Gerhard Pittnauer (pictured) was thrust into winemaking at a difficult time. It was the 1980s, and the untimely death of his father meant the teenager was ill-prepared to assume responsibility for the family vineyard. The situation was not helped by the fact that Austrian wine was suffering from the reputational damage caused by what was known as the ‘anti-freeze scandal’ and involved illegal additions to wine to make them sweeter and fuller bodied.
His reaction was impressive. Gerhard decided to make wine on his own terms. His early research showed that he had inherited an exceptional patch of land and an equally special batch of vines producing indigenous grape varieties. He set himself the goal of employing the methods used to create the wines he enjoyed most. That led him to adopt the biodynamic style he had found in France.
The result is what he and his wife Brigitte call ‘living wines’. They now work on around 17 hectares, half of it owned and the remainder rented, in Gols near Lake Neusiedl in Burgenland, which sits on the Hungarian border in eastern Austria. The region is renowned for its high levels of sunshine. That enables Gerhard to create wine with soft tannins that enhance their rounded finish.
Everything is done manually, and the timing is dictated by when it is appropriate rather than the strictures of the calendar. Some of the equipment the Pittnauers use is modern, and they are happy to see their work evolve, but the focus remains resolutely on making the wine they want to make rather than what is fashionable.
That means growing Austrian grape varieties such as Zweigelt and Blaufrankisch, as well as more common varieties including Pinot Noir, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, with roughly half of the production used for whites which are made using steel tanks, while the remainder are reds, produced in wooden barrels.
We have chosen the Pinot Noir for our list. The grapes are grown in gravelly soil. However, although this grape is a global variety, there are local nuances that make the Pittnauer Pinot Noir different from those, for example, in Burgundy.
Gerhard’s grapes come from the flat, windy plots of the Parndorfer Platte. This wine is dark ruby in colour. It is velvety and smooth, with strong flavours of cherry and strawberry, and there’s a smack of jasmine tea as well as a hint of minerality. It is ripe and juicy, and we like the straightforward flavours that make it a red which is, somewhat unusually, a great partner for fish dishes.
The Pittnauer story may have had some difficult twists and turns along the way. But we’re impressed by Gerhard and Brigitte’s determination to succeed on their own terms.