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The World’s Most Ambitious Wine Tasting

Austrian winemakers aren't just scoring wines, but are mapping their terroir

Simon J Woolf By October 18, 2021
photo of Schloss Gobelsburg in Kamptal, Austria
Schloss Gobelsburg in Kamptal, Austria. Photo courtesy of Michael Mossbrugger.

Every year during the first week of September, hundreds of wine professionals descend on one of lower Austria’s more eccentric buildings. Situated in the Kamptal wine region an hour west of Vienna, Schloss Grafenegg looks like a mashup of a turreted Bordeaux Château with a Tudor Gothic English country manor and a bit of Hogwarts thrown in for good measure. And yes, there’s a moat.

But these visitors haven’t come to admire the architecture. Instead they’ll sit in silence inside one of the castle’s many chambers, tasting over 200 of Lower Austria’s finest single vineyard wines; in German, they’re called Erste Lage. This annual Grafenegg tasting is the show-piece of the Österreichische Traditionsweingüter, Austrian Traditional Winemaker’s Association. Now comprising 68 wineries, the ÖTW was formed in 1992. Its mission is to bring more focus to single vineyard expression and terroir, something which is enshrined in the core project of cataloguing and classifying all of its member’s vineyards.

The crowd of invited sommeliers, journalists, wine critics, and wine traders are asked to taste and score each wine — or as many as they have time for. Each taster selects six wines at a time and holds aloft a paper strip scribbled with their choices. A dozen or so serving staff flit between the tables and a back-office area filled with chiller cabinets and wines. If the staff seem familiar to some tasters, that’s because they are all volunteers and family members from the wineries.

The impressively coordinated event has a purpose, and it’s not just to allow journalists and sommeliers to taste the new vintage. 

A whole new system

The ÖTW wants the tasting scores. They will form part of a massive data-gathering project that rationalizes and justifies the classification of top vineyards. So far, the project has run for over a decade to establish a shortlist of 90 premier cru or Erste Lage sites, out of more than 700 potential vineyards. The ÖTW’s long-standing chairman, Michael Moosbrugger, well known as owner of the winery Schloss Gobelsburg, explains that “this is the first time in history that we have external opinion feeding into a classification system.”

As well as the scores from wine professionals, the ÖTW also takes into consideration factors such as a vineyard’s historical significance, the average price at which its wine is sold, and how often the vineyard name appears on a label. It’s an impressively thorough methodology which aims to create an Austrian equivalent to Burgundys hierarchical vineyard rankings. 

Moosbrugger stresses that “most of the French classifications are God-given, but in the 21st century, we’re living in a different time. It’s a more democratic age.” His point is that Austria’s winemakers cannot just create something arbitrary and hope that it holds water. The process has to be rigorous and it has to engage the whole group. Democracy and the idea of the winemaker community working together are concepts that Moosbrugger stresses often when he talks about the ÖTW. He makes his points calmly but forcefully, with oratory skills that would be the envy of many a politician.

The group

The ÖTW originally encompassed only the Kremstal and neighboring Kamptal regions. It has gradually expanded, first to include two more tiny Danube appellations, Wagram and Traisental, and more recently adding Vienna and Carnuntum. Geography buffs may ponder why the Danube’s most prestigious region, Wachau, isn’t included. Wachau formed its own private winemakers’ association, Vinea Wachau, in 1983. Since then, it has stood in splendid isolation, with a whopping 200 members compared to the ÖTW’s 68.

There’s a fundamental divide between the philosophy of the two organizations. Vinea Wachau’s members classify their wines by ripeness level, a practice which was the norm in Austria in decades past, but which feels increasingly outmoded in an ever-warming climate where ripeness is no longer a struggle. In contrast, the ÖTW focuses solely on vineyard provenance. Alwin Jurtschitsch, winemaker and director of his family’s sizable estate Weingut Jurtschitsch, singles this out as a major plus-point, “Quality has become more terroir focused, rather than maturity driven — something which used to be very big in Austria.” He adds, “This gives me the chance to make premier cru wines with just 12 to 12.5% alcohol.” This would be impossible in Wachau, where the top wine classification, Smaragd, is enshrined as a rich, late harvested style.

