Defining the terroir of Burgenland, Austria

I am itching to travel right now. But until we can/should travel, I am making a list of places I want to go. One place I would love to explore more in depth is Burgenland in Austria. I would love to see it for myself, touch the soil and explore more of the delicious Blaufränkisch, St. Laurent and more. But until then, I loved attending a virtual tasting with two winemakers from Burgenland which I wrote about in the Napa Valley Register and am sharing here.

There is nothing I love more than traveling to a wine region to explore the wines and learn about the history, the terroir and the people. Since we cannot physically travel, winemakers now come into my home virtually to share their stories. My recent visit was with two leading wine producers from Burgenland, Austria who, along with Master Sommelier Jesse Becker, took us through an exploration of the region through their wines.

Austria, a landlocked country, is a small country dominated by the Alps. There are 113,000 acres of vineyards that are all located on the eastern side of the country toward Hungary, south toward Slovenia and north toward the Czech Republic. Austria has three major grape growing regions. Niederösterreich (Lower Austria) is to the northeast along the river Danube, Steiermark (Styria) is in the south and Burgenland is to the east.

Burgenland is the easternmost and least populous state of Austria. Formerly a part of the Kingdom of Hungary, Burgenland became part of Austria in 1921. Lake Neusiedler, Austria’s largest lake, is shared between Burgenland and Hungary. The region is influenced by the hot continental Pannonian climate in which the dry warm air from Hungary meets the cold air to the west and north from the Alps. The cooling factor results in a prolonged growing season and helps retain the acidity in the wine. This freshness and brightness mixed with concentration is the essence of Burgenland wine.

Burgenland was formed out of the Styrian and Pannonian Basins, as well as from the Eastern Alpine unit, which consists of several strata of rock, and the Penninicum, which has tectonic windows. A variety of soils can be found throughout the region, including coarsely grained sandy gravels, sedimentary deposits that range from silty to clay, and limestone and schist.

Austria is leading the charge with organic and biodynamic farming. Overall, 23 percent of Austrian agriculture is organic while 15 percent of Austrian vineyards are certified organic, 12.4 percent are certified sustainable, 2.62 percent are certified biodynamic, and three quarters of the vineyards use integrated viticulture. While Austria as a whole is innovative, Burgenland specifically is known for the pioneering spirit of its producers. Two leading producers in Burgenland are Gernot Heinrich and Paul Achs. Their wines express the diversity and beauty of the terroir of the region.

Considered one of Austria’s most innovative wine producers, Gernot and Heike Heinrich founded their winery Weingut Gernot und Heike Heinrich in 1990. Located north and east of Lake Neusiedl in the wine grape growing area of Neusiedlersee, Heinrich has 90 hectares, which they converted to biodynamic in 2006. Concerned about the environment and wanting to improve their carbon footprint, the decision to convert to biodynamics was to reach a higher level of quality and to enable them to express themselves and their sense of place. The wines they produce are all fermented spontaneously. The skins are left on the juice for several weeks, the wines remain on their lees for extended periods, and the wines are vinified in primarily neutral oak casks.

Another leading wine producer in Burgenland is Paul Achs, named “Vintner of the Year” in 1994 by Falstaff. Achs spent time working in California before returning to his family winery in Gols in 1991. He transformed his estate from white production to red production and today grows 90 percent red grapes from 25 hectares of biodynamically farmed vineyards in two main areas near Gols. Heideboden is a flat and gravelly area between Gols and the lake and Parndorfer Platte is a south-facing escarpment of complex soils near Gols.

His decision to shift to organic and biodynamic production was to change the soil quality so that one day his children can also grow on the land. As a result, he sees that the quality of his grapes is better overall as they achieve better physiological ripeness.

There are 13,000 hectares planted and five DAC-controlled appellations in Burgenland. Outside of the vineyards near the lake that produce botrytis whites, Burgenland is a mainly red wine-producing region. However, the white grapes grown in Burgenland are Weisburgunder, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Gruner Veltliner, Neuberger, Furmint, Muskateller, Welschriesling, Pinot Gris and Traminer.

I tasted two wines from Gernot Heinrich made with these white grapes.

— Heinrich Naked White 2017 ($21)

(68 percent Chardonnay, 10 percent Weissburgunder, 7 percent Welschriesling, 7 percent Neuburger, 5 percent Muskat Ottonel, 3 percent Gruner Veltliner).

