Wild, Wonderful Steiermark

Article written for Chambers Street Wines, view it here

Ewald Tscheppe of Weingut Werlitsch, biodynamic farmer and member of Schmeke das Leben in Austria's Steiermark region

There are strange stirrings in the south of Austria, encouraging whispers and exciting wines from a small group of ecologically conscientious, hands-off winemakers who are redefining the region. Styria, or Steiermark in Austrian parlance, is a beautiful locale of rolling hills an hour south of Graz near the Slovenian border. It's been difficult to categorize its wines, especially with a recent surge and success in producing an internationally palatable style of Sauvignon Blanc that is hardly the most inspiring or thrilling of undertakings in the world of wine. However, some have ventured into natural winemaking with impressive results.

Brothers Andreas and Ewald Tscheppe, along with their sister Maria and brother-in-law Sepp Muster, all work with a similar approach: biodynamic farming and vinification for at least two years on the lees in neutral Slovenian oak barrels with barely-detectable levels of sulfites added, if any. All of them are passionately committed to this method, despite failing the sensory examinations for what is deemed to be 'typical' by local wine authorities. Thus, none of these bottles don the Austrian flag on their capsules. Despite the bureaucratic case against them, they are astounding and delicious natural wines, wildly expressive aromatically. They are devoid of the common flaws associated with this type of winemaking, such as mousey, off-flavors, volatile acidity, and reduction. The stability of the wines is undoubtedly a benefit of the extended time in barrel and in bottle before being released. Though they work with Sauvignon Blanc to make some truly compelling orange wines, they are also cultivating the more historically planted Welschriesling (not related to Riesling), Gelber Muskateller, and Weissburgunder (which actually was found to have been co-plantings of Pinot Blanc and Morillon, the local clone of Chardonnay).

Franz Strohmeier is another member of this natural Styrian winemaking group that calls themselvesSchmeke das Leben, which translates as 'Taste Life'. His version of the regional rosé frizzante asSchilcher is a sensational, refreshing treat – a must-try as temperatures start to climb. It's hardly typical Schilcher, but it is an example of the soulful purity that can be produced in Steiermark without heavy-handed manipulation or chemicals.

This offering is only a small glimpse into the full lineups from these Austrian iconoclasts, but it presents undeniable evidence that some of the best, most expressive natural wines in Europe are coming out of the verdant vistas of Steiermark. Jonathan Kemp

Muster, Sepp 2011 Steiermark Gelber Muskateller 'Vom Opok'

Intensely bright and fragrant. Moss, flowers, prominent apricot, and enough of a hoppy character that it almost smells like an IPA. Lean, driving, and lots of acidity, finishing with a squeaky clean mineral texture. A remarkable, unique, profoundly expressive wine from Austria's Steiermark, an area largely dominated by modern, manipulated wines. Maria and Sepp Muster, however, are part of a small number of growers committed to working without chemicals and doing virtually nothing to their wines. This includes Maria's brothers Andreas Tscheppe and Ewald Tscheppe. Everything spends about 2 years in large (400-3,000L), old Slovenian barrels on the lees and is bottled unfiltered with barely measurable levels of sulfites. 

Muster, Sepp 2011 Steiermark Zweigelt

Ripe, pure, vibrant Zweigelt. It manages to be concentrated without getting jammy -- instead, it's simply juicy, dark, and delicious, full of fruit that is herbaceous and piney. All this is complemented by tannins and good acidity. It's more textured than previous vintages and it will probably unwind a bit more as it ages in the bottle. But it is easy to approach now, and easily one of the most impressive, serious Zweigelts I've ever tasted, an expressive but structured, stable, natural wine. A perfect foil to lamb or steak. Two years in large, older Slovenian barrels, with barely any sulfur added and essentially undetectable amounts of free sulfur.

Strohmeier NV Steiermark Schilcher Frizzante

Schilcher is a common specialty in Western Styria made from a high acid red grape called Blauer Wildbacher. What is less common are the non-interventionist methods Franz Strohmeier uses to work the 3.5 hectares of 40 year old vines. Franz constantly seeks new ways to express terroir through natural wine making, such as allowing a portion of his grapes to grow wild with no pruning. The result is intensely flavored grapes that create sparkling wines with stunning depth and surprising finesse. This is a bold dry frizzante packed with fresh red berries, bracing acidity, and fine creamy bubbles. The local tradition is to pair sparkling rose with fried chicken, but you can also pair with salted, pan-fried oysters for a maritime twist on an Austrian favorite! Ingredients: 12 large fresh (live) oysters, shucked; 2 eggs, beaten; 1 cup bread crumbs; salt and pepper, to taste; 2 to 3 tablespoons vegetable oil; lemon wedges. Fry breaded oysters in a pan (cast-iron preferred) for 1-2 minutes on each side, or until golden brown. Amanda Bowman

Tscheppe, andreas 2012 Steiermark Butterfly Yellow Muskateller

This exceptional yellow muscat from Andreas Tscheppe is wildly gorgeous, transcendent, and heady. Lush, sensuous, bursting with chamomile, hops, lavender, and ripe nectarine, it is nevertheless quite vivid, bright, and dry. It even has some texture and spritz on the finish. Like all the wines made by Andreas and his brother Ewald of Weingut Werlitsch, this spends two years in large, neutral oak barrels, adding a significant amount of stability to these natural, hands-off wines. A stunning, incomparably expressive wine with balance and elegance.

Werlitsch 2009 Steireland Ex Vero 'Legoth'

Ewald Tscheppe of Weingut Werlitsch in Austria's Steiermark is known for farming biodynamically and creating masterful natural wines. This is a unique blend of 5 varieties vinified separately: Pinot Blanc, Welschriesling, Chardonnay, Sämling (aka Scheurebe), and Müller-Thurgau. Soft on the palate, with honeysuckle, almonds, and salt. For a broader, nuttier wine, there is a nice, racy backbone of acidity, making this wine extremely drinkable and versatile, not to mention pretty. After fermentation, it spends 2 years in large, older Slovenian barrels, giving it stability and some subtle, oxidative notes that make it perfect for fans of Jura whites.