If ever there was a hidden garden of Eden, it must be Austria’s Southern Styria region. This is a land of plenty, producing everything from the distinctive toasted pumpkin seed oil, to hops, apples, “Käferbohnen” (literally “beetle beans”, a sort of jumbo sized borlotti) and of course wine. Andreas Tscheppe‘s vineyards lie amidst the plunging green hills around Gamlitz.
The production methods for Tscheppe’s Erdfass (“earth barrel”), also known as Hirschkäfer (Stag beetle), seem bizarre at first glance. A blend of Sauvignon Blanc & Chardonnary ferments on the skins for two weeks, and is then transferred into a 600 litre oak barrel which is buried in the ground over the winter months. After the winter, the barrel is dug up, the wine continues to mature and is then bottled after 24 months.
Tscheppe’s explanation seems perfectly logical – during the winter months, life and vitality are only evident underground, so burying the wine allows it to benefit from these life forces as it matures. Tscheppe was inspired by the idea of Georgian qvevris (also buried underground), but did not want to use amphorae as there is no cultural link to Styria’s wine tradition. Large oak barrels were a much less incongruous choice.
We were lucky to find a precious bottle of the 2006 vintage of Erdfass at Weinbank. This local restaurant has an extraordinary treasure trove of wines and back vintages (mainly but not exclusively Austrian), but a seemingly snooty sommelier (Christian Zach) who could not be persuaded to come and talk to us despite repeated requests. Apparently only those in the tiny fine dining section were to be graced with his presence.
The 2006 Erdfass is beautifully soft, long and accessible, with caramel, dried herb and green tea notes, and a still perceptible aromatic, almost pungent note that is unmistakably Sauvignon Blanc. Any tannins that may have been present have vanished, leaving a full bodied texture, but no spikiness whatsoever. The wine seems phenomenally stable, one might even say static – during our 90 minute meal, the aromas and flavours didn’t budge an inch, indicating to me that this wine could probably cellar for decades to come. Sadly we drunk the last remaining bottle.
Tscheppe’s wines are available in the UK via Les Caves de Pyrene. Every vintage of Erdfass I’ve tasted (2006, 2010, 2011, 2012) has been fantastic, so buy with confidence.