After just spending two days in Austria and tasting some 200 wines, I’m happy to say that Erste Lage vintage 2013 is for me a hit. It’s a cool vintage that comes with piercing acidity and rare kind of purity, so if you prefer your Grüners bold, tropical and heavy with viscosity, it might not be your cup of tea. For me, it was a little slice of paradise.
Let’s start with the necessary facts. Erste Lage consists of the best vineyard plots from Kamptal, Kremstal, Wagram and Traisental. The concept was invented in 1992, implemented the first time in 2010 and consists of 62 best sites. It is a self regulatory body and not, at least yet, part of the Austrian wine legislation. To give you an idea of the concept, you can think of the Cru classification of Burgundy. The difference to the classification of, let’s say Bordeaux, is that the status of the cru is given to a vineyard site with usually many vintners, not an estate. Erste Lage status is given to circa 15% of the vineyard and reserved for wines made with the local superstar Grüner veltliner and the international grand-slammer Riesling.
So should Erste lage be treated as a Grand cru classification? Good that I asked the stupid question, because it gets interesting. To put it short, Erste Lage is like premier cru, but not equivalent of Grand cru. Some of current Erste Lages will later get ”Grand cru” status. The only thing is, that no one yet actually knows exactly which plots might be worthy to be the pinnacle of the classification.
Let’s hear what Michael Moosbrugger of the iconic Schloss Gobelsburg and the primus motor of the Erste Lage has to say about it.
- Erste Lage is reserved for 15% of vineyard, but the Grand cru level would mean something like 2-5%, but we’ve yet to select the sites worthy of the status. The whole classification got up and running only 2010 so it will take some time before we see the work done.
It remains unclear whether we’re talking about ten years or thirty, but I’m quite sure that time will tell. But let’s get into the vintage 2013. It was, after all, my reason to travel to Austria. It has a character quite different from 2012. It was definitely a cool vintage and not the easiest one. When we’re talking about a cool vintage of a region considered cool to begin with but we also know that Grüner has a notorious tendency to become oily and flabby when very ripe, things get interesting. Acidity is definitely there in the 2013’s, so if you are an acidity freak like me, you just might find yourself falling in love with the 2013 Erste Lage Grüner veltliners.
Grüner veltliner is a late ripening variety and at the end of the ripening season, the acidity levels fall significantly. That means that especially on warmer vintages the wines are full of ripe peach and at some cases tropical notes, oily in their viscosity, high in alcohol, spicy to the point of resembling coconut milk and slightly floral. Part of the issue is too late harvesting time, since some of the producers still seem to think that grapes going for top of the line wines should carry more sugar than the ones used for lesser wines. Thankfully this is no longer the norm.
To me personally a perfect Grüner would be something like this. It has some aromas of melon, but citric notes dominate the palate, not exremely ripe stonefruits, not to even mention liche of papaya. There are some herbal notes typical for the variety, but they are hanging in the back, not stealing the limelight. White pepper typical for cheaper examples of the variety is not really present, at least that is my impression after tasting 200 wines from the past 25 years. Florality is accepted in subtle way, like as orange peel, but perfumic white flowers are better left to Gewurztraminers and Muscats. Freshly squeezed lime juice backed up with riper notes, a gentle layer of spiciness embracing the package, a fruity yet muscular without being too heavy. That would be a perfect Grüner for my personal taste. The list continues, bare with me.
Fruit and structure are equally significant and they have to be in balance for a Grüner to work. No sensation of sweetness should be present, if you ask me, and that has something to do with the level of alcohol too. To me even 14% seems to be a tad too much from time to time. Then again, the perfect Grüner must not have a dry style of fruitiness, nor should it be neutral in character, so it’s easy to understand that making a great Grüner takes both perfect weather conditions and extereme skill. The perfect Grüner cleanses the palate while going down but is not tight or too nervous. Acidity is present but in an integrated form, the Coca-Cola kind of acidity one sometimes bumbs into in cheaper Grüners is not desirable. I love the kitschy combination of Wiener Schnitzel and Grüner, but it’s obvious that one doesn’t need another oily layer in mouth after the grease of schnitzel. That’s why the acidity must be present and able to cut through the fat.
That would be my idea of a Grüner so tasty, you’ll dream about it later on. To me the 2013 is offering many examples of this almost uncanny perfection. The best thing about it is that they’re very enjoyable and palatable already, no need to wait for 15 years (though these bombs will most probably age gracefully even longer).
I had a chat about the vintage character with the talented Fred Loimer and he shared my vision about 2013 being a great year for Grüners. With Riesling I was feeling more ambivalent, because the cool vintage character articulates itself in Rieslings some times as amplified acidity, tightness and thin fruit. Then again one must notice that the best Rieslings of 2013 are probably the greatest examples of Austrian Riesling, since on riper expression local Riesling tends to carry notes of ripe pear, be too herbal for my taste and somewhat floral. Age will most probably do good for the Erste Lage Rieslings of 2013, but age will not affect the issue of thin fruit, if it is present. Rieslings from producers such as Birgit Eichinger and Franz Proidl were very impressive, powerfull and pure.
Here’s my list of producers I was the most fond of. The differences between the greatest producers and ”the second tier” is extremely small to me. Most of the producers part of Erste Lage are above average in quality, if you compare with other quality wine making regions. It is most of all about personal preferences. Since I tend to go for the lighter and brighter style, the list represents this tendency. Balance is of course the key.
The best Erste Lage producers vintage 2013
Disclaimer: I was invited by Traditionsweingüter and they paid for the flight tickets and the upkeep during the stay.