When it comes to dessert wines, most people have heard of Sauternes or ice wine (location unspecific). Perhaps some have heard of Tokaji, the sweet wines of Hungary. But few have heard of the sweet wines of Austria's Burgenland region. There are several reasons for this. Dessert wine isn't all that popular, Burgenland doesn't make all that much of it to begin with, and those who actually do know about these wines tend to buy as many as they can afford and guard them like buried treasure. The sweet wines of Burgenland are one of Austria's best kept secrets, and perhaps none more so than the wines of a little winery in the town of Illmitz called Kracher.
The town of Illmitz, following the end of the Second World War wasn't a happy place to be. "It was five minutes from the Iron Curtain, for starters," says Gerhard Kracher, the current proprietor, and grandson of the founder, Alois Kracher. "People used to say 'Illmitz is a catastrophe' because nothing would grow here." One has a feeling that they meant more than just crops.
In 1945 Alois Kracher, Sr. was 17 years old. His home town of Illmitz was poor and under-developed to begin with, and the war had not been kind to it. Kracher's father, like every generation before him that anyone can remember, was a self-sufficient, mixed farmer, who grew everything from chickens and cows to corn and pickles. The destitution that followed the war was multiplied by the fact that Kracher's father was a severe alcoholic. "He was useless," says Gerhard Kracher, "so after two years of school, my grandfather had to take over the farm so the family wouldn't starve. And he hated farming."
Or at least, he hated every bit except for working in the vineyards. Most farmers in the area grew grapes along with their other crops. Many made wine for themselves, and sold either bulk wine or grapes as a source of income. Fifteen years of sweat later, including working a second job with a butcher to make ends meet, Alois Kracher, Sr. had a reasonably sufficient farm with a heavy emphasis on vineyards, and a good business selling his grapes.
"Then the 1959 harvest came," says Gerhard Kracher, "and that changed everything."
"It was the first vintage that truly met my grandfather's expectations. In 1959, for the first time, he bottled wine under his own name instead of selling it off in bulk. And not just one wine, the entire harvest. It was a huge success, and almost immediately he sold off his farmland, bought more vineyards, and built some guest rooms."
"At the time, there was no real market for wine or wine tourism in the region. People said he'd go bankrupt by Christmas."
But he didn't. In the years after the war, Austrians, Germans, and Swiss tourists had begun to return to the villages surrounding lake Neusiedl (Neusiedlersee in local parlance) during their summer holidays. And more than a few were curious to stop by Weinlaubenhof Kracher to taste a wine, or have a meal, and they would return from their vacations with their cars loaded with wine.
Neusiedlersee wasn't just good for attracting tourists, however, it was, and continues to be, the region's single most vital feature when it comes to producing sweet wines. Winds from many directions sweep over the lumpy hills to the west, south, and east of the lake, and blow across its surface. The lake is incredibly shallow (roughly 6 feet at its deepest), and these winds easily pick up moisture as they move across its surface, producing warm humid gusts that settle into the low lying vineyards surrounding the lake as morning and evening fog. And with this fog comes botrytis cinerea, also known as noble rot. But not just occasionally, as it does most other places in the world. Always.
"There has never been a vintage without botrytis," says Gerhard Kracher, "ever. Even in 2003, the hottest, driest year that Europe has ever seen, we had botrytis in the vineyards."
Alois Kracher, Sr. knew a good thing when he saw it, and worked his 18.5 acres of land (along with 12 more he had rented) to make the best wine he could, raising his son, Alois Kracher, Jr. to do the same. Kracher, Jr. grew up working in the vineyard, but also got the education that his father was denied. Eventually, he would be spending his days in middle management at Baxter Pharmaceuticals, and his nights working with his father in the winery, which was simply too small to support two families financially.
Kracher, Jr. took over the reigns of the cellar in 1982, a year after Alois Kracher, Sr. made what he believed was the best vintage of his life, 1981. It also happened to be the same year Gerhard Kracher was born. Kracher, Jr. transitioned out of his business career to run the winery, and began traveling abroad to other famous sweet wine producing regions, and eventually befriended the general manager at Chateau d'Yquem with whom, despite very little English in common, Kracher began to explore French winemaking techniques.
