Wine region Südsteiermark
The Heart of the Steiermark
When exploring the region via its wine routes, visitors will encounter a hilly landscape covered by vineyards – the smaller region Südsteiermark actually has a greater area under vines than Weststeiermark and Vulkanland. With 2,563 hectares planted, viticulture is of great importance here.
The gentle topography here perhaps disguises the fact that the Südsteiermark produces wines with a crisp freshness that is known well outside Austria. The fascinating panoramic view also belies the enormous challenges that local growers must face. The vineyards are often very steep and can only be cultivated by hand. However, they also offer optimum conditions for producing great white wine.
Sauvignon Blanc – the variety most responsible for the Steiermark’s international fame – is the vine most widely grown here (21%). Welschriesling follows with 16.5%, Weissburgunder (Pinot Blanc) 12%, Muskateller almost 10% and Morillon (the Steiermark’s name for Chardonnay) 8.4%. Red varieties play a marginal role here and their cultivation accounts for only 10 % of the area. But even though reds are not a matter of focus, some growers have surprises in store with their reds.Vines here grow in a soil called ‘Opok’ – a kind of marl which is one of the Steiermark’s distinctive features. There are two other primary soils here: chalkfree sandy soils and Muschelkalk (fossil limestone). In the Sausal to the north, by contrast, slate soils are dominant. Due to the high precipitation, between 1.000–1.200 mm per year, lack of moisture rarely becomes an issue. Excessive rainfall still poses a problem at times. Because of the many hills and forests there are great microclimatic differences.
Sauvignon Blanc can be found all over the world; however, there are only a few regions associated with top quality: the upper Loire Valley including Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé, New Zealand, South Africa, the Alto Adige – and the Steiermark. Apart from the sense of structure common to the wines, it is freshness that helped the Steiermark find success. For this reason, wood management for top wines has changed appreciably among cellarmasters. While in the year 2000 mostly new barrels (225l) were used, nowadays larger barrels between 300–600 l – with a smaller percentage of them new – are the rule. There is hardly any variety that shows as many facets as Sauvignon Blanc. Depending on the degree of maturity (and ultimate alcohol content) aromatics vary considerably. Elderflower, stinging nettle and bell pepper are the dominant aromas of a fresh, early-harvested Sauvignon. But in the Steiermark these aromas never stand in the foreground as they do in South Africa. According to Reinhold Holler, ‘Aromas depend, however, on the processing method. Open maturing in small and middle-sized oak barrels encourage these aromas. Aromas such as passion fruit or gooseberry are in general prone to oxidation. On the other hand, one can question whether we even need this fruitiness. In any case, the Sauvignon Blanc’s aromas can more easily be influenced in the vineyards and in the cellar than is the case with any other variety’. Among other subjects, Holler teaches winemaking at the traditional viticulture school Silberberg. The closely affiliated government-run winery Silberberg cultivates around 25 hectares of vines.
Variety in the Vineyard
Since Sauvignon Blanc is a vigorously growing variety, it requires more work in the vineyards than the very popular Welschriesling. ‘Work is rather stress-free with respect to the Welschriesling’, Holler proceeds to say about the variety that is closely associated with the Steiermark. Classic Welschriesling embodies the fresh and fruity type, characterised by apple and citrus aromas. This wine is especially popular with the culinary scene, since its price is rather attractive, and well suited to being sold by the glass. Welschriesling does, however, have unrealised potential. There are various winemakers who have dedicated themselves to this variety; many think the Welschriesling’s potential has not yet been fully realised.
In the past this was also true of the Gelber Muskateller. For many years this aromatic variety was favoured as a summer wine or appetizer. Although the variety still gladly plays these roles, winegrowers have also discovered other facets of the Muskateller, which can be manifested in high-quality single vineyard wines. Besides the typical Muscat and grape aromas, scents of dried fruit can also be noticed. Its easy and affable nature contributes to the Muskateller’s popularity. However, growers often face problems, since this variety is prone to rot and fungal diseases. It prefers warm sites, but is at the same time very undemanding in terms of soil.
Diversity of Soils
The situation is different with the popular Burgundian varieties, the Pinot family. Luckily, the wide-spread limestone soils provide ideal conditions for Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc (Weissburgunder), and Pinot Gris (Grauburgunder). In the Steiermark, Chardonnay has a special name: Morillon. When going abroad, growers are often obliged to explain this peculiarity, but their wines typically have great persuasive power.
Kranachberg ranks among the most famous single vineyard sites. Here chalk-free sandstone soils can be found. The wines have a juicy acidity; their structure is somehow softer, which especially benefits the Sauvignon Blanc. Chalk/sandstone makes its mark on the vineyard site Zieregg, which borders Slovenia in the southwest. On the cooler more easterly side only Sauvignon Blanc is planted. Acidity is therefore more succinct, which benefits the more profound wines. In the southwestern portion, soils are slightly softer; here lime-stone marl sometimes reaches the surface. In these warmer and especially upper parts Chardonnay feels at home. In the lower part, where the soil is slightly heavier, Sauvignon Blanc can be found. The vineyard site Grassnitzberg is dominated by clay soil. These wines are somehow softer and milder than those of Hochgrassnitzberg. But they are particularly spicy and occasionally slightly salty.
On the Ratscher Nussberg limestone-free, clay sands and chalky sandstone exert a palpable impact on the wines. Muskateller especially benefits from the clay and sandy soils and shows a fragrant, intensively floral aromaticity, paired with freshness and finely knit acidity. There are a number of sites that deserve to be mentioned, such as Pössnitzberg, Jägerberg, Sernau, Pfarrweingarten, Sulztal, Obegg, Welles – among many others. Alongside the many differences determined by soil composition, vineyard site and microclimate, the winegrower’s personal signature can also be read, which makes for an exciting element of variety once the wines meet the palate.
Collective vineyard site EichbergBordered by the river Pössnitz in the south, the Sulm in the north and the Seggau to the west, the Eichberg – a collective vineyard site – spans 350 hectares.
Located in Leutschach, the Steiermark’s largest winegrowing municipality, the Eichberg is distinct from many sites, in that the vines grow at approximately 450–620 metres of elevation. In the west, the Koralpe range offers some protection against the elements, but it is also the source of considerable cooling. Additionally, soils are largely chalk-free or low in limestone; mostly sandy, though there is also the famous Kreuzbergschotter and conglomerate – but here without limestone. This is not the place for growing opulent wines; here the wines tend to be more refined, delicately nuanced and possess great ageing potential.
Precipitation ranges from 1.000–1.150 mm per annum. Nevertheless, Muskateller is a preferred variety, planted primarily in well-protected parcels to avoid rot. The most popular vine here is Sauvignon Blanc. Wines from the Eichberg tend to be delicate and somewhat leaner, with a distinctive complexity.