Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Austria Part III

Arriving at the Steindorfer winery in Burgenland we share a brief stop and tasting.  Modest in scope and size, but clearly of the highest quality, Steindorfer is run by Ernst Steindorfer, a master of dessert style wines. Because of his close proximity to lake Neusiedl and its moisture, the vineyards are easily susceptible to noble rot or botrytis.  This is a mold which covers the grapes and sucks out the moisture leaving sugars behind. If you saw the grapes on the vine you would say, “yuck, those are rotten,” but the wine made from such grapes can be one of the most powerful and often costly wines produced.  His best friend and winemaking companion was non other than Alois Kracher, who sadly passed away last year at the young age of 48.  The Kracher dessert wines are legendary and far beyond my drinking budget.  It turns out that some of those legendary wines were actually made here at Steindorfer and aged in these pristine cellars.  Ernst continues on with the dessert wine honor.  You could eat off the floors and if you spilled a drop of his dessert wine, you just might consider licking it up.

Klaus handles the translation from Ernst as we take a quick look around the winery, aging cellar, the tanks and see a stainless steel tank fitted with a stirring mechanism to keep the lees (sediment in a wine and yeast cells) moving during the aging process.  Stirring the lees adds richness to the finished bottle and a distinct character.  The group is ready for more wine and we start with his dry whites. The Chardonnay we sample is a proud moment for Ernst as he claims it is being compared to the finest of white Burgundy.  All his dry wines, white and red, are excellent, but we are anticipating the sweet stuff and finally the traditional tall, thin 375 ml bottles emerge.  We work through them with ooohs and aaaahs.  It’s tough to spit these, so I force myself to swallow the tastes justifying that I have worked hard today and could use a little reward this time.  The excitement in the group grows with each opened bottle, then the talk of Steindorfer’s “best wine he ever made” starts up.   Klaus is egging him on and we join in. Finally Ernst either felt generous, or the wine was kicking in, but he goes to the cellar and emerges with his 1991 Trockenbeeren Auslese (TBA), the claimed "best ever."  The color is a deep amber and pours from the bottles like a watery version of maple syrup. I am practically intoxicated just by smelling the aroma. I take a picture through the glass with the label behind the bottle. A fine finish to our visit at Steindorfer.

The day is not over, oh no, the night is just beginning when we arrive at Leo Hillinger’s winery for an introduction, tour and dinner. This is just the start. The real tastings will take place tomorrow.  We arrive at an ultra fancy shmancy modern looking winery established by Leo Hillinger, former super-model and now wine maker/wine fashion superstar.  If anyone knows how to build a brand, it’s Leo.  With things like the Hillinger name everywhere from the entrance to the floor of the winery, to the continually running video loop of Leo projected on the wall, to the slick black hats, several hundred dollar Hillinger jackets, you name it, Leo is creating it with his name on it. Leo is opening Hillinger wine shops in Europe and wants to have one in NY as well. Several women in the group nearly faint when they first see Leo in real life. Sure has more hair than me, it’s blonde and he is tall, square jawed, thin and owns a top winery, but really does he deserve all the gawking?  It must be tough for him.  By the way he is married with two beautiful children.

We visit an underground cellar with rows of shiny stainless steel tanks, then retreat to the barrel room for even more rows of oak barrels. The barrel tasting is a blast and we get to spit the wine on the floor!  Always a treat and I feel like a little kid breaking the rules.  The floor will later be washed down by the oompa loompas or some sort of mystery crew that must come out late at night to shine the joint.  The tasting room has a glass wall looking out over the vineyards behind the hill.

Leo tells us his story of risking it all with a bank loan and starting out on his own. I admire the man. He had a vision, would not compromise on quality and took a big gamble. He still hints at the tenuous nature of all that he does and of being at the mercy of mother nature every harvest. We can tease him about the glamour aspect of his winery and its presentation, but clearly the wine is quality while he can smile all the way to the bank.  Leo is focused on building the Hillinger brand.  

We move back upstairs to the tasting room for a catered three course dinner.  The entrĂ©e has a side of applesauce with shredded horseradish.  I can't get enough of the stuff.  By thirds, or was it fourths?, I was really feeling my sinuses cleared out and the "wasabi snorts" kicking in.  Good stuff, sweet and spicy.  The actual meal takes about 45 minutes, then the consumption began.  I think we left around midnight or 1 AM.  Not sure, but by the end we had empty magnums of wine lining the table.  Half the group goes out to the Safari club.  Don't ask, but if you are ever in town and want to meet the locals, ask about the Safari. We'll be back tomorrow to learn more. 
- Salamanzar