The hills in Styria are steep, and they are often wet, which can be unnerving both to drivers unfamiliar with the region and to winemakers who've spent their whole lives here, but rewarding for the beauty of the vistas and the quality of the wine. Two hours south of Vienna on the border with Slovenia, Styria is "off the beaten track even in Austria," says Michael Dolinski, the sommelier at Wallsé, an Austrian restaurant in Manhattan whose wine list is comprised almost exclusively of wines from the country.
That's true of the wines as well, even those for which the region is best known: Sauvignon Blanc. These are not the lemony, herbaceous wines of the Loire Valley or the more floral, tropical products of New Zealand. They're a diverse lot, and often ageworthy, but Styrian producers are remarkably consistent in trying to tone down the tropical fruit in favor of salty, savory and smoky notes.
Sauvignon Blanc is one of several grapes that have grown in the area for generations; Ewald Tscheppe, who makes wine under the the Werlitsch label in the same cellar as his older brother Andreas, says that their father procured Sauvignon Blanc grapes from Slovenia and Serbia when they were still part of Yugoslavia.
In the 1970s and 1980s, a group of the region's best winemakers - including Alois Gross, Hannes Sattler of Sattlerhof and Manfred Tement - decided to focus their efforts on the grape. Explanations of the shift differ, but the variety could cope with the region's significant rainfall of 1,000 milliliters a year, more than twice the amount in Burgundy, and Styria's relative warmth, which makes growing Riesling and Gruner Veltliner challenging. Though the Styrians themselves don't make this point, Sauvignon Blanc had the advantage of international name recognition, says Dolinksi. In the first decade of this century, the amount of Sauvignon Blanc in Styria doubled as producers came increasingly to focus on it.
Over time, they have become more sophisticated in their handling of the grape, farming it to get less sugar and retain more acidity and often vinifying it in fuder, the large oak barrels common in Germany and Austria, rather than in stainless steel or smaller barrels. Christoph Neumeister, for example, opts for 2,000 liter barrels, which allow for slow, gentle oxidation. He also likes to keep the wine on the skins for 12 to 48 hours. With time in the bottle, that can result in wines like his single-vineyard 2011 Ried Klausen Erste STK Lage Sauvignon Blanc, which has the soft nuttiness of an older Fino Sherry and notes of rye bread and dried and candied pineapple.
His 2017 Klassik, the house's entry-level wine, offers a sense of his style, with notes of rosemary and pine and a savory, lemony finish. Neumeister says his wines are about "subtleness, complexity and silence. They're pleasurable in a slightly demanding way."
Sattlerhof's wines are richer and have a more pronounced smokiness. The 2012 Kranachberg Sauvignon Blanc, for example, combines notes of smoked hazelnuts, lemon and freshly cut and slow-roasted pineapple. Katharina Tinnacher of Lackner Tinnacher works with the same palate of flavors, but in a softer idiom; like Neumeister, she doesn't want exotic fruit flavors. She avoids them by protecting the grapes on her vines from direct sunlight and leaving the wines on the lees to develop nutty notes. Her 2015 Ried Welles Grosse STK Lage Sauvignon Blanc marries hay, lemon peel and a slight smokiness with a finish of stone fruit and nuts.
Many producers here including Neumeister, Sattler, Tement and Tinnacher farm organically, which can be a challenging practice in such a wet region. But Dolinski notes that the vineyards in Styria are widely spread out and generally owned by a single producer. That makes it far easier for the producer to control the use of fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides than in regions such as the Wachau closer to Vienna where numerous producers may own pieces of a single vineyard.
Styria's steep hills can be hard to farm, and many vineyards can be picked only by hand, but they offer a variety of exposures and soil types that justify single-vineyard wines. Michael Gross, one of Alois's sons, says that his generation's task as winemakers is to be more precise in capturing the character of individual vineyards, a goal reflected in the single-vineyard STK designation.
The Tscheppe brothers are part of a group of Styrian winemakers who have pushed beyond organic to biodynamic wines, which are popular throughout Austria. (Rudolph Steiner, the inventor of biodynamics, was Austrian.) Andreas produces his Green Dragonfly Sauvignon Blanc from an old clone of the grape from the vineyards on the Krepskogel, close to the Slovenian border, while the Blue Dragonfly is made from six or seven different Sauvignon Blanc clones that combine in a wine with notes of honey, lemon balm, walnut skin, orange tea and plum.
The Tscheppes work with grapes other that Sauvignon Blanc, which Dolinski says yield some of Styria's best wines. Gelber Muskateller can be assertively aromatic, but Andreas Tscheppe keeps his rendition from being too fruity by keeping the wine on its skins, which adds saltiness and a bite of tannin to the notes of Persian orange and plum in the wine. It'd be worth comparing to the Gelber Muskatellers by Lachner-Tinnacker and Neumeister, both of which Dolinski has on his list at Wallsé and treasures for a drinkability unusual for the grape.
Chardonnay, known as Morillon in Styria, is also popular. Ewald Tscheppe's 2012 Morillon Von Opok is fresh, salty, and slightly oxidative - a leaner Fino to put against Neumeister's 2011 Ried Klausen Sauvignon Blanc, suggesting how regional style can cut across grape variety. Armin Tement makes his Morillon in a more Burgundian style; his 2015 Ried Rossberg has notes of licorice and anise, a savory finish, and no fat - a perfect wine for noodles with mushrooms.
"The beauty of Styria is its diversity," says Dolinski. "It's not an easy thing to sell, but it is their strength."