After Rust I travel to vineyards on the east side of the lake. The most renowned of these lie around the town of Illmitz, which comprises Austria’s greatest terroir for sweet wines. This is the home turf of the garrulous Alois Kracher, who makes an amazing array of sweeties. I have met Alois in New York previously, and tasted many of his wines, so it is good to finally see him on his own turf.
He takes me on a tour of his vineyards to show me why this ground is so special. The terrain is flat and besides the humidity provided by the main Neusiedlersee, it is also surrounded by a group of vernal pools and seasonal ponds called the Seewinkel. We’re talking vineyards that verge on marshland. “We have botrytis not because I’m Alois Kracher but because of the lakes,” he says. “It is difficult to make dry table wines here because even the red grapes get botrytis,” he adds. Kracher draws on more than 150 plots around Illmitz; some of the vines are planted in pairs to spur stress and thus more concentrated grapes. Every little bit helps, I think to myself.
In the evening, I dine with two young table winemakers of the regions, Axel Stiegelmar of the Juris winery in Gols, and Rene Pöckl of his family’s winery of the same name. Stiegelmar is articulate in talking about the history and the wines of the region. Addressing my suspicions about Pinot Noir in the region, he answers that Pinot actually has a long heritage in Austria, being brought by the Cistercian monks from Burgundy. It may have more than 600 years of history in vineyards around the lake. Pöckl chimes in, “The monks came and did a fantastic job.”
Stiegelmar then pours a 2005 Pinot from vineyards near the Hungarian border where the wines are rooted in pebbles and rocks left over from an old channel of the Danube. It is delicate and elegant, an impressive, eye-opening wine that features gorgeous red cherry, berry flavors and light, spicy notes. I am now convinced that Stiegelmar and his peers may be on to something with Pinot and have not had their rationality disrupted by its siren call. I don’t have time to visit his vineyards, but I need to see those pebbles and stones someday.
Later, I visit the modern winery of Paul Achs, also in Gols. He is one of Austria’s best red winemakers and is a fan of oak, but with moderation. His barrels are larger than the traditional French barriques, with capacities of 300 to 500 liters. “We don’t use high toast, and with the bigger sizes we want to reduce the oak influence a little bit,” he says. Achs draws from 40 different plots that comprise 62 acres; the best are located on a south-facing slope that rises near Gols. He’s another Pinot fanatic. “We have near the same climate here as Burgundy, and one of the keys [to understanding the terroir] here is the chalk,” he explains. “But I say for the landscape we belong more to Hungary than to Austria.”
Achs also pours a 2005 Pinot Noir, this one showing similar elegance and fruit structure to that of Juris. I rate it 89 points, non-blind; it reminds me of a Pinot from Santenay or Carneros. “We have more problems with overripeness with Pinot than with underripeness,” he explains. Achs saves the best for last—sumptuous and deeply flavored barrel samples of reds from the 2006 vintage. They include Blaufrankisch from the Altenbourg vineyard, which features concentrated blueberry, blackberry and smoky, spicy flavors, and one from the Spiegel vineyard. I rate both 90–92 points.
My favorite is the Underberg (92–94), loaded with cassis and dark plum flavors, with minerally notes. The 2006 vintage, with a rainy August, followed by a long stretch of dry weather through most of autumn, has most Austrian vintners rubbing their hands in glee. If these first reds from Achs are any indication, the Austrians will be justified in their anticipation. Next I travel to the Wachau and white wine country. I’ll be looking forward to seeing what 2006 has to offer, especially from the Riesling and Grüner Veltliner vineyards that rise along the Danube.