Barreling down between the vines on the Eisner slope of the Leithaberg on the back of a quad, I suddenly realize that Rudi is going to steer us right over that big slab of schist before us. I hear myself scream as we sail into the air and I could swear we are going to land smack in the middle of Lake Neusiedl.
I am in the Leithaberg appellation on the west side of Lake Neusiedl in Burgenland. Rudi Wagentristl, vintner from the village of Grosshöflein, is my host. I thought Rudi was a shy, tame sort of guy. I was wrong. He’s an animal. I should have known better. His wines are cut sharp as a knife without a gram of fat. They are so mineral it is like licking rocks. Rudi laughs, “That’s the Leithaberg terroir. It would be a shame to disguise all that minerality with jammy overripe fruit or sweet toasty oak.” My heart is still thumping as Rudi and I dismount the quad and walk over to another outcropping of slate and from right next to it, Rudi picks up one of the many pale, white-grey rocks. It is made of fossilized seashells. “This is ‘Leithakalk’.” What a curious combination: marine limestone and primary rock! Suddenly I realize that this place must have a unique geological history.
“The Leitha Mountains are the last foothills of the Alps before you reach the Pannonian Plain. Over the course of millions of years, the mountains sank and the ancient sea emptied, leaving Lake Neusiedl ‘only’ 340 km² and still with a moderately high salt content. The 14 km long, southeast-facing mountain ridge has a core of schist and slate covered with marine limestone deposits. The Leithaberg appellation comprises around 3,000 ha of vineyards in the district of Eisenstadt, the regional capital, and 19 wine villages in the surrounding area with the exception of the city of Rust.”
Rudi has a devilish gleam in his eye as he says, “Let’s go for another spin on the quad before we meet up with Ina and Finkus Bripp for a picnic.” We ride up the mountain through the vineyards to the forest which caps the ridge. I feel the coolness on my skin on the side facing the forest as we drive along its edge. On my side facing Lake Neusiedl I feel the warmth of the sun. Northern Burgenland enjoys 2000 hours of sunshine each year making its large lake a haven for tourists. There are bike paths and walking trails all around the lake and the opportunities for various water sports are endless. The sailboats are built specially for this lake; they are wider and have a shorter keel because the lake never exceeds more than 6 feet deep. The broad rim of reeds around the lake is a natural habitat for a plethora of water birds and other animals and rare plants. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and there is an expansive wildlife preserve here. “As you can imagine, birds are our largest vineyard pests. They can swoop in and plunder an entire vineyard in a matter of minutes. Before and during harvest season, you’ll hear gunshots. Not many are from hunters, but rather from farmers protecting their crops and scaring the birds away.”
Ina has set up a nice picnic and a tasting of Leithaberg wines from several different vintners. By the time we arrive, I have begun to feel a little more at home on the quad, but I must admit that I enjoy the quiet peace once the engine is shut off. It is time to concentrate on these wines, after all. The Leithaberg DAC encompasses two wines, a white and a red. What they have in common is elegance and a purity of expression. It is structure and minerality that are sought rather than fruit-driven opulence or oaky flavours. The wines are allowed to ferment and mature longer and I taste come to believe that this has enhanced mineral finesse. Whether red or white, the wines coming from the marine-limestone dominated sites have a lemony acid structure and nearly salty minerality. The wines from slate soils seem darker, spicier, but equally taut and firm. Only grape varieties that are typical for the region are allowed. For the whites, this is Grüner Veltliner, Pinot Blanc, Chardonnay and Neuburger. The whites can be made either from a single variety or they can be a blend. The Leithaberg red wines are made from Blaufränkisch and only a small percentage of other regional varieties are allowed. The red is first permitted to enter the market two years after the harvest. I like this style of wine: never loud or flashy, but deep and elegant – never above 13.5% alcohol and always appetizing. They possess the type of classic beauty and structure that shall age well.
Ina and Rudi have been friends since elementary school and it is fun talking with them about what they love to do in their region in their free time. Ina says, “I am a great music lover. Have you ever heard of the composer Hayden? He spent much of his life composing at the Esterhazy Castle in Eisenstad. There is a permanent exhibition there and concerts are often performed in the stunning Hayden auditorium of the castle. There are also two important outdoor music festivals within the Leithaberg appellation, the Seefestspiele in Mörbisch with the stage on the lake and the Opernfestspiele in the rock quarry in St. Margarethen.”
“The Leithaberg appellation is also lucky to have several good wine restaurants. One of the top chefs in the country, Walter Eselböck has his restaurant Taubenkobel in Schützen am Gebirge and his wife Evelyn has put together quite an impressive selection of wines – not just from Leithaberg, but from all of Austria as well as the classic wine regions of the world. Their daughter, Stephanie married a vintner, Edi Tscheppe and they have the winery and the chic little heuriger Gut Oggau . The village of Purbach has become a real gourmet mecca – Gut Purbach, Kloster am Spitz, Pauli’s Stuben, Fossil – take your pick. You are sure to enjoy it – we Leithaberg vintners certainly do!”