For over four decades, we at Rosenthal Wine Merchant have forged our reputation seeking out distinctive and characterful wines from every corner of viticultural France and Italy. Along the way, we have been guided neither by concerns about marketability nor by ideological strictures, but by our own aesthetic North Star. For us to introduce it to our clientele here in the United States, a wine must speak of a place and its history, and of an engaging human intelligence behind its creation. In other words, a wine must not merely be “good enough”—it must truly resonate. Our search has led us to growers in blue-chip regions and obscure locales alike, some with whom we experienced immediate success, and others on whose behalf we continue to exert every effort to find a proper audience. We trust implicitly in the growers and in the process of discovery, and time has vindicated our efforts consistently.
While France and Italy have comprised the primary locus of our activity since the beginning, we have always had a particular affinity for the wines of the Alps: the iconic Carema from Luigi Ferrando was the very first wine Neal ever imported, and it remains his desert island wine to this day; Neal was the first major US importer of Jura wine, commencing a relationship with the legendary Jacques Puffeney in the mid-1990s; we were early proselytizers of the Valle d’Aosta’s vinous bounty; we launched five thrilling relationships in the Alto Piemonte within the same year; and in the late 2000s, after years of flying into and out of the country, we finally began exploring Switzerland’s Valais, plunging ourselves into a little-experienced wonderland of mostly indigenous varieties and joining forces with four fantastic growers there.
Following the Alps eastward into Austria, then, feels as natural to us as breathing. It barely needs to be said that Austria’s long, rich viticultural history is a treasure trove for lovers of wine and of terroir, and the country’s vinous output already reaches a wide audience worldwide. Of course, the seemingly ubiquitous Grüner Veltliner still looms large in the American market’s consciousness, checking the “crisp white wine” box for many a value-minded consumer; the magisterial wines of the Wachau continue to fill collectors’ cellars; and a growing natural-wine movement in Austria has led many to begin farming more responsibility and adopting more risks in the cellar. Still, our search for meaningful wines is not a quest for sellable varieties, expensive trophies, or ideologically pure product; it is a search for people—for growers that do what growers everywhere do: reckon with their land, their history, their culture, their climate, and their markets as best they can. Those who do so beautifully, produce wines that stimulate mind, palate, and spirit alike; and it is wines like these that are our raison d’être as an importer.
We are thrilled to begin our journey into Austria with four growers who we feel wonderfully represent the scope and breadth of Austria’s winegrowing culture. From the Stadlmann family, tending the vine in the northern Thermenregion since the late 1700s, to the pioneering Anita and Hans Nittnaus and their spellbinding northern-Burgenland wines, to the fastidious Neumeister clan in the Vulkanland sector of Styria, to young Josef Fischer and his scintillatingly mineral-driven Wachau wines from the southern banks of the Danube, these are wines which pulse with life and glow with a sense of place.
It was through our longtime friend Monika Caha, in fact, that we were able to meet these four growers whose wines, approaches, and personalities resonated so deeply with us. A Vienna native and the former chef-proprietor of Kaffeehaus in Chelsea in the 1990s—among the first restaurants in the United States to spotlight high-end Austrian wines—Monika began her business in the early 2000s after the events of September 11th interrupted her plans to open a new restaurant in New York City. Over the ensuing years, she and her longtime partner Toni Silver have built a small but diverse network of outstanding Austrian producers and helped them find clients abroad. Happily, Monika’s aesthetics and ethos align closely with our own: while nearly all the growers she represents are either practicing or certified organic, and a handful are comfortably categorized as “natural,” she, like us, eschews dogmatism, seeking characterful wines that satisfy the senses and ignite the imagination.
This is a thrilling new phrase for all of us at Rosenthal Wine Merchant, and we greatly look forward to introducing you to the treasures we have found on this new, yet also deeply familiar, path.
In the rolling hills of Austria’s Thermenregion, just 20 minutes south of Vienna, the Stadlmann family has tended the vine since 1780. Eighth-generation Bernhard Stadlmann, who took the reins from his father Johann with the 2006 vintage, holds three doctoral degrees, but he chose ultimately to dedicate his life to continuing and refining the traditions established by his long chain of predecessors. And Bernhard’s wines—complex, distinctive, and saturated with a sense of place—spoke immediately to our sensibilities.