Believing his sweet wines were the equal of any in the world was one thing. Getting people to actually taste them was another. Out of frustration, in 1988 Kracher, Jr. decided that he would hold a comparative tasting of his wines with those of Chateau d'Yquem, and in a move that would later seem quite fateful, he decided to simply advertise the tasting as a Chateau d'Yquem tasting.
"He bought a bunch of bottles of d'Yquem, told everyone it was a d'Yquem tasting, and everyone showed up," says Gerhard Kracher. "And then a Kracher wine won every flight."
The press from this minor tasting launched the Kracher wines into the international spotlight, where they have been ever since. Not that the spotlight for dessert wines is all that big or bright, mind you.
Gerhard Kracher grew up in the winery, but also grew up knowing that he didn't want to become a winemaker. "I was very against doing what my parents were doing. But I was in school, and when you're a teenager, you want money. My dad said, 'if you want to earn some money, you can come work in the winery' so I did. At first it was simple things like turning pumps off and on, cleaning the cellar, sulfuring, this and that. And then when I was eighteen, I became his driver for when he wanted to go to wine dinners in Vienna. And it was at these dinners, and other events, that I got to know some really interesting people. And I spent more time in the cellar, and eventually I realized how fantastic it all was."
As soon as he had made his decision to pursue wine, Kracher wanted to quit school to work in the cellar, but his parents weren't going to hear of that. After finishing secondary school and fulfilling his national service requirement, Kracher reluctantly enrolled in university to study economics, but spent most of his free time at the winery. Then after taking off a few weeks for the harvest, his parents thanked him, and told him he should be getting back to school. But Kracher had dropped his registration by this point, and at 21, despite his parents misgivings, he became fully involved in the winery.
Only five years later, Alois Kracher, Jr. would pass away suddenly, leaving the winery in the hands of his wife, and his already fully capable son.
The young Gerhard Kracher has been running the winery since his father's death in 2007, with basically the same techniques that his father and his grandfather used. The work begins with heavy management and selective picking in the vineyards, sometimes consisting of half a dozen passes over the course of weeks. 99% of the time, all of the fermentations are done with native or ambient yeasts, with a very rare stuck fermentation requiring a little commercial yeast.
Kracher has an intense focus on examining each lot of wine as it progresses through fermentation and evolution. And by each lot, he means each unique batch of grapes from a unique place. Each picking pass through a vineyard at a certain level of ripeness is kept separate, no matter how big or small. This leads to some fairly madcap storage puzzles in the winery, and has driven Kracher to utilize a dizzying array of tank sizes, from very large standard issue tanks to very small INOX milk tanks. "I want to know exactly what quality of wine comes from where, and how, and I like to experiment," says Kracher.
Weinlaubenhof Kracher produces roughly 10,000 cases of half-bottles each year, the quantity varying greatly depending on the vicissitudes of the vintage, and the evolving standards of young Kracher, who refuses to put the family name on a wine that isn't up to snuff. "My dad always said 'if you bottle a wine you are not sure about, it will follow you for decades'" says Kracher.
Making sense of the Kracher portfolio can be tricky for the uninitiated, especially because the wines produced aren't the same from year to year.
The winery typically produces a set of late harvest cuvees each year labeled "Cuvee Blend" at different levels of selection and ripeness (Spatlese, Auslese, and Beerenauslese). For the unfamiliar, these three designations represent increasingly late levels of picking and selection of grapes that are not yet affected by botrytis.
In addition to these cuvees, the winery produces numbered wines of the Trockenbeerenauslese (mercifully shortened to TBA) designation, which means they are made from grapes affected by noble rot. The wines theoretically increase in sweetness from 1 to X, though in my experience it's difficult to tell this is the case, and sometimes higher numbered wines taste less sweet than lower numbered wines.
The complexity doesn't end there, however. These TBA wines are made in one of two ways, either the more traditional method, which can include large oak casks and steel tanks, or using smaller new French barrels. The wines produced in the more traditional method are labelled "Zwischen den Seen" (literally translated as between the lakes), while the wines that see new wood are labelled "Nouvell Vague" (New Wave).
