Swine Wines in the Steiermark
By Sebastian Bordthäuser
In mid-October, Koch.Campus invited guests to a first-class pig-out in Trautmannsdorf, in Steiermark. “Going Whole Hog!” was the stated theme: two days of digging into the question of what differentiates the various heritage breeds from one another, and which provides the best meat. This combination of swine and wine catapulted the topic into the Champions League, and raised equally enthralling questions: Is there such a thing as terroir pork? Which wines are best suited to pair with various breeds? How much raw pork can I sample at 8 in the morning before I need my first schnaps? A catalog of questions for which I gladly served as a (guinea) pig…
Koch.Campus is a non-profit organization that works to promote and advance Austrian cuisine. Each gathering of producers, chefs, restaurateurs, and journalists delves into a different topic, from “Carrots and Terroir” to “Offal” to, of course, the latest entry: “Pig.” After meeting with distiller Hans Reisetbauer, president of Koch.Campus, as well as with longtime partner respekt-BIODYN (represented on this weekend by Wagram winemaker Bernhard Ott) it quickly dawned on me that whatever the next two days would bring, we certainly wouldn’t lack for beverages.
Hog Heaven: Trautmannsdorf
The ninth Koch.Campus seminar, dedicated to all things porcine, was held in the Vulkanland district of southeastern Steiermark. From Graz airport, it’s a lovely one hour drive under blue skies through autumnal valleys. This year’s hosts were the Rauch siblings in the heart of Trautmannsdorf. They were certainly a fitting choice: Steiermark is the epicenter of Austrian pig farming, from conventional and stall-fed models to breeders dedicated to the husbandry of heritage breeds. Even so, few farmers accompany their livestock from birth to slaughtering age.
When we talk about terroir for wine, we are referring to the sum of natural conditions, including climate, hours of sunshine and precipitation, and soils, i.e. the sustaining characteristics in combination with the winemaker as a cultural influence. These same considerations apply equally well to today’s subject: terroir pigs. To what extent does their freedom to graze and be active, in combination with natural factors such as wind and weather as well as their feed, influence their growth and fat levels, weight at slaughter and, ultimately, taste? The breeder here is analogous to the winegrower.
Preservation through consumption — a congenial (and delicious) motto.
The humble pig long held a central spot in our food supply chain, with no part going to waste and all parts enjoyed with gusto. Each Sunday after church, townspeople would head to the local inn to enjoy a plate of Kessel Beuscherl together with wine and spirits — long before the general public began expressing collective disgust at the idea of eating innards.
Industrial production and growing prosperity changed our relationship with these foods. Certain parts were banned from the food supply chain as “unbecoming,” even as the sow herself slowly metamorphosed into an over-bred industrial piglet hybrid of questionable ethical value. Offal was the first to disappear from menus, then off-cuts like hooves, meat from the head, ears, and tail; eventually even lard was cast as a villain until Western consumers would accept only lean cuts of pork. Today the pork back and belly are the only commercially viable cuts.
This poor reputation is absolutely undeserved. Heritage breeds are becoming increasingly rare, and threatened with extinction. Even in high-end dining, the pig suffers from poor standing. To change this, some breeders began specializing in heritage breeds. Preservation through consumption — a congenial (and delicious) motto.
Going Whole Hog
The event started before the first coffee with a presentation of the breeds by the farmers, breeders, and feeders. While some buy young animals and others breed them on their own, each of these pig whisperers concentrates exclusively on heritage breeds: They bear names like Sonnenschwein, Woazschwein, Wollschwein, Schafmolke-Weideschwein, Mangaliza, Duroc, Pietrain, Iberico, Turopolje, Jaga’s Kräuterschwein, and Ötscherblickschwein, further differentiated by their status as stall-raised or free range, as well as their feed.
Half a pig has been hung instructively on a step ladder, innards intact, and next to it a table with raw meat from the ten breeds for assessment. Three parts had been selected to highlight the quality of the meat: belly, neck and back.
