Styria, or the Steiermark as the Austrians call this province in German, is a large wine-growing region some three hours’ drive southwest of Vienna along the Slovenian border. Historically it was divided into four sub-regions, the most southerly of which is now in Slovenia near the town of Maribor (Marburg). Just over a hundred years ago, its famous Jerusalem vineyard was the home of one of the most expensive wines in the world, a Pinot Blanc!
The two principal Austrian appellations are Southern Styria, where the majority of the leading estates are located, and the somewhat smaller Southeastern Styria. Together the three sub-regions north of the border have a total of just shy of 3,900 hectares of vine. Southern Styria, with its some 2,500 hectares of vineyards, is a hilly area with a diversity not seen much anywhere else in Europe.
The vines there are planted on steep slopes at various altitudes with different expositions on a kaleidoscope of soils. This fact explains the maze of varieties found, all of which do well in the right hands. Sauvignon Blanc is now considered the king, or is at least the most popular grape, but Pinot Blanc, Morillon (Chardonnay), Traminer and Muskateller can be excellent as well.
In the southeast, estates like Neumeister also make outstanding Pinot Gris. What the wines of Styria all have in common is their color: white! Unlike in Burgundy, the leading estates are spread out along the hills with very little overlap. Although the leading estates have developed a classification of grand crus, their respective vineyard holdings are almost all essentially monopolies, making comparisons difficult. Sattlerhof’s Sauvignon Blancs have an herbal density, Gross’s a warm, rich purity, and Tement’s a stony, spicy freshness.
Is that due to soil, microclimate or stylistic preferences? Further, even where two estates use the same vineyard name, that site is often quite large and hardly uniform, making comparisons of two bottlings of, say, Grassnitzberg, almost impossible. Within Austria, and certainly within the region itself, Welschriesling remains the most popular variety, but the estates that export produce a high percentage of Sauvignon Blanc. For years, their entry-level Klassik was an important wine, but it seems to be losing ground, squeezed as it were from two ends.
Given the increased competition, many estates have released a Sauvignon Blanc at a price point below that of Klassik and, above it, all have introduced a village range, with names like Ratsch, Gamlitz or Berghausen. And then there is Sausal at the northern end of the region. On average almost a hundred meters higher in altitude, its hillsides are considerably steeper and the soils mostly slate. It was once a separate region and, in style, remains so even today. While there is little agreement internationally as to what constitutes great Sauvignon Blanc, all producers in Styria would argue that New Zealand, however successful, is not a role model. Instead, the spectrum of choices runs the gamut from barrel-fermented Graves to the stony purity of Sancerre.
At various times, most of the leading estates have tried both approaches, but are now slowly beginning to develop their own styles, with Gross, Sattlerhof and Tement the farthest down that path. The 2013 Vintage: Until hail in August and rains shortly before harvest ended their streak in 2014, Styria had been on a roll, with 2011, 2012 and 2013 all being above-average vintages. Among those three, 2012 certainly has the least depth, but makes up for that shortcoming with balance. In fact, they are often the most interesting wines to drink today. Two thousand eleven is the most massive of the three vintages.
At the time, producers like Alois Gross said unequivocably that they had made the finest wines of their career in that year. Many of them, though, were so closed in their youth that they are only just now beginning to show their potential, and the best are still far from their zenith. Two thousand thirteen is the most unusual year in this trio. It has the richness and depth of 2011, but with a more lively acidity that provides the young wines an undeniable elegance. Heat in the summer slowed maturity to such an extent that almost everyone harvested relatively late. Not only was the vegetative cycle longer, it was also cooler when the grapes were picked, giving the wines a youthful brightness that the 2011s never had.
While everyone I spoke with thought very highly of the vintage, few were as clear in their preference as Christoph Neumeister, who believes that 2013 is the best vintage he has ever crushed. I take a more nuanced view. Stylistically I prefer the crisp elegance of the 2013s as well and believe that they will provide the most drinking pleasure over the coming few years. The finest of the 2011s, though, like the 2007s before them, may outlive them. However, as few of us lay down Sauvignon or Pinot Blanc to age, that certainly simplifies our choices.