Wild White, Wild Sweet
Near the southeastern shore of Lake Neusiedl lies a wine region called Seewinkel. As far as European winemaking locations go, it's a fairly wild place. Seewinkel is dotted with numerous small lakes lying in alkaline depressions. In fact, some of the lakes contain salty water, while others evaporate entirely during hot summer months. Strong gusts of wind blow across low vegetation and wide open sky. There are also herds of cattle dotting the landscape. This ruminant, which has been herded in the region for centuries, looks like something along the lines of a longhorn-water buffalo hybrid. This is the atypical landscape in which the Velich family produces some of Austria's best dry white and dessert wines.
The brothers Heinz and Roland share winemaking duties. Heinz handles much of the white wine production in Seewinkel. He arrived at winemaking by traveling a slightly different route. Heinz initially studied soil science in Vienna, and only later, became interested in wine after observing his dad produce wine as a hobby for many years. As a soil scientist, Heinz is fascinated by the semi-fertile "soil islands" of the Seewinkel region that are amenable to viticulture. Heinz pointed out that he does all he can to keep the soil as natural as possible; including fertilizing his vineyards with the handy supply of cow manure. As winemakers, Heinz and Roland share a philosophy of using wild yeasts, natural fermentation and even open fermentation. One thing I found interesting was that for most dry white and sweet wines, the brothers are both big proponents of wood cask maturation.
Roland and Heinz utilize Chardonnay as their grape of choice for dry white wine. We tasted through two vintages (2003, 2004) of Velich white wines. The difference between these vintages is incredibly pronounced. 2003 is the hotter/riper vintage, while 2004, my favorite, yielded wines with more nuance and restraint. Velich's 2004 "Tigalt" Chardonnay (a recipient of some recent wine press praise) is astoundingly unique. The nose is primarily cinnamon and nutmeg. In the mouth, Tigalt is rich in texture and offers banana & pear flavors while finishing off with a wild, earthy streak.
The Velich sweet wines push this wild streak a bit further. The 2002 Welsch Riesling Chardonnay is wonderfully funky, and possesses a chewy, non-syrupy texture. The finish, like that of the Tigalt Chardonnay, is difficult to describe. However, once you experience it, you are likely to think, "that's wild wine."
The Burgundy of Blaufränkisch
Roland Velich has a vision for Burgenland's native grape, Blaufränkisch. He wants to produce Blaufränkisch wines with all the depth and complexity of the best red Burgundy. To be clear, Roland doesn't wish to replicate Burgundy in Austria. However, he, like winemaker Michael Wenzel, sees the Blaufränkisch grape as somewhat similar to Pinot Noir in terms of potential. This drive for supreme red wine, led the Velichs to purchase a winery in Mittlelburgenland - the heart of Blaufränkisch country. Roland also wanted to experiment with vines from different sites within this region - so he sought out quality growers. He now purchases grapes, based on location, vine age and grape quality, rather than weight, from several small growers. Through this experimentation, the Velichs' "Moric" wines were born.
Moric Blaufränkisch wines come from two very different sites. "Neckenmarkter" wine comes from relatively high elevation, hillside vineyards, while "Lutzmannsburger" wine is produced from vines grown in volcanic soil on top of a sun-collecting plateau. Within both sites, there are some seriously old vines. Roland told me that a few of the Neckenmarkter vineyards are close to 85 years old, while some Lutmannsburger vines clock in at 100 years. Now that's old vines. Not only is there great difference in wine from the two sites; but there is also significant differences between younger vine bottlings and old vine bottlings of the same sites. For example, the 2003 younger vine bottling of Neckenmarkter contained subtle spice notes along with date & coconut flavors. In contrast, the 2003 Lutzmannsburger was significantly spicier on the nose with flavors of black plum, cedar and tobacco. The old vine bottlings of both sites were much more complex and refined. Clearly, these differences are the result of "age terroir" and "terroir terroir." Let's hope these wines make their way to the US sometime soon. They are fantastic.