Steiermark: Two Hearts, One Soul

A heart-shaped road tops a vineyard on a hill in the Steiermark.
Herzerlstrasse in the Steiermark, Photo Credit: Unsplash

To visit the crown jewel of the Steiermark, a single-site vineyard called Zieregg, one needs only to drive a narrow, winding, vineyard-lined 12-kilometer stretch of the Styrian Wine Road. It’s an incomparably beautiful landscape. The sole border here runs to your left at times, to your right at others. A green border, befitting the slogan of the Steiermark — the green heart of Austria. 

Yet this heart has two chambers. Steiermark (or Styria, as it’s known in English) is also part of Slovenia. Armin Tement, whose family has significant holdings in Zieregg, frequently has one toe in Austria, the other in Slovenia. “There’s an amazing atmosphere of possibilities in Slovenia,” he says. “Unfortunately, history and the political situation for viticulture have caused two lost generations.”

To be a winegrower here in the time before phylloxera was nothing like the popstar life that one sometimes sees today. Rarely did winegrowers have estates or vineyards to call their own. They were employees of a major landowner, who put roofs over their heads and a little money in their pockets. This was the same in Südsteiermark (South Styria) and in Untersteiermark (Lower Styria), as the Slovenian part was then known. 

Those looking for proof that these two hearts once beat as one need only look back to the first Austrian winegrower congress, held in 1876 in Marburg, known today as Maribor. The First World War split the duchy. The northern portion aligned itself with the fallen Austro-Hungarian monarchy, while Untersteiermark joined with Slovenia, Croatia, and Serbia. After the Second World War, Slovenia became part of Yugoslavia, and only became truly independent in 1991.

Steiermark Stands Alone

While the wine scandal of 1985 sent Lower Austria and Burgenland into a tailspin, the Steiermark actually benefited. This was in part because the Steiermark is Austria’s southernmost wine region, somewhat isolating it from the rest of the country. But it is also because of its style. Crisp, fresh wines were already in demand. 

The Steiermark’s wine route also became a recreational and culinary destination. The locals like to say their gold is also green, a reference to their world-class, emerald-green pumpkin seed oil. 

Against this background, a group of 12 producers, the STK – Steirische Terroir und Klassik Weingüter, came together around the objectives of quality, progress, and attention to origin. These estates, distributed across the subzones of Südsteiermerk (2,800 ha), the Vulkanland (1,655 ha), and Weststeiermark (658 ha), include renowned names such as Neumeister, Winkler-Hermaden, Lackner-Tinnacher, Sattlerhof, Tement, and Gross. 

Due to post-World War II political divisions, the Gross family was no longer allowed to cultivate their original vineyard. But in 1984, Alois Gross was indeed able to create his first single-site wine from the Herrenberg, which is located in Štajerska Slovenija, thanks to the so-called “Double Ownership Agreement” between Austria and what was then Yugoslavia. In an homage to family history, Johannes Gross today makes just under a thousand bottles of Sauvignon Blanc Witscheiner Herrenberg.

His brother Michael and sister-in-law Maria have made a new home here. It was by all accounts love at first sight for them both. In 2005, his father received an offer to buy a property in Haloze on the Korže vineyard site. The family immediately recognized the potential of that cultural landscape. Michael and Maria got to work renovating a wine cellar there.

Gorca, Photo Credit: Nils Kevin Puls

“Winegrowing on the steep slopes of Haloze is extremely labor intensive,” says Michael Gross, who knows a thing or two about tough winemaking from his time in Südsteiermark. “Low yields and demanding manual labor keep the cost structures very high.” 

The result is that many growers are giving up, a story that is written in the numbers. Three decades ago, Südsteiermark had 2,000 cultivated hectares of vineyards, now there are just 800. “We’ve looked for projects that are compatible with thriving, not just surviving. Things that will also captivate the generations to follow.”

The Gross family began buying grapes from neighboring operations at good prices, although only after convincing them of the benefits of working organically. The bought-in grapes became high-quality varietal juices sold under the “flein” label. They also make a collaborative wine called Štajerska Kollektiv for a UK importer. “If we hadn’t taken it over, then likely less than half of the vineyards would now be cultivated.”

Slovenian Steiermark

The term “Slovenian Steiermark” only reappeared on maps after the country achieved independence. It was assigned to the Podravje winegrowing region (one of three major Slovenian zones). It is at least as hilly as Südsteiermark, and even more unspoiled. The village appellations are Haloze, Ljutomer-Ormož, Maribor, Ptuj-Srednje Slovenske Gorice, Radgona-Kapela and Šmarje – Virštanj. 

Vino Gross produces its wines in these two areas, exclusively sourced from grapes from its own breathtakingly beautiful vineyards. This includes the high-elevation vineyards in the Maribor appellation. 

The differences? Maribor is equivalent to Südsteiermark, with identical precipitation, soil structure, and climate. (“In 2023, we hit 1,000 mm of precipitation by May,” reports Michael Gross. That’s the annual average in a typical year.) “Haloze had less precipitation, less humidity, and the fact that it is drier makes the vines less susceptible to disease. Soils are sparse and grapes ripen up to 10 days earlier.”

