In southeast Austria, sandwiched between Burgenland to the right, Carinthia to the left, and Slovenia to the south, you find the wine region of Styria, known as Steiermark in German. Although it also produces some delicious, lighter reds, this is mainly white wine territory — where Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Welschriesling rule the roost, and it’s also famous for its intriguing Schilcher rosé wines, produced from the ancient indigenous Blauer Wildbacher grape — bottlings that give you a glimpse into the past.
The region has an ancient history of grapevine cultivation, and it’s also particularly beautiful with its sloping hillsides, as far as the eye can see views, and its year-round green vegetation. As such, it attracts a strong tourist trade — not just for its wines, but also for hiking and spa retreats. Both the wines from the region and its landscape are very much a breath of fresh air.
As with many classic wine regions in Europe, viticulture in the area dates back to 400BC — to the time of the Celts, followed by the Romans. It is thought that the Celts were making wine from the wild grapevines growing in the area, whereas evidence exists at Flavia Solva (today known as Leibnitz) that the Romans began to systematically tend grapevines.
After the fall of the Roman Empire, viticulture and winemaking techniques were lost. Vineyards didn’t disappear entirely, however, and during the time of Charlemagne, in the 8th and 9th centuries, viticulture saw a rebirth, particularly through the Cistercian Rein Abbey. However, during the Dark Ages, viticulture took a nosedive due to climatic factors during the Little Ice Age, and several wars (the Ottoman Turks attacked almost 20 times between the 15th and 17th centuries).
Things took a turn for the better, however, when the economy improved under the reign of Joseph II and Maria Theresa in 1770. It was Josef II who introduced the ‘Buschenschank Patent,’ which encouraged wine growers to start their own businesses to pour and serve the products they make at their homes (from wine, to cold meats, to salads, etc). This model is still popular throughout Austria today, and they provide a delightful form of escapism from the hyper-consumerism we find in much of the Western world.
During the 1800s, Archduke John (Johann in German) came to Styria during the Napoleonic wars as commander of the Austrian army. Although born in Florence, he ended up staying in Styria. An avid nature and geography lover, he was instrumental to boosting education in the region, founding both the Joanneum Museum in Graz, and the Graz University of Technology. He also loved wine and donated an estate for the purpose of viticulture research in Styria (at the time, this also included large parts of what is today Slovenia).
In the first half of the 1800s, Archduke John and his researchers planted a vast swathe of grape varieties to see what their potential held for wine. This is how both Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay — locally known as Morillon — ended up here, as John regularly travelled to France.
Subsequently, the reputation of Styrian wines (in particular white wines) gained a particular notoriety. In the 1840s, Franz Trummer described in detail 282 varieties in Styria, and became one of the early pioneers in ampelography. After phylloxera (Styria suffered as much as every other European wine region), much more ampelographic research was carried out at the Marburg (Maribor, in modern-day Slovenia) viticultural school.
However, as seen in so many other regions that suffered from phylloxera, the region’s plantings never quite recovered, and when Yugoslavia was formed in 1918, 30,000 hectares of vineyards would move from what had been the Austro-Hungarian empire to the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (later Yugoslavia) and finally—in June 1991—Slovenia. Today, those vineyards are found in the Slovenian wine region of Štajerska.
Although renowned for its wines, the area remained poor, due to its isolated geographical location (major cities were far away). As such, it was agricultural, mainly home to polycultural farms. As well as growing vines, farmers also tended to livestock, tended orchards, and grew various crops to further supplement their living. It was only in the second half of the 20th century that some growers began solely focusing on wine production.
Today, the region is a popular tourist destination, and there are a lot of wines produced for the tourist industry that never leave Styria. This has, in a sense, been detrimental to the region’s fame in a similar way to how the wines of the Savoie are also predominantly sold locally (to the ski resorts). However, this is changing — there are certain winemakers who have developed a name for both themselves—and for Styria’s capacity for fine wine—in recent years. Wineries such as Weingut Neumeister and Weingut Sattlerhof are renowned for their fine, mineral-driven Sauvignon Blancs in particular, and Weingut Karl Schnabel is particularly known for their Pinot Noirs and Blaufränkisch cuvées, which are generally a rarity in the region.
You also can’t discuss the current state of Styria without mentioning the group of Schmecke das Leben (five wineries: Werlitsch, Strohmeier, Tscheppe, Tauss and Muster). Together, they share learnings and thoughts on biodynamic farming and natural winemaking. All of their wines have gained a worldwide reputation as fine wines and appear on countless wine lists; from fine dining to wine bars. Their environmental approach to viticulture and their philosophical, pure and open-minded approach to winemaking is as much a breath of fresh air as Styria is itself.
