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Styria?

A little-known Austrian white wine region has been amazing the experts.

October 14, 1998|STUART PIGOTT | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

VIENNA — The judges were adamant.

"Absolutely classic; it can only be French," said one.

"Very elegant; definitely a Loire wine," said another.

"With these ripe flavors, it must come from New Zealand," said a third. "Oh, yes, this is the real McCoy."

The wine in glass No. 9--with its combination of ripe gooseberry flavors and herbaceous aromas--was obviously a Sauvignon Blanc and obviously a very good one.

And though they may have disagreed as to its exact identity, the panelists convened at the Hotel Bristol to choose the world's greatest dry white wines were nearly unanimous in their praise. The wine in glass No. 9 scored even higher than the 1995 Montrachet "Grand Cru" from Domaine de la Romanee Conti, the world's most expensive dry white wine.

So you can imagine the judges' consternation when the wine turned out to be not one of the grand names from the Loire, California or even New Zealand, but the 1993 Zieregg Sauvignon Blanc from Manfred Tement in the Austrian province of Styria.

Where?

As recently as three years ago, few wine lovers knew the names of Tement or Erich and Walter Polz or any of the other leading vintners from this relatively remote region among the gently undulating hills on the Austrian-Slovenian border.

Now their wines are on the lists of some of America's hottest restaurants and are attracting critical praise. The speed with which they have won friends and influenced people has to do not only with their high quality but also with their full-flavored yet crisp style that appeals to international tastes.

Styria's vintners also have the advantage that there are several fashionable white wine grapes among the region's most important varietals. Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay have been grown there for at least a century (the latter under the name Morillon). And though Pinot Blanc (Weissburgunder) and Pinot Gris (Grauburgunder) may not be consumer favorites around the world, they do have a growing audience.

So why did it take Styria so long to begin making an impression on wine drinkers outside Austria?

First, there was international politics. Until 1989, Styrian vineyards often ended only yards from what used to be the Iron Curtain.

More important, until a decade ago, none of the region's vintners was realizing his full potential.

"We did not know what great wines were back then, we just tried to make cleaner, more varietally typical wines," Erich Polz says. "Then came the big success of the late 1980s, when Austrian consumers suddenly wanted dry wines from independent growers, exactly what we had to offer. That changed everything."

The Polz brothers have 44 acres of vineyards at their own estate and also manage the 17 1/2-acre Rebenhof estate in nearby Ratsch. Walter manages the vineyards while Erich makes and sells the wine.

Sauvignon Blanc, Morillon, Weissburgunder and Grauburgunder all regularly give outstanding wines. The fickle Gelber Muskateller (Muscat Canelli) and Gewurztraminer yield hit-or-miss results but in the right vintage can give dry white wines with almost supernaturally intense aromas.

Polz is rightly excited about the 1997 vintage, which looks even better than the excellent '90, '92 and '93 vintages that first attracted international interest.

"We may be quite far south [Southern Styria lies on the same latitude as Burgundy's Cote d'Or], but due to the altitude, our battle is to fully ripen the grapes," he says. "That means late harvesting. In 1997 we picked in October and early November as usual but got superb ripeness."

It is the long ripening season in Styria that makes it possible for wine like Polz's 1997 Sauvignon Blanc from the Hochgrassnitzberg vineyard to be so aromatic and balanced in spite of its 14% alcohol.

In a warmer climate, this would be a sure-fire recipe for a heavy, thunderous wine. Instead, grass, sweet red pepper and black currant aromas leap out of the glass, and lavish flavors pour over the palate. Yet it remains absolutely clean with a spicy aftertaste that comes back at you like a whiplash.

The 1997 Morillon from the Herrenberg vineyard under the Rebenhof label also packs a big punch of flavor--ripe pears and wet stones--yet is crisp and elegant. It is a magnificent example of what can be achieved with the Chardonnay grape in Southern Styria without barrel fermentation or maturation in new oak casks. Only in Chablis can similarly impressive wines from the Chardonnay grape in this style be found.

The Polz brothers' 1997 Morillon from the Hochgrassnitzberg is even more concentrated in flavor but will need a couple of years of bottle age before it overtakes the already delicious Herrenberg wine. It was barrel fermented, but Polz notes that the youngest barrels had been used for eight earlier vintages.

"Styrian wines are about fruit and clarity, not heavy oak flavors," he says.

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