Wine on Starchefs JURTSCHITSCH

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Single White Austrian: StarVintner Jurtschitsch Sonnhof
By Jim Clarke

Wein Bauer on StarChefs.comPinot Noir is often trumpeted as the best red grape for representing the quality of terroir, that singular expression of geology and microclimate as manifested in a bottle of wine. Among white wines Chardonnay and Riesling vie for the same position, but in Austria the family-run winery Jurtschitsch Sonnhof is pushing the local grape Grüner Veltliner as a strong dark horse in the race.

The Sonnhof estate is located in the Kamptal, which, with Kremstal, and the Wachau, form the trio of Austria’s most illustrious appellations. The winery originally provided for a neighboring Franciscan monastery. The Jurtschitsch family has been making wine there since the middle of the 19th century; their extended presence in the Kamptal means long-term sustainability is favored over wringing everything they can from the land.

That attitude is also encouraged by the vineyards themselves; as caretakers of some fantastic sites, the Jurtschitsch family feels a strong responsibility to work carefully with what nature has given them. Their 150 acres of vineyards are centered around the town of Langenlois and include famous vineyard names like Spiegel, Zöbinger Heiligenstein, Schenkenbichl, and Fahnberg. On the whole, the terraced vineyards receive great sun exposure; cool nights and evening breezes help the grapes retain a perfect balance of acidity, sugar, and flavor as they develop.

Despite these basic conditions in common, each vineyard differs enough from its neighbors to show its own personality. Steinhaus, for example, has a thin topsoil and a lot more stones than its brothers. These rocks retain the warmth of the sun through the night; the vines are trellised low to the ground so they can absorb this heat while they wait for the returning sun, encouraging ripeness and minerally flavors. In the 2003 bottling – a great vintage for Grüner Veltliner – granitic, earthy notes are touched by that white pepper note typical of Grüner Veltliner; fruity aromas are largely absent in this medium-bodied wine.

Contrast that with the next slope to the north, Schenkenbichl; the soils here are deeper, and a western breeze protects the grapes from mildew and similar infections. This means Jurtschitsch can safely leave the grapes on the vine longer, waiting for a high level of ripeness and concentration. The 2000 is currently available; it’s full-bodied and rich, with broader spices, ripe peach and baked pear, and a tremendous earthy, smoky base.

The Spiegel vineyard lies on the other side of town; layers of humus and loess extend deep into the southwest-facing slope, allowing the grapes to draw nutrients and water from a variety of different sources. The resulting wine merits Reserve status within the Jurtschitsch portfolio; the 2002 is a knockout, with floral and elderberry notes that expand down into rich spices, smoke, and incredible mineral flavors, with a full body and a long, complex finish. Jurtschitsch has also found Spiegel to be the best location for growing their red wines.

The family has planted other varietals in the sites that suit them, taking advantage of their long relationship with the properties to determine the best match. Riesling makes up less than 4% of Austrian wine production (compared to Grüner Veltliner’s 36%), but has a very strong reputation internationally – especially those from the Kamptal. Zöbinger Heiligenstein may be Jurtschitsch’s best vineyard for Riesling; the atypical red sandstone makes the vines work hard, and seems to lend a spiciness to the wine reminiscent of the Grüner Veltliner grown nearby. Winemaker Paul Jurtschitsch also selected the Fahnberg vineyard for Sauvignon Blanc, an unusual but increasingly popular choice throughout the country. In Austria, Sauvignon Blanc strikes a balance between a Loire Valley style and the more exuberant fruitiness of New Zealand, and an elderberry aroma typically shows up on the nose or palate.

Careful selections and winemaking make the wine a reflection of the vineyard; grapes that don’t make the cut are blended into more affordable bottlings. I’ve previously featured the budget bottling Grüner Veltliner “GrüVe” as a great summer wine; it’s crisp fruity, and peppery, and great for cooling off in the heat. Each year it also features a new, wild label by Austrian artist Christian Ludwig Attersee. That the special artwork is used on one of their budget bottlings reflects their lack of pretension.

The Jurtschitsch family appreciates what nature has given them in their vineyards. They feel a responsibility not to spoil it; each year gives them a new vintage to transform into wine. Their priorities are passing the gift on to their children – three generations are currently involved in winery and vineyard operations – and sharing the gift they’ve wrapped up in a bottle of wine.

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 Published: August 2005