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07.21.2014

The King of Zweigelt: The Wines of Umathum, Burgenland

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Austria, for good reasons, continues to be better known around the world for its white wines than its reds. It's hard to compete with such an incredible wealth of Riesling and Grüner Veltliner. And in truth, far more bad red wine is made in Austria than good. But over the last decade or two, Austria has been making serious strides in its red wine production, following the lead of a few producers who have long been dedicated to the potential of Austria's native red grapes. Few would deny that Josef "Pepi" Umathum belongs in that number, and many would place him at the very front of the pack, perhaps second only to the legendary Ernst Triebaumer. Not bad for a guy who had no interest in being a winemaker at first.

The greatest compliment I can personally pay Umathum may be that he has single-handedly redeemed Zweigelt for me, producing not just a good rendition of the grape, but a great one -- a wine that demonstrates the potential of this grape to make excellent wine, worth something more than a mere blending component, a fate to which I have long mentally condemned it.

What's more, I've figured out at least part of his secret method for taking this potentially flabby fruit bomb and turning it into deliciously complex wine.

First, you begin with a degree in landscape architecture.

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"My parents founded the winery in 1958, and they began from scratch, by purchasing 10 acres of land," says Umathum, describing a rather unique beginning in a country where most families begin their wineries from the security of a family farm with a long tradition in viticulture, at least on a small scale.

"They bought a field as close as they could to the village, and planted all the vines themselves," he continues. "They had no money left over to build a house elsewhere, so they began building on the field where they had the vines. The grapes they sold to the local cooperative."

"In 1971 they started to bottle wine and sell it to consumers, and it took them more than 10 years to get to the point where they could sell their entire production in the bottle. My older brother was naturally the one scheduled to take over the family farm when the time came for my parents to retire. He studied enology but in the end he decided he didn't want to do it. So they asked me."

Umathum admits he wasn't thrilled with the life of a landscape architecture student, which involved too much architecture and not enough landscape. So when his parents came to him with the idea of taking over the winery, he leapt at the chance.

"I traveled and volunteered to work harvests in Burgundy, Provence, and Bordeaux, and then in 1985 I came back to take over the winery, just two weeks before the glycol scandal. 'Well,' I thought to myself, 'We can only go up from here.'"

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Even though only a handful of the country's most massive producers of cheap wine had added the toxic antifreeze component diethelyne glycol to their wines to improve sweetness and body, the reputation (and sales) of Austrian wine disintegrated in 1985.

"Six years later," grins Umathum, "I was Austrian winemaker of the year."

Applying what in retrospect can be inferred (and what in conversation with him can be clearly observed) as a deeply philosophical approach to growing things, Umathum systematically sought out to improve his family's wines through meticulous viticulture and a mostly hands-off approach to his cellar work.

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With a more characteristic humility, he adds "It was a good time for developing everything, and even with the scandal, people liked to drink good wines, and during that time they were happy to pay well for good wines. So we did well, and it helped us a lot to invest."

From the initial 10 acres of land outside of Frauenkirchen, in the Neusiedlersee region of Burgenland, Umathum grew his family's holdings to nearly 90 acres. He has been practicing strict selection massale (a method of propagating grape vines using cuttings from an entire vineyard rather than selected clones) to replant his vineyards since the late 1980s, along with organic viticulture. In 2005 he converted completely to biodynamic farming and winemaking. This year, he's beginning to run sheep in his vineyards.

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In 2000, as he was searching for new land, ideally containing soil with primary rock, Umathum came across an old, old farm that was being sold, after many decades of laying barren. This land had three distinguishing characteristics that immediately piqued Umathum's interest. It was a cold site, facing northeast. It had heavily limestone soils, which are somewhat rare in the area. And it was, though only barely recognizable at the time, terraced with ancient stone walls.

"I had no idea of the history of what I bought," says Umathum. "I wanted to rebuild the walls, and when you want to do that, you have to go to the authorities and get permission. They told me 'no, you cannot restore it and use it as vineyard land because that was not its original purpose.' But I hired a surveyor and researcher who somehow managed to unearth pictures made by Americans in World War II of the area, and in one of them you could clearly see not only the stone terraces, but the grapevines growing on them. So they agreed to let me restore the old walls. It took us 15,000 hours to rebuild the walls and replant the vineyards."

Umathum knew that he was buying the land from a family with royal ties. They had descended from a count, and the land had been in the family, it turns out, since 1628. But as Umathum dug further into its history, both literally and figuratively, he found out that before this count, it was owned by the Hapsburgs (who ruled a large chunk of Europe for 300 years) and before that, he discovered, the Kings of Hungary. Kirschgarten, as it had long been called, dated all the way back to the year 1214.