The grapes are sourced from the limestone and schist of the Leithaberg, and the gravelly, humus-rich soils near Gols. The grapes are macerated with the stems overnight and fermentation is spontaneous. The wine is aged for 14 months on the lees in large used oak casks. It is bottled unfined and unfiltered without the addition of sulfur. The wine has an intense nose with aromas of grapefruit, sea salt and apple. On the palate, the wine has a pureness to it. It is structured with a lovely chalky texture and has a saline finish.

— Heinrich Graue Freyheit 2017 ($34)

(40 percent Pinot Gris, 40 percent Weissburgunder, 20 percent Chardonnay)

Freyheit, which means freedom, is a wine Heinrich makes in which the winery is free to do as they wish. The grapes come from the schist and slate soils of Leithaberg. The grapes are left on the skins for 15 days in amphora as Heinrich wants to extract the phenolics in the skin. The wine is aged in used barrels on its lees for 14 months before being bottled unfined and unfiltered without added sulfur. The Freyheit is bottled in clay bottles made from the same material as the amphora in which it is fermented. The wine has intense acidity with a tartness that hits the back of the palate, leaving a mouthwatering finish.

The primary red grapes in Burgenland are Zweigelt, Blaufränkisch, St. (Sankt) Laurent, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.

St. Laurent is a grape often likened to Pinot Noir and recent genetic tests have proven that Pinot Noir is the mother of St. Laurent. It can handle heat better than Pinot Noir and can be harvested ripe with low sugar levels. St. Laurent produces a darker color wine than Pinot Noir and is a very aromatic wine.

— Paul Achs St. Laurent 2016 ($23.99)

The Achs St. Laurent is sourced from the Parndorfer Platte, a south-facing escarpment of complex soils situated near the villages of Gols and Mönchoff. The grapes are fermented in stainless steel tanks and aged for 12 months in used French and Austrian oak barrels. The wine has a fresh nose with aromas of red fruits, wild cherries and blackberries and earth. Light bodied, it has a velvety texture with a long mouthwatering finish.

While Zweigelt is the most planted grape, Jesse Becker argues that Blaufränkisch is the most important grape in Burgenland. Blaufränkisch is a late ripening grape with thick skins. It must ripen to not have harsh tannins. The result is a grape variety that offers everything you want from a grape. It is expressive of terroir and can be made in a variety of styles. It is a wine of freshness, transparency, and elegance. It is a wine that could be considered on par with Nebbiolo or Pinot Noir when it comes to expressing terror and aging potential.

— Paul Achs Blaufränkisch Heideboden 2018 ($19.99)

Paul Achs is expert with Blaufränkisch which represents over half of his production. The Blaufränkisch Heideboden is his entry-level Blaufränkisch and is intended to be approachable and fresh tasting. Sourced from gravel soils and some chalk soils, the late ripened grapes are fermented in stainless steel and aged for 12 months in used French barriques. The wine has a juicy nose of black currant and minerals and on the palate, it is fresh and approachable with crunchy tannins.

— Heinrich Blaufränkisch Leithaberg DAC 2017 ($35)

Blaufränkisch Leithaberg DAC comes from southeast-facing vineyards on the Leitha Mountain overlooking Lake Neusiedl. After spontaneous fermentation in wooden vats, the wine is aged for 20 months in used 500-liter oak barrels. The wine has dark fruit notes of black cherries with layers of earth, dried flowers and black pepper. The schist soils contribute to the structure and tannins of this wine and the limestone soils add the refined and elegant tannins. The wine has bright acidity and a long elegant finish with lightly gripping tannins.

— Paul Achs Blaufränkisch Edelgrund 2016 ($31.99)

Blaufränkisch Ried Edelgrund is a single-vineyard located in the Heideboden area with vines planted in 1988. The wine is fermented in stainless steel tanks and aged for 12 months in a combination of used 228 liters Burgundian barrels and large French and Austrian oak casks. This wine has more depth and complexity than the Achs entry-level Heideboden Blaufränkisch. Notes of blackberries and black cherries, as well as spice and mineral, lead to a juicy ripe and savory wine with soft tannins.

While I was not able to travel to Burgenland, I am thankful I could take a journey through the region with these two winemakers. And one day, I will physically visit the region to see the terroir.

Read the original story in the Napa Valley Register.