Weingut Priele: Bergenland

Prielers are having their “moment” right now, a phenomenon that tends to occur about fifteen years after I start talking about something or someone, not because I have a privileged view through the periscope but because things that take place in umlaut-bearing locales get less attention, not to mention all the attention being squandered on sweaty-bog-shrimp wines.

Pinot Blanc led me here. It’s among the world’s most interesting, and singularly delicious. When I first arrived, the reds were more “international” in style, and the signature Blaufränkisch could often feel broody and gravelly. The great wines – and there were a few, more than sporadic and less than “frequently” – were seriously fabulous, but they didn’t constitute a baseline.

Two things happened to make it change. One was, the estate obtained land in a second Grand Cru, and now there was a certain weight behind the lineup that attracted more attention.

The other thing was the echo of a heartening trend I’ve been seeing as generations shift. Let’s leave aside the feints toward the “natural wine” idiom, and focus on the good news. And that news is, many of the new generation vintners are more focused on their own terroirs, in what makes them distinctive, free now from any need to prove themselves by making plausible wines in international dialects. Georg Prieler, for example, is doing away with a barrique-made Chardonnay in favor of a delicately woodsy Pinot Blanc. He seems to be focused on texture, articulation, and polish in his “important” reds. He himself is also an appealing guy, funny and also thoughtful, decidedly serious and as unpretentious as a person can be. It feels good to praise the wines, because everything that surrounds them is appealing.

FIRST, MY FAVORITE ROSE:

2020 Rosé “vom Stein”

Vom Stein is a brand-name and not an indication of site. But this remarkable wine is nearly entirely Blaufränkisch (with all the acidity and angularity that implies) along with a smidge of Merlot to give the guy some belly. Curiously the Merlot also dominates the tertiary finish, but that doesn’t obtrude on the wine’s essentially “wild” profile. This is deliberate; Georg wants it that way. It’s a rosé with attitude, and if you came in search of big fruit you’re gonna have to reckon with a shitbucket of pepper and herbs and arugula and cilantro.

The ’20 is a little more tame than the bigger vintages have been, a little cooler and more aloof yet basically in-character if less intense. But it’s not because of the vintage, and it ran contrary to Georg’s desire that his Rosé should be serious and ageworthy (we joked about a “library release” of 10-year-old Rosé, and wondered whether that actually was a joke….), but his customers start demanding the Rosé around the time they get rid of their Christmas trees, and we all want happy customers.

But do us and yourselves a favor – keep a few bottles around for a while, and wee how intricate and vinous a Rosé can be.

RED  WINES:

2018 St. Laurent

Grown on slate and limestone and vinified in Austrian wood, Prieler’s SL is one of those man-wresting-with-nature dramatizations. If you don’t know, the variety is a prima-donna in the vineyard and it makes no economic sense for anyone who grows it, which in turn means that a vintner is chasing a kind of Ideal, and the risk of falling short is ever-present. But when it succeeds, it is miraculous.

This one’s broad-shouldered and burly as these wines go. It shows clean in the Jancis glass and Brett-y in the Spiegelau “red,” which is the opposite of anything I might have expected. On first glance – and knowing the first glance may be deceiving – I like this less than other vintages. It shows an adamant charred note that seems to exaggerate a facet of SL that normally gives it contour, but here it is largely bitter. Possibly it is underripe – 12.5 alc is on the meager side. I wonder if it will seem less cantankerous in a day or two.

On DAY TWO the aromas are certainly sweeter, with no more than a thin shroud of brett, within bounds for the variety. The palate continues to be…let’s call it “rugged,” which sounds less pejorative than “rustic.” 

BLAUFRANKISCH is a truly heartening story. Georg has taken what was always excellent and made the wines even more glossy and supple. Not that they’re “soft” because Blaufränkisch can never be soft unless its nature is played false, but he’s altered the canopy work in the vineyards so as to create a more seamless balance of fruit and tannin. He told me this is far more significant than any changes he may have made in the cellar. BF doesn’t really need tannin as such, because its acidity gives structure, and you’ll have some measure of tannin no matter what.  He also suggested that the vineyards change each year post-organic conversion, and bio-dynamics also confer a sort of sheen of contentment to a wine. I’m willing to believe that, if for no other reason than I cannot otherwise account for how moving the wines were.

 

You know what I mean, even if I’m not saying it very well. We all drink lots of “good wine” and even a few great wines from time to time. But how often do we drink a wine that is redolent of a bedrock contentment that everything is healthy and flourishing and each thing is in its proper place – at home, and grounded.

2018 Blaufränkisch Leithaberg      +  (but ++ from the Jancis!)

The whole story is told in my catalogue(s) but to sum it up, “Leithaberg” refers to the southwestern slopes of a range of hills between Vienna and the Neusiedlersee. Soils run to mica-schist and limestone and the micro-climate is breezy, warm and dry. Some years back, a group of growers chose the name “Leithaberg” under which to offer wines (red and white) with no discernible wood flavor but with all the minerality the sites could bestow. The goal was a kind of articulation of terroir in a medium-weight form.