Cellar Tasting at Vino Gross, Photo Credit: Nils Kevin Puls

In Südsteiermark, there is a clear focus on Sauvignon Blanc, which, until the international boom for this variety, was known here as Muskat Sylvaner. The second important variety, Chardonnay, is known as Morillon, the name a holdover from the 19th century. Then there are Welschriesling and Pinot varieties. In Štajerska Slovenija, Sauvignon Blanc and Laški Rizling (Welschriesling) have been joined by a variety that was almost threatened with “extinction”: Furmint, a.k.a. Šipon in Slovenia. 

Furmint has achieved world fame as sweet Tokaj. Even though Furmint is vinified dry in Austria and Slovenia, Michael Gross favors Hungarian vine material that he received from Michael Wenzel, arguably Austria’s greatest Furmint expert, and István Szepsy, the greatest contemporary winegrower in Tokaji. Gross finds the Hungarian clone more balanced and well-rounded, while the Slovenian is more citric and fragrant, but also more demanding, and less consistent in its quality. “In 5 out of 10 years it’s wonderful, but the Hungarian is top in 8 out of 10.”

Parcelization Specialists

The Zieregg site is one of Steiermark’s preeminent vineyards. Large sections of it are cultivated by the Tement family. In Slovenia, the vineyard is known as Ciringa. In 2004, the Tements launched their Domaine Ciringa project to convey a sense of origin, variety, and vintage for each part of Zieregg/Ciringa. As many historic vineyards had been abandoned, they ended up recultivating 20 hectares, all planted to Sauvignon Blanc. Armin and his brother Stefan bottled their first vintage in 2009.

Zieregg in the Steiermark
The Sauvignon Blanc paradise of Ried Zieregg; Photo Credit: Valerie Kathawala

Armin Tement calls the earth here “mother soil”: A 16-million-year-old coral reef from the Pannonian sea. Working out the differences between the parcels has always been the Tements’ goal. They vinify each parcel separately, typically giving each a year in large oak barrels and then a further 1.5 years on the fine lees in barrel. They farm biodynamically and are Demeter certified. This is a notable challenge given the wet conditions. 

The Tements have merged 18 tiny parcels into four distinct sites. The historical south slope below the estate is bottled as Ried Zieregg. There is also Kår (pronounced Koar), which derives from “cold mountain” and is the coolest site. Steilriegel is the southwest flank of the steep slope section, the only vineyard in which Morillon, not Sauvignon Blanc, grows, namely because the conditions are simply perfect for Chardonnay there. Kapelle is the youngest site, planted 20 years ago on a plateau above the estate. Armin Tement sees this process coming to Ciringa soon as well.  The top parcel, Pruh, is already bottled individually.

Blaufränkisch: “The Red Furmint

Winegrowers Liam Cabot and Miro Munda enjoy a different privilege: the kind of views only found in a historic town much farther to the east. Munda, who is Slovenian, has been a winegrower since 1988. His focus is on the varieties Šipon, Laški Rizling, and Modra Frankinja, a.k.a. Blaufränkisch. He has seen many people who wanted to try something new come and go here. His attitude was never to get bigger, but rather always better. 

These thoughts are shared by many winegrowers in Slovenia. Long before Brexit, Cabot and his wife Sinead, who are Irish and had run a wine import company in Ireland, were looking for a place to dedicate themselves to viticulture.

“We were so happy to discover Kog and were immediately fascinated by the region, the quiet, and the history. We Irish don’t have much history of our own,” he says playfully. “The size of the winegrowing region, including its historical elements, weren’t visible to most people 10 years ago. There was all this talk about the east, but for me Slovenia is in the heart of Europe!”  

Liam Cabot, winemaker at Roka
Liam Cabot of Roka Winery; Photo Credit: Nils Kevin Puls

The winegrowers got to know each other in 2007 at an annual wine festival in the Jeruzalem region. “I don’t know many winegrowers who would volunteer to present the wines of a colleague,” he continues. It should come as no surprise that Cabot named his estate roka (Slovenian for hand). Because even today he and Munda work hand in hand.

Cabot grows Furmint and Welschriesling on his two hectares. He added Blaufränkisch because he was unwilling to live in a region capable of only one color of wine. “Under no circumstances did we need to make just another Pinot from just another region.” Miro Munda’s cousin already had experience with Blaufränkisch; Munda planted a vineyard with it as well. “We’re Irish, what did we know about wine growing? So we could experiment a bit.” 

That was in 2011. “We loved the taste from day one.” The variety’s deep history in the region was an added benefit: “The original home of Modra Frankinja is in eastern Slovenia,” Cabot explains. Austria’s “Blaufränkisch royalty,” Erich Krutzler, has championed the variety in Slovenia. For Cabot this much is clear: “Blaufränkisch is the red version of Furmint. Same pH value, same acidity, same harvest point. And it loves the heavy clay soils.”

After such deep divisions, Armin Tement sees the Steiermark’s two hearts growing back together: “It once was one region, and at a landscape level it still is. Ask a visitor who is exploring the region on foot if they are in Austria or Slovenia. Few will be able to answer. “The border will, hopefully, be forgotten. It’s not about Südsteiermark or Untersteiermark,” says Miro Munda. “It’s about wine.” 

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