It's hard to imagine an age when wine might have literally been seen as treasure. Certainly those of us with the privilege of living in first-world countries take the idea of drinking wine for granted as an everyday pleasure. There was a time, however, that wine, especially the good stuff, was more valuable than gold in some places in this world. So valuable, in fact, that it could be used to buy your way out from underneath the control of an empire.
With a mouthful of the finest Ruster Ausbruch swirling around your tongue, it's not difficult to accept the idea of these gorgeous sweet wines made in Austria's Burgenland region as metaphorically liquid gold. Perhaps slightly trickier to grasp might be the idea that a few hundred years ago, the most expensive wines in the world were quite often sweet (before refined sugar was more commonly available in the 18th Century, sweet things were very, very expensive). But it is downright mind-boggling to imagine that in the year 1681, the town of Rust bought its way out of the Austro-Hungarian empire's feudal system with what amounted to 10 vintages worth of the town's production of Ausbruch and 60,000 guilders of gold.
Becoming a "Freetown" meant that the winemakers of Rust were no longer subject to their (hated) local duke's taxation, nor beholden to him to bring their products to market. In effect, they answered directly to the emperor. This scheme was cooked up and brought to fruition by a mere five of the town's most successful families. It probably only worked because the monarchy needed money to fund its war with the Ottoman Empire, and was more than happy to cut out the duke as a middleman for taxes and get some fantastic wine in the process. This remarkable independence was merely one more major milestone in Rust's long and distinguished history as one of Europe's most storied wine regions.
Rust has long been, and is still, a rather small town on the southwest shore of lake Neusiedl, its cobblestone streets lined with pretty facades and ancient chapels, a mere stone's throw from the modern-day border with Hungary. For most of the past few centuries Rust was indeed part of Hungary, despite long being a German-speaking town (this perhaps thanks to the region's Protestant devotion).
Like most of the Burgenland region, Rust's winemaking heritage can be traced back nearly 3000 years, but the true story of wine in Rust begins with the 12th-century Cistercian monks, whose considerable wine growing expertise set Rust on its path to wine stardom. In addition to bringing many of the Burgundian grape varieties that are today commonplace in the region, the monks may have been the first to recognize and utilize botrytis cinerea, the "noble rot" that can produce sweet wines by consuming the moisture in grapes and leaving the concentrated sugars behind.
By the beginning of the 1600's the region surrounding Rust had begun to produce wines that were referred to in local parlance as "Ausbruch" which means "to break out" and (depending on who you talk to) either refers to the practice of picking out the botrytized berries from an otherwise healthy cluster, or the fact that the addition of a little non-botrytized juice to the fermenting berries dissolves crystallized sugars and speeds along fermentation. Indeed, these initial Ausbruch wines were almost always made with a mix of healthy and botryritized fruit, but the region long knew the potential of wines that were solely made from botrytized grapes (known elsewhere in Austria and Germany as Trockenbeerenauslese or TBA) thanks to one of the best historical wine stories I have ever heard.
The story goes like this. In 1452 (notably several centuries before anyone in Sauternes tried it) some incredibly hard working vintners in the region produced a single 8000 liter barrel of wine made exclusively of botrytized grapes. For the next hundred years, a lot of it got consumed in the local community, but each time the cask was broken open to celebrate a wedding or a feast, washed pebbles were inserted into the barrel to ensure that no oxygen remains in the barrel. Then in 1552, the local duke bought 1000 liters of the wine, and using the same technique, served it at the most prestigious official functions for the next three hundred years. The final drop of wine from this barrel was documented consumed in 1852, and purportedly tasted fantastic.
Let there be no doubt, at the very least, about the age-worthiness of Ruster Ausbruch.
But for any of you who, like I did, got a glint in your eye at hearing this story and toyed with the idea of searching out some 100-year-old bottles of the stuff, you can start cursing the Russians, who occupied the town in World War Two, and drank every last bottle of wine in the the region. As one vintner put it to me, "If you ever see a bottle of Ruster Ausbruch before 1955, it's either a fake, or almost impossibly well hidden."
Thanks to the shallow Neusiedlersee which moistens warm winds from across the Pannonian plains, botrytis is all but guaranteed in the vineyards of Rust, no matter what the grape variety. While Furmint (the dominant variety used to make Tokaji Azsu, the famous sweet wine in neighboring Hungary) used to be common in Ruster Ausbruch, today Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, Welschriesling, Neuberger, and Traminer are more common varieties, and most wines are a blend of at least two of these.
