Back in July, with Le Bernardin and Aldo Sohm Wine Bar closed, I decided to go back to Austria and take care of my winery. From then until mid-September, when we reopened, I drove from vineyard to vineyard, checking in with my favorite winemakers and meeting new ones. By far, my favorite (re)discovery was Styria.
With its lush, rolling hills and maritime climate, the winemaking region of this southeastern corner of Austria flows into Slovenia. (If you drive on a particular road near the border, the driver will be in Austria, the passenger in Slovenia.) While not as large as Tuscany or the Napa Valley, it’s a rural, charming and, dare I say, super romantic region. The natural beauty is almost dreamlike. It would be clichéd for an Austrian like me to say that it’s like being in The Sound of Music, but it’s not far off. Here, the attachment to the land — both its gifts and its natural beauty — is deep. There is a commitment to green energy and organic and biodynamic farming at vineyards and farms alike that is so ingrained as to be hardly worth mentioning; it’s just the way things are.
Austrian couples and families love visiting Styria for long weekends of hiking, mountain biking, and eating and drinking, as well as dipping into the many spas and thermal springs around Bad Waltersdorf and Loipersdorf. (The idea of wellness here isn’t plush and branded; it’s more democratic and medicinal.) Just two hours’ drive from Vienna, you won’t find as many American visitors as you will in, say, Salzburg. It’s simply not geared toward international tourists, making it an even more magical place to spend a long weekend. Here are some of the reasons to visit.
Unlike the Grüner Veltliner, Riesling and Blaufränkisch associated with the neighboring states of Lower Austria and Burgenland, Styria is best known for its sauvignon blanc and chardonnay (known here as Morillon), as well as its Welschriesling and yellow muscat (we call it Gelber Muskateller). The sauvignon blanc from this region has incredible purity, finesse and elegance. It’s not as tart as a Sancerre from the Loire Valley, but not as loud as something you’ll find from New Zealand. It has minerality and flash. While Americans used to find the wines from here to have too much of a puckery, Granny Smith quality, climate change has dialed it in. It also doesn’t hurt that they work at such an incredibly high level here.
We have this term, gemütlich. It’s that comfortable, cozy feeling that you get when you sit and eat with friends — kind of like Thanksgiving (without the arguments). Here, it’s cultivated in the restaurants, which can be a little internationally inspired, but with tons of influences from that region, from the local lake and river fish to the pork, beef, venison and, especially, the locally grown pumpkin seed oil. Its warm, roasty, nutty flavor is delicious on a mâche salad, or drizzled over scrambled eggs, as I had at the B&B from which I took this photo of a chapel amidst the vines. (God I loved their breakfast!)
The Green Outdoors
Known as the green heart of Austria, the state of Styria covers over 6,000 kilometers. Here you’ll find countless forests and almost 1,000 peaks that are over 2,000 meters, plus thousands of alpine meadows. In the wine-growing region, I took advantage of the excellent mountain-biking and hiking. And one day, I jogged right over the green border to Slovenia.
Wines from this area are becoming known internationally. The best-known vineyards include Sepp Muster, who began farming his family’s 10-hectare plot biodynamically with his wife Maria in 2000. (It was an easy transition, as no pesticides had ever been used there.) The label on Weingut Werlitsch’s wines — a tree taking root on Planet Earth — will be familiar to anyone who frequents natural wine bars. Second-generation biodynamic winemaker Ewald Tscheppe’s vineyard abuts those of his brother, Andreas, who owns vines along the top of the ridge — the most sought-after real estate in the region — and makes beautiful whites and skin-contact wines whose labels are adorned with the dragonflies, butterflies and other creatures who call his steeply terraced vineyard home.
Young winemaker Armin Tement comes from the well-known Austrian wine family, which makes wines under the Zieregg label. (Part of their vineyard lies across the Slovenian border!) Today, on a 20-hectare plot, he and his family are dedicated to bottling the razor-sharpness of the terroir for his Domaine Ciringa Fosilni Breg Sauvignon Blanc. His focus on making one wine from one grape is paying off beautifully. You can taste them at his Weingut Tement.
Young winemaker Armin Tement comes from the well-known Austrian wine family, which makes Zieregg. Today, on a 20-hectare plot, he and his family are dedicated to bottling the razor-sharpness of the terroir for his Domaine Ciringa Fosilni Breg Sauvignon Blanc. His focus on making one wine from one grape is paying off beautifully. You can taste them at his Weingut Tement.
Tement and his family have bought a few of the hilltop cottages traditionally owned by winemakers and turned them into lovely rental cottages. They’re the perfect way to experience (and view) the region, or to just be close to the area’s tasting rooms. Be sure to reserve early.
Weingut Tement | Wines from the father-son properties Zieregg and Ciringa.
Weingut Gross | Family-run since 1907, this hillside winery offers tours and tastings, and serves Styrian food in spring and fall.
Hannes Sabathi | Young winemaker known for this sauvignon blanc and welschriesling.
Weingut Neumeister | Hypermodern winery, tasting room, and modern restaurant.
Weingut Wolfgang Maitz | Winery, restaurant and guesthouse.
Natural Wine Scene
Weingut Muster | Sepp and Maria Muster’s biodynamic Mecca.
Andreas Tscheppe Weingut | Breathtaking views — and wines.
Weingut Werlitsch | Excellence all around.
Strohmeier | One U.S. wine store promoted the sparkling wines from this centuries-old biodynamic vineyard as being “the weirdest thing you’ll drink all week” — high praise indeed!
Aldo Sohm is the James Beard Award-winning wine director of Le Bernardin and a partner in the Aldo Sohm Wine Bar. He was named Best Sommelier in the World in 2008 by the Worldwide Sommelier Association, Best Sommelier in America in 2007 by the American Sommelier Association, and Best Sommelier of Austria four times by the Austrian Sommelier Union. His book, Wine Simple, was published in 2019.