Calgary Wine Life: Weingut Hiedler Tasting @ Bricks Wine Co.

26 06 2017

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Ludwig Hiedler Jr.

When Ludwig Hiedler Jr. speaks, generations of knowledge echo in his words.  His career has spanned many years of education and experience, multiple shifts in approach, and innumerable hours spent questioning how to create and reveal the truest form of a wine.  He at first chafed against the layers of tradition quietly imposed on him like sediment by his ancestors, and pushed back against them by experimenting in all facets of his self-described “artisanal, emotional” winemaking style, only to eventually discover his own truth where it always was, embedded within his family’s values and legacy.  He is 24 years old.

Ludwig Jr., his father Ludwig Sr. and his brother Dietmar now collectively guide the course of Weingut Hiedler, which has been producing wine in northern Austria’s Kamptal region since 1856, longer than Canada has existed as a country.  Ludwig Jr. represents the fifth generation of Hiedlers to take on winemaking duties at the estate, steering the winery into the future with a nod back into the past, through sustainable chemical-free practices in the vineyard, next to no use of oak for maturation, and wines made as a pure reflection of site and vintage, with no stylistic or flavour preconceptions guiding the journey to the finished product and limited intervention during fermentation.  Hiedler uses native yeasts to ferment all of his wines, but in an interesting way:  he allows the ambient yeasts around the winery to do some of the work during fermentation, but has also harnessed certain selections of these native strains with which he also inoculates the fermenting must, propelling the ferment forward without introducing any element external to the winery.

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Weingut Hiedler is a small piece of a 1,000+ year tradition of winemaking in Austria, and is part of a group of quality-focused producers working on taking the generational knowledge built up and passed down about vineyard sites, soils, aspects and qualities and creating a (long-overdue) formal comprehensive set of vineyard classifications for the country.  The Österreichische Traditionsweinguter (or the ÖTW for short, which translates to “Traditional Austrian Winemakers” and is roughly equivalent to Germany’s VDP) has identified a number of top “Erste Lage” (first growth) vineyards which they hope to see formalized at law in the future, bringing Burgundian rigour to Austrian soils.  Hiedler’s philosophy strives for longevity, tranquility, wisdom, harmony and elegance in its wines, a vision symbolized by the owl that graces its labels and has quickly become the most recognizable visual reference to the estate.

This was Ludwig Hiedler Jr.’s first ever trip to Canada, and his last stop in a hectic North American travel schedule before he returned to winemaking duties in Austria.  Before embarking on a transoceanic flight home, he graciously led us through a remarkable Gruner Veltliner and Riesling Masterclass at one of Calgary’s most impressive boutiques, Inglewood’s Bricks Wine Company.  Through four Gruners and three Rieslings, we got a clear sense of what Ludwig and Weingut Hiedler were all about, yet I still left thinking that there are many more undiscovered layers to both the man and the winery, to be unveiled in the coming decades of Hiedler releases.

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2016 Hiedler Löss Gruner Veltliner

Gruner Veltliner is Austria’s signature grape and one of my all-time favourite varietals, combining riveting precision and confident personality with a remarkable series of flavour possibilities that at their extreme can border on whimsical.  Hiedler Jr. spoke of “the light side” and “the dark side” of the wine possibilities arising out of this grape, the former of which are clean and friendly, with just a hint of the uniqueness that lies beneath, and the latter of which rage with spice and power and downright wackiness.  I personally admire Gruner’s so-called dark side, which to me showcases everything that the grape is about at its core (plus – how many varietals can honestly say they have a dark side??), but I equally admire how Veltliner can showcase itself in many different ways as site dictates and occasion demands.  Every superhero needs to don civilian attire once in a while.

This entry-level ($25ish) Gruner is a stellar example of the light.  Its name, Löss, references the multi-component loess soils in which the grapes have grown as opposed to any single-vineyard designation.  A mirror of the cooler 2016 vintage in Austria, this bottling is crisp, taut and steely, emitting laser-beam aromas of lemon-lime, grass, chalk and flint before brightening on the peppy palate, which melds an intriguing powdery, talc-y texture with pure zippy acid.  Celery, fresh leaves and green pea accents live up to Gruner’s name (which means “green” in German), adding spice and fun to the bright citrus fruit.  This is sharp without being austere, reflecting its identity with clever restraint.

88-89+ points

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2015 Hiedler Löss Gruner Veltliner

Same wine, same soils, different vintage – and what a difference a year makes.  In contrast to the chilly 2016, 2015 was warm and dry, which was amply demonstrated in this big, expansive wine.  The 2015 Löss was more floral, friendly, oily and powerful, its ripe stone fruit aromas clearly and happily weather-boosted.  It is definitely more relaxed on the tongue than its precedessor, its texture creamy and weightless, its acid scaled back while still remaining healthily present.  Cool white peach and honeydew fruit feel the flex of Gruner’s personality through undercurrents of fennel and Thrills gum, leading into a long floating finish.  There’s not much that beats a back-to-back vintage tasting of a good wine – so, so fascinating.

87-88+ points

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2014 Hiedler Thal Gruner Veltliner

Now we move both a step further back in time and a step up in the ripeness and quality scale, to a duo of Hiedler Gruners from the single vineyard Thal, which features 80 year-old vines on sloped loess-based soils.  It is one of 20-odd vineyards in Austria’s Kamptal region to earn an Erste Lage designation from the ÖTW, as reflected in the proprietary symbol displayed proudly on the front label.  If you’re having trouble label-deciphering which Austrian wines are single-vineyard offerings and which (like the Löss above) have names depicting something different, keep an eye out on new-release bottlings for the word “Ried”, which is now being used to indicate a single-vineyard wine.

