It’s Sauvignon Blanc—not Grüner Veltliner—that’s the star of the show in Austria’s Südsteiermark DAC, a historic winegrowing region in the country’s southern state of Styria that has evolved rapidly over the last thirty years. The variety is grown at high elevation in all five of Südsteiermark’s sub regions and on steep slopes that rival those of the Mosel.
Of them, Kitzeck-Sausal has the highest and steepest. With its elevation exceeding 2,100 feet and more than 100% slope, it is also the highest-steepest Sauvignon Blanc winegrowing region in the world. (The world’s steepest vineyard is the Bremmer Calmont located on the Mosel which has a 210% slope and sits at 950 feet.)
Südsteiermark’s transition from producing sweet, classically-styled wines to incredibly high-quality dry wines from Sauvignon Blanc began more than 30 years ago with winegrowers Erich Polz, Willi Sattler, and Manfred Tement. In 1993 the wineries Sattlerhof, Tement, Polz, Prünte, Winkler-Hermaden, Lackner-Tinnacher and Gross established the Steirische Klassik, a precursor of the producer group now known as Steirische Terroirs & Klassik Weinguter aka the STK.
Similar in many respects to Germany’s VDP, the STK in 2006 established guidelines for further classifying the region’s Rieden (registered single vineyards). In doing so they relied on historic vineyard names taken from the oldest maps of Styria many of which have been noted on labels since the 1980s. The work of the 12 producer members who now form the STK was instrumental in the recent elevation of Südsteiermark to a Controlled District of Austria (DAC) region in 2018.
STK producers Gross, Lackner-Tinnacher, Wolfgang Maitz, Polz, Erwin Sabathi, Hannes Sabathi, Sattlerhof, Tement, and Wohlmuth are located in Südsteiermark DAC. Producers Frauwallner, Winkler-Hermaden and Neumeister are located to the east of Südsteiermark in the neighboring region of Vulkandland Steiermark where Sauvignon Blanc is grown in all three subregions.
In addition to the regional, village and riede wines produced in Südsteiermark and Vulkanland, the STK has further designated single-vineyard sites as Erste STK for the production of STK Premier Cru wines and Grosse STK for STK Grand Cru-designated wines. The criteria that define Erste and Grosse sites and wines relies on both vineyard and winemaking factors. Most notably, the requirement for hand harvesting which given the extremely sloped vineyards is practically a given. Sites must be sloped – many exceed 45% and approach 90% – and run from east to west with a favorable mesoclimate.
Styria can be roughly divided into a northern mountain region, which is not suited for wine growing, an the southern region which has a mixed Alpine-Mediterranean climate in the higher-elevation western regions and a Pannonian-Continental climate in the lower eastern region. Südsteiermark DAC is defined as having a humid Alpine (also referred to as Illyrian)-Mediterranean climate with marked diurnal shift (~25-30°C during the day and 8-20°C at night) and warm, amphitheater-like sites that sit above the fog line where they are protected from overnight frost that occurs in the spring. Cool rain moderates summer temperatures but hail poses a risk during the long growing season that is ideally suited for achieving balanced ripeness in Sauvignon Blanc.
Although winegrowing practices are not universal, there are a number of best practices like the use of mechanization that has been specialized over the last decade to manage ground cover. For example, permanent in-row ground covers are often rolled instead of mowed to preserve habitat. Austria recently passed a law prohibiting the use of the synthetic herbicide Glyphosate in vineyards and winegrowing in harmony with nature is emphasized.
Netting is used to protect the vines from hail and to restrict the canopy. Stony soils also help manage the requirement for low yields of this typically high-yielding variety. Clonal selection in the vineyards is more or less homogenous as massal selection has been the primary source of plant material since Sauvignon Blanc was introduced to Südsteiermark by Archduke Johann in the early 1800s. Vines are quite healthy with Eutypa being the only common virus.
Made with the Intention to Age
In addition to their unique terroirs, specified minimums for vine age and extremely low yields, STK Premier Cru and Grand Cru wines are subject to lengthy bottle conditioning and aging requirements. STK Premier Cru wines are released no earlier than September twelve months post-harvest and must demonstrate five years aging potential while Grosse STK Grand Cru wines are cellared for eighteen months and must have the ability to age gracefully for ten years. The resulting quality and style of these elegant wines makes them some the longest-lived of their kind.
Within the STK there’s been an intentional effort by producers to move beyond fruit forward-styles toward smokier, flinty wines showing complex fruit, spices like ginger and more evolved fruit like grilled pineapple.
As they rely on pristine fruit—typically with no evidence of Botrytis—winemaking practices include malolactic conversion, native yeast fermentation, extended lees aging and very low amounts of sulfur. Fermenting and aging typically takes place in large-format 600-liter
Slavonian oak foudre known as a “startin.” Screwcap and glass closures are commonplace although some producers including Polz have returned to using natural cork.
