Wine region Weststeiermark
No other place in Austria is dominated so intensely by one variety as the Weststeiermark. More than 450 hectares of the region’s 500 ha are planted to the Blauer Wildbacher. Nevertheless Weststeiermark is not red, but pink. That’s because the red variety is primarily used for the production of rosé: the (in)famous Schilcher. Ever since Austrian quality boom of the late 1980s, Blauer Wildbacher has become more widely planted. Through successful marketing strategies, more emphasis has been put on Schilcher and this in turn is the reason why growers can now rejoice in growing export numbers.
The wine region Weststeiermark encompasses the city of Graz and the districts Deutschlandsberg and Voitsberg, as well as the municipalities in suburban Graz, except for two communities situated on the left side of the river Mur. Despite this being a large expanse, the actual area under cultivation amounts to just approximately 500 hectares. The Weststeiermark can thus be compared to the Eisenberg in Südburgenland, and is even smaller than the winegrowing region contained within Vienna’s city limits. However, even though the area might be small, the tradition of growing wine is a long one, with indigenous Celts having been the first to bring vine here.
The vineyards are situated at 300–600 m above sea level, among the highest in the Steiermark. The climate is influenced by the Alps and by downdrafts coming from the Koralpe mountain range, which provide significant cooling during the night. This is where the Blauer Wildbacher feels at home and this is also where its aroma stems from. The Schilcher is not fond of heat. It requires a long vegetation period to achieve physiologic maturity, although elevated sugar content is not desirable. Nowadays winegrowers have managed to refine their techniques considerably and well-integrated acidity has become standard. Nevertheless, acids normally range between seven and nine grams/litre. High extract values will, however, provide for agreeable harmony in the wine.
Pure Joie de Vivre
The Steiermark’s Wine-Queen Johanna II, who grew up on an estate specialising in Schilcher, is enthusiastic: ‘For me, Schilcher means fun and vitality. I am impressed by the Blauer Wildbacher’s versatility. It yields fresh grape juices, lively rosé wines and sparkling variants as well as full-bodied red wines’. And no matter whether sparkling, rosé, or profound red, the Blauer Wildbacher provides an excellent companion for regional cuisine.
When reaching adequate maturity, the grape variety is also well suited to producing dry reds. Most of the time, it is matured in small or midsized oak casks, in order to moderate the Blauer Wildbacher’s somewhat angular flavours. Sparkling variants are the most common, and have become the standard. Almost every estate produces a sparkling Schilcher, and some growers are even working with bottle fermentation.
In terms of cultivation, Blauer Wildbacher is a rather demanding variety. This is not only due to the steep inclines on the northern slopes: the variety is prolific in growth and requires intense foliage canopy management. In addition it is prone to downy mildew (peronospora) and coloure. Due to its early budding, it is especially sensitive to winter frost. Sadly, this was witnessed in April of 2016, when extensive damage to crops was recorded. The harvest usually takes place between mid-September and the end of October, with the majority of grapes being picked at the beginning of October.
Gneiss and Limestone Soils
Despite all these challenges, the winegrowers’ enthusiasm for the Blauer Wildbacher runs high. ‘They literally burn for this variety, and their passion can truly be felt’, says Johanna II, describing the region’s love for Schilcher. Due to the area’s considerable expanse, there are of course corresponding variants in the finished wines, in particular because of the different soils. The area of St. Stefan ob Stainz is dominated by gneiss soils; we can even speak of ‘Stainzer gneiss’ and in the northwest of ‘Hirschegger gneiss’. Moreover, the highest elevation vineyards can be found here. In Wildbach – which gave the variety its name – and in Deutschlandsberg, the vines grow on soil covering bedrock. In Eibiswald further to the south, which is located more southerly than Spielfeld, the soils contain more limestone, and the north can be compared to the Sausal. These differences in soils as well as location – north or south – can also be perceived in the wine’s aromas. These range from wild strawberries and redcurrant to grapefruit and green fruits, especially in the south where the wines are definitely more robust and sturdier. Among other factors there can be a week’s difference in harvest date between the south and the north. Some of the best single vineyard sites in the Weststeiermark (north to south) are Langegg, Greisdorf, Hochgrail (St. Stefan ob Stainz), Burgegg (Deutschlandsberg), Aichegg (Schwanberg), Geisseregg and Krass (both in Wies).
Persuasion through Taste
Whoever has not yet become convinced by the Schilcher just needs to take a sip! ‘This has always helped’, opines wine queen Johanna with a bit of a smirk. Despite their love for Schilcher, winegrowers in the Weststeiermark also cultivate other varieties such as Sauvignon Blanc. Variety is indeed important. But their hearts beat for their Schilcher.