2014 was an extremely difficult vintage in Austria, but with the best producers vintage difficulties can become opportunities; never write off a wine solely because of the year on the label.  The Thal is a point higher in alcohol than the Löss, was partly aged in large locally sourced acacia barrels (which allow for the wine to get some oxygen exposure without any flavour transference) and just hits $40 on the shelf, but this is an evident case where you get what you pay for.

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There is a major colour difference between this wine and the previous two, from lemony water-white all the way to gleaming gold, reflective of Gruner’s ability for dramatic shifts with even a few years of age.  Then you smell and – oh my god.  Hiedler Jr. specifically noted his personal dislike for the rote recitation of flavours in tasting notes, but I’m not sure I can help myself here:  I frantically managed to write down black jujubes, crystallized pineapple, currant, ginger, rubber and Gruner’s classic white pepper, but I probably missed one or two dozen more, so expansive was the complexity of this wine.  This symphony carries forward on the palate, riding an insane combination of silky oiliness and lockdown acid, a touch of botrytis lending orange zest character to what already seemed an endless list of flavour.  This will only get crazier over time, but if it were me, I still wouldn’t wait.  What a wine.

92-93 points

2013 Hiedler Thal Gruner Veltliner

The 2013 vintage was as good as 2014 was bad:  Ludwig said it was the best vintage in Austria since 1999, spoiled only by a single major hail event that cost Weingut Hiedler 40-50% of its yield.  What survived was ripe and in ideal condition, and the resulting wine screams longevity.  Even though it was older than the 2014, the 2013 Thal felt more constrained and furled up and will definitely take longer to unwind.  It was aromatically sweeter and smokier than its younger brother, its honey, lemon drop and banana aromas cut by darker wafts of charcoal, rhubarb and gum boots.  You can tell by the feel of the wine on the tastebuds that there’s a ton going on, even if the detail of it is not yet fully being transmitted.  Its texture just pulsates, pepper and spice and tension layered throughout.  This has a long way to go but is already starting to show its pedigree.

91-92 points

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2016 Hiedler Langenlois Riesling

Now we shift to Austria’s other great white, the incomparable Riesling, for which the country is increasingly becoming globally known, and for good reason.  Speaking in generalizations, Austrian Riesling tends to be drier and richer than its German counterpart, but the two share a sort of clockwork linearity that makes their flavours seem etched in ice, clear and chiselled and focused.  The first Hiedler Riesling we explored was a village-level bottling ($33ish retail), falling between the Löss and the Thal above on the quality scale but coming from grapes grown in the same subregion in northern Kamptal, Langenlois, where the Thal vineyard is located — in fact, if the Thal Gruner was a German wine, it would likely have been titled “Langenloiser Thal” in reflection of this.

This Riesling may have generated the most ooohs and aaahs of the entire tasting from the assembled crowd.  After a quartet of Gruner Veltliner, it certainly came across as the prettiest wine of the group, all flowers and tropics and perfume wafting over lychee and cantaloupe fruit; it might be the single most floral Riesling I’ve come across.  Ludwig was visibly thrilled with how it was showing, accurately capturing its essence:  “so light, but so…present.”  A potpourri of fragrance envelops you as you taste, lavender and jasmine, seawater and honeysuckle, like drinking a vase of the freshest herbs and flowers.  This is a totally sui generis expression of Riesling.

89-90 points

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2015 Hiedler Gaisberg Riesling

Just as we ended the Gruners on a single-vineyard vertical set, we finished off the Rieslings in the same way.  The Gaisberg vineyard is an Erste Lage site from the sub-region of Straß (Strass), located due east of Langenlois in Kamptal.  The name is supposed to mean “Ghost Mountain” (Geist-Berg), but as Hiedler Jr. pointed out, it has somehow drifted over time to something closer to “Goat Mountain” (Geiss-Berg), which has a bit less of a ring to it.  Goats aside, this is an absolutely regal wine, anchored by iron and slate but still singing with lemon, guava and pineapple, ever-expanding on the palate, a roiling icy wildfire of expression and flavour.  Try as it might, the liquid can’t contain the entirety of the wine’s essence, whose floral accents nod back to the prior bottle but whose density, richness and complexity aim somewhere higher.  The 6 g/L of residual sugar is swept away by towering acid, and the finish lasts for a solid minute.  This is an all-world Riesling, and a clear steal at around $45.

92-93+ points

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2014 Hieder Gaisberg Riesling

Rewinding the clock on Gaisberg by a single year, especially from the hot 2015 to the chilly and tough 2014, is almost like stepping into a different world:  these final two bottles best exemplify Ludwig Hiedler Jr.’s expressed desire to let each wine decide its own identity, free of house-imposed aims or constraints.  This has by far the most classically “Riesling” set of aromatics of the trio we tasted, with powerful wafts of petrol and smoke, matchsticks and wet pavement, mandarin orange and frozen peach and spice, the fruit given marmalade complexity by trace amounts of botrytis in the vineyard.  There is less sugar left in this Gaisberg than the last one, but you notice it slightly more, walking a razor’s edge of fine acid.  The cooler vintage strips away some of the fruit and exposes the rocky, arctic soul of the grape, telling a lingering story on the finish that promises to become even richer with time.

91-92+ points

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