The name gives it away. Weinviertel means “wine quarter,” and it’s Austria’s largest wine region. Wine production has always been central to life here: the region became known as the chief source of affordable wine for thirsty Viennese residents and rural farmers alike.
Things could not be more different now in this vast region that extends north and northeast beyond Vienna to the Czech and Slovakian borders. Until the late 1980s, with the Iron Curtain still firmly in place, the Weinviertel was a sort of backwater, the last rural stretch of the Western world with wheat fields, vineyards and big, open skies.
In recent years, Weinviertel has become a dynamic hotbed where young winemakers feel they can make a difference and demonstrate that the region doesn’t lag behind Austria’s more glamorous appellations.
Ancient wine culture is evident in the Kellergassen, or cellar alleys. These rows of small structures that populate the villages of the region are actually old press houses with cellars dug deep into the mountains. Many have now been lovingly restored and house the wines of this new guard of spirited, ambitious winemakers in the region.
Time spent with Ingrid Groiss flies. She’s full of ideas, opinions and stories. She lets you taste her whistle-clean wines while talking through the exact conversation that ensued when Frau Huber, a friend from a neighboring village, called to suggest Ingrid take over the Riesling vineyard Frau Huber was getting too old to tend herself.
Groiss has a reputation for looking after old vines. Growing up in her family’s Heurigen—a local inn where they served the wine they made themselves—her parents groomed a young Groiss to take over, but she wanted out. A degree in economics took her first to Vienna, then to a corporate job in Berlin.
But something tugged at her heart. Groiss returned to her home in Austria on the condition that she could do things her own way, and she enrolled in a viticultural course. She started working with her grandmother’s vineyard, where she fell in love with the old vines.
Across the garden stands an old man. “That’s Bernhardt,” Groiss says. “He’s 93 now.” Bernhardt wanted Groiss to look after the vineyard that he planted in 1955, and she named the resulting wine in his honor.
“In the future, the Weinviertel will have more and more innovative wineries with well-traveled youngsters who put all of their crazy ideas into action.” —Ingrid Groiss
“I never knew what a gift it was to be able to farm these vineyards,” she says.
Groiss is very fond of Gemischter Satz, Austria’s traditional field blends, and of indigenous grape varieties. She’s in the process of selecting the best vines for propagation of the old genetic material. Her Gemischter Satz contains 17 different varieties.
“That’s a huge spectrum, a sort of potpourri from this old vineyard,” says Groiss. “If we don’t preserve it, these old varieties will be lost.”
Groiss even ferments partially on skins to get the utmost aromatic expression from her grapes.
For her, the great advantage of the Weinviertel is that there’s no preconceived style.
“In the future, the Weinviertel will have more and more innovative wineries with well-traveled youngsters who put all of their crazy ideas into action,” she says.
The creative spirit of this winemaker is huge and pervades all her wines. Groiss is indeed doing things her own way, and you can taste that.
Ingrid Groiss 2013 Gemischter Satz Herr Bernhardt White (Niederösterreich); 93 points, $73. A very creamy nose hovers over a herb-spiced apple palate, the nutty oak flavors are still obvious and will take a little time to become subdued, but the fruity, savory core of this wine is built to last and presents an unusual but dependable, friendly and durable counterpoint to all manner of foods. Don’t miss this individualistic treat which was fermented on its skins.
Ingrid Groiss 2015 Sauberg Tradition Grüner Veltliner (Niederösterreich); 92 points, $47. Something tender and fresh rises from the glass: Fresh moss and green pear peel and a hint of citrus. The palate is light and bright, luminous almost, in its aromatics. This draws you in with a seductive refreshing pull that promises unfettered joyful refreshment, though not without concentration.
The Czech border is 10 minutes away from Poysdorf, a town of 5,500 that has 3,336 acres of vineyards and is known as a Weinviertel stronghold. While many still sell their high-yield wines in bulk, Marion and Manfred Ebner-Ebenauer set their sights on quality over quantity. They took over Manfred’s family winery in 2006, and had their first vintage in 2007.
“Manfred and I always wanted to make the sort of wines we like to drink ourselves,” says Marion.
Together, they set to work to make most of their old-vine Grüner Veltliners. Both are soft-spoken and have a tendency to complete each other’s sentences.
