As Austrian wine exports rocket in volume and value, the U.S. has become one of the country’s top markets. Steiermark, as Styria is known in Austria, occupies a special niche here. With an estimated 11 percent of the region’s wines exported and just a fraction of those going to the U.S., market recognition of Styria’s wines remains limited in this country.
However, they are finding their champions among leading importers, restaurants, and retailers. These industry insiders are onto the pioneering vineyard and cellar work among Styria’s top producers, especially for the region’s signature variety—Sauvignon Blanc—and its high-profile natural wines.
This year, Styrian wine notched up its visibility when two of its most important producers landed with major national importers: Weingut Neumeister joined the brand-new Austrian portfolio of Rosenthal Wine Merchants, and Weingut Tement, which now comes in through Bowler Wine. “What’s being imported are the best Styrian wines,” notes Clara Dalzell, the general manager of the fine wine retailer Flatiron Wines in New York City.
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What Sets Styria Apart
Styria’s juxtaposition of elegant classic wines and highly individualistic natural wines—for the most part, both from international varieties—is singular. Clarke Boehling, who heads up Rosenthal’s Austrian book, notes that, on the classic side, Styria captivated him and his team for its deep tradition with Sauvignon Blanc and what he calls the “unconquerability of sense of place” in its wines. He likens Styria’s singular soils and extreme conditions to those of Côte-Rôtie or Cornas.
Jenny Lefcourt, the founder of natural wine import and distribution powerhouse Jenny & François, says Styria earned its place on the natural wine map and in her portfolio for several reasons. “The wines are just beautifully crafted,” she says. “These growers are very serious about how they work their vines: the level of attention to detail, to nature, to winemaking—their precision and the way they push themselves to do better every year.”
What has allowed both styles to coexist and co-define Styria is a confluence of physical, cultural, and historic features. “I’ve never been anywhere quite like it,” says Chicago-based wine writer and educator Jesse Becker, MS. “It’s just so intensely verdant, with those really, really steep slopes. The climate is unique: you’re in the Alps, but you’re feeling some humidity, combined with limestone in certain areas. It’s a very compelling place for wine.”
That place is divided into the three subzones: Weststeiermark, the smallest, where native red grape Blauer Wildbacher predominates; Vulkanland, distinguished by its vineyards on extinct volcanic cones; and Südsteiermark, the largest, home to acclaimed sites for Sauvignon Blanc, Morillon (as Chardonnay is known in Styria), and Riesling. Taken together, they offer a compellingly differentiated mix of desirable soils, precipitous sites, high elevations, sharp diurnals, and the highest average rainfalls in the country.
Here, some of the world’s cultiest natural wines, such as Werlitsch, Tscheppe, Muster, and Tauss, rub shoulders with Austria’s most esteemed classic estates, among them Tement, Neumeister, Lackner-Tinnacher, Sattlerhof, and Gross. Estates like these, which have sharpened their focus on handwork, organic and biodynamic viticulture—a profound challenge in this damp, cool climate—and single vineyards, as well as boundary-pushing cellar work, longer aging in larger vessels, and later releases, are disproportionately represented in the U.S. market.
Supremely elegant expressions of single-vineyard Sauvignon Blanc, as well as Morillon, Riesling, Pinot Blanc (called Weissburgunder here), and unjustly overlooked traditional varieties Gelber Muskateller and Welschriesling find fresh, singular expressions in Styria.
Veronica Castro, a buyer at Hi-Times Wine, a landmark retail shop in Costa Mesa, California, says she’s drawn to the diversity Styrian wines offer. Styria takes varieties that are already reference points for customers and frames them in an Austrian context. “That’s good for extending the Austrian category,” she says. “It’s not just Grüner Veltliner or Riesling.”
She sees Styrian wines as “still on the periphery right now, but as soon as people taste them, they get it: the quality and the winemaking expertise. The wines just disappear once they’re on the shelf, once people know what we have.”
Sauvignon Blanc for Lovers—and Haters
“Styrian wine is very much driven by Sauvignon Blanc,” says Becker. This makes Styria essential for anyone who loves the variety, and a revelation for everyone who doesn’t. “It’s almost more profound when you have something that confounds your expectations, and shows that sense of place despite the assertiveness of the variety, or your preconceptions of it,” says Boehling. “You can’t make Sauvignon Blanc taste like this anywhere else.”
