Calgary Wine Life: Blaufrankisch Masterclass with Georg Prieler of Weingut Prieler

1 05 2019

By Raymond Lamontagne and Peter Vetsch

Austria is renowned for the fruit purity and fine minerality of its wines, and Blaufrankisch is the premier black grape of the region. Grown across Central Europe and going by various monikers (the wonderful “Kekfrankos” in Hungary, and the more prosaic “Lemberger” in Germany), Blaufrankisch is an early-budding, late-ripening variety sometimes dubbed the “Pinot Noir of the East”; its elegance and dexterity earns it that nickname, but its hallmark savoury mineral wildness forges an identity all its own.  Some grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon or Campania’s Aglianico are said to swamp or overshadow terroir with their sheer varietal character, while others are more protean and can serve as a lens through which the story of their soils and site and climate are reflected.  Blaufrankisch falls firmly into the latter camp, although through its various land-driven expressions one can commonly find dark berry aromas and flavours, vibrant acidity, a pronounced spiciness and that “other” wild rocky character that can set this grape apart.  We were extremely excited to do a specialized tasting of this varietal with Georg Prieler, owner and winemaker of Burgenland’s Weingut Prieler, a dynamic, charismatic, insightful winemaker who carries his family’s history with aplomb…and who might just make the best Pinot Blanc in the world.

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Georg Prieler, Weingut Prieler

Yes, Pinot Blanc. We both first came to know this producer by being absolutely floored by how stunning and utterly fascinating Weingut Prieler’s Pinot Blancs can be.  This particular grape rarely wins this sort of accolade and is often considered a paler, strait-laced shadow of Chardonnay, never fully given the opportunity to take a star turn in any region…except, as it turns out, in Burgenland, where Prieler exalts it among whites and where Georg calls it “the Riesling of the Burgundy varieties”.  That got our Riesling-loving attention, and Prieler’s single-vineyard Pinot Blanc which capped off our tasting held it,  transfixed.

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All that said, Pinot Blanc remains both the winery’s and the region’s “second most important” variety, according to Georg, as nothing in Burgenland knocks Blaufrankisch off its throne. Georg himself hails from (and still lives in) the village of Schützen am Gebirge, population ~1500, known for steely Pinot Blanc but also the sublime Goldberg vineyard, where Blaufrankisch might reach its pinnacle.  He closely oversees operations in both vineyard and winery, inheritor of a legacy that runs from his grandfather to father to sister and now, as of 2011, to Georg himself.  The family’s time in the vineyards predates their work in the cellar — the Prielers have been planting and tending grapes in Burgenland for 150 years, which perhaps is what leads Georg to immediately describe himself as “just a farmer who takes planes and drinks wine”.  After his inaugural visit to Calgary, and with the voice of his wines preceding him, it’s clear that this particular travelling farmer has a global reach.

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Austria’s wine heartland is in the eastern half of the country, in the foothills of the Alps, situated in between Burgundy and Champagne in terms of northerly latitude (47-48 degrees North).  Burgenland’s viticultural success lies partly in its varied soils, heavy in slate and limestone (both of which are catnip and catalyst to characterful wine) and partly in its bright but windy climate, with cool winters tempered by the crucial Neusiedlersee (a large lake whose shores are a stone’s throw from Georg’s hometown) and intense sunlight interspersed with gusty breezes that jointly allow grapes to ripen slowly while retaining precious acid.  Georg uses cover crops in the vineyards to return nutrients to the soil, and he carefully explains that biodiversity in his vineyard sites is carefully protected within his approach to organic farming. Above all, Prieler seeks to attain purity of expression in his wines, with soil and climate calling many of the winemaking shots even as the man himself has a clear vision of what needs to happen in the cellar to ensure that the land can speak clearly.

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Georg’s exposition of his home region’s star grape is inspiring. He references Blaufrankisch’s expressions of “wild spices” and blood, and also a fruity acidic freshness that comes together with the more savage elements to yield the complexity that all connoisseurs of fine wine seek. Timing of harvest can be used to select bright and juicy versus more serious, tannic grapes. The end goal is to yield detailed, precise wines with this often obstinate, challenging variety. Energy and clarity are balanced. Relatively few grapes can achieve such an equilibrium. But before we launch into the true fruits of all this labour…rosé anyone?  Made from Blaufrankisch, of course.

