Spitzerberg is the last and least of the Lesser Carpathians. It is neither spitz – pointed, nor Berg – a mountain; a slump-shouldered acclivity at best, covered mostly with trees and only partially with the vine, situated in a protected nature preserve. In the easternmost Austrian winegrowing region Carnuntum, it lies closer to Bratislava than to Vienna. Grapes have been grown here for centuries, taking advantage of the hillside’s position as the first elevation encountered by the warm and dry air masses that stream northward from the Pannonian plain, but its vineyards had fallen into a state of neglect and desuetude for most of the recent decades.
Muhr-van der Niepoort’s top wine, Blaufränkisch Spitzerberg – as well as their Blaufränkisch Samt & Seide – are distinctive, in that the estate has chosen not to model their wines on examples from the Leithagebirge, the Eisenberg and or Gols, but rather expresses the contrast of their meager and parched hillside soils to the moisture-retentive heavier ground down around Lake Neusiedl. Spitzerberg offers an elegant, subtle and mineral-driven perspective on the confluence of old vines and fossil limestone; long-lived and long on the palate, fine and densely packed. The vines are old – not Sonoma Zinfandel old, but 40–60 years of age – Burgundy old, rather… Samt & Seide (Velvet and Silk) is bottled from vines between 10–30 years old, and shows a rounder character while still projecting the message of the earth in which the vines grow.
Muhr-van der Niepoort is the viticultural collaboration between Vienna’s doyenne of marketing in matters of taste – Dorli Muhr – and the Oporto master, ringleader of the Douro Boys, Dirk Niepoort. The estate started out with a mere 0.3 hectares of vines handed down through the Muhr family, and has grown to its current size of twelve hectares, with no further significant increase anticipated. With this expansion, Dorli and Dirk (the two Ds facing on the label) have taken the lead in restoring this marvelous vineyard land to its potential.
All work is done by hand, and the cellar – actually more of a shed – houses no new barriques, so the flavoring is kept to a minimum. Every vintage sees creation of several microvinifications: with autochthnonous yeasts – some foot-trodden, some whole cluster fermentation, some with extended periods of maceration – all undertaken in order to learn from the vines and the grapes, to determine what brings forth the most distinctive expression of site and substance.
In a winegrowing region best known for its affable and quaffable Zweigelt, the Spitzerberg is something of a viticultural island, a core of granite blanketed with limestone, which offers the ideal soil for growing a grapevine that is steadily becoming regarded as a member of the upper echelon worldwide, the Blaufränkisch. Sitting flavor-wise in the center of an angel’s triangle between Pinot Noir, Nebbiolo and Syrah, the Blaufränker remains distinctively Austrian; most of the finer examples are grown in nearby Burgenland, where the variety thrives under a wide variety of interpretations.
A few years ago I went for a ride with Dorli out to her native Carnuntum village of Rohrau and took part in a singular ceremony where the fifteen growers who have vines on the Spitzerberg (and their guests, including myself and Falstaff magazine editor Peter Moser) tasted the wines of the current vintage blind, and then voted among themselves to determine which could be permitted to bear the name Spitzerberg on the label in that particular vintage, and which must unfortunately be declassified and sold as Blaufränkisch Carnuntum. Severe and demanding criteria have been set, which even fine growers cannot always meet. From the 2006 vintage, for example, only four wines were selected to carry the name Spitzerberg.
A more recent outing found Ms Muhr and myself seated at a table for six in a swish restaurant in Düsseldorf with a couple Dutch wine merchants, AWMB headman Willi Klinger and Italian grower Angelo Gaja. There could be no clearer indication of the Blaufränkisch’s gustatory kinship with Nebbiolo than the seamless fashion in which Muhr-van der Niepoort’s 2010 Spitzerberg led in to the king of the Piemontaise hill’s 2004 Barolo Sperss. And Signore Gaja was in no way stingy in his praise of the Austrian red.
The current Blue Danube Wine Co. import portfolio is rounded out with with a distinctive, foot-trodden fermented- on-the-skins Grüner Veltliner (complemented with 10% Riesling) called Prellenkirchen, which occasionally shares the fate of Moric’s Grüner Veltliner and Pepi Umathum’s Hárslevelű, of not being awarded a registration number by the local (somewhat hidebound) tasting authority.