Although the Thermenregion’s global popularity is eclipsed by that of the Wachau, Kamptal, and Kremstal regions, it was here that Austria’s most prized wines were produced historically. Stadlmann owns 20 hectares of vines in 35 separate parcels in the northern sector of the Thermenregion, a chain of gentle east-facing slopes with soils of varyingly mixed limestone and clay. (If this topography brings Burgundy to mind, that is no accident: Cistercian monks brought Burgundian varieties to the Thermenregion in the late 12th century, surely sensing a certain kinship with the lands from which they had come.) Wines produced from the indigenous Rotgipfler and Zierfandler varieties were favorites of the Habsburgs, and although the Paris Exposition of 1855 is perhaps better known for sparking Bordeaux’s classification system, it was actually a Rotgipfler from the Thermenregion that took first prize at the fair.
While the Stadlmann family produces outstanding examples of Grüner Veltliner (which assumes a lovely saltiness in these limestone soils), Weissburgunder, and Pinot Noir, they are most renowned for their riveting and age-worthy Rotgipfler and Zierfandler. Only about 120 hectares of Rotgipfler and 75 hectares of Zierfandler still exist in the Thermenregion, and Stadlmann is their clear standard-bearer, having perfected the management of these finicky varieties through accumulated generational wisdom. Zierfandler, though capable of articulating site with startling precision, is naturally low-yielding, and prone to rot due to its compact clusters of thin-skinned berries. Rotgipfler (named for its red (“rot”) shoots), on the other hand, must be carefully managed to avoid overproduction, and loses acidity quickly once it achieves phenolic ripeness. And these varieties’ late-maturing nature, a result of the daily cooling winds which descend eastward from the nearby Alps, only serves to increase the possibility for calamity during the lengthy growing season.
In Stadlmann’s hands, however, these obscure varieties attain a gravitas that places them among the great white wines of Europe, and Bernhard’s fastidious irrigation-free and chemical-free farming (certified organic since 2006 and practicing biodynamic more recently) and hands-off cellar approach allow his wines to articulate their sense of place with clarity and power. Ripe bunches, always harvested by hand, are pressed whole-cluster and fermented spontaneously in distinctive 18-hectoliter casks made of local oak from the forests around Vienna; the wines are racked off their gross lees after fermentation, spending ten to twelve months in these same casks resting on their fine lees before bottling. These traditional casks, all of which are at least 30 years of age, promote efficient settling of the lees, allowing Stadlmann to eschew fining and to bottle with only a gentle non-sterile filtration; they also allow the Rotgipfler and Zierfandler to achieve a textural expressiveness impossible in stainless steel’s anaerobic environment. Malolactic fermentation is never blocked, but it occurs in fewer than ten percent of the wines and is always allowed to complete if it begins; and because Bernhard employs indigenous yeasts and prefers not to interfere with the wine during the aging process, his Rotgipfler and Zierfandler typically end up with four or five grams per liter of residual sugar—a texture-enhancing amount that rarely manifests as a sense of actual sweetness.
Notably, while many Austrian growers produce bottlings of various ripeness levels from the same plot each vintage, Stadlmann has always issued forth a single wine per site, harvested at what they believe is the correct moment to capture the characteristics of vineyard and growing season—typically around mid-October. (Bernhard spent a brief period in the Côte de Beaune, and as he stated cheekily in an interview with Levi Dalton in 2015, “When I worked in Burgundy, we made only one Montrachet and only one Chevalier-Montrachet.”) Charming in their youth but capable of aging for decades, Stadlmann’s wines are textural masterpieces which eschew the dominant Austrian paradigm of stainless-steel-fostered digital clarity in favor of a profoundly harmonious layered character, and we at Rosenthal Wine Merchant greatly look forward to broadening the audience for this unique and historic producer.