Roland Tauss remembers,
“For those first years (mid 2000s), I worked with Sepp Muster and Ewald Tscheppe, and then later with Franz Strohmeier and Andreas Tscheppe. It was a new area for my thinking, and for my mind. Everything I had known up until that moment had changed. It was a completely new beginning for all of us. A new start — a new world of winemaking — so we exchanged a lot. It was a new land, so it was very important for us to speak together, and also to taste the wines together. We had meetings, and we’d drink our wines and ask each other what we thought about them — is it OK? Is it not OK? That was so important for us all in those first years; to find our own way of winemaking.”
However, due to their personal, liberal styles of winemaking—which involves leaving their wines unfined, unfiltered, sulfited very little (or not at all) and experimenting with skin contact—their wine labels don’t bear the DACs of the region, as they are deemed ‘atypical.’ When we spoke with Sepp Muster, he said this doesn’t bother him, as they don’t make wine to be approved by the DACs. If the DAC tasting panels don’t accept the wines, the winemakers wouldn’t alter their styles anyway. Fortunately, there are so many winelovers around the world who appreciate these wines, and know that they come from southern Styria, despite the fact this isn’t mentioned on the label (instead, they are simply labelled as Wein aus Österreich, which is similar to vin de France — the ‘basic’ appellation). We can’t help but think, however, that it’s ironic that some of the region’s most iconic wines are the ones that cannot bear the appellations on their labels.
Geology and Geography
The climate throughout Styria is known as ‘Illyrian,’ meaning it features southern European and Mediterranean influences. It has a long growing cycle, and despite the warmth in summer, it’s also a very wet region, with an annual rainfall of around 1,000–1,200 mm. This explains why the region is always so green, even in July and August. Large temperature variation between night and day means that the wines maintain their freshness.
Wine-wise, Styria is divided up into three main wine growing areas; Weststeiermark DAC, Südsteiermark DAC and Vulkanland Steiermark DAC.
The Weststeiermark DAC comprises just 639 hectares of vineyards. Vines are generally planted on the slopes of the foothills of the Koralpe Range and the Reinischkogel. The slopes are steep, and occasionally reach an elevation of 600m. The soils are varied, but generally composed of gneiss and mica schist.
The Südsteiermark DAC (southern Styria) comprises 2,744 hectares of vineyards, and soil types vary from sand, to schist, to marl and limestone. It is particularly celebrated for its ‘opok’ soils — dense, silty clay-limestone that is so compact it almost looks like schist (NB: it’s not schist).
The Vulkanland DAC, home to 1,671 hectares of vineyards, charmingly translating literally as ‘volcano land,’ is — you guessed it — home to several extinct volcanoes. All around the world, volcanos (alive and extinct) are popular areas for vineyards, due to their intriguing composition of soil types and sloping topography, and this part of Styria is no exception. They are, however, only home to around 10% of Vulkanland vineyard plantings. Aside from the basalt and tuff soils of the ancient volcanos, in this subregion, soil types vary from clay, to sand, schist, gneiss, gravel and volcanic deposits. The very eastern segment is home to a Pannonian climate, like Burgenland, which is hotter and drier than the rest of Styria’s Illyrian climate.
This ancient variety hails from the village of Wildbach in Styria, making it indigenous to the region. Fascinatingly, it’s been suggested by DNA analysis and ampelographers (the study of grapevines for the purpose of identification) that one of the parents of this indigenous variety is in fact an extinct wild vine (the other parent is Gouais Blanc, which is the parent to many other grape varieties such as Chardonnay and Gamay). This suggests that this variety is incredibly old. Could it have been around in Roman times? (We’ll perhaps never know, but it’s not impossible…)
It’s renowned for high-acid rosé and sparkling rosé production, with beautifully wild aromas — think wild grasses, forest fruit and undergrowth.
The success of Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay in Styria is down to the efforts carried out by Archduke John and his team of viticultural researchers in the 1800s. Thought to have originated in the Loire Valley, Styria might be more than a stone’s throw away from its source, but it’s very much at home here.
On a similar latitude to Sancerre (the heartland of Sauvignon) and with just a bit more rainfall, Styria is also home to the aforementioned opok soils — a mix of limestone, clay and silt — which Sauvignon thrives in. As a result, the best examples are mineral-driven, zesty and mouth-watering, and they have brilliant potential for ageing.
