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29 May 2006

Leeb's Lovely Dirt

WalkbackseastonesTouring the dispersed parcels of Hermann Leeb's vineyards was an introduction to soil-lust.  Hermann hopped out of his jeep and pointed to several rows of vines in a rather innocuous-looking site.  "This is the sea of stones!" He exclaimed.  At first I thought Hermann, Jr., who at 27 has taken over head winemaking duties from his dad, was indulging in a poetic flight of fancy.  Sure, I saw some stones; but a sea of them?  Uh no.  After completing this thought, I looked up and noticed my host carefully picking his way through the vineyard.  I decided to follow and nearly broke my ankle.  Sure, there were stones on the surface, but there were more stones lurking just under the soil.  One must walk very carefully in this sea.  Most of the rocks were chalky and about 1.5x the size of a fist.  Many contained mollusk fossils from this former sea bed.  I was amazed that young Mr. Leeb's Zweigelt grapes could survive in such hostile ground.  Hermann explained that this vineyard was the most difficult in which to work.  In fact, he told me, a few years ago his father, Hermann, Sr., attempted to remove some of the rocks.  Two truckloads later, he gave up once he realized the rock sea was several feet in depth - only to be replaced by boulders at greater depths. 

This young winemaker has made peace with the soil.  During each stop on our vineyard tour, Hermann would first talk about the soil and why a particular grape variety had been planted in the special dirt.  Once we had seen all the sites, we headed back to the Leeb's village, called Winden, near the northwestern shores of Lake Neusiedl.  Before we reached the winery, we stopped off at an artist friend of Hermann, and then waved to each and every driver & pedestrian in this cozy community.

As I sampled Hermann's white wines, I realized that they were more delicate; and contained a greater amount of acidity than many of the Burgenland wines I had previously sampled.  For example, Leeb's Chardonnay was a study in zest.  The wine initially contained a slight prickle of CO2, then gradually opened to reveal a nose of fresh pineapple blended to crisp red apples.  Leeb's red wines are also more restrained than some of their stout neighbors.  However, with restraint, complexity is allowed to flourish.  The Leeb Cor Pannonicum 2003 is a cuvee of Cabernet Sauvignon, Blaufränkisch and Merlot.  It is very lively in the mouth, but it isn't thin.  The lively mouth feel is countered by rich smooth tannins and a spicy-accented fruit flavor courtesy of the Blaufränkisch.

Bacchuskeller Hermanns, Jr. and Sr. sell close to 80% of their wines directly from the winery.  Much of this is due to the family's restaurant, built into one of the many ancient stone cellars of Winden's historic wine storage district.  The restaurant lies along the Lake Neusiedl bike path, and of course, offers Leeb wines by the glass.  Tuckered-out biker riders often stop in for a snack, and leave as big fans for the family's wine.  This sort of marketing works much better than a billboard or magazine add don't you think?

Stay tuned for my interview with Hermann, Jr.  We discuss, among other things, his winemaking philosophy, rose wine made from Zweigelt, and the phenomenon of Austria's young vintners.  See the photo gallery here.

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