NAVIGATING THE SUBREGIONS Given this general consensus with regard to winemaking practices, wines that hail from the STK Erste and Grosse-designate single vineyards are differentiated more by subregion than by winemaking. We’ll navigate the region beginning in the north then move south and finally east to Vulkanland.
KITZEC-SAUSAL Kitzeck-Sausal is the northern-most subregion where single-vineyards sites were on record as early as 1322. Vines are planted to elevations of 1,250 to 2,130 feet on slopes that can exceed 90%. Soils are very low vigor, weathered slate and schist that retain heat.
Weingut Gerhard Wohlmuth is a 20-hectare estate just outside of Kitzeck where the Wohlmuth family has five single vineyards (Riedes) planted to Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris and Chardonnay known as Morillon. Gerhard J. Wohlmuth is a second-generation winemaker.
- Ried Edelschuh Grosse STK Grand Cru Sauvignon Blanc 2017 A monopole of red and blue-black slate and schist on a 90% slope that tops out at 1740 ft. Showing spiciness from white pepper and elegant white peach while brimming with acidity. “This single vineyard produces wines with both warm and cool characteristics that are attributed to the long growing cycle and the distinctive slate soils,” said Gerhard J. Wohlmuth.
- Ried Hochsteinriegl Grosse STK Grand Cru Sauvignon Blanc 2017 A site with black and red slate that reaches an altitude of 1670 ft. and has a 78% slope. Spicy ginger, apricot and stone fruit slaked with cool mineral-drive acidity.
GAMLITZ The name of this village stems from the Slavic term gom, meaning hill. Vineyards here are planted at 1,800 feet on well-drained, sandy soils mixed with mica interspersed with orchards and Illyrian deciduous forests of spruce, fir, pine, and oak trees.
Weingut Hannes Sabathi is a 30-hectare organic estate is located southeast of Wohlmuth on the western side of the Kranach Gorge.
- Ried Kranachberg Grosse STK Grand Cru Sauvignon Blanc 2015 From a basin site at 1,500 feet with chalky, sandy, gravelly soils. Apparent floral aromas with optimally ripe tropical fruit and mandarin in a light-handed minerally, fumé style.
Weingut Sattlerhof is a 40-hectare estate run by Hannes Sattler on the western side of the Steinbach Gorge which runs parallel to Kranach.
- Ried Kranachberg Grosse STK Grand Cru Sauvignon Blanc 2016
Soils here are tertiary sand with shell limestone and white mica. Extraordinarily complexity savory aromas, pear, green tea, and red pepper with a weighty texture.
- Ried Kranachberg Grosse STK Grand Cru Sauvignon Blanc 2012
Apples and asparagus, chamomile, saline mineral with aging potential to 2026.
- Ried Sernauberg Erste STK Premier Cru Sauvignon Blanc 2017 From a site with sandy soils showing vibrant orange zest, fresh fennel and superb balance.
Winery Lackner-Tinnacher is a 27-hectare organic estate that lies further south and on the eastern side of Steinbach Gorge. The Tinnacher Family have been winemakers from 1770.
“Quality is not only a matter of having quality soils and vines, it’s a matter of manual work in the vineyards.”Katharina Tinnacher
- Ried Flamberg Grosse STK Grand Cru Sauvignon Blanc 2017
This site is in Kitzek-Sausal with limestone soils considered by some to be the Holy Grail for long-lived Sauvignon Blanc. Showing orange zest aromas with savory, spicy, and stony mineral avors.
- Ried Welles Grosse STK Grand Cru Sauvignon Blanc 2017
Sandy gravel site at 1,700 feet in Gamlitz. Sublime and focused with a whisper of smoke, tea leaves, green apple, white peach, and lemon pith on the finish.
Weingut Gross is a 47-hectare estate in Ratsch where Johannes Gross is the winemaker, and his brother Michael is the director, of the family’s estate Vino Gross in Gorca, Slovenia.
- Ried Nussberg Grosse STK Grand Cru Sauvignon Blanc 2017 This bowl-shaped basin reaches 1,500 feet with slopes that reach 85%. Tremendous fruit purity showing salty lemon and white peaches, resinous herbs, and a ripe, structured palate
- Ried Sulz Erste STK Premier Cru Sauvignon Blanc 2017Touch of fennel, citrus and pith, lean with intensity and length.
Weingut Wolfgang Maitz is a 15-hectare estate in Ratsch where the family operates a superb hotel and restaurant and Wolfgang Maitz is the third-generation winemaker. The Maitz family were very kind hosts during the long days of this intense research visit.
- Ried Hochstermetzberg Grosse STK Grand Cru Sauvignon Blanc 2017 This site has distinct gravelly marl soils known as opok. Fennel, spice notes and creamy texture and weight from aging in 300-liter French oak barrels. The 2013 showed ripe peach and lovely fruit purity illustrating the evolution forward from fruit forward to more austere wine styles.
- Reid Schusterberg Erste STK Premier Cru Sauvignon Blanc 2017 Lean and precise with lemon zest and pleasing intensity.
Weingut Tement combines 20-hectares in Ehrenhausen and another 30 hectares in Slovenia. Brothers Armin and Stefan are third-generation winemakers.