Sauvignon Blanc was introduced to Styria in the mid-19th century. But the region’s relative remoteness, demanding terroir, and shifting political fortunes cut Styrian wines off from international attention. As with everything in Austrian wine, all that changed in 1985, when a scandal involving a few producers (in a different region) who had tainted their wines with a toxic chemical to bolster sweetness forced a total reckoning throughout the country.
Styria’s distance from the affair proved an asset. The region’s most prominent growers doubled down on developing a distinct identity for their region. Their focus on dry, quality Sauvignon Blanc is, almost 40 years later, paying off. Recently, Sauvignon Blanc eclipsed traditional Welschriesling as Styria’s most planted white variety, and critics are fully in its thrall.
The combination of limestone and calcareous marls (known as Opok), distinctive climate, thoughtful farming and handwork, and increasingly refined cellar techniques—which now extend to vinification of specific parcels within single vineyards, protracted lees aging in large neutral wood, and, in some cases, holding back wines for years of bottle aging before release—are yielding Sauvignon Blancs of infinite nuance. In the best examples, the variety’s signature of overt fruit and grassiness is tempered; elegant coolness, flinty minerality, telltale salinity, and fine-boned structure come to the fore.
Understanding these wines in the context of Sauvignon Blancs from more familiar regions is key to connecting customers with them. Flatiron’s Dalzell says she particularly prizes Styrian Sauvignon Blanc as an alternative to in-demand Sancerre. “With climate change and the shortages we’re seeing in Sancerre, I’ve been tasting and buying Styrian Sauvignon Blanc because I want a very easy, clear, delicious, acceptable alternative.”
Others put top Styrian Sauvignon Blancs in the same league as white Burgundy and Bordeaux. “To me, high-end Styrian Sauvignons are much more like drinking great white Burgundy than ‘Sauvignon Blanc,’” says Becker. “Especially with the single-vineyard wines, which can be so gunflint-smokey and mineral as opposed to the austerity of Sancerre or the exuberance of New Zealand.”
Mark Guillaudeu, the beverage director at Commis, a Michelin-starred Oakland, California, restaurant, sees a parallel with white Bordeaux. Top Styrian Sauvignon Blancs with a little age allow him to “hit 80 to 90 percent of the complexity of a classed-growth white Bordeaux at usually something like 50 percent of the price. You get this perfect combination of the chalky, dusty mineral finish and a little bit of the richer texture of Sancerre … without harshness or blandness.”
More Styles to Discover
At Blume/Huette, a Manhattan wine bar with an all-Austrian list, beverage director Benjamin Gutenbrunner says one of his goals is “to get more Styrian wine into people’s mouths.” His approach is to introduce them to Styrian wines “in a very casual atmosphere at a price point that doesn’t hurt.” Then he can expose customers to higher end wines.
Gutenbrunner’s bottle list is organized by variety and style, rather than region. But by featuring nine Styrian producers from all three of Styria’s subzones, in both classic and natural camps, Blume/Huette is that rare stage where Styria truly gets to shine. The region earns its place on his list for being “the only place in Austria that has Sauvignon Blanc, Weissburgunder, and Gelber Muskateller, and a range from spicy depth to salty minerality,” he says.
Beyond these flagships, a handful of producers are also developing the potential of Furmint, a spicy, structured white variety that was once much more widely planted here, and the complex hybrid varieties known in German-speaking Europe as “PIWIs.” The high acidity that Styrian grapes routinely achieve is also superbly suited to sparkling wine; producers are now exploring long-aged, traditional-method Sekts, along with complex, solera-style ones.
Building a Following for Styrian Wines
In the U.S. market, Styria’s sharpened profile largely reflects the artisanship of two groups, both made up of smaller, family estates. On the classic side, the 12 wineries of the STK (Steirische Terroir- und Klassikweingüter, or Terroir and Classic Wineries of Styria) highlight Styria’s villages and crus across the region’s three subzones. For natural wine, Schmecke das Leben (“taste life”), a working group of five biodynamic growers, has attracted attention for making farming and individualistic natural styles essential to their expressions of Styria’s climates and soils. Their layered, complex, savory Sauvignon Blancs, white blends, and rare reds have redrawn the map of Austrian wines, influencing growers across the country and beyond.
