Leithaberg Chardonnay ‘among world’s best’

9th November, 2016 by Darren Smith

DAC Leithaberg deserves a place among the best Chardonnay-producing regions of the world, according the manager of one of Burgenland’s most historic estates.

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Esterházy winery general manager Stefan Tscheppe

Speaking to db at a tasting of wines from DAC Leithaberg producers at HKK in London this week, Stefan Tscheppe, general manager of Esterházy winery in the Eisenstadt-Umgebung district of Burgenland, said that the fresh, mineral-driven style of Chardonnay produced from the limestone and schist soils of Leithaberg were unique and represented an exciting future of white wine-making in the region.

Leithaberg DAC is commonly associated with red wines made from Blaufränkisch and whites from Grüner Veltliner, Pinot Blanc, Chardonnay and Neuburger. Pinot Blanc and Chardonnay are the most important white varieties for the region.

Tscheppe, who made wine at his family’s winery, Weingut Tscheppe, in Styria for eight years before working at wineries in California, joined Esterházy in 2012. He said that the distinctive qualities conferred by the Leithaberg terroir, in particular its limestone and mica-inflected schist soils, were perfectly suited the Chardonnay grape.

“For me it’s really the slope of the Leithtaberg, the reflection of lake Neusiedl, [plus] the Pannonian climate – so you get the heat that the Chardonnay needs, but you also get a little bit of the cooler influence creeping over the smaller mountains of the Leithaberg,” he said.

“I was thinking we could make super-distinct, very mineral-type Chardonnay there. That ‘s what we do today. There are so many Chardonnays but this is a different type.

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“There are certain styles you can produce all over the world, like a more lactic style – in that case it’s a more technical approach – but if you move towards a fresher style of Chardonnay but still want to maintain ripeness, that you cannot make in a lot of regions in the world.

“Yes, you can pick grapes early to make a fresher style but to get it ripe and to get structure behind it, I think you can only make it in a very few regions – and I think Leithaberg is one of them.”

Esterházy’s Chardonnays are characterised by freshness, elegance and flinty minerality. Tscheppe prefers to block malolactic fermentation and to keep oak use moderate, favouring large oak barrel (500l) format for his estate Leithaberg Chardonnay.

Though the estate uses smaller barrels for its two single-vineyard Chardonnays, Lama and Follig, Tscheppe is moving away from the smaller formats. The winery uses German oak from Pfalz, some Austrian oak from Stockinger and some French.

“I find fine-grained German oak better because it keeps more freshness in the wine while not influencing the taste of the wine to much,” he explained.

While the estate’s Lama and Follig single-vineyard bottlings represent its top range of Chardonnay, Tscheppe said that a new site, the limestone-rich Pirichen, which is highest point for growing Chardonnay in the Leithaberg, will come to produce its very best Chardonnay as the vines mature.

Leithaberg DAC

A map of Austria’s Leithaberg DAC. Grey = Leithaberg limestone; brown = mica-schist; grey and brown = Leithaberg limestone and mica-schist

Tscheppe explained that Burgundy varieties offered the greatest potential for white wines from the Burgenland region.

“In Burgenland we don’t have that many indigenous grapes – we only have the Blaufränkisch and then there’s Grüner Veltliner, but to be honest Grüner Veltliner for me grows better on the soils of Kremstal and Wachau – you can make good Grüner Veltliner in Burgenland, great drinking wines, but the very top is in lower Austria.

“But for Burgundy varieties, some of the best examples of Chardonnay and Pinot Blanc in Austria are coming from Burgenland. We just made that conscious decision to focus on these varieties because this is where the future is for our winery.

“There are a lot of significant wineries who make great Chardonnays or Pinot Blancs in the area. There’s certainly a trend among the top wineries to focus on these Burgundian wineries.”

Flavours of Burgundy

According to Tscheppe, Chardonnay was first planted in Leithaberg in 1758 when Burgundian Countess Maria Lunati-Visconti, wife of Paul II Anton, Prince Esterházy of Leithaberg, ordered grapes from her home region to be planted there.

“For a French girl I think it was the dark realm of the world, to move to Eisenstadt in the centre of Europe, and she said she would only come if she could bring a winemaker and some chefs, so she brought a winemaker from Burgundy who brought cuttings, and some of them are still in our vineyards today,” he said.

(Photo: Andreas Hafenscher)

Esterházy winery in Trausdorf an der Wulka in the Eisenstadt-Umgebung district of Burgenland (Photo: Andreas Hafenscher)

Although Esterházy winery has been bottling Chardonnay since 1956, Tscheppe said that it was not until the construction of the estate’s new winery in 2006 that the winemaking team was able to make its fresh, mineral-driven Chardonnay wines at a very consistent level. He told db that he was convinced that the variety had the greatest potential of any white variety from the region – more so than Pinot Blanc.

“Sales wise it’s still tough to position Pinot Blanc because people don’t have a picture of Pinot Blanc in their heads,” he said.

“They are too different. Pinot Blanc tastes different from Alto Adige, tastes different from Alsace, tastes different from Austria, and the character of Pinot Blanc has not been defined. I think it’s easier to define a character for Chardonnay in our region, so I see more future in this variety.”

“It’s getting more and more established [in Austria]. Styria, for example, is a white wine producing region and I’ve made wine there for a very long time in my life, but now we are sending a considerable amount of our Leithaberg Chardonnay to Styria and to the restaurants there, so I think, yes, there is an understanding that this is a quite unique Chardonnay. It’s not a run-of-the-mill Chardonnay, it’s the next level, so to speak.”

With its 3.576 hectares, the winegrowing area Leithaberg is among the oldest winegrowing regions in the world, extending over the Burgenland-facing slopes of the Leithagebirge, west of Lake Neusiedl.  According to Wines of Austria, findings of grape pips in a Celtic tumulus from the 8th century BCE represent the oldest evidence of winegrowing in Middle Europe.

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