The ÖTW members display an Erste Lage logo on their single vineyard bottlings, something which winemaker and voice of the Vienna ÖTW members, Fritz Wieninger, feels is key. “It makes the top vineyard locations visible to consumers,” he says, “when they see Erste Lage they say ‘Ah ha! This is something special,’ irrespective of whether it might be from Langenlois, Krems, Carnuntum, or Vienna.”

For well-known producers such as Wieninger or Jurtschitsch, this additional marketing hook might be a minor point, but for the more up-and-coming estates or lesser-known regions it can provide an important leg-up. 

It’s just after 6 p.m. and the day’s tasting at Grafenegg is finished. Two winemakers take a break from clearing up and have a sneak peek at the score sheets. They laugh as they see that each has wines that polarize opinions. Despite their light-heartedness, it’s serious business. Many of the ÖTW winemakers agree that this kind of feedback loop is invaluable. Dorli Muhr, a Carnuntum based winemaker and co-organizer of the Grafenegg event, says, “You can see how well you succeeded in expressing a vintage, and you can compare your wines with those of your colleagues.” 

The wines themselves

As all the wines shown at Grafenegg are top single-vineyard bottlings, average quality tends to be stellar. The regions along the Danube specialize in precisely hewn, mineral expressions of Riesling and Grüner Veltliners which span a range from lean and citrusy to super ripe and peppery. Carnuntum’s single vineyard wines are all reds made from Blaufränkisch, Zweigelt, or blends, offering tasters a welcome point of difference. Vienna is different again, specializing in the traditional Gemischter Satz style — a deliciously ripe and textured white field blend which can include up to 20 different varieties.

The ripples spread out from the Grafenegg event both nationally and internationally, as various tasters and buyers publish their scores or make their buying decisions. The wine lover who ultimately uncorks a Heiligenstein Riesling, a Goldberg Grüner, or a Nussberg Gemischter Satz might not benefit from the quirky backdrop of Schloss Grafenegg, but they will experience some of Austria’s best terroir-based winemaking. As Fritz Wieninger would say, something special indeed.

3 top Erste Lage wines to try:

bottle of Fritsch Wagram Mordthal Grüner Veltliner 2017

Fritsch Wagram Mordthal Grüner Veltliner 2017 ($25)

A very pretty Grüner that has some pepper and capsicum character on the palate, but more opulent papaya chunks and exotic fruit notes on the nose. Fritsch works biodynamically in the vineyards, which seems like it helps to express Wagram’s loess and slate soils to the maximum. There’s a subtle gunflint note on the finish which adds excitement.

Everything about this wine is restrained and nicely judged, with enough weight and complexity to satisfy, without becoming overbearing or seeming overripe.

bottle of Jurtschitsch Kamptal Heiligenstein Riesling 2018

Jurtschitsch Kamptal Heiligenstein Riesling 2018 ($35)

Kamptal’s most famous vineyard, the steep and dry slopes of Heiligenstein, are perfectly expressed in this delicate yet scintillating Riesling. The aromas tease with white blossoms and citrus peel, giving way to ripe, tropical fruit flavors. There’s a stony, mineral character on the palate, with many interesting twists and turns as it unfolds to a very long finish.

Alwin Jurtschitsch’s dedication to vineyard quality, organically certified, and to earlier harvesting to preserve freshness has really paid off.

The price/quality ratio is absurdly good.

bottle of Schloss Gobelsburg Kamptal Gaisberg Riesling 2018

Schloss Gobelsburg Kamptal Gaisberg Riesling 2018 ($39)

This monastery with 850 years of winemaking history is now in the expert hands of owner/winemaker Michael Moosbrugger. Although it’s a sizable operation, quality is never less than immaculate.

There’s a real sleight-of-hand going on in this wine. On the one hand, the fruit feels ripe and almost opulent, but on the other it is subtly floral and finely hewn. Riesling’s typically effusive acids lift the palate, and there’s a tangy gooseberry and citrus quality that is quite spellbinding.

It’s exciting, refreshing, and nuanced, all at the same time. And don’t hesitate to cellar this for many more years. It will only improve.

Simon J. Woolf was a taster at the Erste Lage event at the invitation of the ÖTW.