Monika Caha, founder of Monika Caha Selections, an agency representing Austrian wineries in the U.S., was among the first to turn a spotlight on the natural wines of Styria when she began representing Schmecke das Leben member Franz Strohmeier in 2005. She was drawn to the possibility of working with varieties and styles grown and made in justonly one place on earth. “Not only is Schilcher very unusual,” she says of the rosé-style wine made from Styria’s native Blauer Wildbacher, “it is unlike any wine I had tasted before. I was fascinated by Strohmeier’s philosophy and how he vinified the historic varietal. I wanted to introduce it to the American market.”
In 2014, Jenny & François began importing and distributing Styrian wines, starting with Strohmeier’s. Lefcourt says the rise of natural wine generally and her company’s “tremendous growth” over the past five years specifically has helped it elevate the profile of natural Styrian wines in the U.S. market.
“I think we helped to spark an interest in this region because of the wonderful producers we represent,” says Lefcourt. “People trusted us enough to taste them and understand what we had found. When we bring in wines that are as exciting as these, there’s an interest nationally in them.”
Among Styria’s classic estates, the towering name is Weingut Tement, in South Styria. “Anyone who’s into Austrian wine knows who Tement is,” says Michelle Peters, the French and Austrian portfolio manager at Bowler Wine, which brought these wines back to the U.S. market earlier this year. “There’s nothing quite like it. There isn’t really one grower who has such a range.” Although the estate was only established in the 1950s, the Tement family’s ambitious pursuit of identity for its crus—especially what is arguably Styria’s most famous single vineyard, Zieregg—has vaulted it to international acclaim.
Small Scale Ensures Quality—but Limits Availability
Styria is tiny. Its roughly 5,000 hectares of vines are less than a fifth of Lower Austria’s and less than half of Burgenland’s. Moreover, the average estate size of Styria’s nearly 2,000 producers is just 2.6 hectares. Fully half of Styria’s vineyard area is officially designated Bergwein (which translates to “mountain wine”), from hillside vineyards with more than 26 percent slope that can only be worked by hand.
Although total Styrian vineyard area has increased by close to a third over the past 20 years, and plantings of Sauvignon Blanc have doubled in the same period, yields are comparatively low and domestic demand is robust. Austrians prize Styria as a vacation destination and a wine region; this built-in market curbs Styrian producers’ incentive to export. Peters says that Tement, for example, produces about 400,000 bottles of wine each vintage, but that less than 10 percent of that comes to the U.S.
Although official statistics are not kept for Styrian exports, last year the Wein Steiermark regional association polled its 450 producer members and learned that 11.5 percent of respondents export. Of that fraction, just 16 percent comes to the U.S. In the New York market, arguably the strongest for Styrian wine nationally, Blume/Huette’s Gutenbrunner says he has access to about 20 Styrian producers, compared with 150 from Lower Austria.
Aside from the region’s size and limited exports, U.S. consumers may be less familiar with Styria because its varietal profile doesn’t fit their idea of Austrian wine. Grüner Veltliner, Austria’s flagship white grape, isn’t grown there. Moreover, while Grüner accounts for almost a third of all Austrian white plantings, Sauvignon Blanc makes up less than four percent. Meanwhile, the region’s hallmark red variety, Blauer Wildbacher, remains obscure.
Finally, the overrepresentation of top-end Styrian producers in the U.S. market combined with the above factors make Styrian entry-level and value wines scarce. “Styria has so little wine in that under-$20 range,” notes Dalzell.
While pricing is unlikely to change, the good news is that a dip in Austrian domestic wine consumption, a more worldly outlook among Austrian producers, and demand from U.S. consumers for responsibly farmed, artisan wines favors the chances that more Styrian wine will enter this market. U.S. importers, including a proliferation of small, new companies, are scouring the Austrian market as never before. Styrian wines are sure to show up on their radars—and, hopefully, ours.
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Valerie Kathawala is a New York-based journalist specializing in the wines of Austria, Germany, South Tyrol, and Switzerland. She is also the co-founder and co-editor of TRINK Magazine. She holds a WSET 3 certification.