Cracking the Code to Austria’s Most Distinguished Dessert Wine

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It turns out, Botrytis cinerea, that noble fungus responsible for the prized dessert wines of Sauternes, is a bit of a prima donna. Only under just the right conditions (foggy autumn mornings, usually from a nearby river or lake, followed by sunny afternoons) will it spring to life and perform its artistry. As such, very few grape growing regions are able to produce these magical sweet wines. Sauternes in Bordeaux and the aszú wines of Tokaji in Hungary may get all the attention (such as it is), but the earliest known botryized wines were made in Burgenland Austria, where a barrel dating from 1526 was discovered (and unfortunately consumed in 1852). These days, Austria’s star producer of botrytized wines is Kracher.

The key to Weinleibenhof Kracher’s success lies in its proximity to Neusiedl Lake, whose vast, shallow waters near the Hungarian border reliably blanket the surrounding vineyards with autumnal mists, ensuring a harvest of botrytized grapes year after year. Located near the village of Illmitz on the lake’s eastern shore, the winery was founded by Alois Kracher Sr., who began growing grapes (along with corn and other crops) at the end of WWII as a means of supporting his poverty-stricken family. It wasn’t until the harvest of 1959 that he realized the potential of his wine and began bottling it under his own name instead of selling it off in bulk as he had been doing. It was the efforts of his son, Alois Jr., however, that eventually brought them international attention. In 1988 he audaciously held a tasting that pitted Kracher wines against the ultimate standard: Château d’Yquem, Sauternes’ only Premier Cru Supérieur. Much to everyone’s surprise, the Kracher wines won. It was their Judgment-of-Paris moment and secured their reputation as a producer of world-class wines.

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The winery is currently in the hands of Gerhard Kracher, who took over in 2007 following the death of his father, Alois Jr., from pancreatic cancer at age 48. Gerhard is continuing his father and grandfather’s practices and makes an extensive array of cuvees every year from varieties such as Welschriesling, Chardonnay, Traminer, Muskat Ottonel and Scheurebe. In Austria wines made from botrytized grapes are classified as trockenbeerenauslese (TBA), meaning individually picked, dried, late harvest grapes. Kracher makes a whole host of styles including beerenauslese (which in Austria are usually not affected by botrytis), auslese, spatlese as well as dry whites and reds. The TBA’s, however, are the real stars of the portfolio. Part of what elevates these wines, is how the grapes are handled. Not only is each variety vinified separately, but so are the grapes from each pass through the vineyard. Grapes don’t always develop botrytis at the same rate and thus are picked individually only at the right moment. Keeping everything separate gives Gerhard a freer hand for blending before bottling. To keep the wines straight Alois Jr. devised a numbering system where the higher the number, the more concentrated the wine. Too, the wines are fermented and aged in one of two styles: either in small new oak for the “Nouvelle Vague” (“new wave”) wines, or in large old wood or stainless steel for the more traditional “Zwischen den Seen” (“between the lakes”) wines. Some years will see 15 different cuvees, while in 2003, a very hot year, there was only one: Nouvelle Vague TBA #1, a blend of Welschriesling (70%), Chardonnay (20%) and Pinot Gris (10%). Even with the warm weather, this wine has a firm streak of acidity and is velvety smooth with notes of honey, raisins and orange.