“At least 70 percent of our vines are more than 30 years old, some much older,” says Marion. “Deeply rooted, they really speak of ‘terroir,’ ” she says.
“The Weinviertel is love at second sight. You have to take a good look before its beauty becomes evident.” —Marion Ebner-Ebenauer
Manfred adds, “I have always been inspired by the wines of this place. The potential of the sites was evident. Why else would there be such a long history if the place wasn’t absolutely suited to vines? You will find fossil limestone here, as well as sand, pebble and loess.”
Gentle, careful treatment of grapes is central for this young couple. Manfred calls Marion a “quality fanatic,” and she refers to the focus on high-caliber wines of his family and forebears.
“The Weinviertel is love at second sight,” says Marion. “You have to take a good look before its beauty becomes evident.” Watching Marion in her vineyards makes clear how attached this Vienna girl has become to this remote corner of the world.
The couple loves to experiment. With their non-dosage Sekt (or sparkling wine) made from a few rows of Chardonnay vines in their “Geringen” vineyard, they landed a huge coup. They’ve also set a path with their peppery, spicy Grüner Veltliners, and their elegant Pinot Noir is more finely tuned with each passing year.
“We are the largest region in Austria and have the lowest density of top winemakers,” says Marion. “I believe Weinviertel will change tremendously, also in terms of tourism. So much has changed already over the past 10 years.”
Ebner-Ebenauer 2015 Hermanschachern Grüner Veltliner (Niederösterreich); 92 points, $22. The slightest touch of vanilla perfumes the nose. The palate is fresh and takes a little while to reveal its secrets: slowly enjoy this and its peppery savory core will become apparent. This is a quiet, unobtrusive wine—give it time to breathe and let it come towards you. Its gentle harmonious lightness will captivate.
Ebner-Ebenauer 2008 Blanc de Blancs Chardonnay (Österreichischer Sekt); 95 points, $N/A. The sumptuous nose immediately signals that this is a special treat: layers of fresh and dried apple melded into autolytic notes of fresh brioche, challah and almond-crusted pastry. While the flavors of the palate remain equally sumptuous—introducing an almost salty notion of maple syrup—the spine of fresh acidity pulls an ultratight focus, providing all that richness with a firm, soaring frame. Made from 100% Chardonnay, this is an Austrian take on the absolute pedigree of this grape made into vintage-sparkling, zero-dosage Blanc de Blancs. That intriguing salty, lavish and aromatic length haunts the palate forever. Editors’ Choice.
Ebner-Ebenauer 2015 Sauberg Reserve Grüner Veltliner (Niederösterreich); 93 points, $29. Fresh and spicy form the first impression: ripe pear and moss, stone fruit and yeast combine to create an inviting, rounded and rich sensation. The palate adds the requisite freshness and surprises with wonderful concentration. Yellow plum and juicy pear shimmer, always edged with savory yeast. Tons of character and great length are present, and yet demonstrate no heaviness at all. What a lovely but honest wine! Editors’ Choice.
If anyone has managed to spread the idea of the Weinviertel far and wide, it’s the Pfaffl family with their affordable but varietally true and typical “The Dot” series. They are behind brands like “Austrian Pepper” Grüner Veltliner and “Austrian Cherry” Zweigelt. R&A Pfaffl is also the recipient of the 2016 Wine Enthusiast Wine Star Award for European Winery of the Year.
Heidi Fischer and her brother, Roman Josef Pfaffl, helped their parents build the business for as long as they can remember. They formally took over the company on their father’s 60th birthday in 2011.
What gave them the idea for The Dot series? “We looked for partners in distribution and wanted to represent Austria in a way that was easy to understand,” Heidi says. “On our travels, we often heard that Austrian labeling was complicated, so we thought we’d just put the most salient point on the label that gives consumers and idea of what to expect.”
Their operation is modern and slick, but Heidi emphasises that they’re still building their brand.
“There still is way to go, but the concept helps to make people understand,” she says.
Beyond their entry-level Dot series, they’re also producing small-batch wines from single vineyards that they hope are a natural progression for Dot aficionados.
The way that the Weinviertel is perceived, according to Heidi, “has changed tremendously in the past few years. We’re at a really exciting stage. I really see an incredible dynamism, which is linked to generational change. We now have a young, ambitious wine scene, and that will have an immensely positive effect.”
