Place over grape: making wine waves in Southern Styria (p. 2)

Blind proof 

By Panos Kakaviatos for wine-chronicles 

After discovering the general lay of the land thanks to Tamara Kögl in part 1 of this blog, a blind tasting organized the day of the World Cup Final between Germany and Argentina by Michael Gross of Weingut Gross revealed to me a thing or two about wine – and preconceived notions.

Nestled among the hills of the Southern Styrian wine country, the Gross Winery is situated on the Ratscher Nussberg, one of the top vineyards in the region – and one can understand a progression towards terroir emphasis by just looking at how Michael and his family have changed the labels of the wines, to the point where next year, for example, the name of the grape – Sauvignon Blanc – will only appear on the back label, with Nussberg being the way to identify the wine.

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As a member of the Steirische Terroir- und Klassik Weingüter group “STK” the winery sets great value upon the vinification of regionally typical Styrian wines. The “STK wineries” date back only to the 1980s, an indication that such attention to terroir and quality is a recent phenomenon.

I thought I knew a thing or two about Austrian wine – having sampled quite a bit of Blaufrankisch and Grüner Veltliner and Riesling for example in recent years. But as seen in part 1 of this blog, taking into account our increasingly interesting and complex wine world, one can be pleasantly surprised with nooks and crannies, where terroir-driven wines rival labels from more established – and more expensive – wine producing regions.

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Terroir-driven Sauvignon Blanc from Southern Styria compared with fine Graves

So on the day of the World Cup Final, Michael Gross and his girlfriend Maria organized a barbecue just before the match. We were wine geeks and #winelovers gathered together – including Tamara Kögl of the domain that bears her family name , who had worked before for the Gross winery – so Michael served some wines blind, and the comparisons proved revealing.

He served several fine white Graves, including Domaine de Chevalier 2007,  Chateau de Fieuzal 2007 and Chateau Smith Haut Lafitte 2006. The Domaine de Chevalier shined brightest. But one of Michael’s wines – the Nussberger Sauvignon 2007 – proved fresher and more nuanced than the de Fieuzal. And it gave Smith Haut Lafitte more than a run for its money although the stylistic differences were pronounced and I appreciated both very much.

The Domaine de Chevalier 2007 tasted blind proved subtle and pristine with some oak still showing. There was the 2007 vintage’s richness in the wine, not nearly as “laser beam focused” as the 2008, which impressed so many people at the 2013 Merano Wine Festival, but still excellent. When I then tried the Nussberger 2007, it seemed particularly ripe, delicious and juicy, almost like a New World Sauvignon Blanc by comparison. Certainly very flattering but not fat and I immediately loved it. A very successful wine indeed. While not as compelling as the Domaine de Chevalier, the Nussberger proved impressive. Its price tag is not inexpensive (the 2012 and 2011 each cost about €30 per bottle), but it fetches about half the price of the Domaine de Chevalier.

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Michael Gross focusing on terroir

Nussberger soils are limestone and clay and marl. The terroir was bought by Michael’s father in 1986 where they own 12 hectares. Only the top tier 3 hectares are used for the cuvee he served. Vintage variation was noticeable. Michael said that mistakes had been made in the past, with pickings too late resulted in tired wines. For example, the 2001 we tried was a rather flat and faceless: “We picked too late,” Michael said, “with not enough acidity.” But the 2012 tasted earlier in a vertical was very fresh and delicious. I could hardly guess that it was 14% alcohol, displaying saltiness, white peach with richness, yet precise and lovely and mineral driven. The wine was aged in large oak casks kept on full lees and no racking at all. Tasted just two weeks before bottling and it was very promising.

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Note label evolution. Soon the variety will appear only on the back label.

Both the 2007 and 2006 were excellent. I was particularly impressed with the 2006, coming from a rather hot vintage. Instead of any hot notes, I got red apple, citrus and mineral-driven aromatics and flavors. The 2011, also at 14%, was not as precise, with broader notes, but also pleasingly salty. It had been fermented in larger 600 liter barrels.

The diverse rock formations at the Nussberg are diverse, ranging from limy marl and sandy lime stone to a grey lime marl locally called “Opok”. The unusual thing about Nussberg is that the soil is hard enough to force the vine roots to dig deeply into the rock, and also porous enough to quickly turn into precious soil upon careful cultivation. Furthermore, the climatic conditions of the basin of Ratsch protects vines well from the vagaries of the weather. Both soil and climate lend the wines of this cru their particular strength and flavor.

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With Michael Gross and Tamara Kögl at Weingut Gross

Their Nussberg wines have been awarded with the highest STK quality seal: “Grosse STK Lage” – which is compared to a grand cru category. Due to their long maturation period of at least 18 months, they can be complex and rich in aroma, individual and particularly well-aging. Wines of the Grosse STK Lage line are recognizable by the golden STK banderol and the “Nussberg label”. As we saw in part 1 of this blog, quality-driven estates in Southern Styria are stressing terroir-driven wines.

“We plan to do away with the grape name [on the front label] next year,” Michael Gross said.

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Note that the Colles makes no mention of the grape variety on the front label

The other Gross wines I tasted were of fine quality as well. Take for example the smooth, sap-filled Sauvignon Blanc and unpretentious entry level Jakobi 2013, at 12.5% alcohol, which is fermented in stainless steel using 60% natural yeast and 40% added yeasts. Very citrus (grapefruit) with a crisp and pleasing finish – and the label is gorgeous!

The village level Ratsch 2012 was more “loosey goosey”.  While it certainly exuded superior concentration, it did not seem as clean and focused as the 2013 entry level wine – as it was a bit warm to me.

The Colles 2012 was a touch warm too, but a more mineral-driven Sauvignon Blanc at 13,5% alcohol. For the Gross family, the origins of this Slovenian vineyard date back to  1907, when Heinrich Gross purchased a vineyard called Witscheiner Herrenberg, now in Slovenia, which laid the foundations of the Gross winery. The vineyards used today to make this wine are on steep slopes with inclinations reaching 85%. Weingut Gross started cultivating there in 2004, and “we are still learning how to cultivate the vines in the best possible way,” remarked Michael Gross. “We need to pick earlier,” Michael commented. “Because the terroir it too warm.”

He points to an amphitheater like vineyard of the”Opok” soils with a medium to high percentage of lime. Although the soil may look like slate in some places, it is indeed marl. All vine-growing surfaces are bowl-shaped, oriented to the south and laid out in terraces. Fermentation and maturing is done in large “neutral” wooden casks to stress the character of the Stajerska Slovenija Region. Colles rests on the lees for 12 months and is put on the market after maturing 18 months in oak. It is a rather full-bodied, well-structured wine with an aging potential of eight years and more, according to Michael. Since two years, the Colles label makes no mention of the grape on the label. 

I preferred the Sulz 2012. Even though also 13.5% alcohol, it seemed more precise and saltier. The Sulz site mostly consists of poor clay, limy soils and the water-bearing characteristics of the soil particularly suit Sauvignon Blanc, which presents itself as a full-bodied, deep and round wine. Given the particular features of the site, the wine acquires a slightly salty structure and displays a note that is somewhat more floral than that of its peers from Nussberg. Sulz wines show a “warm” floral aroma and a deep salty structure, according to the website, and that makes sense to me.

In part 3 – to be published soon – we will visit a gorgeous place to have lunch overlooking vineyards that straddle the Austrian-Slovenian border belonging to the famous Weingut Tement. 

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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