Once the farmers had introduced their breeds, the meat was then released to guests for physical examination, meaning picking it up and feeling its softness or firmness, its fibrousness, and marbling. The meat of some breeds was distinctly more coarsely textured, others finer and firmer. The color, too, changed from light, pigly pink to a powerful, dark red that almost called to mind beef. The touch and feel (and smell) alone were more than enough to distinguish the ten breeds from one another.
Meat quality derives directly from how an animal is kept and what it is fed. In Steiermark, the trough is perpetually overflowing with good local products, in many cases self-grown: presscakes from pumpkin, corn, potato and peas, broad beans, winter barley, wheat, and rye as well as sorghum, malt, herbal pellets from meadow hay, salad, and red cabbage.
Of Swine and Wine
It quickly becomes clear that a strategy was needed for achieving the best-possible harmony between terroir wine and swine. To this end, I spent an hour before the official start of the event at the Trauteum, as locals fondly call their multi-functional facility. There I met with Bernhart Ott, who provided assistance during the tasting.
It was a tremendous privilege to taste various wines at the table in combination with these sublime pork creations. But just as the compulsory program comes before the free skate, my job was clear: categorization of the wines followed by a tasting of all ten pork breeds in combination.
The fatter the pig, the better it paired with extended-lees contact wines.
There were two tastings of each sow: once raw as mince, once roasted. Both samples were unseasoned, so as to avoid distorting their innate taste. (“Ten portions of raw pork at eight in the morning!” has since become my standard reaction to friends and acquaintances who romanticize my job.)
Wines to Try
Six wines from six Austrian winegrowing regions were on hand, representing six different stylistic approaches. The common element for all of the wines was their biodynamic approach, with minimally invasive vinification.
Niederösterreich, Grüner Veltliner
Herbert Zillinger’s hometown is part of the hottest, and thus driest, region for growing white wine. The warm, sandy sites deliver wines of tremendous precision and elegance. The 2020 vintage achieved early physiological ripeness, which resulted in low alcohol, crisp acidity, and an irresistible, mouthwatering drinkability.The 2020 Hirschen Reyn Grüner Veltliner revealed a clarion palate, with chiseled structure and delicately textured backbone. The oxidation of the must prior to fermentation meant that the primary aromatics were quite reserved.
Wagram and Kamptal, Grüner Veltliner
The 2020 Der Ott from Bernhard Ott comes from three classified Erste Lage (premier cru) sites with vines planted in the last two decades. “Grüner Veltliner,” Ott argues, “demands a different approach than other varieties. It needs access to nutrients and humus-rich soils, while Riesling suffers in poor soils, but ultimately produces better results there.” Instead of gneiss and primary rock, the Veltliner unsurprisingly prefers loess soils, available at Ott in several versions: loess with broken limestone, loess with tertiary gravel, and loess with gravel from gneiss or primary rock. Because Der Ott was produced in 2020 using grapes from Kamptal and Wagram, the label offers no more detailed indication of origin.
Kamptal, Grüner Veltliner
2019 Ried Stein from Ott tickles the palate with a rich, almost tangible creaminess, all while remaining taut, steadfast, and dense with dark aromatics, reminiscent of black currant leaves. Raised in 7,000 liter barrels, the wine needs two winters and 18 months in barrel before release. In Ott’s cellar, there’s just as much or little intervention as 100 years ago. “The grapes are crushed, allowed to go through a period of maceration, and are then moved into the barrel, where they spend an extended period without added sulfur. Yeast is the mother of all wine and prevents oxidation,” Ott explains. The 2019 Rosenberg Grüner Veltliner I tasted next undergoes the same vinification, with a similar flair at a textural and aromatic level.