2020 Grüner Veltliner
Whereas much of Austria’s Grüner Veltliner is planted in soils of loess, Stadlmann’s grows in the limestone that characterizes their sector of the Thermenregion, resulting in an elegantly chalky, salty wine less opulent than many versions grown elsewhere. Fermented spontaneously in large neutral-oak casks, it is bottled in May the year after harvest without fining and with only a gentle filtration, rarely topping 12.5% alcohol.
2020 Rotgipfler Anning
Analogous to Burgundy’s regional wines, Stadlmann’s basic Rotgipfler and Zierfandler are named after the Anning hills which characterize the northern part of the Thermenregion. Produced in large part from younger vines planted in the lower, flatter parts of these hillside vineyards, the Rotgipfler Anning ferments with naturally occurring yeasts in large, neutral Viennese oak, and rests on its fine lees until it is bottled the May after harvest. Its core of round, broad, melon-like fruit is given ample definition by a blatantly saline sense of minerality, and it possesses exceptional cling and concentration given its modest 12.5% alcohol.
2020 Rotgipfler Gumpoldskirchen
In a similar spirit to Burgundy’s village-level wines, Stadlmann bottles a Rotgipfler from vineyards immediately surrounding the nearby town of Gumpoldskirchen. Like their regional-level wines, this ferments naturally in large, decades-old Viennese-oak casks, but it spends nearly an entire year in cask on its fine lees before being bottled—without fining and with a gentle non-sterile filtration. Both richer and more taut than the Rotgipfler Anning, this presents a stonier sense of minerality, its nearly invisible four grams per liter of residual sugar amplifying the palate’s intensity and elongating the finish.
2019 Rotgipfler Ried Pfaffstättner Tagelsteiner
This single-site offering, from the high-altitude gravelly clay-limestone of the Tagelsteiner vineyard just outside the town of Pfaffstätten, illustrates the expressive capabilities of Rotgipfler at its finest. Clearly articulated and very Alpine fruit undergirds a palate of remarkable tension and penetrating, chalky minerality, and an overall sense of concentration bodes well for this wine’s long future. In the cellar, this is handled in precisely the same fashion as the village-level wine: spontaneous fermentation and aging on the fine lees in 18-hectoliter Viennese-oak casks of 30 or more years of age, and bottled after one year of aging with only a gentle filtration.
2020 Zierfandler Anning
Produced in large part from younger vines planted in the lower, flatter parts of these hillside vineyards, the Zierfandler Anning—like its Rotgipfler counterpart—ferments with naturally occurring yeasts in large, neutral Viennese oak, and rests on its fine lees until the May after harvest . In keeping with its varietal character, this offers a more subdued fruit profile than the Rotgipfler Anning, with a palate of greater cut, more intense minerality, and a firmer sense of structure.
2020 Zierfandler Traiskirchen
Named after the Stadlmanns’ home village of Traiskirchen, this village-level Zierfandler offers subtly honeyed fruit on an acid-driven frame, its treble register enhanced by a lovely rendering of the variety’s signature spiciness. Like the Rotgipfler Gumpoldskirchen, it spends nearly a year on its fine lees in large neutral-oak casks following a spontaneous fermentation in the same vessel type. This weighs in at 13% alcohol, with four grams per liter of residual sugar which the wine’s ample acidity masks handily.
2019 Zierfandler Ried Traiskirchner Mandel-Höh
Perhaps the Stadlmann estate’s crowning achievement, this exceptionally complex and age-worthy Zierfandler hails from 50-year-old vines planted in the Mandel-Höh vineyard (“Mandel” means “almond tree”—and where almonds thrive, so do wine grapes) outside Traiskirchen. This legendary site’s poor and fossil-strewn soil—the limestone bedrock is just 15 centimeters below the surface on this upper part of the slope—produces a wine of profound, smoke-tinged, palate-staining mineral potency whose layers of complexity require years of patience to unfurl. Following the family’s well-established traditional cellar methodology, this spends a year on its fine lees in large, decades-old Viennese-oak casks after fermenting spontaneously in the same vessel type.