Over the course of the 20th Century, the majority of Ruster Ausbruch gradually shifted towards the TBA style, which is what nearly everyone produces today, unless their wines don't have quite enough sugar to qualify, and then must be labeled as Beerenauslese.
Most of the vinification today is done as it has always been done, with native yeasts in big oak casks and/or more modern steel. Wines made in the "classic" style (which unfortunately isn't indicated on most labels) are aged in huge, ancient oak casks, while some wines are raised in smaller (and newer) French oak barrels.
There are about thirty or so commercial producers of Ruster Ausbruch, though like much of Austria, many locals make their own wine for their own and other limited local consumption.
These wines are nothing short of remarkable, perhaps most of all for their incredible acidity. The best Ruster Ausbruchs can without a doubt rival any of the world's top dessert wines. They possess a freshness and a brightness that makes them incredibly easy to drink, while their complex swirling flavors can be kaleidoscopic and mesmerizing.
Sadly, many of these wines are not easily procured, especially on the internet. This is due partially to the extremely small quantities in which they are made, as well as the generally low demand for dessert wines in this country. If you see a Ruster Ausbruch anywhere, it's probably worth trying.
I was lucky enough to sit down to taste with several of the local vintners on my recent press trip to Austria. Here's what we tasted.
2010 Feiler-Artinger "Beerenauslese" White Blend, Rust, Burgenland, Austria
Yellow gold in the glass, this wine smells of honey and quince paste, with a bright candied lemon note. In the mouth, candied lemon and honey mix with a bright juicy acidity and a wonderful lightness. Wonderfully long finish with a slightly pithy orange quality. Light to moderately sweet. A blend of Pinot Blanc, Neuburger, Welschriesling, and Chardonnay. 11% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $33. click to buy.
2000 Conrad "Beerenauslese" Welschreisling, Rust, Burgenland, Austria
Medium yellow gold in the glass, this wine smells heavenly: dried apricots, orange peel, honey, and wet stones. In the mouth, the wine has a fantastic lightness and utter weightlessness on the palate, as it if is levitating in the mouth, with gorgeous floral (honeysuckle, gardenia) and honey flavors, and wet stone minerality. Fantastic acidity makes this wine incredibly easy to gulp, I mean, drink. Crystalline, sumptuous, mouthwatering. Wow. 11.5% alcohol. Score: between 9.5 and 10.
2008 Weingut Giefing "Ruster Ausbruch" Furmint, Rust, Burgenland, Austria
Medium yellow gold in the glass, this wine smells of honey and apricots with a nice floral note on top. In the mouth, bright candied lemon with hints of apricots and orange flavors float on a very silky texture with a nice weight. Decent acidity keeps the wine lively on the tongue. Moderately to very sweet. 10.5% alcohol. Score: around 9.
2006 Weingut Landauer "Ruster Ausbruch" White Blend, Rust, Burgenland, Austria
Medium yellow gold in the glass, this wine smells of bright lemon curd and white flowers. In the mouth the wine has a gorgeous silky weight to it. Effortless in the mouth, with fantastic, delicate acidity, the wine seems to float. Mineral undertones and moderate sweetness contribute to a cool stony quality. Fantastic. A blend of Welschriesling and Pinot Blanc. 11% alcohol. Score: around 9.5.
2008 Heidi Schröck "Ruster Ausbruch Auf den Flügeln der Morgenröte" White Blend Rust, Burgenland, Austria
Medium yellow gold in the glass, this wine smells of baked apples and wet stones with peach overtones. In the mouth the wine has a silky satin weight to it, with dried apricots, a creamy lemon note and gorgeous long finish. Hints of herbs like chamomile in the finish. Name means "on the wings of dawn." A blend of Pinot Blanc, Welschreisling, and Sauvignon Blanc. Moderately to very sweet. Score: around 9. Cost: $65. click to buy.
2009 Weingut Günter und Regina Triebaumer "Ruster Ausbruch" Welschreisling, Rust, Burgenland, Austria
Medium gold in the glass, this wine smells of bright lemon curd and honey. In the mouth, candied lemon peel and orange peel mix with orange blossom water and linger in a long finish. Wonderful acidity and delicate balance. Moderate sweetness. Score: between 9 and 9.5.
