When I first heard South Styria characterized as "The Tuscany of Austria," I was certain I had encountered a new low in Public Relations Shamelessness. But when I actually got to the region, I realized that I had encountered one of the world's greatest wine travel destinations.
I'm sure you read this with skepticism, and of course I don't blame you, since that was my first reaction as well. The purported connection between Tuscany and South Styria smacks of hype at best and fraud at worst. Tuscan wines like Chianti Classico are among the world's most famous, and in terms of sheer fashionability, Tuscany is presently enjoying a moment in the sun brighter than any it has seen since the Renaissance. By contrast, few Americans are aware that Austrian wine even exists, and fewer still have heard of South Styria as a destination for any purpose, vinous or otherwise.
Things seeming too good to be true rarely are, but South Styria is truly wonderful. For starters, it really does look like the Tuscan countryside, and is arguably even more beautiful. The topography is defined by very steep, thickly wooded hills that pop up randomly in every direction, offering beautiful vistas that vary with every bend in the road.
The weather is sunny in this southernmost of Austrian winegrowing regions, but the climate remains cool in most spots, with vineyards extending to altitudes over 1,600 feet above sea level. South Styria is remote enough to offer rural relaxation but is only 45 minutes from Graz, Austria's beautiful second city, which in turn is only a two-hour drive from Vienna. The region is thoroughly organized and very well equipped for travelers, yet doesn't have a touristy feel. On top of all that, the food is delicious, the inhabitants are friendly and the wines are absolutely superb.
We should confront this hurdle at the outset. I grant that setting off for wineries in a little corner of Austria just above the Slovenian border is more daunting than heading to Napa. Yet, nothing involved in a trip like this is beyond the capacities of any reasonably resourceful wine lover.
Can you get by without speaking German? Yes, since it seems every other person speaks some English all across Europe, and almost everyone under the age of 30 has studied it in school. I do not speak German, but had virtually no difficulty when visiting a dozen producers in South Styria.
Will you be able to get directions and find your way from place to place? Yes, since maps, directions, road signs to wineries, and assistance from area residents are all readily available. When I couldn't find two wineries during my trip, and happened upon passersby who couldn't speak English, I simply pointed to the name of the winery on my list. In both cases, the Austrians whom I approached jumped into their cars and cheerfully led me to my destination.
I grant that it is hard for men to ask for directions. But come on, guys, asking you to pull over for assistance every now and then isn't quite asking you to hack your way into the wilderness like Lewis and Clark. Tourists in Napa need to ask for directions all the time, and though your English won't always work in Austria, a little pointing and pantomime will get you back on your way. With a sense of humor and openness to an adventure, you'll do fine.
Napa is easy and fun and informative, but not an adventure. By striking out for a little-known center of excellence out on the world wine frontier, you'll graduate from wine tourist to wine traveler. No region in the world can match South Styria's combination of wines that are little-known but indisputably great with a setting that is beautiful, accessible, and travel-friendly but not overrun. Smart wine lovers should get there before the word gets out.
Since you'll probably want a car for touring the area and zipping between wineries and restaurants, pick up a rental in Vienna or Graz. This is no more difficult to do in Austria than in, say, Texas. Roadways leading out of Vienna are well marked; getting drivers clear of the metropolis in just half an hour. You could take a train to Graz, since you won't really need a car there (the prime attractions are within easy walking distance of one another) until you are ready to depart for the countryside. But in any case, Graz is not to be missed.
This capital of greater Styria may not be widely known among Americans, but Graz was designated the Cultural Capital of Europe in 2003, and its Old Town was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1999. The historic city center is one of the most extensive in the German-speaking world, with a great many beautiful old buildings.
Although the buildings are venerable, the city's ambience is young and vibrant, thanks in large part to three universities that add more than 40,000 students to a moderate population of about 240,000. The streets are full of life and laughter, as virtually every restaurant is fronted with café seating. Regional cuisine shows a strong Mediterranean influence, utilizing more olive oil and less lard and cream than elsewhere in Austria, but dining options are truly cosmopolitan, as evidenced by the presence of more than 50 Chinese restaurants.
