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The New Danube

January 14, 1998|STUART PIGOTT | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Pigott is a British journalist and wine writer

A great wine you don't know about is like an old masterpiece lying in someone else's attic. Until it's discovered, it might as well not exist.

This was long the fate in the U.S. of Austria's great white wines. But since the early 1990s, they have been trickling into the country in small quantities, just enough to become conversation pieces among the wine cognoscenti. Now two winemaking teams from the Danube Valley are setting out to make them better known.

With tousled hair, three days of stubble on his lean face, a broad grin and an open-necked shirt, Austrian vintner Will Brundlmayer, 45, looks something like an intellectual Mickey Rourke. He may be too charming and witty to qualify as a Rourke-style "bad boy," but he is no less a rebel for that.

"During the 15 years since I took over the family estate, I have rethought the wheel," he says, half-seriously, half-jokingly. With their "lyre" trellising systems, his vineyards are certainly a radical break with Austrian tradition, and his state-of-the-art winery would not look out of place in California.

Most revolutionary, though, has been Brundlmayer's willingness to get out into the world to present his wines. Austria's top vintners have traditionally been stay-at-homes. Most of their wine estates are so small and produce so little wine that they have trouble just satisfying Austria's own healthy demand for their wines. The result has been that, until recently, only Austrians knew how good their best dry whites are.

With 125 acres of vines around the town of Langenlois in the Kamptal region just north of the Danube Valley in Lower Austria, Brundlmayer had good reason to take a cosmopolitan approach to selling his wines; he makes several times as much wine as most of his leading colleagues. While Brundlmayer takes a quiet pride in running an efficient and successful business, it is pleasure in wine and an insatiable curiosity that drive him. It was curiosity that led him to develop a barrel-fermented Chardonnay and a methode-Champenoise sparkling wine that is a dead ringer for the sparkling wines produced in the Champagne region of France. Both are among the best Austrian examples of these wine styles, which are not traditional in Austria.

But it is his expressive and uncompromisingly Austrian-style dry whites from the native Riesling and Gruner Veltliner grapes that are remarkable. The finest of his Rieslings is the "Alte Reben" or "old vines" bottling from the Heiligenstein vineyard. The 1995 vintage is packed with ripe peach aromas and has a firm core of mineral flavors. The 1996 is less aromatic but vibrant and invigoratingly fresh. His regular bottlings of Riesling from the Heiligenstein are somewhat less intense but have the same general characteristics as the "Alte Reben" wines.

Brundlmayer's boyish enthusiasm shows most strongly when he takes visitors out onto the narrow terraces that cover the steep slope of his prize vineyard and explains how he switched to organic cultivation in the early '80s. On a cloudless day, you quickly need to dispense with your jacket in this sun trap. The climb is worth it for the view, though, which stretches to the Danube six miles to the south and toward Vienna beyond the sinuous sliver of silver that marks its course.

The Gruner Veltliner grape, which accounts for 36% of Austria's 135,000 acres of vines, usually gives medium-bodied dry whites with a peppery character ideal for everyday drinking. However, in the hands of a talented winemaker, it becomes a chameleon capable of giving many different styles of wine. Brundlmayer's Gruner Veltliners range from feather lightness and delicacy to corpulence and unrestrained power.

Toward the lighter end of that scale is the elegant Berg Vogelsang Kabinett, whose subtle melon and spice character is matched with a refreshing acidity. Less easy to quaff is the opulent and massive Gruner Veltliner from the Lamm vineyard, which weighs in with anything from 13 1/2% to 15 1/2% alcohol, depending on the vintage. The monumental 1995 is powerful evidence for this grape's capability for giving great wines.

This wine now has a challenger, and it comes from Brundlmayer's own hand. The Schloss Gobelsburg estate, where he is also now responsible for vinification, has Gruner Veltliner vines planted in the Lamm site right next to the Brundlmayer family's own.

In August 1996, Brundlmayer, together with partner Michael Moosbrugger, took a long-term lease on Gobelsburg's 75 acres of vineyards from the owners, the nearby Stift Zwettl monastery. The move stunned many members of the Austrian wine trade. The estate had enjoyed an excellent reputation in the '60s and '70s, but quality had slipped badly.

However, the 1996 vintage wines silenced the doubters. Gobelsburg's 1996 Gruner Veltliner from the Lamm site, a rich dry white which marries power, succulence and subtlety, was rightly acclaimed as one of the two or three best Gruner Veltliners of the vintage.

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