With whites ‘like Chablis’ and reds ‘like the northern Rhône’, there’s plenty for the on-trade to get excited about in Austria’s newest DAC. Julie Sheppard checks out the minerality on show in Leithaberg
Think of Austria and the wine regions that spring instantly to mind are Wachau, Kremstal and Kamptal, whose Rieslings and Grüner Veltliners deservedly feature on many wine lists across the UK. I’m going to hazard a guess that you’ll probably never even have heard of Leithaberg, let alone be able to name-check its top producers.
‘Leitha-where?’ you ask. Located around 50km south-east of Vienna in Burgenland, Leithaberg – pronounced ‘lighter-bairg’ – is Austria’s newest Districtus Austriae Controllatus, awarded DAC status in 2010. It’s made up of 19 wine-growing communities and around 3,500 hectares of vineyards planted between Lake Neusiedl and the Leithagebirge mountain ridge.
The DAC designation may be relatively new, but archaeological evidence of wine-growing in this region dates back to the 8th century – the oldest in Central Europe – with vineyards named Leithaberg first recorded in the 1500s.
Today, it’s the only Austrian region that produces both red and white wines of DAC quality. Reds are made from the Blaufränkisch grape, with up to 15% of St Laurent, Zweigelt or Pinot Noir permitted; while white grapes are Grüner Veltliner, Pinot Blanc/Weissburgunder, Chardonnay and Neuberger.
In the beginning…
‘I was the first to coin the term “Leithaberg” back in 1993, but it didn’t catch on. Ten years later I tried again,’ says Hans Nehrer, president of the Leithaberg Association, which began as a collective of 14 winemakers who labelled their 2004 vintage ‘Leithaberg’ and began promoting a regional identity.
Tasting that original bottling of the Nehrer Blaufränkisch 2004 highlights the potential of both the region and the grape: complex, rich and savoury but underpinned with an elegant minerality, it’s a classy customer.
‘Characteristics of Leithaberg wines are minerality, elegance, a long palate and ageability – and this is the style of wine we want to promote,’ explains Nehrer, who also makes a mineral-led Chardonnay/Grüner Veltliner blend at his winery in Eisenstadt, roughly in the centre of the DAC.
‘All of the wineries here produce several different wines, usually from small parcels of vines,’ explains Erwin Tinhof, another Eisenstadt grower, whose wines are imported by Savage Selection. Tinhof makes six whites, nine reds and a rosé from his 14ha vineyard.
Leithaberg was part of Hungary for 800 years and, like the Napoleonic inheritance laws that shaped French vineyards, Hungarian inheritance laws meant that land here had to be divided into small parcels for the next generation. ‘You need at least 10ha of vines to be able to make a living from wine,’ says Tinhof, adding that a single parcel of just six hectares is ‘enormously big’ for the region.
Grapes in Leithaberg are typically picked by hand due to this fragmented nature of the vineyards ‘and cherry trees getting in the way’, according to Nehrer. Around 30% of the producers are also organic or biodynamic.
‘For me organic growing is a necessity; it’s for the next generation,’ explains the energetic Birgit Braunstein, who grows vines in Purbach, in north-east Leithaberg and describes the Leithaberg style as ‘structured, mineral, elegant’. Her wines include a restrained Reserve Chardonnay 2009 and black-fruited single-vineyard Blaufränkisch Felsenstein 2007, with finely knit tannins and a lovely persistence.
‘It’s easier to be biodynamic here than in other parts of Austria due to our microclimate,’ says John Nittnaus, whose wines are listed by Lea & Sandeman. Vines only come under attack from deer, birds and the local black-spotted pigs. Nittnaus has a single vineyard site in Jois, in the top north corner of Leithaberg, which is the closest vineyard to the shallow Lake Neusiedl.
Covering 320 sq km, Neusiedl is one of the largest lakes in Europe and one of the key influencers in Leithaberg. ‘The lake has a very big impact on the wines. Whether a vineyard is closer to the lake or further away gives different styles,’ explains Markus Altenburger, another Jois producer. ‘As Jois is closer to the lake, it’s warmer, so with our Blaufränkisch we get riper plum fruit, rather than raspberry flavours,’ says Nittnaus.
Another influential factor for producers is the region’s unique microclimate. In the west the 400m Leithagebirge mountains run for around 40km and form part of the foothills of the Alps. They create cold fresh air which blows through the vineyards and balances the effect of the warmer ‘Pannonian’ climate blowing from the east across the Hungarian Plains.
‘We’re warmer than Burgundy, cooler than Côte du Rhône,’ summarises Nittnaus. ‘In the right years we can achieve the tension and acidity of a great Burgundian Pinot with Blaufränkisch,’ he continues. ‘My 2005 vintage now tastes like a Burgundy – ageing for 10 years or more shouldn’t be a problem,’ he says.
‘In a hot year Blaufränkisch reminds me of a Rhône Syrah,’ adds Altenburger, whose wines are listed by Newcomer Wines.
This vintage variation only adds to the regional character: 2009 was a very warm year, 2010 was cooler, meaning wines showed greater elegance and finesse. ‘For me 2011 was my master year – it was one of the best years ever,’ says Nehrer.
The final defining characteristic of Leithaberg’s terroir is its soils. ‘Leithaberg whites are like Chablis and our reds are like the Northern Rhône in terms of style and soil types,’ says Tinhof, drawing on that useful French comparison again; though other producers are keen to point out the unique regional typicity that can be found here. ‘Leithaberg DAC wines are very original and very terroir-driven,’ says Milan Arti of Esterházy Winery, which boasts Stéphane Derenoncourt as a consultant and is featured in the Tanners Wines portfolio in the UK.
Down to earth
The mineral-rich soils of Leithaberg are made up of two elements: a base layer of mica-shist slate, with a covering of shell-limestone known locally as ‘Leithakalk’. These elements vary, depending on proximity to the mountains. In Donnerskirchen, a hillier part of the region, Josef Bayer has pure slate soils in his vineyard. ‘Very dry mineral soils make this area particularly unique and mean that 70% of the wine I make is white,’ he says.
In nearby Schützen am Gebirge, there’s a high percentage of Leithakalk. ‘Our soils have a high amount of active limestone – you can compare it with Chablis or Champagne,’ says Georg Prieler of Weingut Prieler who has planted his vineyards with Welschriesling, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, as well as the permitted Pinot Blanc, Chardonnay and Blaufränkisch. ‘The limestone produces complex wines. Austrian wine can’t be super-powerful, but it can be complex!’
As you’d expect, these complex, mineral-led wines serve as a perfect foil to the local cuisine, which majors on heavy meat, pasta and potato dishes. But they are equally at home in the UK on-trade, where they can match a variety of dishes. Prieler’s wines are on the list at The Fat Duck and Gordon Ramsay (via Clark Foyster) and he says: ‘I always think about food when I’m making my wines. Neuberger goes well with sushi and sashimi; Blaufränkisch is an obvious match with lamb but can even pair with curry; Pinot Blanc is great with lobster and chips or oysters.’
Leithaberg will doubtless be a hand-sell on wine lists due to customers’ lack of familiarity with the region. But given the quality of its wines and the enthusiasm of its talented producers, it certainly deserves to be as well known as its more famous Austrian cousins. Wachau had better watch out.