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One Brilliant Bottle

organic/biodynamic/natural wines in Vinland

Category Archives: Austria

Weingut Pittnauer Burgenländer Rot

Austria (Burgenland)

zweigelt (40%), blaufrankish (40%), St. Laurent (20%)

Weingut Pittnauer Burgenländer Rot 2009

Black cherry red in the glass, emitting earthy, dark berry aromas. A fresh, acidic balance, steeped in plum-like fruit. Medium-bodied, naturally good. Every sip a reason to return to the glass. For a wine below $20, it’s exceptional value.  $

This is a basic red (“rot”) blend from Weingut Pittnauer. Not a profound wine but for sure a very good one. It is one of several wines reaching the North American market from Gehard and Brigitte Pittanuer. Theirs is the second domaine I have experienced from the eleven-person Austrian wine growers association known as Pannobile. (The other was Claus Preisinger.)  Burgenländer Rot is not a wine selected for Pannobile release, (the experience of that wine will come in time, I’m hoping) but nevertheless, I get a very good vibe here. The Pittanuers have their wine growing hearts in exactly the place I would wish them to be.

“When in doubt, always quality before speed.” And again, “Fully in the present, without forgetting the past, but also, without exaggerating it.”

They are traditionalists and modernists at the same time. Situated in the eastern shore of the Neusiedlersee, near its border with Hungary, the region can point to a history of winemaking that dates back two thousand years. The Pittnauers take time-honored methods (a manual, natural approach in the vineyard) and meld them with modern cellar techniques that allow the grapes to express themselves, whether in the use of pneumatic pressing, of stainless steel or oak, or of temperature control. They stress the use of native varietals, and the importance of terroir rooted in deep limestone soils.

All against the backdrop of an ultra-modern tasting facility. And an approach to marketing that is equally stylish and inventive.

Gerhard was eighteen when control of the estate fell to him. His was an abrupt apprenticeship, but a turning point came with the discovery that the wines which most appealed to him, that seemed most vibrant and alive, were from estates which had embraced the culture of biodynamics. Today his vineyard area of 16 hectares has undergone 100% conversion. The Pittnauers remain open to experimentation, for always there is the urge to produce better and better wines. Their approach is instinctual, relying foremost on the human senses to direct them. Hands-on, enviromentally-positive, all-in-all good folks you would trust no matter what Pittnauer bottle you were to open.


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Nikolaihof Riesling vom Stein Federspiel

Austria (Wachau)


Nikolaihof Riesling vom Stein Federspiel 2005

Gold in a silver goblet. Clean, citrus, mineral aromas carried over to the palate. Here it shines. Crisp with a touch of apricot and pear, all sharply focused. Steely mineral notes softened by a depth of winterish fruit. A stylish winner, delightfully subtle.  $$

Nikolaihof is the oldest wine estate in Austria. Documentary evidence indicates that wine has been made on the site since at least A.D. 470, during the time of the Romans. The present-day cellar was once a Roman crypt, and the tasting/reception room a 15th century chapel.

Since 1894 Nikolaihof has been in the hands of the Saahs family. Christine Saahs and husband Nikolaus have been in charge for the last 40 years. The estate comprises 20 hectares of vines, principally riesling and gruner veltliner, planted in mineral-rich alluvial gravel on primary rock. Annual production amounts to 100,000 bottles.

Nikolaihof has the distinction of being the first biodynamic winery in Europe, operating as such since 1971, predating by a dozen years that of the Loire’s biodynamic guru, Nicolas Joly. It happened that Christine’s mother-in-law was a doctor who practiced medicine in accordance with anthrosopophy, the philosophy espoused by Rudolph Steiner, the father of biodynamics. From the anthrosophical approach in medicine to a similar approach in the vineyards seemed a natural transition.

The use of stinging nettle, valerian teas, and other preparations (in the same sense as homeopathic medicine) enrich the deeply rooted vines. As a consequence, the vines (which are roughly half a century old) do well even in the years that other, chemically treated wine estates nearby find difficult.

Harvesting is by individual plot and entirely by hand, in accordance with Maria Thun’s lunar calendar. Fermentation of each plot is separate, using only naturally-occuring yeasts. It takes place in large wooden vats, without any temperature control. There is an aging period of about six months prior to bottling. Overall, the winemaking is strictly non-interventional.

