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Why Austria is launching a new concept called seeroir

At a masterclass in London last month on the wines from Neusiedlersee, Austrian producers launched a new concept, which they are calling ‘seeroir’. Robin Goldsmith reports.

Austria’s Neusiedlersee wine-growing region is situated to the east of Lake Neusiedl. Picture credit:

With a similar latitude to Burgundy, Austria’s location at the heart of Europe has some distinct features. Surrounded by eight different countries, this landlocked, wine-producing nation lies at the crossroads of four climatic influences: moderate Atlantic from the west, Continental Pannonian from the East, fresh and cooling winds from the North, and a warm Illyrian Mediterranean climate from the south.

Austria has 44,728 hectares of vineyards, of which 11,772 lie in Burgenland. However, unlike the rest of the country, where two-thirds of plantings are white grapes, here the emphasis is on red grapes (57%). Neusiedlersee, in the North of Burgenland, about 50km south of Vienna by the Hungarian border, has 6,110 hectares of vines planted and the split is almost even (49% red and 51% white). This unique subregion, a UNESCO world heritage site, was the focus of a masterclass and tasting last week by Dirceu Vianna Junior MW, entitled ‘The Lake, Its Salinity & Wines’.

Junior spoke about “the four elements that make this region special and diverse”:

  • water (the lake itself)
  • wind (mostly from the north-west)
  • earth (soils and biodiversity)
  • fire (the passion of the winemakers and their philosophies)

It’s a very sunny region with 2000 hours of sunlight per year, similar to Bordeaux, humidity from the lake and very little rain (on average 600mm). The Pannonian Continental climate means very cold winters, warm summers and long, sunny autumns. The permanent north- west winds have a cooling effect and there are hardly any late frosts in spring. “It’s a hotspot for wind production”, explains Junior, “so there’s very little disease [in the vineyards] … and there isn’t much pressure to harvest the grapes.”

Zweigelt is the most planted red grape at 24%, followed by Blaufränkisch and St. Laurent, while Grüner Veltliner (10%), then Welschriesling, Chardonnay and Weissburgunder (Pinot Blanc) lead the whites.

Undoubtedly, it’s the impact of Lake Neusiedl that really makes this area unique and has such a profound influence on the biodiversity, terroir and wines produced here. The lake itself is huge at 320,000km2, measuring 34km north to south and 4.5-8km east to west. This large expanse of water absorbs heat, moderating the temperature and diurnal range, so that there are few extremes of heat or cold. There’s also an underground lake 150 metres below, which is almost as big.

Markus Lentsch from Seegut Lentsch, has vineyards in Podersdorf am See, the closest village to the lake. He describes the importance of this location. “The lake has a big influence on the vineyards. It cools down temperatures in the summer and the grapes keep more freshness. The north-west winds go over the lake, bringing us fresh air from the water in the evening, which cools down the region a little bit quicker. During the night, we have more consistency of temperature, because the water stays warmer than the air. So, we still have ripe tannins, but the wine is smooth and fresh.”

The beneficial influence of the lake on vineyards was evident very recently, as Lentsch explains. “Some regions had snow this week, while the lake saved our vineyards. The temperature of the water was 18°C, which heated up the temperature [in the vineyards] to 2° or 3°C, so not -1°C.”

Another unique feature of the lake is the concentration of salt – one twentieth the salinity of seawater. Additionally, there are several small salt pools nearby, which often evaporate in the summer sunshine and so are not always visible. Christoph Salzl, of Weingut Salzl Seewinkelhof, adds: “The wind brings the salt to the closest vineyards, where it lies on top of the soil if it’s dry. This is why there’s very intense salinity in the vineyards close to the ponds.”

Soils are hugely diverse, as Junior describes, based on “black earth with different proportions of sand, gravel and loess, depending on where you are”. Some vineyards have iron-rich, red soils and even red quartz pebbles, but generally, it’s sandier closer to the lake. In addition to the complex soil structure, there’s an impressively rich biodiversity and agriculture with unique flora and fauna, including more than 350 species of birds and over 2,500 different plants. Close to the salt pools, there are even small plants normally only seen next to the sea.

