THURSDAY 16 JUNE, 2011 |
Hirsch - Fallstaff Winemaker of the Year 2011
This article was published in the latest issue of Falstaff Magazine, Austria's highest circulating and most
widely read publication, that covers the topics of Fine Dining, Wine and
THE LIGHTER STYLE OF WINE, REDISCOVERED
Johannes Hirsch was a pioneer in screwcap closures long before they were socially acceptable in Austria. His light-bodied, lively wines preceded the DAC concept, and are produced biodynamically. The innovative winemaker from Kammern in Kamptal is Falstaff Winemaker of the Year 2011.
TEXT Peter Moser
PHOTOS Moritz Schnell
"For some, I might seem slightly eccentric, yet I'm actually a stubborn stag, who prefers a bit of peace and quiet. I follow my instincts and choose to ignore irritating laboratory results."
You can approach the Hirsch Wine Estate from two directions. Driving through the quaint village of Kammern, on the road towards Langenlois, you will turn right into the baroque 'Zehnthof' estate, that once belonged to the Monastery of Passau. The winery lies a short distance from the main road, as though it wished to preserve tradition and tranquillity. The second route is via the foothills of Gaisberg in Zöbing, and if you wander off the marked path, and cross a short meadow, you shall come to a fence that encloses an ecologically-conscious home in modern flair. There is activity in the courtyard. The cellar is equipped with stainless steel tanks. Both the traditional and the modern mould harmoniously as one for Johannes Hirsch, the Falstaff Winemaker of the Year 2011. Preservation of tradition, coupled with modern technology, are elements prevalent at the Hirsch winery. There is one detail present in the winemaker of the year's wines, and this is that "my wines rarely have more than 12.5 percent alcohol by volume". This delicate touch in the wine is a quality that I treasure".
Johannes Hirsch's creed is "don't try to trick nature, which is just as sophisticated, if not more". Therefore a much better motto is "Quality begins in the vineyard"; in other words, healthy grapes are the highest priority.
Over the past twenty years, Johannes Hirsch has increasingly followed this philosophy. His father Josef, who initially laid the foundation for the quality seen today, is still completely responsible for the vineyards. He took over the wine estate in 1976 at a time when a generation passed very little onto its successors. Slowly but surely, Hirsch senior increased the vineyard acreage into the prime vineyard sites. The wine was produced in an old cellar, that was situated on the foothills of Gaisberg in the ancient Kammern 'Kellergasse', that joins the wine-growing town of Strass im Strassertal. Josef Hirsch subsequently leased out his remaining agricultural fields and lay his focus on producing quality wine. The end of the 1980s marked a real upturn for the Hirsch family, and new French grape varieties such as Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon were planted, and new barriques - small French oak barrels - were purchased. Even the indigenous Neuburger variety was matured in oak. At the time, red wine was considered quite significant, and included the varieties Portugieser, Zweigelt, St. Laurent and from 1991, Pinot Noir.
Johannes Hirsch graduated with a degree in oenology from the Federal Viticultural and Oenology College in Klosterneuburg and was eager to take placements in international wineries. Within a period of just one year, the young winemaker was involved in four harvests. His placements took him from New Zealand (with the Austrian ex-patriot Rudi Bauer at Rippon Vineyards) to Australia (Penfolds) across to California (Grand Cru Vineyards). In 1993, he spent six months at Opstal Estate in South Africa, and he returned home with a multitude of new ideas and worldly impressions. Luckily, his father was equally open-minded and welcomed the new concepts, of which many were successfully implemented. Right from the beginning, they started spreading organic manure in the vineyards, and nowadays, this valuable by-product is supplied by Robert Pagets, the innovative cheese producer from neighbouring Diendorf, from his herd of goats and water buffalo. Modern winemaking combined with consistent canopy management in his vineyards, were factors that made the Hirsch white wines highly acclaimed throughout Austria, and the wines were appreciated by critics, as well as wine retailers and the restaurant trade, as a member of the "Traditions Weingüter" in Austria. Yet Johannes Hirsch never considered resting here; on the contrary, he tackled every obstacle and challenge that he encountered.
As early as the 1990s, Johannes became increasingly frustrated with cork taint, and from 1997 to 1999, he bottled his wines with synthetic closures, as an alternative to nature cork. However, his customers still preferred to purchase wines with traditionally sealed with cork.
Hirsch never stopped thinking about the problems of cork closures. Desperation to find an adequate alternative came after the 2000 vintage, when virtually every bottle opened of his super-rare and outstanding Riesling TBA displayed cork taint, much to his dismay. Hirsch had worked with screwcap closures previously at his work-placement in New Zealand. In the meantime, the quality of these closures had improved tremendously, and the tide turned for Johannes Hirsch in Summer 2002, following a visit to the legendary Gramercy Tavern in Manhattan. The sommelier told the budding young Austrian winemaker this: "bottle all your top wines under screwcap, and I'll pour them". The fact that Hirsch released all of his 2003 vintage wines with a screwcap closure, caused controversy and heated discussions. Conservative connoisseurs were outraged that premium, single-vineyard wines, were bottled with a screwcap closure, and at the time, a Falstaff Magazine editorial called for a boycott of screwcaps, particularly Johannes Hirsch's wines, to reverse a downward spiral into a diminishing Austrian wine culture. The benefit of hindsight shows how wrong we were.
Johannes Hirsch thus became an outlaw; a "screwcap" Robin Hood character, without even realising. Yet ten years on, one might just pass a faint smile when thinking back to those arguments, especially when you count the mass of Austrian wines under screwcap on the market today; screwcap closures have become second nature. This is largely thanks to Johannes Hirsch, who had the determination to pursue the screwcap as an alternative closure.
