Wine on Starchefs HOME AND AWAY
Leo Hillinger’s Wines

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Weingut Leo Hillinger: Home and Away
By Jim Clarke

Until recently Austrian wines have kept to themselves. While often thought of as beer-drinkers (the typical fate of German-speaking nations), the real reason their wines have been little-known outside Austria is that they generally drink more wine than they make: visitors to Austria discovered a treasure trove of local wines that they would never see back home.

This is changing. In fact, in 2002 Austrian wine exports reached their highest levels since 1985. That year, scandal destroyed the reputation of the country’s wines: certain negociant, “middlemen” winemakers were adding a chemical called diethylene glycol to their wines to improve mouthfeel. Fortunately for the industry, Austrian consumers responded by turning away from mass-produced wines and toward family-run operations. This and the introduction of strict new laws created a huge push forward for quality winemaking across the country. While Grüner Veltliner and Riesling have been leading the way amongst exports, red wines are coming up on the inside, carried by a mix of intriguing native varieties and the usual suspects, brought together by state-of-the-art winemaking.

Weingut Leo Hillinger is a particularly exciting example of the changes sweeping Austrian winemaking. Leo took over the family winegrowing business in 1990, after several years of apprenticeships in California, Germany, and elsewhere. While building on the family’s traditions, he has been unapologetic about introducing reforms and new techniques. In 2003, this culminated in a dynamic new winery; expansion forced Hillinger out of the village of Jois and into the countryside. Architects Gerda and Andreas Gerner designed a concrete winery sunk into the banks of Lake Neusiedl; only a small cube of glass juts forth above ground to offer a view of the vineyards. The gravity-flow winery – no pumps that might damage the wine – is state-of-the-art, with ample room for oak barrel aging.

The Neusiedler See is a large, shallow lake south of Vienna and the more famous regions of Wachau and Kamptal. The mists created by the lake have long played a part in creating fantastic, botrysized dessert wines, and in the 1990s Hillinger and others began taking advantage of the region’s warmth and low rainfall to grow red winegrapes as well. Native grapes Zweigelt, St. Laurent and Blaufränkisch grow side-by-side with international grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Pinot Noir. Depending on the vintage, Hillinger bottles these as both varietal wines and as blends. White wines are 30% of their output and include Sauvignon Blanc, Welschriesling and Chardonnay; the latter, despite its French origins, is not new to the country, having been grown there since the 19th century.

In 1997, Leo bought about 30 acres of prime vineyard sites in Rust, west of the lake; the grapes here go into the “Hill” series of wines. Quality is strong across the board, but these wines represent the top of the Hillinger pyramid. They are simply named: Hill 1 (red), 2 (white), and 3 (dessert). Red and white value-priced blends called “Small Hill” round out the line.

Given the consistent winemaking, Leo Hillinger’s wines are a microcosm of the state of Austrian winemaking in general. Single variety Zweigelt and St. Laurent demonstrate the potential of native grapes. Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc bottlings provide a chance to see how Austrian tastes and terroir come out in comparison with other parts of the world. And the impressive blends are more personal, giving Leo Hillinger the chance to express himself on the world stage as a winemaker in touch with his roots.

Leo Hillinger’s Wines:

Whites: Unlike the Rieslings and Grüner Veltliners from farther north, Hillinger’s white wines lean toward elderberry and citrusy aromas rather than earth and spice.

Welschriesling 2003: An Eastern European varietal much maligned by the promoters of “proper” Riesling, to which it does not seem to be related. It generally produces a fruity, refreshing wine; the 2003 combines green apple and elderberry aromas in a crisp and light-bodied frame.
Chardonnay 2003
Sauvignon Blanc 2003

Pinot Grigio 2003: Another refreshing wine, great for summer. Citrus and floral aromas dominate this medium-bodied wine.

Reds: Generally have a rich, round mouthfeel, ready to drink upon release.

Blaufränkisch 2003
Zweigelt 2003
St. Laurent Barrique 2002
Cabernet Sauvignon 2002
: Bordeaux-like and full-bodied, this Cabernet has a nose of blackberries, cedar and leather, with mild tannins on the palate. Will age and develop well for six years or so.

The Hill Line

Small Hill 2003: A white blend.

Small Hill 2003: A red blend of Pinot Noir, St. Laurent and Merlot. A medium-bodied wine with a balanced blend of black and red fruits, the Small Hill is aged in used oak which rounds out the mouthfeel. Light tannins and a good touch of acidity make it very versatile at the table.

Hill 1 2002: International favorite Cabernet Sauvignon blended with local heroes Zweigelt and Blaufränkisch and aged in new French oak. Hill 1 is a big, round, and complex wine with layers of blackberry, vanilla, chocolate, and smoke. Some earth and meatiness also comes through on the palate.

Hill 2 2002: A Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc blend. It’s full and round, but the Sauvignon Blanc brings a dose of acidity to keep the finish clean. Hill 2 tops pear and tropical fruits with touches of spice, vanilla and almond; it’s rich, but not heavy.

Hill 3 2002: A Trockenbeerenauslese Chardonnay – the grapes are withered on the vine by botrytis, which concentrates the flavors, sugars and acids in the grape. The sugar and acids remain well balanced so the Hill 3 is sweet but not cloying; the nose and palate show notes of tropical fruits, peach and orange peel, touched by some smokiness and spice.


Related Links:
Pairing Wine with Pumpkin and Squash
Wines from the Jura
Alsatian Wines

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 Published: March 2005