Picture Perfect Styria is Austria's stunning secret
"Possessed of towering peaks (some volcanic), rolling green hills and sprawling forests, Styria’s landscapes are breathtaking even by Austrian postcard standards."
While the northern, Rhine-side regions of Austria with their rieslings and grüner veltliners command much of the critical attention from native, European and overseas wine lovers, exciting wines are being made at the other end of Austria’s wine country, drawing on a mix of grapes both obscure and familiar.
Styria, more properly styled Steiermark, is Austria’s southern-most winegrowing region. Sequestered by high mountains, and with its major city of Graz located 150 kilometres south of Vienna, it is not surprising that comparatively few of its wines are known beyond its own borders. But this all looks set to change.
Styria is located along Austria’s southern border with Slovenia and enjoys a very relaxed relationship with its neighbour; roads along the border weave in and out of the two nations, while cross-border commerce, including shopping, is commonplace.
Styria, with a population of 1.2 million, has just over 5,000 hectares under vine, and is made up of three parts: the subregions of Südsteiermark, Vulkanland Steiermark and Weststeiermark. Together they produce around 10 per cent of Austria’s wine, and some 75 per cent of Styria’s wine is white.
The origins of winegrowing in the area can ultimately be traced back to the Celts and Romans, but winemaking in Styria owes much of its modern vigour to the enlightened 19th century policies of Archduke Johann, who survived the early scandal of marrying a commoner (a post office worker) as well as the upheavals of Napoleonic occupation to become an enthusiastic promoter of both education and winemaking. He provided generous funding for wine research and founded a viticultural school in Styria.
While Steiermark is unquestionably more vertiginous than Austria’s other regions, its vines are grown in a variety of terroirs. Indeed, the southerly latitude and the benign climatic influence of the Pannonian plains induce what is called an Illyrian climate, with distinctly higher levels of precipitation than in Austria’s other wine-growing regions – having a considerable impact ont Styrian viticulture. At the same time, many vineyards have been traditionally cultivated in the foothills or on the lower slopes of mountains to avoid the frosts that stalk the valley floors. Geology is similarly mixed: the majority of vineyards lie on the sedimentary soils of the Styrian Basin, while most of the remainder are planted on stony alpine nappes. Most of the vineyards are between 400 and 600 metres above sea level, and with gradients frequently greater than 25 per cent, hand cultivation and picking becomes obligatory.
In terms of varieties, indigenous grapes share the billing with some better-known names; Welschriesling (as its green apple bouquet suggests, it is unrelated to riesling) accounts for 15 per cent of Styria’s total plantings, sauvignon blanc sits at 18 per cent overall, Weissburgunder (pinot blanc) at 14 per cent and chardonnay at eight. In the reds, Blauer Wildbacher has 10 per cent and Zweigelt 5 per cent.
Possessed of towering peaks (some volcanic), rolling green hills and sprawling forests, Styria’s landscapes are breathtaking even by Austrian postcard standards. To the south and east, the Styrian countryside is dotted with 800 winery-run taverns, a characteristically Austrian aspect of wine-selling. The taverns, permitted since an edict of the 1870s to sell their own produce tax-free, are known around Vienna as heuriger, but locally are called buschenschanken.
In Südsteiermark, one charming survival of the long winegrowing tradition is the Klapotetz or wind-rattle. These eight-bladed wooden windmills of centuries-old design are erected during the ripening season, when their clattering is intended to scare away the marauding flocks of starlings.
Grüner Veltliner, the grape which so heavily dominates Austrian wine production, plays only a miniscule role in Styria. And while the ancient and sturdy Welschriesling grape retains its lead in Styria’s production statistically, more international varieties such as traminer, pinot gris, chardonnay and, in particular, sauvignon blanc are on the march.
In terms of high-quality wine, sauvignon blanc (sometimes in the form of the youthful regional wine, sometimes aged, wooded and made in a style more akin to the wines of Sancerre) has made significant strides in Südsteiermark: already more than 25% of acreage and the wines are among the best worldwide, where it has nearly 10 per cent of the annual crush. Styrian sauvignon blancs from both Vulkanland and Südsteiermark are garnering growing numbers of fans world-wide for their freshness and elegance. Chardonnay from Südsteiermark, grown on limestone soils, is also prized for its intensity and high natural acidity. Surprisingly, both sauvignon blanc and chardonnay (locally known as Morillon) have been cultivated in Styria since the 19th century.
In the much smaller volumes of Weststeiermark, red wine grapes continue to dominate production, with the indigenous Blauer Wildbacher comprising nearly two-thirds of the crush. Admittedly, much of the variety’s crush is harnessed to the production by many makers of the legendary and lively Schilcher rosés.
In line with national reforms which have overhauled the Austrian wine industry in recent years, “Qualitätswein” from distinct terroirs has been designated, and all three Styrian subregions were awarded DAC (Districtus Austriae Controllatus) appellation status in 2018. The regionally typical white wines – as well as Schilcher – are now classified into the three categories: Gebietswein (regional wine), Ortswein (“villages” wine) and the premium Riedenwein (single-vineyard wine) and are held back for release in accordance with their respective level of quality. The light ‘Junker’ wines, so beloved of the local populace, are still released for early drinking in the wine taverns.
There is a concerted move among Styria’s winemakers to focus on the creation of elegance and minerality in their wines and, as in the rest of the country, the precepts of organic, biodynamic and sustainable winemaking are also coming to the fore: more than 15 per cent of Austria’s total area under vine is already being cultivated organically. Styria also boasts a band of enthusiastic “natural” winemakers. And while there has been a slight shift towards a consolidation of vineyard and winery ownership in recent years, small-holdings, family ownership and an accent on artisanal scale production remain integral to the character of Styrian wines. It’s a legacy well worth investigating.