IN CONVERSATION WITH LEO ALZINGER
Leo Alzinger- Unterloiben, Wachau, Austria.
"To create good wine you need to have sure instinct. Each wine develops differently. The wine cannot be just a design on the drawing board, its character has to be explored and promoted.”
The Wachau is one of the most beautiful cultural landscapes in Austria. With the nomination to a World Heritage Site, the Wachau is on a par with the Pyramids of Giza, the Taj Mahal and the Great Wall of China. The combination of the Danube, the Waldviertel back-country and the wine terraces make such great wines possible.
The Alzinger estate makes superlative single vineyard wines from premium mountain sites including Loibenberg, Steinertal, Hollerin, and Liebenberg.
Renowned UK wine writer Jancis Robinson’s description of Leo Alzinger’s award-winning wines pretty much sums it up. “very exciting, nervy, super-tight wine“. She was referring to the Alzinger Lobiner Steinertal GV Smaragd 2010, but the fact people have to order the wines a year in advance says it all.
Father and Son Leo Alzinger are without doubt one of the true Wachau superstars, yet this remains a small family business embodying individuality and an unceasing quest for quality.
What is the story behind the vineyard?
There are in fact two Leo Alzingers - father and son. I joined in 2000 as the third generation and am now in charge.
My grandparents started with grape production for a co-operative, then in the 1980's my parents took over but a bad frost devastated the grapes in 1980-82 and they could not earn enough money. My Father worked as a teacher in a wine school in Krems but decided to make his own wine starting with just two varietals - Riesling and Grüner Veltliner. He also opened a small restaurant in Heuriger. Today it would be similar to a wine bar where you sell your own wines and cold foods such as meat and cheeses. In just one year they had a lot of repeat customers and people even queued for it to open. They stopped selling grapes to the co-operatives and everything spiralled from there.
Now we produce 70,000 bottles a year. and Austria is our biggest market. We sell half of our wines here then 50% of sales are spread around the world. We are in a good situation because the wines have to be reserved a year in advance.
How big is the vineyard?
We started with 3 hectares of vines and now we have 11 hectares. We buy grapes from 1 other hectare. Everything is handpicked. There is no other way of harvesting, the vineyard is very steep and we have terraces. The vineyard is 400m above sea level.
The Wachau region is small with just 1,200 hectares in total, but there is enough space for every winery. All the wineries work together, helping each other for marketing and tastings. This is good thing. We were the first region in Austria to do this.
Why do you only do white wines?
We focus on Grüner Veltliner and Riesling because we have the perfect conditions for these grape varietals. Our terraces have different soil types. On the terraces it is primarily rock with 30-40cm of soil on top. In the flatter areas we have sandy loam. Grüner Veltliner loves the deeper soil and Riesling can thrive on poor soil. Riesling can also handle dryness a lot better than Grüner Veltliner.
What special qualities do your wines have?
The most special aspect is the structure. We use new stainless steel tanks for the more powerful wines and big wooden casks for our fruity wines. Using big wooden casks means the wood doesn’t influence the wine. Instead the wines become creamier in nature.
We also harvest later than some of our neighbours because of our old vines and the specific exposition of the parcels. The extra time on the vine doesn’t increase sugar levels but rather pushes physiological ripeness to a greater balance.
Our wines are elegant, complex and full of minerality that especially for Grüner Veltliner is not very common. For this varietal, the deeper soils make the wines nice, fruity and elegant. Grüner Veltliner is also our local grape. You will find it all over Austria, Hungry and Slovakia. It is also a brilliant food wine. We always say "you don’t find food where you don’t find Grüner Veltliner to match with it". A light and elegant Grüner Veltliner style pairs well with fish, but a powerful one will match with steak. It is also a brilliant wine to pair with Asian foods from Thai to Indian. This is one reason it has become popular over the last 10-15 years.
What is the climate like and how does it influence the wines?
The climate is mixed. On the east side there is a warm Penonian influence and from the north and west a cool breeze from the continent. The Danube River is a balancing factor which means we generally don’t get frost. In the autumn before harvest we have very big temperature differences between day and night because the cold air comes from the north. This is a very important factor for the elegance and the structure of the white wines.
Who else works in the vineyard?
My sister doesn’t work in the winery, it is just me and my parents. My girlfriend, Katarina works in the office and we have a daughter, Sophie, who is 9 months old.
I learnt winemaking in a business school near Vienna. I also worked on vintages in Germany and one in Marlborough in New Zealand. On one side it is always important to have a good university education, but on the other side it’s more important what you can learn from people who have worked their whole life in this business There are so many factors that you cannot learn however, for instance, my grandfather passed down how to interpret the weather to my father and he passed that on to me.
What is your philosophy in creating wines?
With winemaking the most important thing is the vineyard. We always say, "produce 100% quality in the vineyards, then you have 100% in the cellar and if you have 90% of this quality in the bottles you have worked done well". We cannot improve the quality in the cellar. We try to do as little as possible during the whole winemaking process. We make it as natural as possible. I also will only plant grapes that are perfect for our soil and climate.
Grüner Veltliner works well when it’s not too warm. The same goes for Riesling. Too much sun affects the phenolic and then you have to tamper with the wines to make them good. For me it is not the right decision to plant varietals that you then have to change so much. When I taste Riesling and Grüner Veltliner from countries like Australia and New Zealand they have a completely different taste.
We work and live as a family and it’s funny because in our neighbourhood for some families it doesn’t work. The two generations are too different. For me, it is okay as my parents are very open-minded so we can talk and compare what they have done and what things we can change. We experiment with different ideas to see if they work or not. My parents never say, "we have always done it like this and in the future we will always do it like this".
What are your other interests?
I love cooking, visiting cities and I also do software development as a hobby, but now we have little time because Sophie is the most important thing in our lives. I do enjoy roller blading, skiing, swimming in the river if its not too cold.
What car do you drive?
I drive a Volkswagen.
What else is Austria known for?
Our region is famous for its Apricots. I love our local speciality, apricot dumplings. Of course the Vienna Schnitzel is well known worldwide. I would pair the apricot dumplings with a sweet wine. We have a sweet Grüner Veltliner and Riesling that we produce in some years.
If you constantly live in an area you don’t always see it how beautiful it is, but go abroad and come back home and you realise we are living in a great place.
And your favourite foods?
I love Asian food, Indian, Thai and Japanese. What I love about this job is we travel all over the world and I love trying new foods and wines.
How should your wines be drunk?
For the lighter wines open and drink it not too cold - 11 to 12 degrees. For the more powerful wines especially if older, then let them breath for half an hour.
What is your favourite wine?
My father produced a Riesling wine in 1986. It is fantastic for me to open a wine and not know what vintage it is. This wine tastes like it’s been bottled recently. It is important for us to make a wine that has a long life and you can keep it. The 1986 wine is of typical Riesling character - stone fruits, elegance and the fantastic thing is, no petrol taste. If Riesling has a little petrol on the nose it’s okay for me but I don’t want to feel like I am at a gas station.