2018 Pinot Noir
Produced from vines planted well south of the cluster of northern-Thermenregion villages that comprise the majority of their holdings, Stadlmann’s Pinot Noir (called “Blauburgunder” locally) is simultaneously fresh and substantial, offering the textural harmoniousness of their white wines, as well as a lifted and elegant spice character that puts one in the mind of excellent red Burgundy. (After all, it was the Cistercian monks who brought Pinot Noir from Burgundy to the Thermenregion in the late 1100s.) Like the estate’s white wines, this is fermented and aged entirely in large, well-worn oak casks and bottled without fining and with only a gentle filtration.
The splendorous Wachau, Lower Austria’s westernmost wine region, is home to the country’s best-known wines internationally, producing Grüner Veltliner and Riesling of unparalleled power, depth, and longevity. Though it occupies just a 12-mile stretch of the Danube, the Wachau is home to over 650 winegrowers, most of whom farm modestly sized holdings on the region’s unforgivingly steep, terraced slopes. Historically speaking, the Wachau’s most coveted sites are found along the northern banks of the Danube; here, vineyards tilt southward like solar panels, ensuring full phenolic maturity even in difficult vintages. However, as the climate has warmed over the past couple of decades, growers on these northern banks have occasionally struggled to produce wines of finesse and balance. As is the case in winegrowing regions across Europe, what used to be sweet spots for ripening now suffer from an excess of warmth with increasing frequency. Today, in fact, the vineyards on the southern side of the Danube, planted on north-facing slopes typically less extreme in incline, attain ripeness with greater certainty each vintage than they did in years past, and wines from these less solar sites tend to display a sense of effortless freshness and lift that sometimes eludes their neighbors across the river.
The Fischer family has produced wine on the Danube’s southern banks for centuries, from holdings in and around their home village of Rossatz, in the eastern stretches of the Wachau. The winery itself traces its roots to 1898, and today fifth-generation Josef Fischer (or “Joe,” to distinguish him from his father—also named Josef) works 11 hectares of Grüner Veltliner and Riesling from several of Rossatz’s top sites. Only a small percentage of Wachau winegrowers work organically, due to the immense amount of manual labor required to farm on the region’s terraces; Joe, however, works completely without synthetic chemicals in his beautifully tended vineyards, and the winery is certified organic. He inherited this deep respect for sustainability from his father, who, in a true instance of living up to one’s surname, has been engaged in a decades-long passion project of breeding the fabled but near-extinct Huchen—the royal fish of the Habsburgs—and repopulating the river with them. (The wines’ striking front labels pay homage to Josef’s pursuit.)
Several years ago, Joe—whose star is definitively on the rise in the Wachau—completed construction on a brand-new cellar which allows him to work with the utmost sensitivity and restraint. He aims to influence the wines as little as possible during fermentation and aging, and to that end he allows all fermentations to proceed spontaneously, employing a battalion of smaller tanks so that each small parcel can be vinified and matured separately. Malolactic fermentation is not blocked, but it only proceeds in certain instances—nearly always with the Smaragd-level wines, and only occasionally with the earlier-picked offerings.
Though they show notable concentration, Fischer’s wines do not lead with power; rather, they are built around a tight helix of rapier-like acidity and intensely saline minerality, emphasizing kinetic thrust over sheer richness. They are pure-fruited and precise without feeling polished, and they articulate soil variations in nuanced fashion. Finally, while certain Wachau wines can be lavish and impressive yet tiring after a glass or two, Fischer’s are irresistible in their digestibility, freshness, and friendliness.
2021 Grüner Veltliner Federspiel Rossatz
Fischer’s brisk, penetrating Grüner Veltliner Federspiel Rossatz—from various vineyards surrounding the family’s home village—offers a compelling salinity on its driving palate of floral-tinged green and yellow fruits. Weighing in at 12.5% alcohol, the 2021 exemplifies the combination of lean-muscle strength and elegant agility that characterizes Joe’s style.
