Austria’s easternmost state, Burgenland, has had a wild ride through history. Claimed at different times by the Roman Empire, Ostrogoths, Hungary, and the USSR, the region has served as a geographical and cultural crossroads for centuries. But one constant has remained throughout the years–top-notch wine. We spoke to some Burgenland natives for an inside look at Austria’s viticultural crossroads.
Situated at the intersection of the Pannonian plain and the foothills of Austria’s mountainous interior, Burgenland’s soils are a study in variability. Schist, limestone, sand and clay make up an intriguing and challenging mix of soil types in Burgenland vineyards, prompting vintners to tailor their practices and varieties to individual sites in order get an honest expression of terroir. Winemakers’ intimate knowledge of their soils enables them to produce stylistically diverse wines. As Horitschon winemaker Franz Reinhard Weninger puts it, “It never gets boring.”
The climate in Burgenland is unique as well, with the influence of the continental climate from the east colliding with cooler, drier alpine air. Lake Neuseidl, Austria’s largest, further complicates climactic matters in the northern part of Burgenland. The huge, shallow body of water helps to smooth out diurnal temperature swings, creating a milder, more humid climate.
With influences from eastern and western European traditions, Burgenland’s cultural history is as diverse as its soils. Over the years, the region has been home to a wide array of people from different backgrounds, and the mix has led to a particular open-mindedness among its inhabitants which shows in Burgenland winemaking. This meeting of different cultures, “is one of the reasons vintners in the region are not afraid to try new techniques,” says Christian Zechmeister, Managing Director of Wein Burgenland. He adds that, “Because there are so many different cultures, there was always a variety of different foods, and that led to many different wine styles.”
Burgenland’s rich cultural heritage is expressed in the loving attention given to native grape varieties like Blaufränkisch, Zweigelt, and St. Laurent, among others. While these grapes have been known and loved in Austria for years, Christian points out that the country’s international red wine presence is quite recent. “The first time that an Austrian red wine gained international attention was a Blaufränkisch vintage 1986. After that we made some developments and sometimes mistakes like everyone else in the red-wine world. Just in a shorter period of time.”
Burgenland is undeniably red wine country, and this presents an obstacle to winemakers seeking to introduce the world to their offerings, as Austria is known primarily for white wines. The challenge is not one of quality–these wineries deliver that in spades–rather, it’s one of awareness. According to Christian, “The key to convince the people that Austria – and here in particular Burgenland – has great red wines to offer goes through the gastronomy, journalists and experts who work in the trade. If we get their attention, then I think the quality and uniqueness of those wines will do the rest.”
I Didn’t Choose the Life, the Life Chose Me
Franz Reinhard Weninger is a Burgenland native, and he epitomizes the area’s diverse cultural influences. He sees becoming a winemaker not as a choice, but as a matter of heritage. “It was not a real decision, basically it’s a given. I accepted this heritage at the age of 19.” Franz farms vineyards in both Burgenland and Hungary, and even lived in the latter for a spell. He points out that the region has its own identity partly because Burgenland was, until 1921, a German-speaking part of Hungary, and this fostered a sense of independence and a unique identity in the region.
Franz is, undeniably, an expert on Burgenland soils. Blaufränkisch vines in the hard, loamy soil of his Hochäcker vineyard produce spicy, densely structured wines, focused and austere. The cooler, iron-rich clay soils of the Dürrau vineyard, on the other hand, are home to 60-year-old vines which yield wines with a rounder palate, and impeccable acid balance. A careful, experienced hand in the cellar is essential in knowing how these factors will play out in the finished wine.
2014 Blaufränkisch “Höchacker”
Variety: 100% Blaufränkisch
Vineyard: Single vineyard “Höchacker,” hard loam with iron
Analysis: Alcohol: 12.4%; Acid: 6.3 g/L; Sugar: 1.0 g/L
Variety: 100% Blaufränkisch
Vineyard: Single vineyard “Dürrau,” Iron-rich clay and dense loam
Analysis: Alcohol: 13.7%; Acid: 5.8 g/L; Sugar: 1.0 g/L
Farther north, near Lake Neuseidl, another soil expert is making spectacular Burgenland wines, and he also embraces the region’s affinity for trying new things. Claus Preisinger is always pushing the boundaries of what it means to be a winemaker. Staunchly non-interventionist, Claus’ biodynamic farming and minimal processing lets the Burgenland terroir speak for itself.
In keeping with the collaborative spirit of Burgenland, Claus and and a number of other winemakers in the area are members of Pannobile, a grower’s association dedicated to increasing and maintaining quality in the wines produced around Lake Neuseidl, and preserving and promoting the area’s indigenous varieties. In a kind of peer-review process, the association chooses one wine each year from each of its members to be branded “Pannobile,” and these wines serve to showcase the best the region has to offer.
Varieties: 60% Zweigelt, 40% Blaufränkisch
Vineyard: Select Pannobile-approved sites north of Lake Neuseidl, Varying soils
Analysis: Alcohol: 13.5%; Acid: 5.3 g/L; Sugar: 1.0 g/L
Varieties: 50% Zweigelt, 30% Blaufränkisch, 20% Merlot
Vineyard: Different sites on the Heideboden, Black earth, gravel, loam
Analysis: Alcohol: 12.5%; Acid: 5.2 g/L; Sugar: 1.0 g/L
Past and Future
Burgenland’s position as a cultural and geographical crossroads has fostered a singular combination of tradition and innovation in its winemaking. While a dedication to tradition keeps local vintners focused on indigenous varieties and ancestral techniques, the meeting of cultures has engendered a particular open-mindedness. The combination is sure to lead to a bright and exciting future for the area. Burgenland, ancient as it is, is just getting started.