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An Interview with Leo Hillinger of Weingut Leo Hillinger, Austria
By Jim Clarke

Jim Clarke: What are the special qualities of some of Austria’s native varietals such as Blaufränkisch, Zweigelt, and St. Laurent?

Leo Hillinger: Blaufränkish is very close to Pinot Noir in style and tannins, with a darker color and cherry flavor. The Zweigelt wines have a spicy touch and you see a bit of violet in their color. In Austria we say that St. Laurent is the little brother of Pinot Noir. It reacts with everything you do in the vineyard and in the cellar, so it’s a very difficult grape. The resulting wine, too, is like a Pinot, with a nice, spicy touch and red berry flavors; the tannins are elegant and acidity decent. You can at least say that these three grapes are typically Austrian: smooth, creamy, and full-bodied, with dark berries; they like our climate very much.

JC: What’s behind the apparently increasing numbers of Austrian red blends, when previously single-varietal wines dominated?

LH: A lot of people – us included – think that grape varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, St. Laurent, Pinot Noir, and Syrah are better used in a blend. This way the negative parts of two wines can become positive. So you get the best harmony if you blend Pinot Noir and St. Laurent grapes before starting maceration. It is also very important in that you can decide each year how to blend the cuvée to maintain quality. For example, in 2003 the weather was very hot in Burgenland, so we decided to put more Cabernet Sauvignon in the Hill 1because the grapes got very ripe. Another reason is that it is already a bit of our image. I mean, look at every winelist in an Austrian restaurant and you mostly see Austrian red cuvées. Maybe it’s a bit of Bordeaux style, to mix the grapes as the year is. It’s a bit traditional, with a touch of modern style to create a nice cuvée.

JC: Grüner Veltliner is spearheading the popularity of Austrian wines abroad; is this holding back the reds?

LH: With the white wines we were always – in Europe and now the whole word over – famous. Our terroir and climate is mostly best for white grapes. For example, the Sauvignon Blanc or Welschriesling in Styria or the Grüner Veltliner and Riesling in the Wachau region. The real export of red wine and the first incredible year in red winemaking in Austria was 1997. Grüner Veltliner is a typical Austrian grape and very traditional, but the most important thing is that you get this wine unoaked most of the time. The flavor is spicy and peppery, and that’s interesting because okay Chardonnay you get everywhere. And Grüner Veltliner is not really a problem for our red wines. If you see the statistics, you find that good reds from the best wineiries are sold out every year anyway. We also make a lesser quantity of red wines. Grüner Veltliner is very famous in America at the moment.

JC: Before taking over at the family business, you sought out work experience in wineries around the world; what specific insights did you gain from the various places you worked?

LH: Experience in different countries is one of the most important ways to learn everything about making wine. The different mentalities, thinking, climates, and grape species I met in those years opened my horizons immensely. I still keep the specific insights in my mind; I saw that every region has their own positive and negative sides.

JC: The vineyards you acquired in Rust became the grape source for your premium “Hill” series; what makes the grapes from that location so special?

LH: The vineyards in Rust are very close to the Long Lake (Neusiedlersee). This spcial region has a microclimate that makes it at least 1° C warmer than other areas the whole year. So the grapes in the “Hill” series like Cabernet and Merlot become more physiologically ripe than in other places. We use four grapes in Hill 1: Cabernet for strength and tannin, Merlot for color, Zweigelt for a feminine impression, and Syrah for a spicy touch. Together they make the wine onto a harmonious cocktail of different feelings.

JC: Dessert Chardonnays are unusual; how did you come to make a Trockenbeerenauslese Chardonnay?

LH: The whole winery is unusual; our philosophy is to be different from the others – to be strong and clever and open to new things every day. So I thought, “Why not a sweet Chardonnay?” The grape is particularly smooth and creamy, so the end-product is full-bodied and elegant. Our Hill 3 goes best with strong blue cheese like Stilton and rich chocolate desserts.

JC: Last year you finished construction on an elegant new winery; aside from its aesthetic qualities, what’s special about it from a winemaking standpoint?

LH: In this century it’s not only important to make the best wine; it’s also absolutely necessary to get a match between architecture and wine – we call that “lifestyle.” Our guest can taste our wines in the most beautiful ambience, and we have our doors open every day so they can look behind the scenes. In our cellar we installed the most modern stainless steel tanks with the newest technology such as “PULS AIR,” whereby you push sterile oxygen into the tanks during cold maceration so that you suck the best color and tannins out of the grapes and the quality gets that much higher. All the tanks are also computerized; before I did everything by hand, but that is no longer possible with the quantity of wine we make. My winery was my dream and I made it come true.

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 Published: March 2005