2019 Grüner Veltliner Smaragd Ried Frauenweingärten
The Frauenweingärten encompasses the slopes between Rossatz and Rossatzbach, on the southern banks of the Danube, extending from the edge of the Dunkelstein forest down to just 25 meters from the river, and sloping up to a 48% incline. These northeast-facing hillsides are covered in a meter-thick deposit of glacial loess whose silty, sandy structure is ideal for Grüner Veltliner, and this loess is punctuated by elements of paragneiss (a metamorphic rock derived from sedimentary elements) and migmatite (gneiss with granitic elements) which increase the soil’s porosity. Fischer’s 40-year-old parcel Grüner Veltliner in the Frauenweingärten yields a wine which beautifully combines weight and transparency, and this 2019—clocking in at 14% alcohol with just one gram per liter of residual sugar—offers deep, borderline viscous yellow fruits which rise toward an airy yet elongated finish of mineral-driven precision. It was fermented spontaneously and aged the better part of a year on its fine lees in stainless steel with minimal sulfur additions.
2020 Riesling Federspiel Ried Steiger
While Grüner Veltliner thrives in the loess-dominated sites of the Wachau, Riesling prefers poorer soil. Situated close to the Danube itself on a gentle 29% incline, Rossatz’s Steiger vineyard is rich with paragneiss and littered with crushed stones, and Fischer works a parcel of 25-year-old Riesling here. The tensile, saline 2020 Riesling Federspiel, measuring 12% alcohol with 3.8 grams per liter of residual sugar, counterposes smoky, clinging minerality with torpor-conquering acidity to create an irresistible sense of tension. Harvested in late September, it was fermented spontaneously and aged the better part of a year on its fine lees in stainless steel with minimal sulfur additions.
2019 Riesling Smaragd Ried Steiger
Fischer’s Smaragd-level Riesling from the Steiger vineyard offers an even greater sense of tension than its Federspiel counterpart—not always the case with the later-harvested Smaragd category—and introduces an additional layer of smoky earth, as well as a chalky texture, beneath its tight-grained fruit-acid structure. This 2019 carries four grams per liter of residual sugar on its agile 13%-alcohol frame. Harvested in late October, it was fermented spontaneously and aged the better part of a year on its fine lees in stainless steel with minimal sulfur additions.
Anita & Hans Nittnaus
Burgenland is Austria’s easternmost wine region, situated south of Niederösterreich and north of Steiermark, and bordering Hungary along its entire eastern flank. Its 28% share of Austria’s vineyard area produces the country’s best and most respected red wines, from vineyards whose proximity to Hungary’s warm Pannonian plains ensures proper ripening for the indigenous Blaufränkisch and Zweigelt. The northern sector of Burgenland is dominated by Lake Neusiedl (or Neusiedlersee), Europe’s largest steppe lake, which straddles the Austria-Hungary border, and the Nittnaus family has resided in the town of Gols, on Neusiedlersee’s eastern edge, since 1684.
Today, third-generation Hans Nittnaus and his wife Anita helm the winery his grandfather Johann began in 1927. After taking over from his father in 1985, in the aftermath of the well-publicized diethylene glycol scandal which (despite being perpetrated by only a few large wineries) so damaged Austrian wine’s reputation abroad, Hans was resolutely determined to claw out some respect for the wines of his homeland. As so many across lesser-known winegrowing regions did in the 1980s, Hans chose Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot as his draft horses to ride toward international acclaim; however, within a few years he shifted focus to Blaufränkisch and Zweigelt—varieties whose deep sense of somewhere-ness more readily distinguish them from the pack. Hans & Anita are regarded today not only as influential pioneers of contemporary Burgenland’s dynamic wine scene, but as among the greatest growers in all of Austria. Happily, their two sons Andreas and Martin, as well as their niece Lydia, are fully involved in the day-to-day operations of the winery, and the two generations approach their work in a collaborative spirit. Despite the chaos that occasionally ensues from such a collective approach, it is clear that all parties deeply respect one another’s approach, and it is greatly reassuring to know that the winery will be in such capable, dynamic hands in its next phase.
The Nittnaus estate today encompasses 44 hectares spread among two distinct subregions of northern Burgenland. To the east of Lake Neusiedl, in the Neusiedlersee appellation, soils are of sandy clay with varying levels of flint; this is the site of the family’s historic holdings, as well as the winery itself. More recently, Hans and Anita have acquired vineyards in the Leitha hills, to the west of the lake, whose poorer soils of limestone and slate render Blaufränkisch of striking energy and minerality. They work according to strict biodynamic principles, and are certified as such by the small, rigorous, and less-mainstream “respect-BIODYN” organization.