Christine has always been in the forefront of the estate, taking the leading public role, while her husband prefers to remain in the background. With 55% of the production exported, she travels widely promoting the Nikolaihof wines and the case for biodynamics. Recently, more and more of the operation has been taken over by their son Nikolaus. Having studied winemaking at the Geisenheim Institute in Germany, he brings a new perspective to the estate, while still holding strongly to biodynamics.

There’s a restaurant on site, serving organic and locally grown food, and a guest house not far away (operated by daughter Elizabeth and her husband). A visit to Nikolaihof could be an inclusive, all-in-the-family experience. With a wonderful range of world-class wines at its centre.

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Weingut Martin Nigl Senftenberger Piri

Austria (Kremstal)

grüner veltliner

The ironwork backdrop is the Eiffel Tower. Our last night in Paris we spent at that most iconic of Parisian landmarks. Like a magnet it draws people from all over the globe. Some come to ascend the tower, some to have their pictures taken under it, others to sit on the grassy promenade and soak up the atmosphere and drink wine. In our case, it’s Nigl at the Eiffel.

Weingut Martin Nigl Senftenberger Piri Grüner Veltliner 2010

Refreshing aromas enhancing a brilliant night.  Clean, mineral, and flavourful. There is crystalline sparkle in the taste. Dry, but with a thin sweet edge. There is crisp fruit to be found — apple in particular — but the foremost attraction is the lace-like elegance, as in the structure towering over us. It is made to remember.  $

This Nigl grüner veltliner was recommended to me for current drinking by Emmanuel Dupuis of Chapitre 20, a small, classy new wine ship in Paris. (Besides the broad range of wines, a good number of them from outside France, it has an exceptional selection of wine books and maps.) This is not the higher end ‘Privat’ bottling of the domaine, but is made from grapes grown on the Piri vineyard, one of the foremost sites of the Kremstal, and Martin Nigl‘s premier site for this varietal.

Founded in 1986 by his parents, the 25-hectare domaine
(about an hour west of Vienna) is still very much a family operation. Vineyard practice is the central focus, with constant monitoring of the vines. The soil is weathered granite, which gives the wines their mineral characteristics. Hot summer days followed by a distinct cooling off at night is also a major influence.

All grapes are hand-picked. Only fully ripened fruit is gathered, resulting in several passages through the vineyards for a harvest of six or seven weeks. Fermentation is in stainless steel tanks, following which the wine is allowed to rest on its lees for a time before being racked off. Bottling is done with minimal fining and filtration. In all, 7500 cases are produced annually, mostly white, the estate being equally well-known for its riesling.

Wiengut Martin Nigl is set among terraced vineyards, beneath castle ruins dating to the  12th century. In addition to the winery, the Nigl family has incorporated a hotel and restaurant on the site. Lucky guests. Then again, drinking the bottle of Nigl with the Eiffel Tower sparkling above the glass was rather a terrific lot of fun.

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Weingut Willi Opitz Opitz One

Austria (Neusiedlersee)


Willi Opitz has to be more than a bit of a showman. Who else would have the pizazz to name his flagship wine “Opitz One.” The Mondavis were not impressed, thinking it rather too similar to their own “Opus One.” Winemaker Opitz eventually reconsidered, renaming it “Mr. President” for those bottles destined for the United States. He had in the interim sent a case to Bill Clinton and in time the ex-president stopped by the winery while on a visit to Austria. All innovative marketing. As is the Opitz wine business link to British Airways and McLaren Mercedes F1 racing team.

The man is nothing if not one to stretch the limits of the business of wine. Let’s not forget his 1995 CD release “The Sound of Wine,” a recording of his wines undergoing fermentation. (A substantial hit in Austria apparently.) Opitz undertook the project because when he was a boy his grandfather had told him that “fermenting wine speaks to you of everything it has experienced during its year in the vineyard.” (We could think of it as the acoustic, organic equivalent of “I Heard it Through the Grapevine.”) Special note should be taken of track 3: “Opitz One (Red Trockenbeerenauslese)”. In winemaking terms, the hit single.

Opitz One is a late harvest, botrytis-laden red dessert wine, made from the Austrian native grape zweigelt. The key factor in its production is air drying on reed mats for six months, a process developed by Opitz himself. The mats are made from reeds harvested from the nearby Neusiedlersee. In fact it is moisture from this huge, shallow lake that gives rise to the grapes’ noble rot.