It was good, it worked, the wines were often fascinating.

So what went wrong? The name “Leithaberg” was chosen for the whole regional “DAC,” so now when you see it on the label it is less particularly meaningful, though many growers make the wine they made before, only under a less significant name. 

Prieler sometimes sees the wine as the little brother of his Grand Crus, and in vintages when he feels the Grand Crus aren’t grand enough, the fruit goes into this wine, which therefore is at its best in lighter vintages, paradoxically. If you think of Ott’s Der Ott  or Diel’s Eierfels (or, for that matter, Carraudes de Lafite) you get the picture.

Ok, say you were making a case for Blaufränkisch, to someone(s) who needed to be convinced. You stay away from the very top wines on purpose, because you want to show what the variety can consistently achieve in good hands. You choose, precisely, a wine like this, and you could easily choose this very wine – because OMG, this smells beautiful. No one could lift his to his nose and dispute the importance of this variety! It would be perverse and sullen. A wine like this smells better than many other wines I also like: Cabernet, Tannat, (old-world) Malbec (Cahors, etc), and if you think of the lovelinesses of Sicilian reds, of Greek Reds, you cannot reasonably dispute this variety stands on the summit of that mountain range.

In the Jancis it is both a rapture of prettiness and a studiously etched pattern of flavors. It’s more hedonic in the MacNeil. The wine has soft dusty tannin that’s more an organizing principle than a blatant bit of “structure” – BF has more than enough structure of its own. If Jancis’ glass doesn’t convince you that red wines can show the most fervid minerality, then you, sir, are nothing but a stubborn poltroon. This lovely wine is like a philosophy professor with a disarmingly sweet smile.

A weensy bit more subdued a day later, which isn’t shocking for such a concentrated young red. I continue to find the wine embodies sophistication in every sense that isn’t snooty or arch.

 

Concentration with transparency isn’t often accomplished; yet another reason not only to enjoy but also to cherish this singular and lovely wine.

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2017 Blaufränkisch Ried Marienthal                                  ++

This great Grand Cru has inspired one of the most intriguing things I’ve ever read on a grower’s (often fluff-y) websites. Georg writes: “Warm Pannonian air masses that encourage vine growth meet cool soils that slow growth. This tension creates wines that are also marked with a particular antagonism. Immense power is buffered by vibrant acidity, abundant tannin, a delineated texture and an intense play of fruit.”

 

I love that word antagonism. Some wines are great by dint of their seamless harmonies. We adore them. But some wines are great because of a basic tension offering an improbable reconciliation. This may be one such. The site is built on limestone with overlays of sand. Compared with its sibling Grand Cru Goldberg, this one is more St Emilion and that one’s more Pomerol. Marienthal is more lavish and untamed, and this ’17 is dynamically typical. It calls to (my) mind a “molecular” chef who’s somehow contrived a gelée of voatsiperifery (a wild pepper grown in Madagascar), because the texture is rich and bloody yet the flavor is wildly charged with an almost savage complexity.

 

It’s more approachable the next day, though it’s so lavish that it wasn’t forbidding even out of the freshly opened bottle. Of the two Crus, this is the easier to grok; it knows the moves a great wine’s supposed to have. Goldberg is more inscrutable in its youth, though possibly more profound in its maturity.

 

Clichés always at the ready, I have to note “needs time” “needs air” and all that old jazz. But face it, we’re all drinking  all kinds of wines stupid-young, we’re used to it, this won’t shock us, but if we’re ready to believe that Austrian reds can do more than merely flirt with greatness, all ya gotta do is sniff ‘n slurp.

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2017 Blaufränkisch Ried Goldberg                             ++(+)

Stands with Austria’s very greatest reds, and stands with the world’s great reds, and this one buckled my knees as I first sniffed it – and I was sitting down!

 

It enters the palate so firm as to be opaque, but that only lasts a second. The tertiary flavors lunge in and build their city of iron and peppers. A stingingly minty carapace protects a sweetly tender core, but you may have to take my word for it. 

 

Valerie Kathawala, co-editor of the indispensible new magazine TRINK, was taken aback when I disputed that Pinot Noir was, as is sometimes said, the “red Riesling.” If there is such a thing, it is Blaufränkisch, and if there is a red-wine cognate to the great Cru Forster Pechstein then maybe it is this.

 

I’ll report back when the wine has had a few days open, and when I’ve tasted it warmer (it’s currently at 61 degrees), because Goldberg, for all its profundity, is the introvert of the tandem with Marienthal.

 

THE NEXT DAY I poured it and let it sit in the glass(es) for a half hour. Seriously, this wine is world-class profound. It’s so articulate it doesn’t need the Jancis glass’s customary explication. It’s an itchy beast of terroir, some giddy shriek of schist colliding with black pepper, and the finish is like bathing in a quarry of black dust.

