Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Meeting Gerhard Wohlmuth jun. from Weingut Wohlmuth, Austria, and Tasting his Wines in Washington DC

Pictures: Christian G.E.Schiller with Gerhard Wohlmuth jun. from Weingut Wohlmuth, Austria, in Washington DC

Weingut Wohlmuth is one of the top wine producers in Austria. They are rather export-oriented. Their US importer is Artisan Collection. From January 31 to February 6, 2011, Artisan Collection took their winemakers on a tour in the US, with stops at New York, St. Louis, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Washington DC. I had the pleasure of meeting Gerhard Wohlmuth jun. at the stop in Washington DC.

Wine Producing Country Austria

Austria has about 50.000 hectares of vineyard, equivalent to about half of Germany’s total vineyard area and one fifth of France’s vineyard area. In terms of world output, Austria’s vineyard area accounts for 0.7 % of the total. Almost all of it in the east of the country. “In the west we ski, in the east we make wine”, says Willi Klinger, head of Austrian Marketing Board. About 70 % of the production is white wine and 30% red wine. About 75 percent of Austria’s production is consumed in Austria and 25 percent is exported.

Austrian wine culture is ancient; people have been producing wine in Austria for 4000 years. But everything changed in 1985, when Austria was rocked by the “antifreeze wine scandal”. Some vintners were caught illicitly sweetening their products with glycol. As a result, the market for Austrian wine, especially the semi-sweet styles then in favor, evaporated overnight. Yet the scandal initiated a revolution that has propelled Austrian wines on to the world stage. It led to a broad rethink, with an emphasis on higher-quality production and innovation that soon became noticed. Young winemakers, drawn by the new emphasis on quality over quantity, brought cutting-edge techniques and farsightedness to vineyards and cellars, revolutionizing both.

Weingut Wohlmuth

Weingut Wohlmuth produces in the Mittelburgenland as well as in Suedsteiermark, where the original wine estate is located (in Kitzeck-Fresing). The wine estate has been owned by the Wohlmuth family since 1803, and is currently run by Gerhard sen. and Maria Wohlmuth, the seventh generation in line. The eighth generation, consisting of Gerhard jun. –who I met in Washington DC - , Daniela and Dieter, is also already fully involved in the business.

The vineyard area in Kitzeck-Fresing totals 35 hectares. 75% of the area is planted with the white varieties including Sauvignon Blanc, Welschriesling and Riesling; the remaining 25% is planted with the red varieties including Blaufränkisch, Zweigelt and Cabernet Sauvignon.

Since 2003, Weingut Wohlmuth has also vineyards in Neckenmarkt in the Mittelburgenland. The vineyard area there totals 19 hectares, with holdings in the renowned Hochberg and Rabenkropf sites. The wines are fermented at Neckenmarkt, and then taken to Kitzeck-Fresing for aging.

The winery produces 240,000 bottles a year and exports 50% of its production to 20 countries, mostly European and North-American. Gerhard Wohlmuth sen. was awarded Austrian’s Winemaker of the Year 2001 by the renowned Falstaff magazine.

Wine Making Philosophy

“In the vineyard, soil management and the encouragement of natural predators to control vine pests are the key elements” Gerhard jun. said. As harvest approaches, the optimum picking date for bringing in physiologically ripe fruit is discussed and decided upon by the whole family. Then, several manual picks are made to select berries unaffected by the rot - the prerequisite for producing razor-sharp whites. The fruit is then taken to the press house, where it is crushed and further processed in small tubs. That is the moment at which important decisions are made: Squeezing and/or destemming? Whole-bunch pressing? Maceration for a couple of hours or minimal skin contact? The fermentation takes place in stainless steel tanks or in French barriques at controlled temperatures.

Picture: Christian G.E.Schiller with Gerhard Wohlmuth jun. from Weingut Wohlmuth, Austria, in Washington DC

It was fun to taste the wines and talk with Gerhard jun. “I have been involved in viticulture from my earliest childhood” he said. “From the age of fifteen, I started to train my palate with my father’s help. I took every opportunity to taste the most different wines from all over the world and share my impressions with him. Thus, I learned very quickly how a wine should taste and how not. Initially, I was, of course, deeply impressed by those concentrated New World offerings and could not understand my father disagreeing. But I had soon discovered that, although they (and many recent European wines) are highly concentrated, they lack real depth. And so I began appreciating more and more wines displaying finesse and subtlety” he continued.

In 2000, he did his first internship at Oskar Sturm Winery in Friuli. That winery is known primarily for its fascinating and complex Sauvignon Blancs, but they produce some promising reds too. After this, he got a job at La Strada Fromm Winery in New Zealand. “Since La Strada ranks among the leading Pinot Noir producers of the world, I soon fell in love with this highly sophisticated grape” he said. The third practical training took him to South Africa, to the Rupert & Rothschild Winery. “There, I was deeply impressed by the perfectly thought-out vinification facilities” he said.

The Wohlmuth Wine Portfolio

A wide spectrum of wines is produced in several ranges.

(1) The Classic White Wines South Styra range is fermented in stainless steel and bottled early. These are Weingut Wohlmuth’s entry level white wines.
(2) The Single Vineyard White Wines South Styria is the premium white wine range. The top of the premium white wines are marketed as Elite wines.Grapes are picked at must weights in the Auslese range, and the wines are matured in barriques of French and American oak.
(3) One red wine range is the Red Wines South Styria range. The red blend „See me” is very popular, made from Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Zweigelt. Schilcher is also produced. In addition, bottle-fermented sparkling wines are produced.
(4) The other red wine range is the Red Wines Neckenmarkt-Burgenland range.
(5) Finally, Weingut Wohlmuth also makes sparklers at the Champagne level, Kosher wines and brandies

The 3 Wines we Tasted

Picture: (1) 2009 Sauvignon Blanc Klassik , from the Classic White Wines South Styra range, fruity, vivacious, minerally, $ 19.19
(2) 2009 Riesling Altenberg, from the Single Vineyard White Wines South Styria range, hints of peach and apricot, slaty with a mineral edge, $ 15.99
(3) 2009 Blaufraenkisch Hochberg, from the Red Wines Neckenmarkt-Burgenland range, notes of blackberries, sweet spices, $ 14.99

The Artisan Collection

For those in the U.S., the wines of Wohlmuth are fairly well distributed, with the Artisan Collection being the national importer. The Artisan Collection belongs to the group of new importers of wines that are heading off the beaten track and discovering some wonderful wines that we would otherwise never see. The Artisan Collection was founded in 2003 is owned by Florencio L. Navarro. Florencio's family has made and sold wine in Spain for four generations.

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