Location: Whitby, Ontario, Canada

Born in Malta but in Canada since age 5. Has written three books and presently does several columns about wine and food for various magazines.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

June 3: Going Wild In Styria

Morning At Wirtshaus Moserhof
The morning was advanced by a plethora of bird sounds which preceded the first ray of sunshine by about an hour. I am late to sleep and early to rise---have always been and will probably so stay--- the cheerful chants made by my aviary friends was welcome. As light emerged, I went out on the balcony that overlooked the expansive horizon and marveled at the beauty of the landscape. In addition to the bird sounds could be heard the other sounds of country: roosters crowing, dogs barking, the odd barnyard noise and the distant rustle of farm machinery being primed. What a difference from the night before! The dark had indeed turned to light. The ominous had become sanctified. The foreboding was now elation! I thought of a song----the hills were indeed alive with the sound of music.
A quick breakfast and we bed adieu to the Moserhof and we were off to visit our first winery.

Weingut Armin Polz-Keifer
Heading down towards Weingut Erich-Walter Polz we came upon an interesting scene. It was what seemed to be a pleasant farm scene just next to a cottage style winery with ducks waddling around chasing one another and a large dog seemingly standing guard watching the goings on. A couple was sitting just outside the main door apparently enjoying the day. We stopped to take a picture of the scene and ended up talking to the young couple.
Armin and Ida Polz-Keifer were an absolutely charming couple that owned the Weingut and the Gasthaus where people could stay and be treated to a unique and relaxing farm/winery/vineyard experience complete with meals and hospitality.
The brief encounter left us feeling very energized at having had the fortune to "stumble' on this prize scene. We took our film 'footage' and were then off to our major destination.
Weingut Erich-Walter Polz
Not far from Armin and Ida's winery was Weingut Erich-Walter Polz. It seemed a larger operation that the previous winery with a fully functional restaurant, patio, boutique and even a vineyard "under glass" complete with fully formed grapes. Keep in mind that while the weather in Styria was a full month ahead of those vineyards in upper North America, the grapes on the vines were still in their formative bunches.
We were met by Marketing Manager Peter Keller who undid all stops to make us comfortable and give us information. First he treated us to a magnificent lunch made up of local dishes matched with the Polz wines. He then proceeded to describe the operation and the wines with great detail----later taking us on a tour of several vineyards and the winery. Finally, he arranged a "photo shoot" outside, in front of the winery. Bringing out some large bottles, he made sure that the "shots" were perfect. That was a good way of describing Peter. He was obviously one who sought perfection and demanded it. Nothing he did seemed extraneous as all his actions were purposeful and precise.
The winery was founded in 1912 and is looked on as somewhat of a "trail blazer" in the area. They were the first to move from a mass production status to quality products. The vineyards are planted with both white (Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay/Morillon, Rheinriesling, Muskateller, and Pinot Blanc) and red grapes (Cabernet, Pinot Noir, Zweigelt and Blaufrankisch). These innovators also helped organize the first national association of grape production in the late '90's. The Polz's also own major holdings in neighboring country of Slovenia.
From a point overlooking some of the Polz vineyards, Peter pointed to a peninsula shaped group of trees and bushes jutting in between the vineyards. "That clump of trees is Slovenia," he said.
We ended our visit with a toast of Polz Sauvignon Blanc which was superb with its fruit forward nose and equally fruit driven taste.
Weingut Willi Sattler
Sattlerhof consists of three main vineyards: Kranachberg, Seranauberg and Pfarrweingarten. The Kranachberg consisting of mainly chalky soil is planted mainly of Sauvignon Blanc. The Seranauberg with its sandy/gravel soil has mainly Sauvingnon Blanc and Chardonnay (called Morillon in Austria). Pfarrweingarten with its shell and coral/limestone structure is very suitable for and planted with Burgundian style vines. Pfarrweingarten has been rented from the Catholic Church by the Sattlers for a long time and some cases of fine wine go to it as part of the rent. The Pfarrweingarten has mainly Pinot Blanc and Morillon (Chardonnay) but does have one special bottling of Sauvignon Blanc Pfarrweingarten that goes to an Austrian retailer called Gottardi.
Willi Sattler says that the the vineyard/farm has been with the family since 1887. On meeting Willi one gets the impression that he is dealing with an wrestler of sorts. His compact 5'10" frame and stance were certainly reminiscent of such. He introduced us to his son Andreas. While Willi delivered the initial introduction to the winery, Andreas picked up the gauntlet and became more passionate as he related the history and structure of Sattlerhof. We were given a tour of the winery, hotel which is run by Hannes Sattler who is also the chef.
Willi went on to describe how the three different soils in he vineyards made three different types of wine. One which is fruit driven and spicy, one which is mineral and the other that is typical Burgundian.
We went out to examine the vineyards. The vineyards themselves are very steep and a 60 degree angle of slope was about right---ranging from a height of 500 metres to 325 metres. Travelling through the vineyard in Willi's Mercedes Four Wheel Drive Vehicle, we attempted up a steep incline almost at the surface. The night before had been a stormy/rainy one so it crossed my mind that the vineyard could be a bit problematic. I was correct. In spite the magnificent vehicles design and power, the slippery slope almost became our undoing.
The vehicle encountered difficulty in trying to get to the summit but the "grip" was not there and it floundered. Looking down I could see the steep slope that we were on and getting out would have met with some problems. The bottom of the hill was a long, long way down.