2017 Prieler Rosé vom Stein

Georg explains the distinction he draws between “wine bar” rosés that make a sweet, carefree impression on their own and “food friendly” rosés that are made in a richer, drier, almost salty style to complement a meal. This bottle embodies the latter expression, with a structured complexity in the mouth that eludes many other pink wines.  The grapes are sourced from the Schutzner Stein vineyard, a steep stony hill that features a multitude of different soil types ranging from schist to limestone to pebbly sand. It is primarily a white grape vineyard, and the Blaufrankisch planted there never gets sufficiently ripe to make a workable red, but it is a laser beam in pink.

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Wafts of wet stone and strawberry shortcake lead the way, followed by a broad cavalcade of grapefruit and sour tangerine, lemon rind, copper pennies, Parmesan cheese rind, and loads of dainty floral elements that recall gardenias, the eponymous roses, and the sort of bath salts you could find in any spa.  A piercing linear tartness blossoms into a broader, fruitier midpalate, then ends with another compressed javelin of limestone-driven piquant acidity.  There’s a lot to unpack here.

89 points

2015 Prieler Blaufrankisch Johanneshöhe

We launch into the main course of the tasting with Johanneshöhe, considered to be Prieler’s workhorse “classic red”, their textbook “introduction to Blaufrankisch”. These grapes hail from brown loam soil full of red pebbles with a high iron content, a combination known to yield juicy wines redolent with peppery spice. The wine is fermented in temperature controlled stainless steel (open-tanked, though, because Blaufrankisch needs air while fermenting) and then matured in neutral large oak barrels, the better to showcase the bright fruits.  Georg explains that, contrary to popular red winemaking belief, “small berries aren’t always the best”.  Due to the relatively high tannin concentrations in such fruit, small berries yield more structured, heavier wines, with medium berries yielding finer wines and larger berries providing more fruity notes. There are no fixed rules regarding which grape size is best, nor what proportion of the press wine to use:  Georg responds thoughtfully and flexibly depending on what he thinks each vintage needs.  Typically no sulfur is needed until bottling.

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Such attention to detail clearly pays off in the drinking. A thin halo of damp earth and lilacs drifts over a core of buoyant cherry, blueberry, and raspberry fruit. There is a telltale hit of chilli powder as well, spicy and earthy, along with equally prickly white pepper, herbal oregano and sage, sandpaper and basketball rubber. The tingly acidity gives the berries and cherries a deft lift as the spice and herb elements slowly build. The tannins remain pleasantly gritty and scratchy, all the while the wine exudes balance and poise. So this is Blaufrankisch. This translation should be mandatory tasting for all serious wine geeks.  By the way:  Prieler holds each vintage of each of its wines until Georg feels it is ready for release, chronological order be damned, so look for the 2017 version of the Johanneshöhe to be released before the 2016.

90 points

2008/2011/2015 Prieler Blaufrankisch Leithaberg DAC

We next transition to a vertical side-by-side tasting of three vintages of Blaufrankisch Leithaberg, with enjoys its very own own Districtus Austriae Controllatus (DAC) designation, one of only 13 such regions in the country. In many ways this is THE Blaufrankisch region, ranking among the oldest wine-growing regions in the world and known for a distinct, pronounced minerality thought to be associated with a unique fossil limestone soil called “Leithakalk”. In addition, a stippling of mica-schist throughout causes the vines to drive their roots deep, such that limited soil resources are ultimately concentrated into a small quantity of fruit. Days are sunny but nights are cool, with wind exerting an additional cooling influence that helps preserve the variety’s naturally high acidity. Georg ferments these wines in temperature-controlled small barrels, followed by 20 months in 500-litre barrels of Austrian oak.

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What a treat, being able to conduct a direct comparison of these three vintages, which are a definitive statement for anyone seeking to determine how well Blaufrankisch can reflect terroir.  Across the board, the tannins on the Leithabergs are more fine-grained than Johanneshöhe, but each of these vintages strongly reflects that focused strip of history when its particular grapes were grown. The 2015, from a top vintage for Blaufrankisch, starts rather closed but opens up with some air, revealing a compact power that portends of great things to come. Floral and spice aromatics abound (lilacs/violets, aniseed/star anise, white pepper, wintergreen, and black liquorice gumdrops), wreathing a core of blackberry and raspberry fruit. Curious but delightful aromas of motor oil and burnt pretzels.  Powerful but aristocratic tannins suggest this one has time to spare — do yourself a favour and find some of these for the cellar.