WHITE  WINES:

2020 Gemischter Satz “Kalkterassen”       glug-glug-glug   and +

A cuvée from fossil-bearing limestone, consisting of Grüner Veltliner, Sauvignon Blanc, Gelber Muskateller and Welschriesling, or in other words, spicy, frisky and aromatically expressive varieties.

 

For me this is simple; it’s a picnic among the herbs. It’s a ludicrously fecund spring day and you set your grub in the tall grasses and you’re thinking “This could get all buggy and itchy” but in thirty seconds you’re under some spell, not even really yourself any more; you sit there awash in the superbly horny smells of nature getting it on, and your very skin starts smelling like the thousand herbs around you, and maybe you think “This poor wine’s gonna get obliterated by all this nature,” but you take the first sip and the membrane between “wine” and “nature” dissolves and everything’s kicking and screaming and needing to breed, and the next thing you know you’re cursing yourself that you didn’t bring another bottle. 

 

It comes from a “really super vineyard we bought in 2019, on a plateau that’s extreme limestone,” he says. It’s largely Pinot Blanc, which is a secret weapon to be used if the bloc-harvested wine ends up imbalanced. “If the Grüner is ripe, there’s a risk the Sauvignon Blanc gets overripe, and the Gelber Muskateller is a pain in the ass in any case, so if you pick them together you could end up with something that might be helped by a few liters of the more creamy Pinot Blanc.”

 

Trying fruitlessly to be “objective,” I have NEVER tasted a Gemischter Satz in the same universe as this one. It’s the crazy-pretty embodiment of whatever force it is that causes the bulb to make a plant that pushes out of the ground. There’s an old blues song whose chorus is “Since I met you baby, I’m happy as a man can be.” Damn straight.

2019 Chardonnay Sinner

What used to be a “Ried” (site) name is evidently verboten in the brave-new-world of “DAC” so Sinner is now a trademark, for the unoaked long-lees-contact Chardonnay the family has made for many years. Far from feeble, it sports 13.5% alc and is determined to show another option for this most ubiquitous (and mundane) of grape varieties. The site is fossil-bearing limestone and mica-schist, and the wine resembles a Chablis grown away from Kimmeridge, the same northern twang but without the specific terroir marker.

 

The wine is stony, a little saline, a bit of a closed fist, and while “nondescript” would be a pitiless word to throw at it, I don’t know how I’d complete the sentence “You need this wine because…_______”  Could this land be put to more interesting use? Or am I being uncharitable? The wine improved on the second day, and it’s a pleasant drink, but I think the salient question isn’t whether the wine is good. It’s good, it’s always been good. But is it the best use of both the land and of Georg’s talents? You could make either case, and if it’s a big seller for the domain then that settles it.

2019 Pinot Blanc Ried Seeberg

This is the wine that drew me to Prieler many years ago. I had never seen this variety show itself in such a sun-warmed manner, as if certain blossoms would only release their fragrance when they’d sat in the sun for hours on end.

 

Think that was stupid? Here’s something really stupid. Imagine a fricassee of shrimp with crumbled corn chips on top, baked in the oven just long enough to cook the shrimp.  Ha, or not! It just grabbed me. OK, back to sanity; from the Jancis glass this becomes a significant creature, showing its signature conversation between (what I’m calling) its “warm-petal” element (think oleander, flowering meadow, even orange blossom) and that immensely savory-sweet flavor of tender local bay-scallops, delivered in a deliberate soliloquy of (both) logic and melody.

 

As a body, its movements are supple and fluid. Its warm/cool tandem is suggested, not asserted. I can promise you it ages into even more savory complexity for up to twenty years, at which point it’s like a sweet-corn bisque with pumpkin and bacon. This is a fine, elegant vintage of a modestly heroic wine.

2018 Pinot Blanc Ried Haidsatz

His best cuvée of PB, old vines, a little oak. There used to be a rather blatantly barrique-y Chardonnnay that was discontinued, and this wine seems to be taking its place in a subtler form. I’ve had a lot of 2014 Chassagne 1er Crus – I bought the vintage for its reputation and the commune for its affordability – and this wine would sit neatly and inconspicuously among them. Oak, when it’s intelligently applied, can seem to glide into the body of the wine, carried on a stream of lees that blends ineluctably, instead of tasting like it was plastered on. It’s hard to bring off outside of Burgundy and it’s by no means guaranteed in Burgundy any more. But when oaky wine works, this is how it works – or so I argue.

 

Sometimes I roast a chicken on a bed of Israeli cous-cous, and sometimes I soak some dried chanterelles and use the liquid to cook the couscous in the oven with the bird on top. If I used a few threads of saffron, or used a salt mixture I make from saffron powder and sea salt, and got the couscous nice and yellow and umami-sweet, it will totally rock the chicken, and this wine will totally rock the plate. And putting myself into the mind of the vintner, I have to applaud how deftly Georg managed to impart elegance and seamlessness to this  wine, which belongs to a genre where such things are….exceptional.