At this point, Willi tried to give one last attempt at securing the hill but the Mercedes, as powerful as it was, could not manage and worse, started to slide sideways. Scenes from past movies of cars rolling down hills crossed my mind and, knowing that both Sandie and I needed to move, I was also aware that the vehicle was crucially balanced. Willi got out of the front slowly and I suggested that Sandie get out first since weighed more than she and was at the upward portion of the slope sideways. This way any balance would still be kept. After she got out, I eased out and Willi went to get the tractor. Excitement it was!!!
In spite of all that was going on, I still had the presence of mind to notice the many limestone and coralline rocks around the vineyard and thinking that some samples may come in handy in the future, I picked up a few. At worst, they would occupy a place of honour next to my rather large fishpond in my backyard. At best, they could be used as an example of they type of soil structure and deposit at this vineyard.
We went back to the winery where we tasted some wines from the three different soil structured vineyards. The vineyards have definite if not subtle differences. For example, Sernauberg wines are very expressive and complex and can age many years. Kranachberg and Pffarweingarten are more expressive of the terroir with its minerality and have a distinctive character and complex aroma structure. We tasted many fine wines and found them to have excellent fruit, great freshness with just the right amount of minerality and acidity. Some older vintages showed excellent integrity and capability for more aging.
Sattlerhof also has a unique restaurant and hotel with vineyard views is managed by Willi's brother, Hannes. That and a great hiking trail through the vineyards allows the visitor to get the best out of the magnificent Styrian wine, food and scenery.
Weingut Tement
Off we went again to yet another winery and this one had several unique features. This was a modern winery with open concepts and bold windows showing the vineyard expanse. Once through the meticulously clean and new concept bar and foyer, the eyes immediately went to the huge open window concept that viewed a very large outdoor deck high above the vineyards that sloped down the hill plateau on which the winery was located to a road far below near which was a farm house that looked for all intents, like a miniature toy amidst an artificial roadway.
"One part of this vineyard is in Austria and the other is in Slovenia. If you look to your right you will be viewing the country of Slovenia!" Armin Tement the son of the owner Manfred Tement went on to say that they made two types of wines---one Slovenian (Ciringa) and the other Austrian. In order to make these wines Tement must fulfill the requirements of both Austrian and Slovenian authorities. Two countries and two appellations lead to two equally great wines from one vineyard. Looking down at the mist shrouded valley below the whole setting seemed surreal. It was hard to imagine that such a quiet pastoral setting could exist.
Sandie Kraft conducted a first class interview with Armin who explained the family history and reasons of the traditional yet modern approach to wine making that his family had. Then he beckoned us to go back into the building and showed us the reason for the high minerality and lusciousness of his wine. Sea shell fossils abound in this area and thus are responsible for the complexity and minerality of the wines. Yet his best white wines such as Sauvignon Blanc are long lived and mature very nicely with flavours ranging from citrus lime to passion fruit to floral to petrol.
The labels on the bottles are also equally interesting. The Slovenian Domaine Ciringa Sauvignon Blanc has the Fossil Shell on its label with the term Fosilni Bregg indicating the origin of the wine whose white current, asparagus, pear and minerality is evident. The Tement bottles are quite a sight with the large "T" and cluster of grapes just above the Tement name-----truly well done.
Armin allowed us to taste some more the wines before taking us down into the cellars which uniquely were spotless and well constructed. To show the true construction of the cellar walls, a large portion of the limestone wall was left uncovered and here one could feel the moisture and imagine the ages of time within those walls. I picked up a couple of samples and put them into my bag for future reference. Now I too had a part of Tement in my possession that will accompany my thoughts whenever I look at my ------acquisitions!
Our trip to Tement drew to a close and soon we were off to the Genuss Hotel in Riegersburg.
Genuss Hotel
About thirty minutes from Tement and Sattlerhof is Riegersburg, a village with some serious history but it seems that wherever one went in Styria let alone Austria, one encountered history. In this case, history came in the form of a castle which goes back at least to the 12th Century and probably much further. The location of the castle is representative of the volcanic activity that occurred in this region many years ago. The castle rests on the remnants of an ancient volcano and was built as a protection from foreign invasions. It has been owned by the Liechtenstein family since the early 19th Century and is now a major tourist attraction.
My room at the four star Genuss Hotel had a great view of the castle in the distance as well as a very comfortable balcony complete with very comfortable chairs to sit on. The hotel had an excellent dining room with a balcony patio that also viewed the castle.
The surrounding countryside was a patchwork of vineyard, forest and meadow along with farm houses and of course the lovely village of Riegersburg. It was amazing how quiet it was at night and the stars seemed to jump out of the sky in order to be noticed. So many stars were present that night even though there were periods of rain.
I could feel the day's adventures wearing on my eyelids as I tried hard to stay up and take in the quiet sound of silence. It was no use. Sandman was working just as hard to say to me, "Wait until morning but tonight sleep!" I took his advice!!!!