The Sabathi Family (photo gallery here)
Early in the morning I awoke in Southern Styria to a tractor driving by my room. It was two bees from the Sabathi hive, already hard at work in the vineyard. Each member of the Sabathi family plays an important roll in the wine business. Erwin, Sr. and his son Gerd labor in the vineyards. Erwin, Jr. handles most of the winemaking chores, while the youngest brother, Christoph, acts as IT guru and customer service department. The ladies of the Sabathi house are also vital cogs in this modish Austrian wine machine. Alexandra, the daughter makes the marketing happen, while Hermine, her mom, greets guests in the B&B and handles all their meals. After observing all the activity for an hour or so, I, as a bystander, needed a break. Vormittagspause anyone?
By and large, Sabathi wines are all precise. By that I mean, each wine fulfills the 'perfect' wine requirements -distinct fruit, acidity to balance the modest alcohol levels. And for those not into the old world funk, you'll be pleased to know that these wines are so clean & fresh tasting, you could, uhh, eat off of them... It's an interesting contrast to see all of the manual/by-hand work being done in the vineyard, and then behold the completely automated pressing and fermentation facilities. The cellar is pristine. Erwin showed me how the stainless steel tanks are cleaned by using superheated water, without soap, which is then recycled to be used for other purposes around the winery. Among the dozens of awards the family has received for its wine, Erwin seemed equally as proud that the winery recently received an environmental award for recycling its water and for cleaning its steel fermentation tanks without chemical-adled detergents. To get a taste of the Sabathi style, try one or both of these wines:
Sabathi Classic Sauvignon Blanc 2003 - Some say new world style. I say this wine is a pure, and simultaneously unique Sauvignon Blanc. You're not knocked over by gooseberry. However, you are wowed by redcurrant, white pepper and lime.
Sabathi Merveilleux Chardonnay-Morillon 2002 - You say you want a big 'un that will git 'er done? Kaboom - you'll be bowled over by this wine aged in 100% new barriques. The thing that stupefied me, was that this wine tip toes gently off your tongue, rather than feeling like a hippo performing Swan Lake in your mouth (which is what a lot of barrique aged Chardonnays do).
Erwin Tschermonegg (photo gallery here)
Erwin Tschermonegg knows his grapes. This winemaker, who was trained in his family's Styrian vineyard and also in New Zealand, provided great insight into the world of Muscat. He explained that Muscat, called Muskateller in Austria, needn't be sweet, 'grapey' and one dimensional (cough, Moscato d'Asti, cough). Muscat possesses large berries with thick skin and big pips (seeds). When these grapes grow rapidly (through over-irrigation and/or over-fertilization), and harvested early, Muscat tends to produce rather bland juice. Hence the short fermentation trick is pulled, which results in a wine with really low alcohol (7% or so) and a whole lotta sugar to disguise the boring juice. Tschermonegg's Muscat is nothing like what one finds in semi-sweet/sparkling Muscat-based wines. While it offers up the telltale grapey Muscat scents - this wine also entices with notes of citrus, lemongrass and gooseberry. In the mouth, the wine is indeed light, but it is neither flabby nor sweet.
Turn your Muscat world upside down with Tschermonegg Gelber Muskateller 2003. My nose recognized the grapey-ness, but then became perplexed and excited with the additional scents of lemongrass, lime and an itsy bitsy hint of vanilla yogurt. In the mouth, this wine hints at being off-dry and then slices across your tongue with serious zing. Don't believe a Muscat can do that? Give this one a try.
Aside from the fact that Herr Tschermonegg manages a relatively small vineyard (less than 9,000 cases per year), I'm also starting to believe that there must be something to the overused platitude about "warm days and cool nights." Indeed, in this part of Austria, it's common in the hills to see a difference between daily max temperatures and nightly minimum temperatures of greater than 10 degrees celsius. Staying here at the moment, I can attest to the temperature swing. I get sweaty during the day, and a tad chilly at night. Now, just imagine if I were one big cluster o' Muscat. I'd be in heaven (OK, a lame analogy. I'm still working out the jet lag. Please be patient).
Daniel Jaunegg (photo gallery here)
In another life, Daniel Jaunegg could have easily played middle linebacker for the Patriots. This youngster, who is all of 24, cuts an imposing figure. However, he is mature beyond his years. And fortunately, his passion is wine, rather than weak-side blitzes. Did I mention he's only 24? Oh, and he's been the head winemaker of Weingut Jaunegg for two years already. Wunderkind describes him to a tee. As he tells the story; his older brothers, "forced onto him" the responsibility of the family winery. Write down this kid's name. He is certain to be a winemaking star for years to come. The only time I got the feeling he was under 25 was when I asked to try his "Rose Frizzante" made from a native variety called Blauer Wildbacher. He snorted and said, "that's a chick wine." However, ever the polite Austrian, he poured me a glass and smiled warmly. I'm sure I made a very manly impression on Dan.
If you happen to be one of those wine drinkers who believe the concept of terroir is overwrought, or simply uber-romanticized gobbledy-gook, then you should pay a visit to the Jaunegg winery. The vineyards are all incredibly steep and tucked between massive pine trees. The wine is less on the fruit tip, and more in the 'mountain meadow,'pine tree fresh,' heavy-duty minerality style. If that isn't terroir, I don't know what is. Give Jaunegg Classic Sauvignon Blanc 2004 a try and taste what I will now call, "pine tree wine."
Sabathi, Tschermonegg and Jaunegg wines can all be found at Winemonger.