Nittnaus’ cellar practices serve to highlight rather than stifle the energetic and lovely character of their abundantly healthy fruit: they employ only spontaneous fermentations; and, for aging, they favor 500-liter Stockinger casks, whose tight-grained, low-toast, low-impact construction allows for maximal expressiveness and facilitates ultra-modest sulfur additions. The family’s white wines are breezy and balanced without being simple, and their red wines are simultaneously refreshing and serious—eminently digestible without making a huge deal of their ease of use, and sneakily solid in their construction despite their spicy exuberance and lip-smacking fruit. This remarkable tightrope-walk, which the Nittnauses make look easy, avoids flirtation with over-extracted internationalism on one side and affectations of cutesy gluggability on the other. Theirs are the wines of seasoned masters who have learned over years of experience how to produce wines that taste precisely and proudly of where they are from.
2020 Pinot Blanc Heideboden
Nittnaus’ zesty Pinot Blanc comes from vineyards to the northeast of Lake Neusiedl, planted in the area’s sandy clay. Fermented spontaneously and aged ten months in stainless steel on its fine lees, the 2020 weighs in at 13% alcohol with a single invisible gram of residual sugar. Its vivid, lifted fruit speaks to its low-intervention origins, and it possesses a carefully calibrated generosity which stops well short of unctuousness.
2018 “Anita” Red Blend
Mostly Zweigelt with splashes of Blaufränkisch and Sankt Laurent, “Anita” shows off Nittnaus’ knack for producing lip-smackingly delicious reds. Soaring acidity lets the spice-drenched red and black fruits dance on the palate, and the wine—with only 15 milligrams per liter of added sulfur—bristles with energy. There is just enough structure here to keep the wine from feeling simple, but it stays out of the way of the fruit-and-spice main event.
2019 Blauer Zweigelt
Nittnaus’ spectacular Zweigelt comes from vines planted in the loess of the Parndorf plain, between the Leitha hills and Lake Neusiedl. Spontaneously fermented, it spends 12 months aging in used 500-liter oak casks from the renowned Stockinger cooperage, and is bottled with minimal sulfur. This delivers plenty of concentration and tension on its modest 12.5%-alcohol frame, with spicy purple fruits and a beam of lifted acidity.
2019 Blaufränkisch “Kalk & Schiefer”
“Kalk & Schiefer” (“limestone and slate”) comes from Blaufränkisch grown on the slopes of the Leitha hills near the village of Jois. Like the Zweigelt above, this is aged one year in used 500-liter Stockinger barrels and is bottled with just a splash of sulfur—less than 15 milligrams per liter. Cleansing, cool-toned minerality counterbalances warmly spicy fruit here, united under a spire of glowing acidity. This, too, is just 12.5% alcohol, exemplifying the variety’s ability to be both richly juicy and light in spirit.
2019 Blaufränkisch Ried Joiser Altenberg
This single-site offering comes from the Altenberg vineyard outside the village of Jois in the Leitha hills. Anita and Hans own a parcel of 30-year-old Blaufränkisch on these slopes of slatey limestone, which yield a wine of remarkably fresh yet deeply penetrating minerality—one in which the gorgeously vivid blue and black fruits are less foregrounded than in the slightly more easygoing “Kalk & Shiefer” above. This also spends longer in cask, aging for 18 months in used 500-liter Stockingers before being bottled with minimal sulfur. Though it is undeniably charming in its youth, Altenberg is capable of 15 or more years of aging, easily.
2019 Blaufränkisch Ried Neusiedler Langhe Ohn
The Langhe Ohn vineyard is situated southeast of Jois (see above), closer to Lake Neusiedl’s northern edge. This pure-south-exposed site of clay and limestone produces a richer, rounder Blaufränkisch than Altenberg, with redder, warmer-toned fruit and broader texture. Like the Altenberg above, this spends 18 months in used 500-liter Stockingers before being bottled with minimal sulfur, and it should evolve beautifully over the coming 15 to 20 years.
