Diva Botrytis and Her Sweet Austrian Wines

by Jeff Harding
Austrian Wine Marketing Board, Lukan and Kracher, and Jeff Harding
June 2013

"Botrytis is a diva. She comes when she wants," says Paul Schandl, owner and winemaker at Peter Schandl. The fickle diva is famously elusive in the Sauternes wines of Bordeaux, where the most sought-after sweet wines in the world are produced alongside the Garonne River. Austria's Lake Neusiedl more consistently produces the fog and temperature necessary to induce botrytis, and world-class dessert wines are produced on both shores of the southern part of the lake, in the towns of Rust and Illmitz.

Aside from the nesting storks on every chimney in the village, the story-book charm of Rust is only rivaled by its history and most famous export, Ruster Ausbruch  (pronounced rooster OUS-brook). Monica Caha explains that Ruster means "from Rust," and Ausbruch translates as "to break out." The name refers to the traditional production method of adding juice to the fermented wine, which breaks out or "brings out" the sugar, similar to the production of Hungarian Tokaji. Tokaji is known as the "wine of kings," but during the Ottoman occupation of Hungary in the 17th century, the kings couldn't get their golden sweet wine, so they turned to Ruster Ausbruch. 

Paul Schandl continues the tradition, and his 2007 Ruster Ausbruch (made of Welschriesling and Riesling) tastes of yeasty copper and honey with a lingering acidic finish, while his 2006 (Furmint and Riesling) had a sharper, almost blue cheese nose, with a lively, unctuous finish. Tasting these wines makes one pause, and not surprisingly, they are locally referred to as vino di meditazione (using their Southern neighbor Italy's phrase for meditation wine).

Austria’s Lake Neusiedler

Austria’s Lake Neusiedler

Austria’s Lake Neusiedler

Austria’s Lake Neusiedler

Botrytized grapes on the vine at Weinlaubenhof Kracher

Botrytized grapes on the vine at Weinlaubenhof Kracher

Kracher's collection of sweet wines

Kracher's collection of sweet wines

Heidi Schrock's Ruster Ausbruch is on the menu at New York's Eleven Madison Park, where Sommelier Jeff Taylor pairs it with celeriac crème cake, Mutsu apple-olive oil sorbet, roasted walnuts, and white pepper. Schrock's "On the Wings of Dawn," 2010 is 60 percent Welschriesling and 40 percent Weissburgunder with a wonderful botrytis quality to it. For the Austrian-inspired dish, Wilson needed something sweet with a savory edge. "Since we couldn't find a Grüner Veltliner Eiswein that worked, we went with what we had in house already and it has turned out to be a great pairing," he says. Somm Slam 2012 semi-finalist Julie Dalton gave us the low down (and thumbs up) on Taylor's impromptu pairing: "Thank you Heidi Schrock. Perfect!"

On the eastern shore of the Lake Neusiedler, in the village of Illmitz, sits the "House of Kracher." Alois Kracher won universal acclaim for his sweet wine before his untimely death in 2007. Since then his son Gerhard has taken the helm, and his wines have been compared to the best Sauternes. Kracher produces a staggering array of Trockenbeerenauslese and other sweet wines, using an equally stunning variety of grapes: Rosenmuskateller (Moscato Rosa), Scheurebe, Chardonnay, Sweigelt, Welschriesling, and Traminer.

Kracher's "Kollektion 2010" includes a Scheurebe TBA No. 3, "Zwischen Den Seen," ("Between the Lakes"). The wine is slightly herbal with a pink grapefruit aroma that jumps out of the glass and bright citrus and honey notes on the palate. The Muskat Ottonel TBA No. 2, "Zwischen Den Seen," is rich and round with aromas of chamomile and white flowers and a lavender finish. The 2010 Auslese, made from 70 percent Welschriesling and 30 percent Chardonnay reminds us of honeyed apricots with a bracing saline acidity. Kracher explains that the vines are next to the lake, which gives the wine a salty spiciness from the minerality of the soil.

The residual sugar in this collection ranged from 169.5 g/l up to an unbelievable 351 g/l, a veritable Jenga tower of sugar, but the astounding acidity keeps the wines vibrant and fresh. Even more striking is the consistency of the botrytis diva, occurring every year since 1959 in Illmitz. Willi Klinger, director of the Austrian Wine Marketing Board, explains that botrytis is more regular in Illmitz due to the many small salt lakes in the region, which guarantees a "regular amount of high humidity—that's why Illmitz is the sweet wine stronghold of Austria." Kracher's skill as winemaker is still omnipresent, and his portfolio is bewildering in variety for only one style of wine made in a small geographic region.