Finally, one of the grape varieties that Kracher grows and vinifies separately, Rose Muscat, is technically not permitted as a wine grape under Austrian law. Therefore these wines cannot be labeled as wine ("I have to label them 'partially fermented grape must'" says Kracher) and they cannot carry vintage designations, hence the L09* designation you will see on a couple of the wines below.
Interestingly, I was informed that the day after my visit to Kracher, the Austrian Wine Board took up a proposal that, if ratified, will finally legitimize these wines and the grapes they are made from.
Kracher made friends a few years back with New York superstar sommelier Aldo Sohm, and recently the two have decided to start a wine project together making Grüner Veltliner. Before I tasted the Kracher wines, Gerhard was excited to show me what he and Aldo had been up to.
For most, however, your real interest below should be focused on the sweet wines, which are truly remarkable, and hold their own easily against the greatest dessert wines of the world. Kracher's wines are astonishing for their acidity levels, even in the midst of ambrosial sweetness and otherworldly flavors.
While it can be difficult to persuade most people to pay much attention to dessert wines, these wines repay even the slightest attention a hundred-fold with some of the most remarkable flavors in the world.
2011 Sohm & Kracher "Vineyards from Lower Austria" Grüner Veltliner Barrel Sample, Burgenland, Austria
Cloudy greenish gold in the glass, this barrel sample smells of lemongrass, and wet stones. In the mouth the wine is delicate and pretty with lemongrass, lemon curd and wet stone minerality. Cool and crisp. Tasty. Score: around 9.
2010 Sohm & Kracher "Single Vineyard" Grüner Veltliner Barrel Sample , Burgenland, Austria
Light gold with greenish hue in the glass, this barrel sample has a tart, sour green plum nose with hints of lemongrass and lemon juice. In the mouth the wine has a gorgeously tart sour green plum and lemongrass flavor with phenomenal acidity. Gulpable. 13.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5.
2009 Sohm & Kracher Grüner Veltliner, Burgenland, Austria
Light gold in the glass, this wine smells of lemon curd with hints of dried herbs and bread. In the mouth the wine has a nice smoothness, with flavors of lemon curd wet stones, green plum. Slightly soft acidity. 13.5% alcohol. 2000 bottles made. Score: between 8.5 and 9.
2011 Alois Kracher "Cuvee Blend" Spatlese, Burgenland, Austria
Pale, almost colorless in the glass, this wine smells of golden apples and wet stones. In the mouth the wine has a moderate sweetness, with flavors of lemon and apple, and a hint of something woody, like a wet deck in the rain. A finish of grapes. 50% Pinot Gris, 45% Welsh Riesling, 5% Muscat Ottonel. 11.5% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9.
2010 Alois Kracher "Cuvee Blend" Auslese, Burgenland, Austria
Light yellow gold in the glass, this wine smells of honeysuckle and roast apples. In the mouth the wine offers bright, juicy peach and apple flavors with fantastic acidity and balance, light on its feet, with a long finish of wet stone and flowers, and then after about 30 seconds, cream soda. Moderate sweetness. A blend of 70% Welsh Riesling, 30% Chardonnay. 12% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $18. click to buy.
2009 Alois Kracher "Cuvee Blend" Beerenauslese, Burgenland, Austria
Medium bright yellow gold in the glass, this wine has a gorgeous nose of apple and quince aromas with honeysuckle scents layered on top. In the mouth, bright apple, peach, and lemon candy flavors are balanced perfectly with excellent acidity and surprising minerality for a wine this (moderate to very) sweet. Gorgeous on the tongue, this wine is utterly sexy. Stunning. A blend of 75% Welschreisling, 25% Chardonnay. 13% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $30. click to buy.
2009 Alois Kracher "Nummer 1 TBA Zwischen den Seen" Welschreisling, Burgenland, Austria
Medium gold in the glass, this wine smells of stewed quince and honeysuckle. In the mouth bright lemon curd, dark honey and quince paste swirl on a bed of bright minerality. Nice acidity with bright juicy flavors. Long finish. Lovely. Moderate to heavy sweetness. 12.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $80. click to buy.