Styria is a winegrowing region of extremes. Bordered by Slovenia to the south, it occupies the southeast corner of Austria, with its eastern edge flanking the Burgenland’s western edge along its entire length. Styria, or Steiermark in German, divides into three winegrowing areas: Südsteiermark (South Styria); Weststeiermark (West Styria), or Schilcherland; and Vulkanland Steiermark, Styria’s largest winegrowing subregion, named after the slopes of the extinct volcanoes (Vulkane) on which many of its vineyards are planted. Although its surface area is close to that of the larger Niederösterreich (Lower Austria) to the north, Styria comprises just ten percent of all Austrian wine by volume, as vineyards here tend to dot rather than blanket the landscape.
In the southeast corner of Vulkanland Steiermark, close to where Slovenia’s northwest corner meets Hungary’s southwest corner, third-generation winegrower Christoph Neumeister farms 30 hectares of vines spread over numerous steep hillsides around his hometown of Straden, planted at altitudes of 340 to 380 meters above sea level. Soils here are diverse, with volcanic basalt, sandy loam, chalky limestone, and sandstone all influencing the characteristics of the grapes grown on these slopes, most of which exceed 65% in gradient. Vulkanland Steiermark’s climate is mercurial and difficult: cool winds from the Alps clash with warm breezes from the Adriatic Sea to the south and Hungary’s Pannonian plains to the east, bringing lots of rainfall and frequent hailstorms; and the zone’s extremely cold nights—diurnal shifts regularly exceed 20 degrees Celsius during summer—make for a lengthy growing season.
Between the area’s steep slopes, extreme weather conditions, and relatively small share of Austria’s winegrowing spotlight, producing wine here is neither easy nor glorious; however, much like in the Carso, the growers who do tough it out are necessarily deeply committed. Neumeister is one of a dozen wineries in the STK (for “Steiermark”) organization, a tight-knit grower collective that engages in landscape preservation, prioritizes biodiversity, and promotes a sustainable, integrated approach to farming, energy usage, resource management, and social issues. STK also employs an internally developed and rigorous classification system, designating certain wines from certain prized vineyards “Erste STK Ried” (or “1STK”—premier cru) and “Grosse STK Ried” (or “GSTK”—grand cru), provided they meet certain mutually agreed-upon requirements for vine age, farming technique, yields, must weight, dryness, and aging process.
Thoughtful, meticulous, and articulate, Christoph Neumeister took over from his father Albert in 2006, when he was just 25 years old, obtaining certification in 2013 for the organic viticultural practices Albert had begun employing in the 1990s. Vulkanland Steiermark’s extreme inclines make machine work next to impossible, so not only is harvest conducted manually, but all tasks in the vineyards are completed by hand. The Neumeister cellar was designed top-to-bottom to treat fruit, must, and wine as gently and naturally as possible: all wines ferment spontaneously, and everything is moved solely by gravity from harvest through bottling. Christoph favors well-used oak in the aging of his wines, which allows the mineral potency and textural splendor inherent in his low-yield-derived fruit to blossom over the wines’ lengthy stints in cask; such transformations are impossible with a curt passage in highly thermoregulated stainless steel.
Christoph owns well-situated parcels of multiple grape varieties, including Weissburgunder (Pinot Blanc), Grauburgunder (Pinot Gris), and Morillon (Chardonnay), but it is Sauvignon Blanc—brought to Styria in the early 1800s by Archduke Johann of the House of Habsburg-Lorraine—that produces arguably the region’s most distinctive and complex wines. Christoph’s Sauvignon Blanc is a far cry from most of those produced in the eastern Loire Valley in which the variety was born. While pockets of great terroir exist in appellations like Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé, of course, many of its wines are cropped for high production, harvested by machine, inoculated with intrusive artificial yeasts, and crammed into bottle after only a few months in stainless steel—relying on name recognition to do the heavy lifting in the market. Christoph’s yields, on the other hand, rarely top 35 hectoliters per hectare; hand-harvesting ensures that only perfect and intact fruit enters the winery; and patient aging allows his Sauvignon Blanc to assume a breadth and texture experienced in very few examples from elsewhere.