The 2011 Leithaberg, from what Georg colourfully described as a “Darth Vader” vintage, making very deep, black wines, immediately recalls chocolate malt balls or chocolate-covered raisins, followed by cherry Nibs, salted Dutch black liquorice, aromatic spruce gum or pine resin, and cinnamon hearts. A Bordeaux-like note of pencil lead gathers steam before being subsumed by a profoundly meaty character, like beef broth or bouillon cubes, with a dash of molasses, autumn leaf and black olive.  We gleefully christened this the “Guinness of Blaufrankisch”: it is hale, hearty, tertiary and decidedly dark, the thickest and densest of the three vintages sampled here.  It tastes like a black jellybean, if all of its sugar was replaced with sweat.
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And the 2008?  Just wow.  From a very cool vintage saved by good weather at harvest, this is showing at its apex, graceful and fleet of foot, yet meditative rather than frenetic. It is tangy, delicate, and somehow far more pure and primary than the younger 2011, its  top notes of wet stone and unsettled concrete setting the stage for a beam of red currant, blackcurrant Wine Gums, graphite and oolong tea. The delicate red/black fruit and intricate minerality leave an ethereal impression, but subtle structure remains and suggests further longevity, though likely not further improvement. Should you find one of these extreme rarities, count your blessings and enjoy.  Wait on the 2015, which may well surpass the 2008 in time.

92 points (2015), 90- points (2011), 92+ points (2008)

2015 Prieler Blaufrankisch Ried Goldberg

Goldberg is the top of the podium, the best vineyard site in the Schützen am Gebirge area.  The “Ried” designation is a relatively new Austrian wine label term reflective of a single-vineyard wine.  The vineyard in question here is (somewhat surprisingly) not based on limestone but on schist, or more specifically a mica-schist flecked with gold, which gives the elevated site its name (Gold Mountain).  Goldberg is the epitome of the ideal meteorological ripening combination of sun and wind; Georg says it is the only site where you always go to check the vines wearing both sunglasses and a jacket.

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About as site-specific as it gets.

This is immediately different in the glass from the rest, a deeper, more penetrating ruby colour.  Georg calls it “prim and proper”, and it is almost regal in its utterly harmonious, calm, unbothered expression, with no scratch to its tannin, a near-weightless mouthfeel and tempered but still decidedly fresh acidity.  “Layers without heaviness” is the credo, and the buoyant complexity is remarkable.  We are both immediately struck by a unique note of fresh mint, spearmint specifically, accented by Thai basil. The fruits skew towards blackcurrant and black cherry as opposed to bramble, the spice echoing piney/floral cardamom instead of pepper. The anise and graphite from the previous Leithaberg wines are also present, as are flinty mineral notes, but everything here seems particularly zen, even as Blaufrankisch’s wildness remains lurking underneath. This is an unbelievably impressive example of a grape that should be on everyone’s radar.

93+ points

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2016 Prieler Pinot Blanc Seeberg

It seems customary to end a tasting like this with a serious red.  After the most serious red of the day, Georg flips the script, concluding his Masterclass with a “palate cleanser” in the form of his game-changing Pinot Blanc. It is a pleasure to revisit this wine, which hails from 35+ year-old vines and spends two days macerating with its skins to lend it some tannic oomph.  Lightning bolt prickly acidity runs front to back, joined on its journey by Rockets candy, lemon and lime rind, cantaloupe, icing sugar, raw almonds, cream cheese, green nectarine and pineapple skin, ending with a final wink of elastic bands and malted milk.  Lees contact duration maturation plays off the tart fruit in a way only Seeberg can showcase, two elements that you might think would clash but do not, everything transformed into a wild, wacky, paradigm-shifting version of a grape that may have been more secretly interesting all along if anyone had tried to coax it out.  This is one of those tastings where one wants to linger long after the formal proceedings end, chatting and drinking and soaking up a winemaker’s wisdom.  Don’t be a stranger in Calgary, Georg.  Our Blaufrankisch education is well underway.

90+ points

 

 

 

 

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