Kamptal's Top Growers: A Hotbed of Cool Ideas

Including Rainer Wess, Schloss Gobelsberg, Jurtschitsch & Bernhardt Ott

"Rainer's wines offered perhaps the most compelling argument for the importance of terroir that I have ever encountered."

Martin Brown

Our whistle-stop tour took us to some of the Kamptal region's leading producers, and gave us the opportunity not only to talk business but also to taste their wines and find out more about their philosophies.

Despite many having long histories, these estates are anything but stuffy and staid. This is a hotbed of skilled, passionate and opinionated winemakers, and I found far more differences than I had perhaps expected in their outlooks, and which are reflected in their wines.

Rainer Wess

A riesling supremo with terroir on his mind

Rainer Wess at his winery

The wines of Rainer Wess (pronounced Ry-ner Vess) are among the most distinctive in the area. His whites are remarkably pure and linear, and unusually he devotes most of his production to riesling rather than to the much more widely planted grüner veltliner.

A line-up of exceptional wines at Rainer Wess

His labels are also striking, simple and clean, apparently based on the 'W's for Wess and the Wachau Valley, in which he is situated - the shape also representing the valley's peaks.

Unlike many of the more tradition-steeped addresses on our itinerary, Rainer only started out on his own in 2003, albeit with many years' experience under his belt from other ventures. Visiting him at his winery, set in an old monastery building, was a fascinating experience.

'Terroir', that infamously untranslatable-in-English word that signifies the influence of the land on its wine, is seldom far away from conversation on winery visits. It's a relatively simple idea on the face of it, but the multitude of variables that people can single out and argue about, coupled with winemakers' subjective philosophies, can complicate the concept greatly.

Rainer's wines offered perhaps the most compelling argument for the importance of terroir that I have ever encountered.

Rainer Wess's winery, an old monastic building

Among others, we tasted wines from two different grapes but from the same vineyard: a cool but south-facing vineyard that marks the entrance to the Wachau Gorge, named Loibenberg.

I was amazed by how similar the grüner veltliner and riesling from the same vineyard tasted: both expressed the different characteristics of the grapes, of course - the grüner contributing its peppery freshness and the riesling its lime-spiked character - but both were underpinned by a delightful, crystalline but chalky flavour that was difficult to describe.

Both wines clearly exhibited what Rainer triumphantly assured us was the character of the vineyard's distinctive gneiss soil and microclimate.

Schloss Gobelsberg

Subtle innovations at Austria's most traditional address

Schloss Gobelsberg's baroque castle: one of the most beautiful estates one could hope to visit Michael Moosbrugger

It is perhaps unsurprising that the ethos of Rainer Wess, who started his estate in 2003, is different to that of Michael Moosbrugger at the beautiful Schloss Gobelsburg.

Vines have been harvested here since the 1170s, and the castle's present baroque façade dates from 1725. It's a stunning setting which would give any of the grand châteaux of Bordeaux an aesthetic run for their money.

2016 marks Michael's 20th year at the helm here, but as he says, 'what is 20 years in the context of 850 years?'

For Michael, terroir is about a single grape variety's suitability to the soil, and the idea that two grapes should be planted in the same vineyard is not one he was keen to entertain. His reasons, it became clear, are based on the rich history of his estate: the monks that first farmed his vineyards had long ago worked out which sites suit which varieties.

Who is right and who is wrong? I would humbly suggest both, and neither: the two wineries make markedly different styles, and there is room for the philosophies and wines of both.

Some of Schloss Gobelsberg's more mature stock!

Schloss Gobelsberg's wines have long been a regular fixture on our Fine Wine List, and for good reason. These are truly benchmark wines: cerebral yet satisfying bottles that show off the world-class quality of which Austria is capable, achieving stunning complexity and able to age brilliantly should you be able to resist their youthful bloom.

Like any good online segment worth its salt, I conclude with a picture of a cat - one of the friendliest winery custodians I have had the pleasure to meet!

One of the friendliest winery custodians I have had the pleasure to meet!

Jurtschitsch

A new generation experimenting with terroir

Alwin Jurtschitsch and Society buyer Sarah Knowles MW

This family-owned winery is now in the hands of the younger generation, Alwin and Stefanie Jurtschitsch, who took the baton in 2007 after gaining considerable experience - and more than a few ideas - in Australia, New Zealand and South America, and studying oenology in Germany.

Alwin is a man fizzing with ideas, and there is an infectious enthusiasm and energy about him; qualities that can also be attributed to Jurtschitsch's wines.

One of the most striking examples of the experiments afoot here, 'Wurzelwerk', involved a highly novel approach to ascertaining how much of a wine's flavour comes from its terroir and how much from the winery.

