The Many Shades of Schilcher
Steiermark is a place that continually has me gasping at the mystery and magic of its wine and food offerings, seemingly tucked behind every picture perfect corner, nape of twisted valley, or crest of the unending undulating steep slopes.
"The Schilcher" as it is warmly versed by the locals, is one such wine that has in its own way become more folklore than omnipresent product, seduced into existence from a handful of producers dotted in the hills of Western Steiermark. One may try to liken the Schilcher Rosé, the region’s flagship wine, to the more tongue in cheek Beaujolais Nouveau releases, but where one is driven by short-term marketing spiel, the other is an evolution that has resulted in an authentic regional identity.
Only 500 hectares of vineyards denominate this region, making it one of central Europe’s smallest appellations. The direct path between Ligist in the north, via St. Stefan ob Stainz and down towards Deutschlandsberg and Eibiswald in the south is depicted by deep valleys, steep inclines and countless quaint and picturesque Kellerstöckeln, referring to the small cellar huts dotted in between the vineyards, most of which are planted to the Blauer Wildbacher red grape that is used to make several "styles" of Schilcher.
Blauer Wildbacher’s history can be dated back to the Illyrian Celts, and later by the Romans, but the first official mention of Schilcher wine was in the wine-book of Johann Rasch in 1580. This Styrian legacy was finally advanced in the 1970s when the association for Schilcher wines was established to self-regulate quality and authenticity via tasting panels, resulting in wines having the registration number and use of the "white horse" emblem (referring to the Lipizzans bred in Piber for Vienna’s world-famous Spanish Riding School) on the labels.
But to the wine. The Blauer Wildbacher is a relatively thin skinned, monotone red grape that requires a warm, fully exposed sun position, hence the Styrian slopes, some reaching 600 metres above sea level, and inclines that would make a mountain goat’s knees buckle. However, it is the searingly high acidity in the grapes that distinguishes Schilcher wine as a lip-smacking, mouth-puckering thirst quencher, that needs to be drunk young and fresh, and chillingly cold.
As with other innovative agricultural practices in the meandering hill villages, wine makers have seen fit to produce a number of styles of wine from the grape. The flagship style is the Schilcher Rosé, ranging in colour from ruby pink to more dusty coppers, but all have the quintessential characteristics of fruity red berries, normally wild strawberry and cranberry, a hint of spice and the unmistakable zingy citrus acidity.
Complimenting the Rosé in popularity is a smattering of white wines (yes white) from the grape. This is achieved from separating the juice from the red skins immediately from the crusher, the resulting wine having only a hint of colour, but all the hallmarks of a refreshing white wine, filled with citrus and floral notes, with the cleansing acidity racing over the tongue.
Becoming more important, and sought after, are the red wines from the Blauer Wildbacher grape, resulting in wines of medium body and colour, persistent drying tannins, and berry notes that run from raspberries to currants. Again, those who prefer a more robust, mouth-filling red wine would be better off looking to other regions and grape varieties, but one has to commend the growers and producers in vinifying a grape that has quickly become the hallmark of an entire region.
Complementing these styles, producers have also been successful in releasing Schilcher Sekt, and dessert wines, all of which have the DNA of the grape’s characteristics.
In finding and appreciating ‘The Schilcher’ moment, my advice is to take a drive through the idyllic countryside, stopping off (or more correctly, discovering) the isolated, often hidden properties, most of which jointly run as Buschenschänke for those in need of a cold platter of farm led delicacies.
As a shortlist of Weingüter for Schilcher wines, these producers offer a range of classical and more innovative styles, all based on exemplifying the authentic spirit and quality of the Schilcher identity, something that the region as a whole should be mightily proud of.