The Kamptal winemaker was also highly innovative with his wines. His experience abroad taught him to keep a clear focus with his wine portfolio, and to concentrate on varieties typical for his region. His decision to produce just Grüner Veltliner and Riesling in Kamptal came long before the concept of DAC wines, and although he is not entirely satisfied with the current implementation of all DAC initiatives, he still regards "Kamptal as being a region with unlimited potential, much more so than any other white wine-growing region". "I firmly believe that you must be careful not to promote wines that are too one-dimensional with a DAC concept, based on technical details. The refined 2010 vintage is a prime example".
The decision to bottle his single-vineyard wines prior to the summer, and to release them in September, is a further commitment to a quality-oriented thinking that ultimately benefits the consumer. The timely relocation of the winery to Kammern has enabled Hirsch to be more flexible during vinification. There is no destemming and whole bunch pressing is the norm. Johannes Hirsch follows his own path as far as wine style is concerned, and even though the cellar is equipped with state of the art technology, Hirsch applies modern winemaking to the level that his wines require; the rest is down to the wines themselves. There is not a cultured yeast in sight, and all wines are allowed to ferment spontaneously. If a wine fails to ferment completely dry, it is bottled with a natural level of residual sugar - why not? The step towards biodynamic viticulture was therefore the natural progression for Johannes Hirsch. The group known as "Respekt" is headed up by Andrew Lorrand, and includes a number of prominent winemakers from the surrounding region. Together, they are informed of the philosophy and advised on how to best tackle challenges to achieve optimal results in Kamptal, that is considered a relatively cool region.
Hirsch's range of wines today is easy to decipher, yet his sought after wines are often difficult to find. The winemaker has opted for a straightforward range of six wines; three wines from just two grape varieties. The entry level Grüner Veltliner, now incidentally in its ninth vintage, is light-bodied with an approachable style, and is known as the "Trinkvergnügen" - literally meaning drinking pleasure. The 2010 vintage is no different to its predecessors as being fresh, vibrant and with true Grüner varietal character. Its wine label is created year for year by a different artist, and fans eagerly await each edition; the most recent being the work of Agnieszka Baniewska, an artist with both Polish and Austrian heritage. The Grüner Veltliner Heiligenstein grows on deep loess and loam soils on the Kammern region of the Heiligenstein. This part of the vineyard is not classified as being a 1st ÖTW site, as it forms part of the larger Heiligenstein commune vineyard. The grapes for this wine also come from the Renner site, situated on the foothills of the Gaisberg, and forms the equivalent of what the single-vineyard Lamm is to the Zöbinger Heiligenstein. In the Kammern section of Lamm, a name that is incidentally not a derivative of sheep, the conditions are ideal for the variety Grüner Veltliner. Deep layers of loam bring about wines of spicy character, longevity and terroir complexity. The Lamm Grüner Veltliners are naturally classified as 1st ÖTW site wines, and is to be considered as a Grand Cru vineyard amongst Austrian white wines, just like the Zöbinger Heiligenstein site.
Riesling Zöbing is produced from grapes grown within the selection of terraced vineyards in the region, and is highly regarded as a mineral-rich Riesling that displays varietal character and is easy to enjoy. The Gaisberg is adjacent to the Heiligenstein; divided merely by a small valley, appropriately called "Grub", meaning trench. The Gaisberg is an extention of the Manhartsberg mountain range, and ends to the west of Strass. The soils consist of brown earth on top of "Gföhler Gneiss", a mineral rich composition of migmatitic granite gneiss, quartz, felspar and mica, over vertical slate. This weathered mica slate is ideal for prime Riesling sites.
The most significant cru in Kamptal is undoubtedly the Heiligenstein site; especially for Riesling. It is also quite a rarity, due to its unique composition of red, weathered desert-like sandy soils, dating from volcanic activity during the Permian period some 270 million years ago. The original name for the Heiligenstein during the Middle Ages was 'Hellenstein', literally 'hell stone' (documented first in 1280). This description was largely due to the comparatively high temperatures of the south-facing vineyards during hot summers. Over time, the name became the Heiligenstein that we know today, and is now considered to be one of the best vineyard sites in Austria for Riesling. The grapevine roots delve deeply through a multitude of unique sandstone, a quality that contributes to the exceptional mineral character in the finished wines. During the day, warm currents raise the average air temperature around the vines, coupled with the thermal effects of the Pannonian climate from the east. After dusk, a chilling evening breeze from the northerly, densely forested Waldviertel region, cools down the vineyards, creating a diurnal effect that brings out the highly aromatic characters. Johannes Hirsch cultivates a prime Riesling site in the heart of Heiligenstein; within these borders, an array of flora and fauna thrives that would normally be seen growing in more southerly Mediterranean climates.
The Heiligenstein is the most important vineyard site in Kamptal, especially for Riesling.
Johannes Hirsch cultivates 31 hectares (approx 76 acres), which is about the maximum that he can manage biodynamically as a family-run wine estate; a factor that is paramount to the happily married Hirsch and father of three children. "It's not possible for me to attend every wine fair and I cannot sell to all international wine markets. Take the 2010 vintage for example, when I produced the least wine from the largest acreage". Therefore, fans of the Hirsch Grüner Veltliners and Rieslings need to stay alert, if they are to get the chance to buy one of these exceptional single-vineyard wines. Yet, despite the reduced quantities, the stubborn stag Johannes Hirsch shall not release his wines until September 2011.
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