Driving through the grey drizzle in Southern Styria on Friday morning, I was more interested in finding a book, cuppa joe and a couch. Yet, when I saw the tri-colore flying over the entryway to Domäne Müller, I was immediately intrigued. Becki, the German Shorthair, was the first to greet me. She ran towards me, performed a loping, playful figure-8 and then nuzzled close for a head scratch. Eva Müller, dressed in traditional Dirndl Kleid (Austrian dress) greeted me warmly. Then Günter Müller strode into the room, welcomed me with a handshake, and immediately complained that his wife, Eva, had forced him to dress up for our appointment. This was of course, all tongue and cheek. The Müller's are quite happy, and the more I spoke with them, the more Günter's playful side revealed itself. In spite of the rain, Günter was excited to show me one of the Domäne's vineyards in the town of Deutschlandsberg in Western Styria. As we drove to the vineyards, Mr. Müller explained that he refers to his winery as "Domäne" rather than "Weingüter" (the plural of Weingut) because he feels that Domäne looks and sounds more pleasant to non-German speakers. He says it is also more accurate to describe the winery this way as the family owns separate vineyards sites across South and West Styria. This was my second hint that Günter is something of a Francophile. I later learned that he attended school in Bordeaux, and learned the art of winemaking within the house of Rothschild (Lafite).
We visited the Müller's vineyard in Western Styria, called, ehemaliges Prinz Liechtenstein'sches Weingut - the former vineyard of Prince Lichtenstein. During a brief rain respite, Günter bounded out of the car, walked over to a few rows of rather pitiful-looking vines and gestured for me to follow. He proudly explained that we were looking at 70-year old Zweigelt vines, planted by the grape's namesake, Professor Fritz Zweigelt. Professor Z. developed this grape as a hybrid of Blaufränkisch and St. Laurent. Many of these vines had suffered frost damage a few years ago and were, surprisingly, growing back after being pruned close to the ground.
As Günter and I drove back to the winery, he described his winemaking philosophy thusly, "I am basically lazy." Of course he is being coy. What he means is that he is attempting to produce wines that are minimally manipulated and pure expressions of the vineyards' terroir. The Domäne uses yeasts endemic to each vineyard, restricts yields, hand harvests, rarely filters the wine and only releases single vineyard bottlings under the Domäne Müller label. On top of this, the Müllers seem to be quality conscious to the point of obsession. For example, The Domäne Müller Zweigelt has only been made twice in the last five years. We sampled the 2000 Zweigelt and took a taste of the 2005 Zweigelt, which won't be released until 2007 or 2008. I asked Günter if this ultra high quality threshold was making business difficult for the Domäne. He responded that his goal is to build the reputation of the winery to the point that it is recognized as the producer of Austria's highest quality wine. He remarked thoughtfully that, "after 20 years, my children will enjoy the benefits of our work." In the meantime, the Müllers rely on a few other profitable business ventures such as their wine import business. They specialize in importing wine from Italy, France, California and Spain.
In my opinion, Domäne Müller wine is already at the pinnacle of quality. Some highlights of my tasting:
2003 Der Morillon Gut am Ottenberg - A very delicate, femine Chardonnay; crisp, with just a hint of creaminess on the finish
2005 Der Schilcher "Seelenfreund" (soul friend) Prinz Lichtenstein'sches Weingut - The quintessential expression of Western Styria's rosé wine called, Schilcher. Had I sniffed this wine blind, I would have guessed Sauvignon Blanc. The nose is full of herbal notes, gooseberry and red currant. In the mouth, the herbal flavor remains, while the fruit flavors switch to raspberry and strawberry.
2000 Der Cabernet Gut am Ottenberg - This is the one and only Cabernet I have sampled from Styria. It feels like a mature, complex Bordeaux with the right mix of concentration, tannins and acid to age 10 more years.
2000 Blauer Wildbacher Trockenbeerenauslese (TBA) Prinz Lichtenstein'sches Weingut - Made from Blauer Wildbacher, the grape used in Schilcher. This wine is nearly indescribable. For the oenogeeks, it offers 12.8 g/l acidity and 236 g/l residual sugar (!!). This translates to an intensely sweet wine which doesn't taste like syrup. I was immersed in sweet aromas and flavors of caramel and toasted almond; but then the wine finished crisply and erased any heavy sweetness from my palate. Whoa.
Domäne Müller wines are available in the U.S. through Lafayette Wines of San Diego. They also appear in a number of restaurants in southern and northern California. If you see one of Günter & Eva's wines on a wine list - order it immediately. You will fall in love.
Before our scrumptious lunch of mixed green salad with Käferbonen (a bean about 2x larger than kidney beans) & crispy fried chicken, Günter & Eva chatted with me about their winery, philosophy, vineyards and favorite wines. Download & listen to the upcoming interview here (Winecast). See more photos here.