Willi Opitz’s foray into winemaking came in the 1980s, as a hobbyist. By 1995 he had given up a career as a mechanical engineer for full-time adventures among the vines. Today the vineyards still only total 17 hectares. While the 80,000-bottle annual production is made up of over 30 different wines, it is the Opitz dessert wines that have gained the most attention.The grape harvest used in the premium bottling yields an incredibly slight 7 hectolitres per hectare, something which Opitz equates to “milking mice.”

But what milk, what mice!

Weingut Willi Opitz Opitz One 2006

A wine to stir the dessert wine lover’s soul. A charming cherry-orange hue emitting aromas of strawberries and rhubarb. But it is the palate that reaps the most rewards — an elegant coating, intensely flavoured, its sweetness lost to the seamless interplay of dark fruit and minerals. Fruit compote taking on a refined alcoholic complexity. Totally delightful with Castello blue cheese and plum chutney.  $$

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Claus Preisinger Pannobile

Austria (Burgenland)

zweigelt (80%), blaufränkisch

Talk about a subtle label. If I were caught in a snowstorm, I’d be hard-pressed to read it. Luckily, there’s been no sign of the white stuff yet. In fact we have been bathed in glorious sunshine for much of this November. Fine invigorating autumn weather for a splendid bottle of Austrian red.

The wine is from Neusiedlersee, the northern sub-zone of Burgenland and not far from the border with Hungary. To be more specific, in and around the town of Gols. A major influence here is the Neusiedl itself, a very large but very shallow lake, stretching 36 kilometres. Its daytime water temperature nears 30° C during mid-summer, allowing nighttime breezes to pick up the heat, broadening the grape ripening period considerably. The area generally has a long, warmish fall (I can relate to that), ideal for the late-ripening blaufränkisch grape.

Claus Preisinger has vineyards on 44 parcels of land, totalling 14 hectares. He’s young, energetic, and very much terroir-driven. His approach is natural, straightforward, low-tech, and biodynamic. “I take whatever the grapes bring,” he says, “and then I try to put that right in the bottle.” Which, in less capable hands, might not mean much. So add to that list of descriptors: passionate and talented. Quality of wine trumps all.

95% of his production is red. Local varietals predominate: blaufränkish, St. Laurent, zweigelt (a grape created 90 years ago by crossing the previous two). Preisinger has also had considerable success with pinot noir. A spanking new, ultra-modern winery, but one that blends unobtrusively into the landscape, attests to the fact that Preisinger is both expansive in his thinking, and rooted in tradition. His wines are aged in used oak, for example, to ease the tannins without allowing it to outweigh the natural character of the varietals.

Preisinger is keenly aware of the importance of promotion, of setting an interesting mien in the marketplace. Corporate and packaging design (by the firm Eberstaller), while subtle, is distinctive and arresting. Until recently the Austrian wine industry in general had a considerable public relations problem, dating back to the 1980s, with overproduction, mediocre quality, and, worst of all, the notorious scandal when it was revealed that some winemakers had been doctoring their production with an extraneous chemical. A new image was vital.

Innovation in promotion extends to several other wineries in and around Gols. Nine of them have formed an alliance they call Pannobile. The name derives from a combination of ‘Pannonia’, the old Roman name of the region, and the noble nature of the wines they seek to produce. Pannobile strives first for wines true to the attributes of the region and its varietals. It veers far from anything blandly universal.

Each September it releases a collection of one bottle of Pannobile red from each producer, and, for some producers, also a bottle of white. This comes two years after harvest. These wines are the foremost wines of a producer’s range.

Pannobile is a class act all around. And how might the red wines be packaged? Together in a Black Box of course.

Here is Preisinger’s contribution to the Black Box of 2005 wines.

Claus Preisinger Pannobile 2005

Deep ruby in the glass. There’s a cultured depth to the wine that surfaces on several levels. It speaks of sour cherries with a peppery tang, though never easy-going, never frivolous. Nicely grounded in earth tones, a touch of leather. The tannins sit comfortably in place; the acidity brings a good momentum. Well balanced. Fresh, yet with a sustained measure of sophistication. An honest wine, one to eagerly revisit.   $$


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