2007 Feiler-Artinger "Ruster Ausbruch Pinot Cuvée" White Blend, Rust, Burgenland, Austria
Medium to dark gold in the glass, this wine smells of floral and honey notes, with a hint of oak and sweet vanilla and oddly, smoky cocoa bean. In the mouth the wine has wonderful bright acidity and gorgeous thick silky texture, Gorgeous lemon and honey flavors meld with underlying minerality. Beautiful long finish. Such great acidity. Moderate to very sweet. 60% Pinot Blanc, 30% Pinot Gris, 5% Chardonnay, and 5% Neuberger. 11% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $61. click to buy.
2007 Weingut Schandl "Ruster Ausbruch" White Blend, Rust, Burgenland, Austria
Medium to dark gold in the glass, this wine smells of candied lemon peel, with incredible honey and floral notes that evoke acacia blossom. In the mouth the wine is an electric lemon and acacia honey explosion that offers incredible acidity and a super silky sexy texture. Phenomenal finish. Utterly stunning. Very sweet. A blend of Welschriesling and Rhine Riesling. 10% alcohol. Score: between 9.5 and 10. Cost: $45. click to buy.
2007 Weinbau Wenzel "Ruster Ausbruch SAZ" White Blend, Rust, Burgenland, Austria
Medium to dark gold in the glass, this wine smells of candied apricots, dried mango, and dark honey. In the mouth the wine has an incredible weight on the tongue with this floating silkiness that is both thick and cloud-like at the same time. Phenomenal acidity kicks up in stages making the mouth water as apricot honey and lemon curd flavors course across the palate like a breeze. Remarkable. Very sweet. A very unusual blend of Furmint and Gelber Muskateller. Incredibly good. Score: between 9.5 and 10. Cost: $88. click to buy.
2007 Ernst Triebaumer "Ruster Ausbruch" White Blend, Rust, Burgenland, Austria
Medium to dark gold in the glass, this wine smells of candied orange peel with honey and dried apricots. In the mouth, the wine has a silky thickness to it, with moderate acidity and flavors of dried mango, pineapple, and other tropical fruits. Dried apricot and honey linger in a long finish. Slightly less acidity than I would like, but enough that the wine isn't syrupy. Beautiful creamy texture and flavor. Moderate to very sweet. A blend of Chardonnay, Welschriesling, and Sauvignon Blanc. 11.5% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $42. click to buy.
1999 Weingut Bachkönig "Ruster Ausbruch" White Blend Rust, Burgenland, Austria
Medium amber in color, this wine smells of candied apricots, dried mangos, dark honey, and a tiny hint of paraffin. In the mouth the wine offers moderately sweet flavors of burnt orange peel, dark honey, vanilla and caramel. A long finish of beeswax and wet stone vibrates for a long time in the mouth. A remarkable wine with fantastic acidity and incredible balance. A blend of Welschriesling, Pinot Blanc, and Traminer. Made in the old style where additional juice is added to lengthen maceration. Moderate to very sweet. 13.5% alcohol. Score: between 9.5 and 10.
2001 Weingut Conrad "Ruster Ausbruch Pinot Essenz" White Blend, Rust, Burgenland, Austria
Medium amber in color, this wine has an incredible nose of dried mango and pineapple and honey aromas. It tastes of smoky dried mango, honey, and candied apricot. A high note of candied orange rind floats over the top of this thick, sexy wine. Incredibly long finish, with great acidity. A blend of Neuberger and Pinot Gris. Very sweet.10.5% alcohol. Score: around 9.5.
1999 Weingut Seiler "Ruster Ausbruch" White Blend, Rust, Burgenland, Austria
Medium to dark amber in color, this wine smells of dark, burnt candied orange peel. In the mouth the wine has a remarkable coffee and candied orange peel character with explosive acidity that is nothing short of astonishing. Ethereal flavors of caramel and honey float through the mouth with a magical effortlessness. The finish sails on for minutes and makes you want to close your eyes and simply meditate on this wine. Utterly fantastic. Moderately sweet. There are few dessert wines on the planet that I would ever want to drink the whole bottle, but this is certainly one of them. A blend of Pinot Blanc and Chardonnay. 12% alcohol. Score: around 10.
1999 Weingut Tremmel "Ruster Ausbruch" Chardonnay, Rust, Burgenland, Austria
Medium amber in color, this wine smells of dried mango, lemon curd, and pineapple. In the mouth the wine is electrically bright, with dried mango, dried apricot, honey, caramel, and bright lemon curd flavors. It lingers for a long time through the finish with distinct minerality. Amazingly it is 100% botrytized chardonnay. Who knew this grape could make such an incredible dessert wine? 12% alcohol. Score: around 9.5.
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