Christoph Wachter gives me a cheeky wink as he snaps the visor to his helmet shut. In his black, silver and royal blue flameproof race suit, he strides towards the sleek silver Lamborghini in the pit stop. Both car doors are open and Christoph motions me to the passenger side.
On the other side of the shiny sleek Lamborghini is a surprise waiting for me. Christoph laughs heartily, “I thought you’d like that, Julia! The only Lamborghini I am ever likely to own will be a vineyard tractor! In our adventure today we are going to race these two little go-carts!”
Before arriving at the race track, I spent the morning with Christoph Wachter in the vineyards and I thoroughly enjoyed his good-natured humour. Christoph is the winemaker at the Wachter-Wiesler winery in Deutsch-Schützen in the heart of the Eisenberg appellation. Eisenberg is definitely the most rustic wine landscape in the province of Burgenland. 500 hectares of vineyard area in the most southern part of the province are dispersed in the rugged hills that stretch from the foot of Mount Geschriebenstein in the north to the wine village of Moschendorf in the south. The countryside is sparsely populated and the mountains and hills are capped with forests. The higher vineyard slopes are rooted in slate. The lower elevations are iron-rich loam top soils over slate. Blaufränkisch is the region’s flagship grape variety and the only variety allowed for wines labeled Eisenberg DAC and Eisenberg DAC Reserve.
Christoph shows me how to operate the go-cart and gives me a few tips for the race track. I chuckle and glance back at the Lamborghini. “By the way,” says Christoph, “did you know that Ferruccio Lamborghini was the son of viticulturists? Until his retirement, when he actually did purchase a large Fattoria in Umbria, his interest was more in vineyard machinery than in making wine. The success of his line of tractors made it possible for the young Lamborghini to follow his passion for exotic cars. He admired Ferrari and owned and tinkered with several, but found the cars too noisy and uncomfortable. It was his dream to create a ‘grand tourer’, a car which combined the performance of Ferrari without sacrificing ride quality and comfort.”
“I like to compare the new wines from the Eisenberg DAC to Lamborghini cars. In the past our wines in southern Burgenland have been, shall we say, sometimes rather wild and rough. As idyllic as the landscape is, we are rather isolated here. The Eisenberg appellation regulations are lending structured unity and a more disciplined focus to a wine area dominated by quirky tiny wine farms. The average grower here has only a half a hectare of vineyards.”
A half a hectare of wines is hardly enough to nourish a family, so many vintners have other full-time professions and growing grapes is merely a sideline. The hobby vintners often planted what was easiest to grow and brought the most fruit, or they simply grew the variety they most liked to drink without paying much attention to the true potential of the terroir. “There is even an area in the south around the village of Heiligenbrunn where they grow hybrid grapes due to their resistance to phylloxera and fungal diseases. Those foxy-funky examples are neither allowed for the Eisenberg DAC nor for Austrian quality wines. These wines have been nicknamed “Uhudler” because they are rumoured to result in big dark rings around your eyes like an owl (called Uhu in the local dialect) after drinking too much.
“Heiligenbrunn is known for other things though. The name means ‘holy water well’,” explains Christoph. “The entire area in southern Burgenland is known for its healing waters where you find luxurious spas, wellness and golf hotels nestled in an otherwise rural landscape. At two of these hotels we have superb restaurants, Das Gogers in Neudauberg and Traube in Bad Tatzmannsdorf. There you can enjoy regional wine specialties that are difficult to find outside of our area as well as wines from all over Austria together with cuisine of international gourmet standards.”
More and more hobby vintners are leasing or selling their vineyards to local full-time winemakers. Winemakers Krutzler and Schiefer were the first to achieve national and international recognition and lend inspiration to others in the area. Farmers began sending their children off to viticultural schools and enology colleges and encouraged them to gain experience at international wine producers. Reinhold Krutzler founded the Deutsch Schützen Sixpack with five other vintners from his wine village dedicated to exploring the region’s terroir and making the best single-vineyard wines possible. The Vinum Ferreum project also has a new ambitious winemaker that is turning heads with delicious wines at knock-out prices. “There was a time when international varieties were gaining in popularity in the region, but luckily as the young vintners came back from abroad, they realized that we had something very special here. With Blaufränkisch, we have an indigenous grape variety that is well adapted to our soils and climate and is capable of expressing our unique terroir.”
Harvest volumes remain low on the steep, rocky soils of the Eisenberg appellation. The best Blaufränkisch from these vineyards exhibit spicy lingonberry and blackberry fruit and abundant fine-grained tannins combined with high-acid to lend silky mouthfeel. The high iron-content of the soil is unique in Austria and a distinctive mineral expression of Blaufränkisch is achieved. This is the foundation for two Blaufränkisch appellation wines, an Eisenberg DAC and an Eisenberg DAC Reserve. There is a dark mineral spice, a wild heathery aroma and a hint of raw meatiness found in both that is not found elsewhere. The Eisenberg DAC is lighter and fruitier, while the Eisenberg DAC Reserve is fuller-bodied and more concentrated and accentuated by even more minerality. Oak maturation is required for the Reserve and it is first released in the second year after its harvest.
When asked what one pairs best with these wines, Christoph replies, “As you can imagine from our farming heritage, we have a few culinary specialties in the region. The ‘Moorochse’ is a crossing of a Galloway and Aberdeen Angus which has been bred for generations in the Pannonian wetlands. The Eisenberg Reserve is the perfect wine to pair with braised and roasted versions of this. And roasted guinea fowl is a preferred dish to serve with the lighter Eisenberg wines. My uncle’s restaurant Wachter-Wieslers Ratschen offers these specialties. And Restaurant Csencsits will make entire themed gourmet menus to pair with the Eisenberg wines.”
“I like to meet together with my colleagues and do blind tastings. We taste and track single vineyard wines from our region, but we also taste wines from all over the world. We learn a lot from our tastings and from each other. We discuss what we are doing at our wineries and in which direction we would like to take our little appellation. Sometimes we meet at my uncle’s place, but sometimes we like to go to the Il Sapore wine bar in Oberwart. We nibble on antipasti and have long conversations while listening to some good music over a glass of wine.”
One has the feeling of embarking on a new voyage in the Eisenberg appellation. Lamborghini was able to smooth the clutch provide a comfortable ride without sacrificing power and performance. The Eisenberg vintners appear to be gaining more focus and drive in their wines without losing the wild and rugged spice and minerality.