One senses the very pulp of the fruit in Neumeister’s Sauvignon Blanc—an impression fostered by a 12-to-48-hour maceration on the skins before fermentation begins—and the zone’s dramatic diurnal swings manifest in a shimmering, prismatic acidity that seems to illuminate the wine’s manifold layers. The wines show salt, or smoke, or both, as dictated by soil, and they simultaneously caress the palate and cling to it, their immense concentration reflecting their low-yielding fruit of origin. These are wines of terroir par excellence, and we are confident they will prove riveting and revelatory to even the staunchest Sauvignon Blanc skeptic.
2020 Gemischter Satz
Gemischter Satz originated as a co-fermented field blend produced from vineyards within and immediately around Vienna, but the much-beloved style has spread throughout Austria over the years. Neumeister’s delightfully aromatic version is built around 40-year-old Gelber Muskateller, with fellow early-ripening varieties Welschriesling, Müller-Thurgau, and Scheurebe rounding out the blend. Fermented and aged entirely in stainless steel, it is dry, gently floral, and driven by brisk acidity, clocking in at just 12% alcohol.
Neumeister’s Weissburgunder (Pinot Blanc) forcefully demonstrates the minerality these steep Styrian hillsides can foster, with taut yellow fruit taking a backseat to a glinting, chiseled sense of stoniness; its penetrating depth of flavor belies its modest 12% alcohol. Fermentation proceeds spontaneously in stainless steel, and the wine spends the better part of a year on its fine lees in steel as well—a regimen that spotlights the wine’s crystalline character and keeps its fruit lively and fresh.
2020 Sauvignon Blanc Straden
Named after the Neumeister’s hometown of Straden, this Ortswein (village wine) exemplifies Christoph’s texturally expansive yet intricately chiseled style of Sauvignon Blanc. Fermented naturally after a two-day maceration on the skins, it spends the better part of a year on its fine lees in used oak casks between 500 and 2500 liters in capacity. Expressive in its youth but capable of significant positive development in bottle (like all of Christoph’s white wines), this has an emerald-green cast (not to be confused with under-ripeness) to its aromas and flavors, with a texture simultaneously airy and concentrated.
2019 Sauvignon Blanc Ried Klausen (1STK)
The premier cru Klausen sits on an east-southeast-facing mountain ridge at 340 meters altitude, with heavily calcareous sandstone soils and a drastic 65% gradient. Christoph owns seven hectares here, and he wrests a Sauvignon Blanc of fine, clinging minerality and ultra-precise, green-tinted fruit from its poor soils. After a two-day maceration, this wine ferments spontaneously in 25-hectoliter oak barrels and spends 12 months on its fine lees before bottling. Bursting with energy and bristling with tension, it will continue to develop layers of nuance for at least a decade.
2019 Sauvignon Blanc Ried Moarfeitl (GSTK)
The renowned grand cru Moarfeitl occupies a south-southwest-facing plateau situated above the Augenweide vineyard at 340 meters altitude. Neumeister planted two hectares of vines here in 1990, and Moarfeitl’s soils of sand, loam, and gravel are intermixed with volcanic elements, lending the Sauvignon Blanc from this site a distinctively assertive and profound mineral character. In accordance with the stringent requirements for GSTK (“Grosse STK Ried”) status, this spends 18 months in used oak casks between five and 25 hectoliters in capacity; like all of Neumeister’s wines, it undergoes a pre-fermentation maceration on its skins for several days before fermentation commences spontaneously.
2018 Sauvignon Blanc “Alte Reben”
Neumeister’s legendary “Alte Reben” (“old vines”) is produced from the two oldest Sauvignon Blanc plantings in Styria: a 1937 east-facing parcel on Buchberg’s “Stradener Himmelsburg” situated at 360 meters altitude in poor, limestone-dominated soils; and an east-facing planting from 1967 in premier cru Klausen’s calcareous sandstone. Christoph ages the “Alte Reben” a staggering three years in used 500-liter barrels, allowing it to develop stunning textural breadth and aromatic nuance. We are fortunate to be able to obtain a handful of cases every so often, and this is one to be snagged swiftly if it is encountered in the wild.