White Austrian: StarVintner Jurtschitsch Sonnhof
By Jim Clarke
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.