Graz is prosperous, but almost all manufacturing is located in the suburbs, with fully 60% of the city's surface area reserved for green space. Farms still exist within the city limits, and the farmer's market near the Opera, open every morning but Sunday, is the largest in all of Austria. You'll need two days to hit most of the top attractions in and around town, but one will suffice if you are especially thirsty.
From Graz, a drive of less than an hour will get you into the prime vineyard area (which is certainly South Styria, as opposed to West or South-East Styria, which are also recognized regions). Because the drive from Graz is so short, you could actually stay in Graz and day-trip to wineries. However, serious wine lovers are advised to make camp in wine country around the town of Gamlitz and treat Graz as the side trip.
Once in South Styria, you'll have a few options for getting around. I love driving on winding roads in hilly country, and this poses no problem for me when touring and tasting since spitting is part of my job as a wine critic. If you are feeling fit, you can rent bicycles in Gamlitz and, if you are feeling lucky, you can rent motorcycles there as well.
If you'd rather not drive or pedal or take your chances on a motorcycle, one unique and ingenious option remains: the Gamlitz Guest Taxi Service. If you are staying in a hotel that participates in this program (and the great majority do), you can enjoy free transportation to and from wineries, restaurants, and even hiking trails. And since the service utilizes vans, these taxis can work for you even if you are traveling with a group of friends. For details and a brochure listing participating hotels, call 43-03453-3724.
The region offers an abundance of appealing lodging options. The pretty town of Gamlitz is the hub of the area, and one of its hotels would be a good choice for centrality, convenience and shopping. Heading into the countryside in any direction gets you more peace and quiet as well as a great view. Very deliberate effort would be required to find a location in the district without lovely a vista, so you really cannot miss.
Moreover, since Austrians are famously fastidious, you can bet that your room will be immaculate wherever you stay. A brochure with photos of 50 hotels and 16 rental houses is available from the Gamlitz Tourism Board (tel.: (+43) 03453-3922; fax: 4482; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org). For a comparable brochure including 84 hotels and 4 rental houses, contact the Tourism Board for Rebenland-Leutschach (tel.: (+43) 03454-7070-10; fax: -19; web: www.rebenland.at; e-mail: email@example.com). The brochures are in German, but the listings of features and amenities are easy to decipher, and they will also provide information on hiking, biking, swimming and other area activities.
Wine is thoroughly intertwined with lodging and dining options across South Styria. Some excellent wineries have hotels or guestrooms on the premises, including Maitz, Sattlerhof, Skoff and Tschermonegg. In addition to tasting rooms, many wineries have traditional bars (or Buschenschenken) akin to the famous Heurigen of Vienna. If you like meeting people and can tolerate accordion music, these can be great fun and very good places to eat. Many hotels run a little winery so they can offer their own wines to guests, or have their own Buschenshank or restaurant. Even the smallest hotels have facilities for breakfast at a bare minimum, enabling you to start your day at full steam and take your lunch and dinner at a restaurant or Buschenshank.
We should confront another hurdle at this point: If Austrian wines are so great, why haven't you heard much about them? There are two reasons for this, and the first is quite straightforward: Austria is blessed with great vineyards, hardworking growers and artful winemakers, but it simply doesn't have much wine to export.
Production levels in Austria remain well below those of Portugal, Hungary, Romania and Greece, which are not exactly titans themselves. Almost all Austrian wine comes from the non-Alpine eastern third of the country, and the vast majority of bottlings available in North America are produced by family owned estates with less than 100 acres of vines. Austria is thus in no position to rival an industrial colossus like Australia (with which it is often confused by the geographically challenged).
Nevertheless, there is a very strong global correlation between small, family owned plots and distinctive wines of consistently high quality. This is what Austria is about, and this is especially true of South Styria. When you visit a winery there, you'll very likely meet a member of the family who owns it--and who helped pick the grapes that made the wine in your glass. This makes for an experience that is immeasurably more charming than tasting with a corporate employee.