The fourth key aspect of the region that Junior mentioned, ‘fire’, recognises the people who express the terroir through the wines they produce. There is plenty of winemaking heritage here with a new cohort of young winemakers representing up to the sixth or seventh generation of their families. Junior noted how they have often taken control of their businesses early on, applying their own vision and philosophies. For example, Salzl spoke about how his grandfather “was from the older generation and wanted quantity over quality”, but that when his uncle took over the vineyard, he and Christoph changed the emphasis to quality production. In particular, they recognised the potential for Grüner Veltliner on their site and for lower grape yields for some of their wines.

The importance of the lake was the cornerstone of the masterclass and tasting, which included the launch of a brand new concept – ‘seeroir’. See, means lake in German, so seeroir encompasses all the aspects of terroir plus the specific influence of Lake Neusiedl. “Our lake influences our wines a lot”, says Lentsch. “We need to transmit this message, so we created this name for our region to communicate our terroir”.

Torsten Aumüller, Managing Director of Neusiedlersee DAC, explains how the concept of seeroir came about. “We had workshops with producers in January, discussing what the uniqueness really is and what we want to focus on for communication. That’s also how we identified those four elements. Scientific research by the University of Vienna shows that the lake is at least 25,000 years old and was once larger. So the sediments are still influencing the area even where the lake isn’t visible any more.” Therefore, as Lentsch points out, vines are today planted in soil that was once part of the lake.

“We worked on our brochure for the last two years”, adds Aumüller. “We realised that with terroir, everyone always thinks about the soil, but it’s a lot more than that. We found out that the microclimate is different if next to land, stagnant or running water. So, all the other

regions have ‘terroir’ and we now have ‘seeroir’, to give the influence of the lake a name, a really catchy phrase for this great and unique microclimate on the eastern part of Neusiedlersee.”

So serroir is a communication tool to convey the uniqueness of the wines through the lake: ‘the lake in every drop’. Consequently, the wines chosen for the masterclass and free-pour tasting afterwards illustrated this concept with different flights of wines showcasing a variety of styles, based on the four elements that define the region’s unique serroir-driven wines.

For example, Aumüller explains how the cooling influence of the lake and its moderating effects on temperature variations between day and night give the Grüner Veltliner here a distinctive character, including a delicate, white pepper quality, in contrast to more black pepper notes from cooler regions. “Without this influence, a Grüner Veltliner coming from our region would lack any pepperiness at all. If we didn’t have the lake, it would be too warm for Grüner in our region. The lake stores heat on its water surface and cools it down slightly during the night. Without that, we wouldn’t have this variation in temperature similar to the cooler regions of Austria. Another influence is that the acidity level of our Grüner Veltliner is not as high as in Lower Austria because of slightly higher average temperatures and more hours of sunlight. Our Grüner is also a little bit more fruit-based. The sun brings the fruit, the proximity of the lake brings this variation in temperature and what you need to get a good balance of acidity.”

To further illustrate the seeroir concept, Aumüller contrasts Zweigelt from different regions. “When it comes to Lower Austria, especially in Weinviertel, the Zweigelt is quite light and sometimes lacks ripeness of fruit because it’s colder there. Then when we compare Neusiedlersee with Karnuntum in Lower Austria, alongside the Danube, both have great late summers. The difference between the two regions is that Karnuntum is close to running water and Neusiedlersee is close to stagnant water, so variation in temperature between day and night is higher in Karnuntum and more moderate in our region. Zweigelt from Karnuntum has full ripeness and high acidity, while we in Neusiedlersee, because of the lake, have full ripeness, moderate acidity and moderate tannins. Therefore, our Zweigelt is more harmonious, more consumer-friendly and not so challenging, with fruit we all know, like strawberry and cherry. That’s because of the lake.”

The humid, temperature-moderating environment of the lake also provides the perfect conditions for botrytis, with misty mornings, drying winds and plenty of sunlight. The last vintage saw 80% of sweet wines in Austria come from this region.

The brochures and slides accompanying the masterclass have several images of the lake with SEEROIR printed on many pages. Aumüller and Junior confirm that the concept of seeroir will be rolled out over time through the new communication strategy, including masterclasses. “You cannot go to the region and ignore the lake”, says Junior. “Everywhere you go, every village you go to, everywhere you drive, you see the lake or you feel the lake. Instead of talking about terroir, which is all the physical aspects that govern grape growing, we can talk about serroir, which is terroir plus the lake.”

“Every region claims to be unique”, adds Aumüller, “and I’m sure they are. We also claim we are unique, but we are now using a unique term for our uniqueness!”

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