“Overall, we can really feel this movement in the Weinviertel and this huge awareness of quality,” says Heidi. “There is real drive.”
The Pfaffls, thanks in part to their international distribution, have helped to pave the way.
The Dot 2015 Austrian Pepper Grüner Veltliner (Niederösterreich); 90 points, $13. Very ripe, juicy pear notes emanate from the glass, but there is also a friendly tinge of yeast. The palate does both notions complete justice, delivering a refreshing but supple, peppery mouthful with a lovely, moreish and lip-smacking finish. Best Buy.
The Dot 2014 Austrian Plum St. Laurent (Niederösterreich); 89 points, $13. Vivid pepper and rounded red plum notes are joined by hints of cinnamon—reminiscent of freshly baked plum tart. This is a soft, pliable but very full-fruited wine. Lovers of Pinot should definitely try St. Laurent—here it is in a very approacheble and supercharming, medium-bodied red. Best Buy.
The Dot 2015 Austrian Apple Grüner Veltliner (Niederösterreich); 89 points, $13. Generous fruit rises from the glass: Juicy pear and red apple, mellowed with a dollop of yeasty roundedness. The palate is supple, fresh and crunchy. Everything here is appetizing and moreish. This is easy but fun. Drink soon. Best Buy.
In a more westerly corner of Weinviertel, in the village of Röschitz, another collection of siblings are stirring things up.
Ewald Gruber, along with his brother, Christian, and sister, Maria, took over their parents’ estate in 2012. Ewald has worked in the cellar since 2001, but has also had stints working in wine in New Zealand and Australia.
Maria, meanwhile, does sales and marketing while Christian tends the vineyards.
“We are a great team,” says Ewald. “Everyone’s equal, and we pull together.” He then adds with some surprise, “We hardly ever fight.” Ewald has a no-nonsense air about him. He speaks straight and knows what he wants.
When asked about the changes in the Weinviertel, he talks as much of his own family as of the region in general.
“The new generation now at the helm of many Weinviertel estates has recognised that the only way forward is quality,” says Ewald. “There was a real paradigm shift from quantity to quality.”
The Röschitz area is renowned for its granite soils and the Rieslings grown there. “There are different subregions within the Weinviertel,” he says. “There are islands of red wine, and we have a little Riesling island.
“It was really important for us to demonstrate not with photographs or words, but with our wines inside the bottle what the Weinviertel has to offer. We really strive for site expression and prize our old vines. We might have lower yields, but what we get is healthy and expressive grapes.”
The siblings have revamped their winery’s packaging and made sure their cellar has enough small tanks to vinify all single sites separately. They have the full support of their parents, who have known tough times. In the 1980s, it was hard to make a living from wine. Many families capitulated and grubbed up their vines.
Ewald is grateful that his parents clung onto their estate and continued tending the old vineyards.
“Our parents allowed us to realize our own ideas and likewise, should my children want to take over, I will have to give them the same freedom,” he says.
The three youngsters clearly complement each other, and they’re wowing the world with the verve and energy of their serious but zippy wines.
Gruber Röschitz 2015 Hundspoint Grüner Veltliner (Weinviertel); 92 points, $16. Yellow grapefruit peel, crushed white peppercorns and fresh chervil paint a picture of a quintessential Grüner here: flavorsome but not heavy, concentrated but slender, easy to enjoy but never facile. More ripe pear fruit lurks temptingly at the core while that grapefruit theme is utterly convincing and captivating.
Gruber Röschitz 2015 Königsberg Riesling (Niederösterreich); 91 points, $18. You are in for a treat with this subtle, fruitful Riesling which reveals its subtle charms rather slowly. The nose is shy but the palate shines with ripe, aromatic apricot fruit, accentuated by lemon freshness and centered around a concentrated core of fruit and zest. This is slender but generous, refreshing and lasting. A wine with utter charm to take time over.
Gruber Röschitz 2015 Grüner Veltliner (Weinviertel); 91 points, $12. Tart apples and green pears create a refreshing opening. The palate fizzes with uncannily truthful yellow grapefruit peel and white pepper. This is fresh but also holds generous, delicious fruit flavours at its concentrated core. An ultraclean finish makes you crave more.