Second, Austrian wines suffered a long absence from U.S. markets due to a 1985 scandal in which diethylene glycol (an agent commonly used in antifreeze) was added by some growers making sweet wines in both Austria and Italy. More than twenty people died in Italy, though nobody was seriously harmed by the adulterated Austrian wines. Italy's wine industry was set back only minimally by the scandal (due to its sheer size and greater international prominence), but much of Austria's was effectively crushed. Export markets were lost immediately, and many producers went out of business within eighteen months.
However, almost all observers regard the scandal in retrospect as a boon, since the shakeout left only serious producers standing. New grape varieties were planted, existing varieties were accorded more serious treatment and new vinification methods were widely employed. Austria was also compelled to pass and enforce Europe's strictest wine laws in order to restore consumer confidence, and the result of all this is that Austria can now boast an average level of quality that is virtually unrivaled anywhere in the world.
South Styria probably suffered less from the scandal than any other major Austrian region, since it is unusual in producing few sweet wines. Indeed, the scandal strengthened its relative sales position, and proceeds from the post-scandal years have enabled almost all the best producers to expand, re-equip, and beautify their facilities. Consequently, South Styria offers visitors an unusually appealing package: Small, attractive family wineries using the most modern equipment to produce immaculate, consistently delicious wines.
You'll have chances to taste a few nice reds, rosés and sweet dessert wines along the way, but South Styria's status as a global leader is based solidly on dry whites. This might seem confining at first blush, but it is not. Most Styrian producers work with a minimum of five or six different grapes. Since they may also make blends from a few of these while also bottling several single-vineyard wines from a particular grape, you'll often find as many as a dozen different wines to try when visiting a tasting room. Here is a brief rundown of the most common local grapes and wines, listed in my rough order of preference:
Sauvignon Blanc: South Styria's best renditions of this great grape stand at the very top of the world hierarchy, rivalling anything from New Zealand, South Africa, Bordeaux or the Loire Valley. Generally made without oak, they are crisp and refreshing but also substantial and deeply flavored. Styria's varied soils impart differing characteristics to wines sourced from different vineyards, but it is rare to find a Sauvignon from the region that isn't both complete and convincing.
Weissburgunder: More widely known as Pinot Blanc internationally, this potentially excellent grape is similar to Chardonnay. Consequently, winemakers around the world often ferment or age it in oak, depriving it of its subtle character. This practice is less common in South Styria than in many other regions, and the finished wines are often fleshy and even rich, yet balanced and very restrained and refined in aroma and flavor. No region anywhere gets better results from this grape, which I believe is the single most food-friendly of all white varieties.
Gelber Muskateller: There are many grapes in the Muscat family, but this one, also called Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains, is the noblest of them all. Fine renditions are made all over the world and labeled under a bewildering range of synonyms, but when styled as a dry table wine, only a few wines from Alsace and the Austria's Wachau region can touch Styria's best. Soaringly fragrant but still light and fresh, they are superb partners for moderately spicy foods, and are amazingly durable in a cool cellar.
Morillon: This is the Styrian name for Chardonnay, which is available in the oaky, buttery "international style," but also in a delightful, distinctively fresh version at many wineries. Labels designate this style as "Classic" or "Klassik" or, most elaborately, "Steirische Klassik." This means that the wine was fermented and aged without the use of oak, and that it did not pass through a process called malolactic fermentation that would make the wine soft and buttery rather than crisp and refreshing. My general preference is for the Klassic style, and you'll also see this designation for unoaked Sauvignon Blancs and Weissburgunders.
Welschriesling: This grape is actually not related to the grape we call Riesling, which is sometimes called Rheinriesling in Austria to distinguish it from the less noble Welschriesling. Although Welschriesling is never profound, it is almost always refreshing and fun from Styria, with wonderfully fresh, lively fruit recalling green apples and citrus fruits. It is almost always made simply in stainless steel tanks, which don't mask the fresh fruit with an overlay of oaky notes. These wines make terrific aperitifs, and are likely what will first hit your glass in Styrian tasting rooms.
