Getting up to New York for the Real Wine Attack wasn’t in the cards last weekend. So I pointed myself instead toward a tasting right here in Philly with Markus Huber, the young owner and winemaker at Weingut Huber in Austria’s Traisental region.
The Traisental lies in the shadows of its three slightly more famous neighbors, south and east of Wachau and due south of Kremstal and Kamptal. The heart of the region – as well as its name – is formed by the Traisen River, which flows from the Alps in the south to its eventual confluence with the Danube at its northern border. The area’s geographical position between the 47th and 48th Parallels puts it at a northerly position similar to that of Chablis and Champagne; the climate, though, is temperate. In total, there are 800 hectares under vine in the Traisental, nearly all of them based on limestone conglomerate and loess based soil.
Markus Huber and his family own 20 of those hectares in the village of Reichersdorf, in the northern portion of Traisental. They buy fruit under contract from farmers on another 20 hectares of land. Markus represents the tenth generation of his family in the business, which started in 1548 as a cooperage and evolved over the years to include an increasing focus on viticulture. His father was the first to focus solely on wine. Markus himself took over the reins as of the 2000 vintage, following two years spent working at wineries in South Africa.
Typical of the Traisental, Weingut Huber produces primarily Grüner Veltliner (70%), along with about 10% Riesling, 10% Zweigelt – their only red fruited vine – and small quantities of Sauvignon Blanc, Müller Thurgau and Muscat. They practice sustainable farming, utilizing no herbicides or pesticides, and are not afraid of working hard in the vineyards to ensure the quality of their wines. The estate’s 20 hectares are split among 55 different plots. Strict selection is practiced at harvest, with four or five tris being the norm. For the last few years, all wines have been bottled under screw cap.
Following an introduction by John Toler, Sales Manager for Huber’s US importer, Boutique Wine Collection, the young Mr. Huber took to the podium. Here’s what he poured for us:
Traisental Grüner Veltliner “Hugo,” Weingut Huber 2007
This is Huber’s entry-level Grüner Veltliner, made from fruit purchased under regular contract. It’s picked two weeks early, to capture GV’s young, citric characteristics. Vinification is all in stainless steel. Very crisp and clean if somewhat neutral in the fruit department. White pepper, lemon zest and brisk minerality, with a touch of white floral character. Very refreshing. Also quite attractive as an everyday pour given its modest price point. Apparently that’s a common viewpoint, as “Hugo” is the top selling Austrian wine on the US market. 2 grams residual sugar (RS), 11.5-12% alcohol.
Traisental Grüner Veltliner “Alte Setzen,” Weingut Huber 2006
“Alte Setzen” is a single vineyard that includes some of Huber’s oldest vines, approaching 50 years of age in some cases. Its soil is rich, with 25 meters of loess above a limestone base. In direct opposition to “Hugo,” this is picked intentionally overripe, with about 5-10% botrytis, in order to showcase the exotic side of Grüner Veltliner. And exotic it is, with rich, round texture and a spicy flavor profile. Minerality is less racy here, more round and stony, like a river rock. Half of this cuvée is fermented and aged in untoasted acacia casks, which are entirely neutral and very tight grained. The other half is done in steel. Both see some battonage, used along with wood to soften the wine’s acidity. This is well done, as it would seem an accurate representation of the “Alte Setzen” terroir. However, it’s not really to my taste, as the lower acidity leads to both fatness and a greater perception of sweetness on the palate than the wine’s modest residual sugar would normally suggest. 3.5 grams RS, 13-13.5% alcohol.
Traisental Grüner Veltliner “Berg,” Weingut Huber 2006
This offered seeming proof that Huber’s wines reflect their terroir. For all “California Chardonnay is dry” folks out there, it also demonstrated clearly that the perception of sweetness is not just about residual sugar; acid balance has an awful lot to do with it as well. “Berg” is Huber’s highest elevation vineyard site, planted on a terraced hillside that reaches a 45% grade at its steepest points. Only 10-15 centimeters of humus lies above an otherwise rocky base of pure limestone conglomerate. Fruit is harvested in mid-late November, again with 5-10% botrytis. Vinification is in 100% old acacia barrels, some of which date back to the 1960s. There are exotic and stone fruit characteristics – mango and marmalade, apple and honey – along with GV’s typical streak of white pepper and minerality. The mineral character and texture goes back to the racy, limestone-driven end of the spectrum, carrying off 14% alcohol levels without losing balance. It’s all just carried on a more muscular framework. RS levels are similar to “Alte Setzen” but the “Berg” feels and tastes much drier.
Traisental Riesling “Terrassen,” Weingut Huber 2006
Switching gears to Riesling, “Terrassen” fills the same basic slot in the lineup as “Hugo” does relative to the Grüner Veltliners. Fruit comes from multiple terraced vineyards (thus the name) and is fermented and aged completely in steel cuves. Fruit is picked at full ripeness with no noble rot and fermented out to complete dryness. Again like the Hugo, this is crisp, racy and very drinkable but has greater depth and more finesse. For Markus, this was the wine that showed best on the evening. 12.5% alcohol.
Traisental Riesling “Berg,” Weingut Huber 2006
For me, this was the wine of the night. Picked at full ripeness, with no botrytis, this is fermented in steel then aged in old acacia casks. Beautiful wine. More aromatic than the “Terrassen,” with intense limestone character, apricot and clover honey on the palate. Reminds me of “Von der Fels” from Klaus-Peter Keller. Intensely sapid, minerally texture. The finish lasts for minutes. And the wine’s balance and structure totally hide its 6 grams RS, helped along no doubt by 8 grams of acidity.
Traisental Zweigelt, Weingut Huber 2006
Switching gears again, this time to red. Huber grows only a small amount of red fruit and it’s all Zweigelt, the eponymous crossing of Saint Laurent and Blaufrankisch developed by Dr. Zweigelt in 1922. In most years, this is the only red produced. Harvested in mid-October and aged in 2,000-liter casks of Austrian oak. Juicy plum and black cherry fruit. A touch of stem, spice and thyme lend aromatic interest. There’s easy drinking charm up front but also a touch of what strikes me as rot on the mid-palate.
Traisental Zweigelt “Reserve,” Weingut Huber 2003
Huber produces a “Reserve” Zweigelt only in what they consider exceptional vintages, thus far being only 2003 and 2006. The fruit is very clean, surprisingly lighter in color than the regular bottling, though Markus attributes some of that to the wine’s age. Very sweet plum is dressed up with oak-driven vanillin. 50% of the wine sees 2nd year French oak, the other half ages in Austrian oak. Soft and pretty but I prefer Zweigelt’s character when unadorned by the taste of wood. This would make for a good ringer in a new world Pinot Noir tasting. In 2003, Huber was still using cork for their reds.
Traisental Scheurebe Trockenbeerenauslese, Weingut Huber 1995
This TBA was made during papa Huber’s era; Markus no longer grows Scheurebe at all. 80-100% botrytis affected fruit was crushed and then soaked in its own “mash” for 24-36 hours until an enzyme reaction started to release actual liquid from the dessicated fruit. As one might expect, this was intensely concentrated and fat, loaded with fig, lavender and exotic fruit. Volatile and prickly on the nose. The color of buckwheat honey, a flavor echoed in the wine. Viscous and in your face, yet hard not to enjoy. Not another TBA was produced at Weingut Huber until a Riesling in 2005. 240 grams RS, 10.5% alcohol.
Weingut Markus Huber
Map of the Traisental courtesy of WinesFromAustria.com.