I traveled with Mollie, wine director of Maslow 6, to Burgenland in Austria, almost two years ago now, but the memories are still vivid. What stands out about the trip, in addition to the wines, are the personalities.
We had the privilege of being accompanied by Dr. Josef (aka Pepi) Schuller, who is Austria’s first Master of Wine, and who started the Wein Akademie (Austrian Wine Academy) not in Vienna, but in Rust. He is incredibly knowledgeable about wine in general, passionate about Austrian wine in particular, and a wine educator at heart. He truly loves teaching people about wine and creating an atmosphere where people can learn. Pepi is very serious, and his school in Austria and his contributions to international wine education have earned him global respect. So much so that he became the first non-UK Chairman of the Institute of Masters of Wine last year. The philosophy of the academy gives an idea of where Pepi’s thoughts are:
“The more a country develops wine knowledge and culture, the more likely it is that this particular nation will expect and consume high quality wines.”
Pepi is also extraordinarily well-respected, admired, and sincerely liked by the Austrian wine-makers. They have genuine affection for him and respect for the work he does. He not only introduced us to people (for which we immediately received credibility), but spent the entire 3 days with us. He was beyond considerate, organizing a trip of a lifetime and enabling us to spend time with some amazing wine-makers. He was truly interested in what we thought about Burgenland, Austria, and their wines.
Heidi Schröck, Weinbäuerin in Rust (woman winemaker in Rust) one of my favorite producers,ever, spent hours with us. She was named “Austria’s Wine-Grower of the Year” in 2003 by Falstaff magazine. The winery itself is right in the middle of the town of Rust and connected to their house. Rust is noted for the storks that build nests on top of the houses – they also draw many visitors to the town. Heidi showed us around the vineyards, pointing out which ones were better for which varietal, how the soil and aspect of each contributes so noticeably to the wines, and in general sharing her philosophy, which revolves around the vineyard, with us.
We then had the privilege of tasting through her wines with her; we tasted at least 10 wines – an indulgence of the highest order. She had an intern who had been working with her for about three months and the glow of being able to work with Heidi was very apparent. I was definitely jealous.
I have been meaning to try to get hold of an Austrian TV series that was produced around the time we were there, loosely based on the lives of some of the citizens of Rust, including Heidi. It would be an interesting challenge to capture her passion and dedication to all that she is.
Leo Hillinger built a winery that is a perfect reflection of his personality: it is modern, new, gleaming, and beautiful, in an anything but-understated fashion. Pepi, who knows Leo well and Mollie, who has met him before, described him as a wine version of Arnold Schwarenegger. I thought they were exaggerating. They weren’t. He was wearing one of his newly designed polo shirts, with ‘Hillinger’ displayed prominently across the front, that are worn by his polo team.
The winery is state-of-the-art, designed using gravity-flow and has a huge cellar for ageing in oak barrels. The winery has been published in the book ‘Wine by Design: The Space of Wine’ by Loraine Dearstyne Fowlow and Sean Stanwick with such exclusive company as Quintessa and Leo was justifiably proud.
His wines are not under-stated either. We started with his sparkling rose, which was delightful. His Zweigelt is fresh and energizing with lots of fruit. Both the reds and the whites have a lot of personality. Like Leo. I am definitely seeking out his wines again.
Finally, Gerhard Kracher, son of Alois Kracher who had passed away a few months before our visit at the very young age of 48. Alois was a legendary winemaker, admired throughout the world, and made predominantly sweet wines, incredibly balanced and intense. In Eric Asimov’s article (Alois Kracher) after he died, one gets a sense of just how instrumental Alois Kracher was in the world of Austrian wine.
A mere 26 when his father died, Gerhard had worked closely with his father and had taken over running the winery at the time of our visit. Not an easy task in any circumstances. He still took the time to sit with us, to taste his wines, to chat about who he knew in New York (the common acquaintance was Kurt Gutenbrunner, chef and co/owner of Wallse and Blaue Gans, and Cafe Sabarsky), and to impart his passion and his knowledge of the wines. He has help from his mother, who is still involved in the operation of the winery, and from his grandfather, who started the winery and who has deep knowledge of the vineyards and the terroir.
While it is hard to imagine having a bigger challenge, even with these two still very much present in the workings of the winery, Gerhard struck me as not just intellectually capable but emotionally ready. In fact, he was named “Sweet Winemaker of the Year” at the International Wine Challenge in London last September, a real triumph. We applaud him.
I could go on, but will stop here. (although I might have to talk about Palais Coburg in another posting!) These are just a few of the personalities from this region of the world that is producing world-class wines. It doesn’t garner a lot of attention even in a city that prides itself in being truly global, wine-wise. If you have a chance definitely visit. In the mean time, taste some wine from a region that may surprise you.
Or attend a seminar. Maslow 6 happens to have one scheduled for tomorrow, February 23rd, with Monika Caha guiding us through a tasting of 8 Austrian wines. Adventures in Austria.