Other Wines You'll Encounter: Chances are you'll get a crack at all five of the wines above at every winery you visit. Almost every winery will also pour at least one or two other wines that are more spotty in availability but which can be superb in performance. Pinot Gris (also called Grauer Burgunder and Rülander) is often delightful, with more guts than many Italian Pinot Grigios but less heaviness than Pinot Gris from Alsace. Traminer or Gewürztraminer can also be quite good, with intense aromatics but moderate sweetness and weight. Scheurebe (also designated Sämling 88) is irregular but occasionally delicious. True Riesling is rare but can be excellent, and here and there you'll also bump into a Sylvaner.
Any reds you taste will probably be made from Blauburger, Zweigelt or Blaufränkich, which taste better than they sound. Rosés made from a grape called Schilcher or Blauer Wildbacher are really a specialty of West Styria rather than South Styria, but you'll find them everywhere in Graz and occasionally in the south. An amusing synonym for the grape is "Heckenklescher." These rosés are made to be zesty thirst quenchers, and apparently in decades past those who quenched a bit too zestfully would often wobble outside to answer the call of nature, with results leading the grape to be called "hedge crasher."
Gross (Ehrenhausen; tel. (+43) 03453-2527; web: www.gross.at; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org): Alois Gross makes superb wines of great subtlety and refinement, and the winery and surrounding vineyards are lovely.
Lackner-Tinnacher (Gamlitz; tel. (+43) 03453-2142; web: tinnacher.at; e-mail: email@example.com): The wines here are all quite different from one another, but consistent in their flawless, tasteful excellence. Wilma and Franz Tinnacher are charmingly modest but extremely skillful. Don't Miss: Weissburgunder Steinbach Vineyard.
Maitz, Wolfgang (Ehrenhausen; tel. (+43) 03453-2153; web: www.maitz.co.at; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org): These are very nice wines made by a very nice family in a truly lovely spot. Don't Miss: Sauvignon Blanc Hochstermetzberg Vineyard.
Polz, Erich & Walter (Grassnitzberg; tel. (+43) 03453-23010; web: www.polz.co.at; e-mail: email@example.com): This is a producer with strong ambitions matched by equally strong accomplishments. Don't Miss: Weissburgunder Grassnitzberg Vineyard.
Sabathi, Erwin (Leutschach; tel. (+43) 03454-265, web: www.sabathi.com; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org): This estate is already excellent but still on the rise, with three young brothers running the show and a new winery that will be a showplace once completed. Don't Miss: Sauvignon Blanc Poharnig Vineyard.
Sattlerhof (Gamlitz; tel. (+43) 03453-2556; web: www.sattlerhof.at; email@example.com): Although the wines here aren't quite up to the level of the exemplary restaurant and hotel, they are still very good. Don't Miss: Sauvignon Blanc Kranachberg Vineyard.
Skoff, Walter & Evelyn (Gamlitz tel. (+43) 03453-4243; web: www.weingut-skoff.com; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org): Walter and Joachim Skoff are a highly dynamic father and son team, and these already-excellent wines are sure to get even stronger in coming years. Don't Miss: Sauvignon Blanc "Edition."
Tement, Manfred (Berghausen; tel. (+43) 03453-41010; web: www.tement.at; e-mail: email@example.com): All the wines here are outstanding, and the tasting room is strikingly beautiful, with an amazing view into neighboring Slovenia. Don't Miss: Gelber Muskateller Steinbach Vineyard.
Tscheppe, Eduard & Stefan (Lautschach; tel. (+43) 03454-205; web: tscheppe.com; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org): A producer of long standing, with a range of very solid wines. Don't Miss: Sauvignon Blanc Pössnitzberg Vineyard.
Tschermonegg (Leutschach; tel. (+43) 03454-326; web www.tschermonegg.at; e-mail: email@example.com): With a fine restaurant and 27 guest rooms, this producer is situated in one of the highest and most beautiful spots in the entire region. The wines are consistently good, including some surprisingly solid reds. Don't Miss: Blauer Zweigelt.