The 'Wurzelwerk' project: three wineries' takes on the same terroirs

Jurtschitsch joined forces with two German wineries to vinify each other's fruit: the Rheinhassen estate of Gunderloch and Society suppliers von Hövel in the Saar.

The results are nine different bottles of three wineries' vinifications of theirs and each other's grapes. Alas, production was too limited for us to taste the results, but the idea - especially given the opinions we'd heard earlier from Rainer and Michael - is a fascinating one.

A rather mausoleum-like home for the family's oldest bottles, locked away presumably for very special occasions!

The project has also informed the current renovations taking place in the cellars here. Like Rainer Wess, Jurtschitsch's winery is set in an old monastery cellar. The juxtaposition of building work and clean modern equipment with the dampened stone arches and family archive bottlings was striking.

Bernhardt Ott

Putting more than just vines in the ground

Bernhardt's wines were first offered to Society members in 2014, and it was exciting to meet the man behind them: he is an engaging, erudite man and a joy to be around.

Bernhardt Ott shows Sarah Knowles MW some of the most recent bottlings from his domaine

Here too, the concern is very much with the land and all efforts on the ground and in the winery are designed to get the best out of the vineyard.

In order to try and achieve his goal of the purest expression of the land, Bernhardt is putting more than just vines in the ground: he is fermenting and maturing some of his wines in qvevri (clay amphorae), taking cues from the ancient Georgian winemaking tradition.

The qvevri amphorae

Having shown us his vineyard holdings on an 1823 map, he expressed his philosophy very clearly and rather beautifully to us, so I jotted it down studiously:

"When you come out of wine school you've learned industrial farming - you can do it all: you can control. But I'm not happy with that approach. The results are too uniform. So you learn to give up your control and learn that you are only a part of nature. I want to show the soils we have. I want to show the character of the fruit… and that's really it."

Bernhardt Ott

A sustainable outlook in the vineyard, a preference for clean fermentation vessels that don't impart flavour and strictly controlled use of sulphur are all employed with the above in mind. Like everyone else we visited, the 2015 vintage story is a positive one here despite some hail loss, and the samples we tasted were extremely good, especially his single-vineyard grüner veltliners.

'This house is our world': the inscription above the Ott winery, painted by Bernhardt's father

In sum, we visited growers planting two grapes in one terroir, planting one grape per terroir, vinifying three different terroirs in three different wineries and attempting to express terroir via a 5,000-year-old method… no one can accuse Austria's best of resting on their laurels!

The visits to these world-class producers opened up a world of differences, dynamism and delicious results. I do hope that you'll consider trying them.

One big name from the Kamptal, however, is missing! That name is Willi Bründlmayer, the man behind our Exhibition Grüner Veltliner bottling since its introduction to our range in the 2004 vintage. You can find out more about him, and the wine, here.

Where to go next?

Looking Behind Our Flagship Label: The Society's Exhibition Grüner Veltliner >


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Members' Comments (2)

"It is excellent to know that the Society is now actively exploring this wonderful area of Austria, where there are indeed some fine - occasionally outstanding - wines to be found. But what a pity that, having got as far as Krems (the regional centre), your buyers did not venture in the other direction (west instead of north), along the left bank of the Danube where, within a space of no more than 30 km., some of the true stars of Austrian... Read more > winemaking are to be found: Elisabeth and Emmerich Knoll at Unterloiben (barely 10 minutes from Krems), Josef Jamek (in my opinion, one of the great winemakers of all time, though the business has now passed to his son) at Weissenkirchen. Exploring this region, and growers such as these, would give access to a much wider range of grape varieties than the (oh no, not again! boring!!) ubiquitous (but now oh so popular) Gruner Veltliner: grapes such as Riesling, capable of much greater depth and intensity than GV will ever attain - not only Riesling, however, but Welschriesling (Italy's Rielsing Italico), also capable of outstanding results in the right hands, and a whole host of lesser known white grapes, some found only in Austria. As far as I can see, no one in the UK imports these wines. Why doesn't the Wine Society set itself the goal of being the first in this exciting area? Peter Vergo"

Mr Peter J Vergo (19-Apr-2016)

"Thanks for your comment. This is an account of a single buying trip, the main purpose of which was to sign off our Society’s Grüner Veltliner, and I’m pleased to say that Sarah Knowles MW has visited various other wine regions across Austria. We will be looking to feature more wines, from a wider range of grape varieties, over the coming year. In the meantime, thanks very much for the suggestions and we hope you enjoyed the article."

Mr Martin Brown (20-Apr-2016)

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