A visit to Umathum starts in the vineyards behind the winery in the town of Frauenkirchen in Austria’s Burgenland region. Second generation winemaker Josef Umathum takes you through his facility and out back to explain how the rows are tended. We pass his father carrying a basket of verdant snap peas. “Bio,” he says, using a European term not needing translation, “For soup.” He offers one and I take it in my hand, then pop it in my mouth. It tastes green and alive, with a pleasing crunch. “Bio” indeed, evoking a winery certified biodynamic since 2006 and insecticide-free since the 1980s.
Snap peas are nice, but we were there to see vineyards and the integration of biodynamic practices. With the dry summer approaching, the greenery growing between the vines has been plowed down, forming a moisture barrier for the soil. A landscape architect by trade, Josef scoops up the dark brown, nutrient-rich soil with evident pride.
Back inside the soaring cathedral-like wine cellar, we peer at the barrel where cow manure, buried in the ground in a horn over the winter then dug up, known as Preparation 500, is stirred into a large volume of water for an hour to be spread at the start of the growing season. “From death back to life,” Josef says, the side of the barrel adorned with markings depicting the cycle of the moon, planets and various herbal treatments for the vines.
Umathum’s vineyards sit on the plains of Burgenland, tucked between a shallow lake called the Neusiedler See and the Hungarian border. The area is famous for its sweet wines, though reds are what Umathum is known for, with 85% of their production comprised of Blaufrankisch, Zweigelt and St. Laurent. For our tasting, we started with a delicious rose redolent of fresh berries called Rosa 2011, made by the saignée method of bleeding off some juice after short skin contact. Then we dove straight into the reds as Josef poured a 2011 Zweigelt, an entry level red for the winery but from an excellent vintage in Burgenland. Although very young, it had nice fruit and good intensity, far beyond your typical basic wine and emblematic of the year’s quality. To show the wine’s potential, we sampled the same entry-level Zweigelt from 1999, another great vintage, that was impossibly fresh and vibrant for its age, fantastic for what is the winery’s basic wine.
We moved on to two single vineyard Zweigelts from the Ried Hallebühl, the highest point east of the lake, known for producing elegant wines. Both wines incorporate some stems for additional backbone. The 2007 displayed minerality and a great structure, perfect for aging, while the 1997, another terrific vintage, mirrored the previous ’99 in its freshness, seeming younger than the 2007.
The two Blaufrankischs tasted were both from Kirschgarten, a terraced vineyard in Jois that dates back to 1214. Josef took over this prized but abandoned parcel and replanted it in 2001, though local authorities initially balked at the venture. Only old photos and the word of an elderly local resident convinced officials that the hill was indeed historically a vineyard, allowing planting to proceed. The 2003 vintage was infamous throughout Europe for its intense heat wave yet Josef’s first vintage on the hill proved vibrant with great structure and power, well suited for long term aging. The 2008, by contrast a challenging but ultimately rewarding year, was a big wine with many years to go.
Only 1% of Umathum’s production is dessert wines and, for the finale, we sampled three. While the wines are generally designated BA (beerenauslese) or TBA (trockenbeerenauslese), the 2009 only reached auslese status. This blend of chardonnay and scheurebe, only 8% ABV, had prominent notes of pineapple and was fresh with appealing level of sweetness. The 2011 Beerenauslese, also a blend of chardonnay and scheurebe, was more concentrated, with notes of apple. Best of all was the 2010 Trockenbeerenauslese, 100% scheurebe, displaying terrific balance thanks to good acidity.
If you visit the winery, don’t leave without one of the delicious stone fruit or nut oils made from tomato seeds, walnuts, pumpkin seeds and apricot pits, or a vinegar made from peaches growing in the vineyards.
Michael Tulipan is the Editor of TheSavvyExplorer.com, a travel guide for sophisticated independent travelers on a budget.