SETZER/BERGER: ONE OF THESE THINGS IS (NOT?) LIKE THE OTHER
This didn’t turn out nearly the way I thought it would. It turned out better.
“Back in the day” I arrived at what I called the Trilogy Of Charm in my Austrian portfolio. It consisted of Bernhard Ecker, Erich Berger, and Hans Setzer, all three of whom made wines that led with a quality of deliciousness that was something I was drawn to extol, as such wines never get enough attention. It is weirdly hard to sell them, because they fall outside the 29 reasons people buy wine (that have only tangentially to do with how the wines might taste). I often wished the world were populated with innocent Eloi who would respond spontaneously to such pleasurable input as I myself did: with gratitude and desire.
It became rather an idee fixe for me, but while my idee was firmly fixed, the wineries were developing along lines oblique to the way I thought of them. People do change, damn them!
As Berger’s son Max became an adult and was working alongside his father – which echoed the time I first met the family, when young Erich was working alongside his father - I found the style of the wines changing a little – sometimes more than a little. They were chasing force and muscle and a sinewy strength different from the style I knew. That style, to the extent I knew the mechanics of enacting it, had to do with what I call “semolina sweetness,” that is, the savory/sweet character of a semolina dumpling. Sometimes this comes from fermentation yeasts; there are some that give banana aromas though these tend to be fleeting. It can also come from lees aging, especially if ones lees are themselves “sweet.” Add Berger’s (often) loess soils to the equation and it becomes a recipe for that wet-cereal tastiness that typified most of his wines when I first got to know them.
With Setzer I never really knew what it was. I remember my (then) colleague Kevin Pike and I running through a bunch of samples from potential additions to the portfolio, in a period of Dollar weakness that had us looking around the “value” regions. I’ll never forget that tasting. It impressed upon me how competent Austrian growers were, or seemed to be, because everyone’s wines were good. Yet Setzer’s stood out. Kevin and I, seldom short of words, struggled to identify what elevated those wines.
I struggle still. It seems so simplistic to call it a quality of deliciousness. The wines felt like they were napped with an outer layer of flavor that we could appreciate but not explain. The other wines made sense; they fit together, we knew the language, they were good in the ways we could clarify. Setzer both delighted us and stumped us. I have a suede blazer I liked to wear when traveling, and to my surprise people remarked on it and wanted to stroke it. Those Setzer wines wore a suede blazer in the form of glowing vinosity, but it didn’t make them more intense or “impressive.” It made you want to drink them.
That style, also, has shape-shifted over the years. Warmer vintages provide (sometimes) excessive force. Kids nearing adulthood create imponderable reactions in the parents. Will the kids be drawn to follow the prevailing syntax of moderate, polished wines, or do they want more mojo? It would make sense, even if it weren’t true. Whatever the causes, Setzer’s wines became just a little more in-the-mainstream over time.
So what do the two have in common anymore? They were fellow members of a vintner group called “Vinovative;” does this still exist? I know they’re friends. And even with all the various changes, they’re more than just a random pair of growers I happened to throw together. To begin with, they indicate a serious contrast in growing conditions. Berger sits in a valley a few miles from the Danube, and behind him are ancient terraces of loess. Setzer, maybe a 15 minute drive away, sits at an elevation equivalent to the top of the Heiligenstein, and has a mélange of soils. It stands to reason his nights are colder and he gets little to no botrytis.
And yet, even with the changes, the two make wines that (mostly) occupy the moderate-middle. Even at their respective bests (which occur ever more often today) they rarely make jet-blast wines or wines that could head-butt a horse to the ground. It’s the other way; the better they are the more serene they seem; they get more and more beautiful while seldom crossing over into “intensity.” Mind you, I like intensity, in measured doses. But this kind of beauty, I can never got too much of. The wines have a legato quality, a sort of glide, a lack of percussiveness; they are wines that slip down.
I didn’t like everything. (I never like everything.) But I was thinking “Let’s take a breath after tasting those soul-shaking Von Winnings,” and actually it didn’t work out that way. It isn’t the same satisfaction and it’s less of a thrill, yet I am every bit as happy. I am happy because I saw my friends again.