Chardonnay, known locally as Morillon, also thrives in Styria, particularly also in limestone-dominant soils. A fairly neutral grape variety, as per in other regions, winemaking decisions play a key role in forming the final flavour profile. When aged in Burgundy barrels, the style will tend to be a little more open, whereas foudres, such as those used by Werlitsch, produce something a little more tightwound in style.
Interestingly, Werlitsch blends Sauvignon Blanc and Morillon together for his Ex Vero cuvées I, II and III. This is perhaps uncommon as a blend internationally, but the varieties are in perfect harmony here. The soils at Werlitsch are opok, but the degree of limestone vs clay varies drastically up and down the hillside. From the bottom, where there is more clay, comes Ex Vero I, from the mid-slopes, where the clay/limestone balance is more equal, comes Ex Vero II, and from the top slopes, where the limestone content is higher, and the soils are rockier and more free-draining, comes Ex Vero III. They are a blend of Sauvignon and Chardonnay, although there is more Sauvignon at the top (III), and more Chardonnay at the bottom (I).
Welshriesling is not related to Riesling, which (we know…) is confusing. This also means it has unfairly consistently been compared to Riesling, even though they’re completely distinct varieties and very different to one another. So why is this the case? It is thought that the variety was introduced to Germany and Austria from elsewhere, as ‘welsch’ indicates ‘foreigner,’ and hence the name stuck. Due to lack of evidence, we don’t know exactly where it does come from, but the tome Wine Grapes suggests that Croatia is a likely contender, where it’s known as Graševina.
It produces delicious wines in both dry and sweet styles, which are citrussy and subtly aromatic with bitter notes of herbs, almonds and grapefruit.
Weissburgunder (Pinot Blanc)
As Pinot Noir is both extremely old and has a longstanding reputation for producing the highest quality wines, it was propagated intensely over the centuries: far and wide. Along the way, it has mutated a number of times. Mutations occur in all plant species, but have become famous in grapevines as farmers have selected and propagated the mutant examples to investigate their potential. One of these mutations is Pinot Blanc (Weissburgunder in German). This means that, although entirely different in appearance and taste, Pinot Blanc is in fact genetically ‘the same’ as Pinot Noir. Mindboggling stuff.
Like Chardonnay, it is also fairly neutral, so much of the final aromatic profile of the wine is determined by winemaking decisions such as picking style and ageing vessel and process. The best examples are in fact not dissimilar to Chardonnay — mineral, with complexity from ageing on the lees.
This is the Austrian synonym for Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains, and it’s particularly celebrated in Styria. The word Gelber is a reference to the yellow colour of the berries. It’s also an ancient variety (one of the oldest, thought to be at the top of the family tree of Muscats). It likely originated in either Greece or Italy in the Roman times (or before), and it is popular across the Mediterranean today.
Unlike Chardonnay and Weissburgunder, Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains is very aromatic. This is one of the most floral grape varieties in existence, and the wines can smell like the inside of a fancy parfumier. Because of its natural freshness and its aromatic profile, it’s also being used more and more for skin contact wines (also known as orange wines), as the extended period of skin maceration further amplifies the aromas. Andreas Tscheppe is particularly renowned for his example of Gelber Muskateller, grown and made in southern Styria.
We know… the fact that Traminer is ‘the same’ as Savagnin Blanc also blows our minds. Also considered one of the oldest grape varieties, it intriguingly has a parent-offspring relationship with Pinot Noir, but nobody knows which came first. It is thought to have originated in France, but it’s widespread across the world in its various mutated guises (such as Gewürztraminer, the aromatic version).
Although genetically the same as Savagnin, the Traminer commonly found in Austria, Germany and Italy displays different characteristics. Whether this is due to mutations or climate differentiation it’s hard to say, but it’s likely that the more floral examples of Traminer found are in fact more similar to Gewürztraminer than the Savagnin of the Jura. When pink-berried, like Gewürztraminer and Savagnin Rose, it is known as Roter Traminer, which is found in its macerated form at Weingut Tauss. The yellow mutation, known as ‘Gelber Traminer’ (which is very rare), is also found in Styria.
Although not as famous as its northerly Austrian counterparts, the white wines of Styria are some of the most thrilling wines to have landed on the international wine scene in recent times, and the wine world is all the better for them. Their Sauvignon Blancs prove that Sancerre is not the only appellation capable of producing the stonier, more mineral style of the variety (think rainwater, much less overt tropical fruit), and they bring much joy to winelovers all around the world. The growers of Schmecke das Leben highlight that strength lies in numbers, and this little group serves as a shining example to growers in other regions that winemaking and farming doesn’t need to be about competition from your neighbours, but rather collective knowledge and support can uplift an entire region. We can’t wait to see what comes next from this corner of Austria.