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Umathum values time. Time spent thinking, time spent listening to his plants, and the effects of time on everything. He is convinced that in time, plants change their nature in accordance to the place they grow, and the other living things with which they grow. All of which is why, back behind his winery, Umathum has a living library, filled with what he believes will be the future of his family's wine.

"I have six different clones of Zweigelt, 13 different clones of Blaufränkisch 21 different kinds of Riesling, with several of the Rieslings and Blaufrankisch coming from 100 year-old vines. This is my genetic reserve," he says proudly.

As he took cuttings from some of the oldest vineyards in the country, Umathum paid an equal amount of attention to what was growing beneath the vines.

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"Some of these plants have been living in harmony with these grapes for hundreds of years. There is an information exchange between the vines and the cover crop. They literally share sensations." Consequently, this vineyard is as much a cover crop menagerie as it is a collection of grapevines.

Umathum grows Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, St. Laurent, Blaufränkisch, Gelber Traminer, Roter Traminer, Scheurebe, and Sauvignon Blanc; some Hungarian Harslevelu; and a bit of Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, fermenting all of them primarily in steel, and aging his wines in a combination of big oak casks and smaller, mostly used oak barrels. In 2002, he completed a new barrel room, whose peaked roof and dramatic lighting seem slightly ostentatious in comparison with the casual patina of his family winery, but whose added capacity came as a welcome relief to a growing winery constrained by its limited cellar space.

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As I sat with Umathum outside the glass wall of this barrel room tasting through his wines, one mouthful of Zweigelt finally delivered the message that I suppose I had been waiting some time to hear. As the wine rolled around on my tongue, with more complexity, depth, and freshness than pretty much any other mouthful of Zweigelt I have ever had, it spoke a single word: stems.

"Holy shit," I said out loud. "You fermented this wine with stems!"

Umathum grinned, and then went on to explain how he adds a portion of the stem jacks back into the wine as it ferments. The amounts vary by year, but are generally in the single digit percentages, if one wanted to make a comparison to producers who ferment with whole clusters. These aren't whole clusters, but the stems that Umathum allows provide the same qualities that drive many winemakers of Syrah and Pinot Noir to include them. They can add a floral component, an herbal note, and perhaps most notably a more mineral freshness to the wine, all three being characteristics rarely found in Zweigelt, which I have at times uncharitably characterized as the Golden Retriever of wine: cheerful, but without much substance.

When I ask Umathum why more producers don't do that, he shrugs. He's not sure why more producers don't use the Vino-Lok glass closures he so ardently favors either. About as many have bothered to plant and grow Harslevelu, a Hungarian grape that Umathum says once dominated this region, so well was it suited for the climate and soils. Umathum just follows the path he sees laid out before him, and doesn't spend much time wondering why he has little company.

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At the age of 53, Umathum has a 19 year-old daughter, and a 17 year-old son, but says, "At the moment, they are not interested in the winery, which is good. I have a lot more work to do."

And even though his red wines are among the very best produced in Austria, somehow I believe him.

TASTING NOTES:
Sadly, only a few of these wines make it to the United States, in somewhat limited quantities. When they do, however, all but the single vineyard bottlings are relatively affordable. If you see something from 2011 or 2012, snap it up. They were great vintages.

2013 Umathum Sauvignon Blanc, Burgenland, Austria
Pale gold in color, this wine smells of gooseberries and cucumber and golden apples. In the mouth, the wine offers flavors of peach and apple and a hint of cucumber. Excellent bright acidity and minerality leave a chalky, even flinty quality in the finish. 12.5% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9.

2010 Umathum Sauvignon Blanc, Burgenland, Austria
Pale gold in color, this wine smells of cut grass, green bell pepper, and green apple. In the mouth, tart green apple and a deep stony character have a bright zing thanks to excellent acidity. Green apple and kiwi flavors linger for a long time on the finish. 11.5% alcohol kirschgarten_umathum.jpgScore: between 8.5 and 9.

NV Umathum "Königlicher Tafelwein - MMXI" Harslevelu, Burgenland, Austria
Pale gold in the glass, this wine smells of honey, wet stones, and bee pollen. In the mouth the wine has a bright honeyed character with a bee pollen and burnt citrus rind character that is quite beautiful. Notes of candle wax linger in the finish. Great acidity and gorgeous long finish. Can't be labeled by variety or year because it is not part of the Austrian wine law's accepted grapes, but this is the 2011 vintage. 11.5% alcohol. Score: around 9.