“Village wines are the bright future for Südsteiermark. We release them later and they can age for ten years.”Armin Tement
- Ried Zieregg Grosse STK Grand Cru Sauvignon Blanc 2017 A very protected site of limestone and opok. Extraordinary intensity, flinty with lemon thyme, young pineapple and saline mineral. The 2012 was riper, honeyed and earthier with oolong tea and white tree fruits.
Weingut Polz is a 35-hectare family estate in Grassnitzberg run by fourth-generation winemaker Christoph Polz and family members. Polz’ ready smile and outgoing character played a significant role in conveying the nuances of the region as he patiently answered technical questions and provided insights.
- Ried Hochgrassnitzberg Grosse STK Grand Cru Sauvignon Blanc 2017 Coral reef limestone soils inform the texture of this light-bodied, fumé style from neutral oak with marked citrus zest intensity and wet, white chalk on the finish. He said of the 2015 which was very intense on the mid palate that they “pop” with some age.
- Ried Theresienhöhe Erste STK Premier Cru Sauvignon Blanc 2017 This site has slate soils. Lean with melon, fresh herbs, saline minerality and a bright push of acid on the finish, Riesling-like.
LEUTSCHACH Südsteiermark’s southern-most subregion of Leutschach lies below Gamlitz and Ehernhausern and shares its southern border with Slovenia.
Weingut Erwin Sabathi is a 51-hectare family estate with a winegrowing history fr 1650. Winemaker Erwin is the tenth generation to work the estate with his two younger brothers.
- Ried Possnitzberg Grosse STK Grand Cru Sauvignon Blanc 2017This site is the southern-most vineyard in Styria, is comprised of opok, and sits on a 75% slope. White blossom and white tree fruit, ripe citrus, linear acidity, lean bodied with stony mineral. The 2015 showed ripe peaches, vanilla custard, golden apple lovely balance.
- Ried Poharnig Erste STK Premier Cru Sauvignon Blanc 2017 A monopole site with weathered sandstone and gravel. More pyrazine evident as fresh green herbs, lime, and leaner overall with a saline mineral finish.
Vulkandland Steiermark lies to the east of Südsteiermark on Styria’s eastern border. There are eight villages: Oststeiermark, Riegersburg, Gleichenberg, Kapfenstein, St. Anna, Straden, St. Peter, Tieschen and Klöch, three of which are home to STK wineries. The villages of Kapfenstein in the north, Straden in the central area and Klöch in the south totaling about 1300 hectares of vineyards much of which are Sauvignon Blanc. Vineyards are sited on the slopes and aprons of extinct volcanos and the soils that include tuff stone studded with Peridot (Olivine) that produce wines of power and structure. The region is often compared to Sicily’s Mount Etna.
Winkler-Hermaden is a 40-hectare family estate run by Georg Winkler-Hermaden and his three sons Christof, Thomas, and Wolfgang. The geologist Arthur Winkler-Hermaden researched the region and the 11-century castle Schoss Kapfenstein is the family property.
- Ried Kirchleiten Grosse STK Grand Cru Sauvignon Blanc 2017 A site with fine sand a volcanic tuffs. Riper white peach, balanced acidity. The 2013 showed grapefruit and peach with a nutty, peach pit development.
- Ried Klöcher Hochwarth 2017 A red clay site with basalt and volcanic tuffs. Pronounced aromas of peaches, white pepper and petrol with a firm mineral finish.
- Gebietswein Sauvignon Blanc 2017 International in style with lime, tropical fruit, gooseberries, saline and a lemony finish.
Weingut Frauwallner a 30-hectare estate run by third-generation vintner Walter Frauwallner. The winery joined the STK in 2018.
- Ried Buch Grosse STK Grand Cru Sauvignon Blanc 2017 Defined by weathered basalt soils and 1100 ft. Fresh herbs, lime, green apple, salty peach, passion fruit, silky finish from small oak barrel fermentation.
- Ried Buch Sauvignon Blanc TBA 2017 Rose petals, grilled pineapple, orange zest, oolong tea, mineral with perfect balance.
Weingut Neumeister is a 40-hectare family estate managed by Christoph Neumeister. The family owns and operates the Saziani Stub’n in Straden which is famous for is regional and experimental cuisine.
- Ried Moarfeilt Grosse STK Grand Cru Sauvignon Blanc 2017 Silt over Sarmat gravel. Good mid-palate density, mineral and citrus on a lengthy
- Buchberg Alte Reben Sauvignon Blanc 2015 Limestone and sandstone site in excess of 45% planted to Austria’s oldest Sauvignon Blanc vines. Fermented in neutral casks and bottled after three years. Ripe stone fruit, beeswax and autolytic notes with a tight, bright texture.
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A casual comment to myself after reading this: Slightly male dominated, eh? Would love to try these wines after reading this wonderfully informative report
Thanks for reading! Yes, in part because the male family members have more visible roles as winemakers. These are family-run wineries and women are very much a part of their success.