stay in Ratsch was offered to me by Tamara Kögl at her domain.  

 

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