2013 Umathum Pinot Gris, Burgenland, Austria
Pale gold in the glass, this wine smells of linalool and poached pears. In the mouth, intense pear flavors have a light bitterness to them over the top of a stony base. Technically dry, the wine has a faint aromatic sweetness that lingers with the bitterness in the finish, for a powerful expression. Fermented and aged in a 2500 liter oak cask. 13% alcohol. Score: around 8.5.

2013 Umathum Traminer, Burgenland, Austria
Pale gold in the glass, this wine smells of Asian pears, nutmeg, and rose petals. In the mouth, a gorgeous floral quality with flavors of rose petals, white flowers, and white peaches has a wonderful texture. Nicer minerality remains in the wine despite some residual sugar. Beautiful and exotic. One third Roter Traminer, two thirds Gelber Traminer. 12.5% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $25 click to buy.

2013 Umathum "Rosa" Red Blend Rosé, Burgenland, Austria
Bright baby pink in color, this wine smells of ripe berries and watermelon. In the mouth bright berry flavors have a light sweetness to them even though the wine is completely dry. Bright stony notes linger in the finish. Good acidity and a creamy, silky texture. A saignee from 1/3 each of Blaufränkisch, Zweigelt, and Sankt Laurent. Utterly drinkable. 13% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $20. click to buy.

2011 Umathum Zweigelt, Burgenland, Austria
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of crushed cherries and blackberries. In the mouth, plush cherry and black cherry flavors have a nice stony underbelly and very faint velvety tannins, which make this a very easy-drinking wine. There's a little bit of earthy complexity that keeps the fruit from being frivolous, and instead a little more serious. 12.5% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $23. click to buy.

2012 Umathum Sankt Laurent, Burgenland, Austria
Medium to dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of slightly greenish herbal character mixed with cherry and raspberry jam. In the mouth, a wonderfully savory black olive character mixes with cherry compote flavors leaving a slight saline sensation in the mouth. A deep earthy and mineral quality underlies this savory fruit combination and adds complexity. Good acidity and length. 12.5% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $25. click to buy.

2012 Umathum Blaufränkisch, Burgenland, Austria
Medium to dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of mulberry and black cherry fruit. In the mouth, bright black cherry and mulberry fruit mix with a wonderfully cistern-like wet stone quality that lingers through the finish. Nearly imperceptible tannins. 13% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $20. click to buy.

2009 Umathum "Reserve" Sankt Laurent, Burgenland, Austria
Medium to dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of cedar, exotic spices, black cherry and just the barest hint of farmyard funk. In the mouth, the wine has a wonderful depth, breadth, and overall balance between cherry and black cherry fruit, cedar and woody notes, spices, and a stony character that turns earthy as the faint tannins engage the edges of the tongue. Fantastically drinkable, with just a hint of saline note on the finish. Aged 3.5 years in a 4000 liter oak cask before bottling. An astonishing 12.6% alcohol. Score: around 9.5.

2009 Umathum "Vom Stein" Sankt Laurent, Burgenland, Austria
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of farmyard funk, blackberries and black cherries with hints of raisins. In the mouth, deep and rich flavors of black cherry are tinged with blackberry. A wonderful bright blueberry quality lingers in the finish. Good acidity and a nice earthy depth. 12.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $65. click to buy.

2011 Umathum "Unter den Terrassen" Pinot Noir, Burgenland, Austria
Light garnet in color, this wine smells of fresh forest berries and lilacs. In the mouth wonderful floral flavors of lilacs and violets mesh with raspberry fruit. A hint of forest floor earthiness and green herbs accompanies the lightly grippy tannins. Gorgeous aromatics and length. Great acidity. 13.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5.

2010 Umathum "Unter den Terrassen" Pinot Noir, Burgenland, Austria
Pale garnet in color, this wine smells of wet stones, crushed berries, and green herbs. In the mouth has a gorgeous silkiness with the faintest of tannins that wrap around a core of wet stones, crushed berries, and mixed green herbs. Delicate and beautiful flavors of dried flowers emerge in the finish. 12.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5.

2011 Umathum "Ried Heideboden" Red Blend, Burgenland, Austria
Medium to dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of intense cassis, black cherry, and violet aromas. In the mouth lightly funky farmyard and deep cherry and cassis flavors mix with a dried flowers and fresh violet flavors. Faint tannins and great acidity give this wine a wonderful complexity. A blend of 70% Zweigelt, 20% Blaufränkisch, and 10% Cabernet Sauvignon. 13% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5.

