This is border country. Signs along stretches of the panoramic Weinstraßewarn you that the (unmarked) frontier runs along the road, so the vineyard on your right is in Slovenia. Otherwise, little sign of national territoriality, the neat rows of vines look identical to their Austrian cousins across the road. Maybe the grower’s name has a Slavic ring, but then so do many of those on the Austrian side. This is one world. Welcome back to the multinational Habsburg Empire.
The Südsteiermark (southern Styria) refers to itself a little coyly as the Austrian Tuscany, and it is indeed another world from the Technicolor pastures of The Sound of Music. It may not be Italy, but it is hilly, sunny and serious wine growing territory, one of Austria’s 15 recognized DAC (Districtus Austriae Controllatus) regions and fiercely protective of its uniqueness.
Terroir, the combination of climate, soil and topography, is like nowhere else, and growers here (as farmers everywhere) are proud of both the advantages they enjoy and disadvantages they face. Uniqueness, of course, is a major factor in marketing and getting the best prices, and the growers here work hard to create a local Typizität, that distinctive local character over and above the difference in the grape varieties themselves. Most of the vineyards in this hill country on the edge of the Gurktaler Alps are extremely steep, worked with little mechanical help and a lot of skilled hands. They need to get better than average prices – and they do.
The distinctive local character is best demonstrated in their signature Sauvignon Blanc: delightfully aromatic, usually dry with a fresh but restrained acidity. The other principal white wines (Welschriesling and Chardonnay, here called Morillon) in the region share this characteristic, but somehow manage to retain their own varietal personalities. That’s the magic of good wine making. Each year, autumn is marked by the release of the Steierische Junker, a cuvée from the fresh harvest traditionally released on St. Martin’s Day, November 11 (and two days before the Beaujolais nouveau juggernaut rolls out across Europe). Red wines are less important here, but the unique local variety, Blauer Wildbacher, produces the legendary Schilcher, bottled as red or rosé. Its distinctive crisp, hardedged acidity is unmistakable. Not for everyone – but a must to try.
A word you hear often talking to winemakers here is “innovation,” but they don’t mean high-tech, but rather a kind of high precision, low-tech (hands-off) approach, and a conscious return to older practices. One of the largest producers in this corner is Weingut Tement, with vineyards on both sides of the Slovenian border. Armin Tement comes across as a kind of philosopher technician, acutely aware of the conflicts in producing good wine: “You have to understand and feel it,” he told us.
The Tement operation is highly professional with 50 regular employees, glistening cellar technology and an 80% export business. But unlike most modern wineries, he allows fermentation with natural yeasts rather than industrial products. With filters using an absolute minimum of the standard sulfate, he matures his wines more in wood than the usual stainless steel. He is also trying out two 1,000 liter tanks hewn out of massive blocks of dark granite. Will they make good wine? He shrugged: “It’s an experiment.”
The other key word he didn’t mention is “investment.” Right across from the winery is an 80meter face of compacted chalk and ancient seabed calcium. Two excavators and assorted heavy equipment are busy cutting out terraces, the upper levels already planted with the region’s signature Sauvignon Blanc. Perfectly positioned facing southeast, it should produce great wine someday. When will it pay out?
Again the shrug: “It’s a generation project.” There’s got to be money in them thar hills.
It Takes All Kinds to Be Different
Sepp Muster is more radical, with an approach bordering on the mystical. “The art of winemaking is what we don’t do,” he told us at his hilltop winery. “Nature itself provides the harmony … you can tell when the vines are stressed or feeling good.” That doesn’t mean that you don’t have to watch carefully and intervene when necessary, but don’t expect any help from industrial products. His recipe – when needed – is a dynamic fertilizer, made of cow dung matured in cattle horns and then dissolved in water. It must be spread within two hours before the energy disperses. When it comes to sales, Muster has his feet firmly on the ground: He sells his 2018 Erde (Earth), a naturally fermented Sauvignon Blanc /Morillon (Chardonnay) cuvée in bottles reminiscent of antique stone jars for around €90. There’s money in the mystical, too.
Only a few hilltops away is the Skoff Original winery. Since their Kranachberg Sauvignon blanc 2015 was voted “the best in the world” at the Bordeaux Concours Mondiale du Sauvignon 2017, Walter Skoff has established himself as Mr. Sauvignon, legitimate opportunistic marketing. Here the clean, crisp style of Südsteiermark white wines comes mainly from steel tanks; also good, but different.
The winery has sustainable documentation and some of the wines are Bio (organic) certified. Marketing manager Harald Wickhoff understands how to make these things work: In organically sensitive Austria, Bio is a selling point; in the Nordic markets, sustainability is the more important feature. Neither materially affect wine quality. Their wines are good, but it seems a shame when technology, however ideologically correct, trumps taste. What the market wants, the market gets.
A bit west of Leibnitz is St. Nikolai, a northern outpost of South Styrian wines. Here, vines alternate with dense woodlands, the vineyards usually covering the breezy hilltops. That’s good for drying the overnight moisture off the grapes, the growers know, and keeps mildew and other unwanted fungal problems at bay. At 300 m, where the road ends, we come on a typical family operation: the Weingut Pichler-Schober, a compound combining winery, restaurant and overnighting. Their program offers not just wines in all three tightly controlled DAC categories of Gebiet (region), Ort (village) and Rieden (specific vineyard, the top), but also simpler stuff below the strict DAC threshold. All seem to pull off the trick of preserving both the character of the grape variety and the specific Südsteiermark personality. Here Sauvignon Blanc dominates as usual, but most of the local grapes are there too, Welschriesling, Morillon, Grauburgunder (Pinot gris), Riesling and others. “What is your own favorite?” we asked. Sabine Pichler hesitated: “The wines are like my children, a mother loves them all.”
More Than Just Wine
Millions of years ago, this area was part of the greater Mediterranean, a body of water that once stretched from today’s Trieste almost all the way to Vienna. Tectonic shifts and volcanic activities since have created a unique landscape: Hundreds of small, steep hills, the mountains of Lilliput land, are either woodlands or vineyards, dotted with neat, crisp yellow wineries and Buschenschänke, simple Heurigen-style wine restaurants. Just don’t expect the rustic charm of flaking plaster and sagging beams: This is country hospitality at its most fastidious. The buildings are all freshly painted, the terraces outfitted with sturdy stainless steel balconies to prevent careless visitors tumbling into the vineyards below, and the business model one of rustic staging at urban prices. Which is not a criticism. Most of them offer overnight accommodation, usually charming conversions of previous farm outbuildings – all very clean, very modern and not cheap, but generous breakfast platters and cheerful Slovenian service make for an extremely comfortable time.
All of this is about a 2 1/2-half-hour drive from Vienna. Leave more time than the distance would suggest for the last part of your journey. Roads are narrow and windy, signage to the various villages bizarrely inconsistent or nonexistent, and you quickly lose any sense of north-south orientation. It may be cheating, but for once, we decided, Satnav was probably a good idea. All the businesses you need are online savvy, their sites informative and well-constructed.
There is also a less immaculate version – a little more the old Steiermark – along the Südsteierische Panoramastraße, the part hugging the Slovenian border in the south. Here the landscape is partly woodlands, partly high open country, not so densely populated and often charmingly faded. There is no shortage of places to eat and stay, and an alternative to the relentless perfection of the commercial wine world.
Remember that people face the same unique weather as the vines: a shifting combination of Mediterranean, Pannonian and Alpine climates, bringing cool damp nights, over 2,200 hours of sunshine and plenty of rain in between. What’s good for grapes can’t be bad for people. Whichever. Let us go to the hills…