Our guest today is Elizabeth Gabay MW, a British wine expert living in the South of France – more precisely, in Saint-Martin Vésubie (yes, one of the villages that were so badly struck by the storm last week). A great connoisseur of Central European wines and also rosé wines, she has chosen to present to us a nice Austrian speciality which surely deserves to be better-known: the Schilcher.
The first time I drove through Styria was on my way from Nice to Hungary. We had crossed northern Italy and then turned north after Venice to go through Udine, a town with an intriguing blend of Venetian and Austro-Hungarian culture, followed by a long, slow, steady climb through a dry, and often rocky landscape to the Plöcken Pass. This is a quieter pass than the Brenner, and at one point the pass marks a unique spot of where three cultures meet: Latin (Italy) Germanic (Austria) and Slavic (Slovenia). On the northern side, the road runs down towards the towns of Villach, Klagenfurt and Graz before sweeping north towards Vienna.
At this time, I knew nothing about Schilcher, but just admired the pretty scenery north of the pass, green with rolling hills, woods and pastures and small villages. Nearer the Alps the hills climb up higher and steeper.
Ten years later, while researching my book on rosé, I again drove through the area, and this time I was keen to try and discover more about Schilcher. My attempt to explore the vineyards in greater depth was abandoned due to torrential rain. We came off the motorway, peering through fast windscreen wipers to glimpse the beautiful, but sodden landscape and picturesque villages. Abandoning the idea of vineyards, we chose to spend a few hours in a traditional inn, warming ourselves by the fire and eating hearty rich food, washed down by a very rustic Schilcher which rather confirmed the high acidity reputation of the wine.
Schilcher does not actually refer to a place, or variety, or even a style of winemaking, although the name is legally protected and it was granted appellation status in 2018 after Styrian producers fought to preserve their unique wine, made 100% with Blauer Wildbacher. This is an old variety with an unknown history. Some say it dates back to Celtic times and that it induces wild inebriation, hence its colloquial name Rabiatperle– rabid pearl! Others suggest a possible relation to Blaufränkisch. With only 458 ha planted it makes up 1% of the Austrian total. Late ripening, with high acidity, it was until recently dismissed as rough and acidic, but in recent years, an increasing number of quality driven producers have been planting the variety on the hottest, best vineyard sites and harvesting later to obtain more fruit and sugar. Nevertheless, the alcohol remains low and the acidity high and as such is often successfully made into a sparkling Schilcher.
The name comes from Schillern which means ‘to shimmer’ in Middle High German which some have theorised refers to the shimmering indeterminate quality the colour ranging from grey to pink to red depending on varieties (red and white) and vintage. The name was first mentioned in the sixteenth century, which, along with the similar clairet of France and claretes of Spain, making it one of the oldest descriptions of rosé wine. Today Schiller is found in Germany, Schilcher in Austria and siller in Hungary. The style of wine is often quite dark, with longer skin contact, sometimes made using saignée and sometimes with white varieties added, making it at odds with the current trend of pale pink wine – and sadly is, in many regions, becoming rarer.
Production of Schilcher is solely in the southern Austrian region of West Styria (Weststeiermark), between Graz and the border with Slovenia. The region is alpine with very steep vineyards with some reaching up to 600 metres. The four regions, from north to south, are: Ligist, Stainz, Deutschlandsberg and Eibiswald.
Blauer Wildbacher is grown throughout the region, although Sauvignon Blanc is the main variety. In the north, in Ligist, Stainz and the northern half of Deutschlandsberg, the vineyards are on gneiss and slate can reach up to 650m. Here the Schilcher tend to have a powerful vibrant minerality and tend to be lighter.
In the southern half of Deutschlandsberg and in Eibiswald, the vines are on more sand and gravel soils. The wines tend to be darker and fuller bodied with more ripe fruit and spice and slightly more round structure. Eibiswald, in the southernmost part close to the Slovenian border, is more mountainous with the vineyards on the foothills of the eastern Alpine Koralpe.
A few weeks ago I was contacted by Josef Haring-Haring who challenged a comment I had made about the acidic nature of the wines. Acidity is good I assured him… and he kindly sent me his two Schilcher to try. His family had first planted grapes in the 1950s, on the warm slopes of the Rettenberg. In 1991 the Rettenberg was recultivated and Blauer Wildbacher was planted on the southern slopes around the Pichlippi estate. The first Schilcher was bottled in 1995
Klassik Schilcher 2019 11.5% abv This wine comes from grapes from several vineyards, fermented in stainless steel with three months on the lees. Made in a reductive style. Bright tawny brick cherry red. On the nose spice and cherry jam. On the palate intense cherry jam, rich and intense ripe fruit, balanced by high acidity, giving length and freshness. Overall impression of zippy vibrancy, ripe fruit and strawberry boiled sweets. 3g/l residual sugar, 8.5g/l TA
Eibiswald Schilcher 2019 12.5+ % abv from the vineyards planted around Pichlippi in 1991. Harvested two weeks later, aged on the lees for 6 months. More micro oxidation. Darker garnet red colour. More herbal and spice on the nose. On the palate, greater weight of dark cherry fruit and intensity, and for a moment I even thought there was some oak maturation giving the greater structure. The high acidity is mouth-watering and long, but in beautiful balance with the ripe fruit. 3g/l residual sugar and 8.3g/l TA
The acidity is certainly high – almost double that of a Provence rosé and I can imagine how on less well exposed sites these wines could be rough and astringent wines. But these wines showed how the variety also has enormous charm with abundant fruit and vibrancy and I can imagine with potential to age. Other examples I have enjoyed in the past are from Johannes and Luise Jöbstl (www.joebstl.eu) and Domaine Kilger (www.domaines-kilger.com) both with later harvested examples.
These wines are certainly a niche product, but well worth searching out.