Among the silverware in Steiermark

Today we headed south to Steiermark, also known as Styria, on the border with Slovenia.  The drive took us through some lovely scenery with deep river valleys and an amazing number of railway tracks.  As we neared our destination the hills became steeper, the roads more windy, and we were very glad our driver had the right combination of accuracy and nerve to get us up to our first destination, Sattlerhof, in the village of Gamlitz.

Alexander, son of Maria and Will Sattler, greeted us.  With his parents and brother Andreas they have taken their family farm on a journey to become a top organic and biodynamic wine producer. Alexander’s passion and practicality shone as he took us into the vineyard and explained that the grass (and 59 species of herbs) between the rows of vines would be mowed twice a year, reducing erosion and enhancing soil health (roots penetrating to 50cm).  After harvest sheep are allowed to graze the vineyards (they would eat the vines if allowed in earlier), they also keep cows and chickens whose manure adds to the soils’ fertility and biodiversity.

Steiermark is a small wine producing region spread over a large area – vineyards are planted on the south facing slopes, trees on the north facing slopes.  Mixed soils, sunshine, cool nights, and plenty of rain allow for very high quality winemaking, and Sauvignon Blanc in particular has made the region’s name for fresh, elegant wines with great fruit and minerality. Other whites such as Welschriesling, Weissburgunder and Chardonnay are also grown, with some Zweigelt and Pinot Noir.

The Sattlers have 35ha of vines and 50ha of forests, with vineyards across the Gamlitz and Eichberg villages, including some Erste Lage (equivalent to Burgundy’s Premier Cru) and Grosse Lage (equivalent to Grand Cru) vineyards, classified under the STK (a group of producers who have agreed to set very high standards for terroir and quality in Steiermark).  While they can run tractors between the vines on the gentler slopes (and Alexander was very excited about the electric self driving tractor they were about to start using), all key work is done by hand.  Hail nets covered a lot of the vines, hail is a frequent threat.  Solar panels and a biomass plant are helping them to reduce their carbon footprint.

Back in the winery we descended through a forest of silverware – tall stainless steel tanks that were used to store the white wines for months before bottling – each parcel of vines from each vineyard are kept separately.  This enables the wines to evolve more complex flavours, and more texture, as they stay in contact with the lees (residue of yeast cells and grape fragments left after fermentation).  Fermentations start with the naturally occurring ambient yeasts, though they also harvest yeasts and freeze them so they have some in reserve each year to help fermentations get going. The wines are kept for significant time on their lees, some in stainless steel, some in oak (never first use), and then for a year in bottle before release, though increasing demand for their wines means they are having to release some of them sooner.

I’ll come back to the wines we tasted in the tasting room later, following the tasting we had lunch in one of the loveliest settings I’ve experienced – on the terrace of their restaurant, overlooking the hills interspersed with vineyards and forests.  It was a glorious afternoon, and a joy to be eating outside – a fish tartare, pork belly and an apricot sorbet, accompanied by a 2017 Sauvignon Blanc in double magnum.

It was a very short drive from Sattlerhof to our afternoon visit, at Lackner Tinnacher, where we were greeted by Katharina Tinnacher.  She explained that the area had been very poor until about 35 years ago, with many people leaving their small farms to work in the cities.  In the 1920s her grandfather had decided to focus on wine, and created a vine nursery.  In 1970s her parents married and combined the vineyards from both families.  She took over in her mid 20s, having studied engineering, and developed the estate in a similar approach to the Sattlers – 28ha of organic vineyards, interspersed with 30ha of forests, and a focus on reducing yield to achieve greater concentration and quality, using native yeasts in order to express the terroir rather than to hit international expectations of what a wine should taste like. 

In the winery, surrounded by more silverware, Katharina described two of her vineyards.  Flamburg (originally in her father’s family and 25km to the north) is so steep that it can only be worked by hand (it would appear this means one hand because the other one would be hanging on to avoid plummeting down the slope), has limestone fossil rich soil, and a very cool climate.  Welles (originally in her mother’s family) is nearby, slightly less steep, with nearly pure gravel subsoil. 

Katharina had to leave our group in order to get on with the day job (preparing for the big Austrian wine fair that was about to start), and left us in the capable hands of Flora to complete our tasting.  Irene had done the same thing at Sattlerhof on behalf of Alexander.

At both estates we tasted a progression of quality levels of Sauvignon Blanc, from regional wines to Village wines to single vineyard wines.  Whereas the simpler wines had lovely freshness and fruit, the Village wines brought greater complexity and texture and the Ried wines, some of which were oaked, had very complex flavours.  The Lackner Tinnacher wines were more austere (in a good way – very elegant and with lovely minerality), the Sattlerhof wines had somewhat more fruit character, and different people preferred one or other estate.  But all agreed they were of phenomenal quality and brought a new aspect to Sauvignon Blanc that we had not tasted in wines from the Loire, New Zealand or other new world regions.  Sattlerhof’s Auslese Sauvignon Blanc was a delight, 

At Sattlerhof we also enjoyed a Muscat, which had lovely minerality, and a barrel fermented and aged single vineyard Chardonnay, with fabulous smoky caramel notes, but beautiful minerality, Lackner Tinacher.  At Sattlerhof we kicked off with a Welschriesling, again displaying lovely minerality, and then three white wines with some oak influence – a Weissburgunder, a Chardonnay and a Pinot Gris, all excellent.

Despite knowing we had a long coach journey back, we were very reluctant to leave this beautiful place, and lovely people.