2009 Umathum "Ried Hallebuhl" Zweigelt, Burgenland, Austria
Light to medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of blueberry and black cherry mixed with a smoky note. In the mouth blueberry and black cherry fruit mix with black tea and violets over a deep loamy earth core. Excellent acidity and fine grained, soft tannins round out a wonderfully structured wine. Definitely one of the best Zweigelts I've ever had. 13% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5.

2011 Umathum "Ried Hallebuhl" Zweigelt, Burgenland, Austria
Medium purple in the glass, this wine smells of mulberries and black cherry. In the mouth wonderfully bright black cherry flavors have a hint of farmyard funk to them mixed with wet earth, leather, and cassis notes that linger in the finish. Great acidity and light, suede-like tannins. Hallebuhl means "elderberry hill." The vines are 58 years old. About 30% of this wine is fermented with stems. 13% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5.

2004 Umathum "Ried Hallebuhl" Zweigelt, Burgenland, Austria
Medium to dark garnet in color, this wine smells of violets, black cherries, and blueberry jam with the barest hint of leather. In the mouth blueberries, leather, earth and candied violets take on a faint aromatic sweetness. The tannins still have some grip to them and linger with the earthy notes and blueberry aromas in the finish. Great acidity and mineral depth. An outstanding example of what you can do with this grape. 13% alcohol. Score: around 9.5.

2012 Umathum "1214" Zweigelt, Burgenland, Austria
Medium purple in the glass, this wine smells of cassis and blueberries. In the mouth, bright blueberry fruit mixes with a nice earthy quality, but remains quite bright and fresh thanks to boisterous acidity. Juicy and floral in the finish, with a nice sour black cherry quality. Grown on heavily limestone soil. Only 1214 bottles made, in celebration of the 800th anniversary of his Kirschgarten vineyard in the town of Jois, which dates to 1214. The proceeds from the sale of the wine funded planting of trees and bushes to increase biodiversity in the vineyard. Score: around 9.

2009 Umathum "Kirschgarten" Blaufränkisch, Burgenland, Austria
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of blackberry and black cherry with nice floral overtones. In the mouth, black cherry and blackberry notes mix with a hint of leather and earth. Great acidity and length, with a nice floral, earthy finish. 13.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5.

2011 Umathum "Kirschgarten" Blaufränkisch, Burgenland, Austria
Dark garnet in color, this wine smells of blueberries, cassis, and lilacs. In the mouth, deep cassis and black cherry flavors have a gorgeous lilac floral overtone while soft, suede-like tannins firmly grip the edges of the mouth. Deep stony and earthy mineral notes give a deep bass to the dark fruit, but fantastic acidity keeps the wine bright and delicious. Grown on 100% schist. Aged in oak of which only 12% is new. 14% alcohol. Sadly, this wine won't be released until 2016. The current vintage is 2009. Score: around 9.5.

1994 Umathum "Vom Stein" Sankt Laurent, Burgenland, Austria
Light ruby in the glass, this wine has a slight bricking at the rim. It smells of pine boughs, cedar, red apple skin and a hint of licorice. In the mouth the wine has an incredibly fresh, crystalline minerality through which flavors of cedar, fennel seed, raspberries and cherries burst with fantastic acidity. Notes of incense and pine duff linger in the finish. 13% alcohol. Score: around 9.5.

NV (2013) Umathum Harslevelu Barrel Sample, Burgenland, Austria
Palest gold in the glass, this wine smells of honeysuckle and green apples. In the mouth the wine has a wonderful faint sweetness that carries flavors of candied green apple, honeysuckle, and beeswax. Beautiful mineral tones and fantastic acidity back up the floral sweetness of the wine, giving it complexity and depth. Austrian wine law doesn't currently have this grape in its roster, so the wine cannot be labeled by vintage or grape. Score: around 9.

2001 Umathum Beerenauslese White Blend, Burgenland, Austria
Dark gold in the glass, this wine smells of clover honey, dried apricots, and super-ripe peaches. In the mouth the wine is very to moderately sweet, with a gorgeous silky pineapple, dried mango, and ripe peach flavors. Good acidity keeps the wine from being too syrupy. 50% Chardonnay, 50% Scheurebe. 11.4% alcohol. Score: around 9.

1979 Umathum Pinot Gris TBA, Burgenland, Austria
Light coffee brown in color, this wine smells of molasses and exotic wood dust. In the mouth, flavors of raisins, chocolate, caramel, and licorice all swirl in a deeply complicated and slightly salty mix. Incredible acidity and depth, with roasted nuts lingering in the finish. Macerated for three days before fermentation. Score: between 9 and 9.5.

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