The difference between the Kamptaler Veltliner and its cousins from Niederösterreich and Wagram is striking, although each of the wines is clearly identifiable as Grüner Veltliner. “Veltliner has to be recognizable as such,” Ott explains, as I pour myself the first Riesling to a portion of raw meat. “A good framework for this is the classic menu progression, where it is positioned between Burgundies and Riesling.”
Fred Loimer’s 2020 Loiserberg Riesling Erste Lage from the Kamptal was not only the sole Riesling in the line-up, it also pursued an entirely different haptic tack. With clear varietal typicity, it offers greater concentration and power than its relatives north of the Alps, yet remained full of finesse and nuance on the palate. Grown from roughly 15-year-old vines on terraces near a cooling forest, the fruit on this semi-aromatic variety is very disciplined, while the acidity is agile and lends rigid structure.
Neusiedlersee/Burgenland, Roter Veltliner
The fourth style on this morning came from the 2019 Roter Traminer Freyheit from Gernot and Heike Heinrich. Bouquet varieties such as Muskat, Gewürztraminer, and other aromatic, low-acidity grapes are well suited to skin-fermentation. The archaic terracotta bottle underscores the attitude of the wine, which through its buffered aromatics and silky tannins offers a fourth model of wine, striking a bridge to the red wines.
Vienna & Alto Adige
Tannins represented the first thematic break in the tasting: Thanks to their tannins, both the Gemischter Roter Satz from Wieninger and the Spätburgunder Mason from Azienda Agricola Manincor took on a certain hard, metallic taste when accompanying the raw meat, but shone all the more when paired with the roast aromas from the cooked meat samples that followed.
The tasting results from whites and raw pork were, however, confirmed in the cooked meat tastings, leading to the thesis that the varying terroir of swine was indeed present in the tastings. For example, the light meat of the whey-fed swine was firmer and tarter compared with the darker meat from the Wollschwein, which had been fed grain and corn.
The leaner the meat, the greater the acidity, hence: Riesling.
In terms of wine pairings, it should be noted that very few of us are ever likely to be in a position to repeat this experiment at home. Even so, a few insights: the fatter the pig, the better it paired with wines that had seen extended lees contact. The overall impression was of suppleness, with tremendous creaminess and porcine depth. The more powerful breeds, with darker meat, had a spicier fat that harmonized especially wonderfully with the Grüner Veltliner, while the lighter, more firmly striated breeds featured fat that often seemed sweeter and harmonized well at an aromatic level with Riesling or the Roter Veltliner. High fat levels require a confident wine, with maceration and aromatics. The leaner the meat, the greater the acidity, hence an inclination toward Riesling.
The red wines were ultimately superior with the roasted samples, although the insights from combining them with the raw samples still applied. Pork walks the line between two styles. These insights were confirmed at the evening’s sit-down meal, where the wines were served alongside more rounded dishes that convincingly demonstrated just how joyous and versatile pork can be across seven different courses.
In some ways, terroir, here meant a closely defined term for a specific geographic origin, ended up playing a secondary role: not a single Steiermark wine was part of the tasting. We soldiered on, however, knowing that beyond natural conditions, human influence and attitudes define the products that are produced on their terroir, their quality and as such their value.
Beyond the proclaimed search for “the best meat” as its working title, Koch.Campus also pursued a general dialogue centered around the desire to restore the poor pig to a more elevated status. The same tactics that worked for wine ought to work for pork. Steiermark has, over the last 20 years, managed to develop itself into a culinary destination. This required an acknowledgment that the diversity of its produce does more than just promote identity and culture, it creates capital from that wealth. This region, once considered remote, is today considered Austria’s “Tuscany” and is a popular destination — in no small part thanks to its strong cultural identity. This includes, and has always included, the swine, where there is no such thing as an off-cut, just infelicitous and or good but sadly forgotten preparatory methods. And even if these require a bit of toil and trouble, they always go a bit easier with a glass of wine — swine wine, in this case.
Translated from the German by Weinstory.de