2009 Alois Kracher "Nummer 2 TBA Zwischen den Seen" Scheurebe, Burgenland, Austria
Medium gold in the glass, this wine smells of candied lemon peel and lemon blossoms. In the mouth, dried mangos, pineapple, and other exotic tropical fruits slip sexily across the tongue. Moderate to heavy sweetness. Beautiful mix of flavors, and moderate acidity. Very pretty. 11% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $ 60. click to buy.
2009 Alois Kracher "Nummer 3 TBA Zwischen den Seen" Welschreisling, Burgenland, Austria
Medium gold in the glass, this wine smells of delicate flowers, and quince and golden apples. In the mouth gorgeous quince and apple flavors are drenched with dark, creamy honey. Softer acidity means this is a dense very sweet wine, but it does not get too syrupy. Delicious. 10% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $50. click to buy.
2009 Alois Kracher "Nummer 4 TBA Nouvell Vague" Muscat Ottonel, Burgenland, Austria
Dark gold in the glass, this wine has a nose of honey, melon, and gorgeous flower aromas. In the mouth, dark honey and melon flavors swirl on a gorgeously sexy texture. Satiny and thick. Very sweet. Moderate acidity. 11% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $80. click to buy.
2009 Alois Kracher "Nummer 5 TBA Nouvell Vague" Traminer, Burgenland, Austria
Dark gold in the glass, this wine has a nose of exotic honey and spices, and the best smelling new oak I think I've ever smelled. In the mouth quince paste, honey, and exotic spices mix with other flavors that defy description. There's no two ways around it, the wine is liquid sex on the tongue -- gorgeous, sumptuous, exotic, and remarkable. 11.5% alcohol. Score: between 9.5 and 10.
2009 Alois Kracher "Nummer 6 TBA Nouvell Vague" Grand Cuvee, Burgenland, Austria
Dark gold in the glass, this wine has a nose of quince, baked apples and peach pie aromas. In the mouth the wine is thick and viscous on the tongue, with honey, and quince, and floral notes that linger in a long finish. Very sweet. 11.5% alcohol. A blend of Welschreisling and Chardonnay. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $80. click to buy.
L09A Alois Kracher "Nummer 7 TBA Nouvelle Vague" Rose Muscat, Burgenland, Austria
Beautiful dark pinky orange in color, this wine smells of rose petals and orange rinds. In the mouth, beautiful rosewater and honey flavors are poised and balanced with a subtle acidity and fantastic silky texture. Unique and stunning. 10.5% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $70. click to buy.
L09B Alois Kracher "Nummer 8 TBA Zwischen den Seen" Rose Muscat, Burgenland, Austria
Dark pinky-orange color in the glass, this wine smells of rose petals and orange blossoms, in the mouth rosewater and beautiful minerality merge in a seamless blend of gorgeous satiny sexy sweetness. Very sweet. Lovely moderate acidity keeps the wine from being syrupy. Very unique. 10.5% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $80. click to buy.
2009 Alois Kracher "Nummer 9 TBA Nouvelle Vague" Chardonnay, Burgenland, Austria
Medium to dark yellow-gold in the glass this wine smells of sweet caramel, lemon curd and sweet cream. In the mouth sweet cream and candied lemon flavors give way towards a salted caramel flavor that is quite charming. Thick and very sweet on the tongue, this is an amazing wine, but I wish it had a little more acidity. Come to think of it, if it had a little more acidity, it might just be too beautiful to handle. Stunning as it is. 10.5% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $80. click to buy.
2009 Alois Kracher "Nummer 10 TBA Zwischen den Seen" Scheurebe, Burgenland, Austria
Medium to dark yellow-gold in the glass, this wine smells of crazy lemon candy and flowers. In the mouth the wine has an exotic citrus quality, with bergamot, yuzu, and lemon flavors all swirling through a storm of silken flowers. Gorgeous, thick, intense, concentrated. Wow. 6.5% alcohol. Score: around 9.5.
2009 Alois Kracher "Nummer 11 TBA Nouvelle Vague" Chardonnay, Burgenland, Austria
Medium to dark yellow-gold in the glass, this wine smells of burnt orange peel and burnt honey. In the mouth heavy marzipan flavors mix with candied orange peel, dried mango, and dried pineapple. Thick and viscous, this wine makes me want to pour it over ice cream. A bit over the top for my tastes, super sweet. 5.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $80. click to buy.
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