Probably every wine country has its secrets: wines that are produced only in hidden corners of the vineyard area, drunk only by the locals. I have come across wines like this in France a few years ago, and in Austria in 2010, during EWBC. And there are undoubtedly much more. These are wines that are not exported, not produced in large quantities, sometime even almost forbidden, but not quite. And mostly, there is a very interesting history behind these wines.
One such wine – let’s called it X – I tasted last week, at home, together with a friend who happened to have a bottle of X in his cellar. When Bernard learned I had heard of X, but not tasted it, he offered to come by and share that bottle together. And so we did.
Wine museum Moschendorf
I first heard about X during the press trip after EWBC 2010 to Südburgenland. We visited the tiny open air wine museum in Moschendorf, close to the Hungarian border. Walking to the tasting room, where we were going to taste some 30 and more wines from Blaufränkisch, from the Eisenberg DAC, we saw the word ‘uhudler’ on a large information panel and also on the walls of some houses. A welcoming sign moreover spoke of Uhudler-Verkostung im Stadel. So uhudler was probably a wine! And that is indeed what the information panel told us. Uhudler is a wine made of what the Austrians call Direktträger: American vines, with American rootstock and all. During the big phylloxera epidemic of the late nineteenth century, whereby a tiny aphid devasted almost all of Europe’s vineyards by gnawing at the roots of the vines, people tried all kinds of things to be able to keep making wine. It took a while before the final cure was discovered: grafting European Vinifera vines onto American non-Vinifera rootstock. The continent of Northern America has a large array of berry carrying vines, different from the European Vitis Vinifera. These vines go by the name of Vitis Lambrusca, or Vitis Rupestris. And they are immune to the grape louse, phylloxera vastatrix.
Faces like a uhu
But before the solution of the grafting was discovered, people in Europe also planted American vines in their vineyards, to make wine from it. These non-Vinifera vines and their hybrids, crossings with Vinifera, were used in the US also for wine making, but they had (and have) a big flaw: the taste is not what we are used to. They have a foxy smell – a bit musky – for example. The varieties go by the name of concord, isabella, noah grün, elvira, ripatella etc… And the tradition of making wine – uhudler – from these vines has survived in Südburgenland, particularly in the districts of Güssing and Jennersdorf. The name uhudler, by the way, is derived from the women of the winemakers: their faces looked like a uhu (owl) after drinking too much of the wine…
Holding on to old practices
Once grafted vinifera vines proved the solution to the grape louse problem, pure American vines and hybrids were forbidden. From 1936 no new plantings in Austria were allowed, and from 1937 it was forbidden to blend wine from Vinifera with wine from Direktträger and put the blend on the market. But wine makers held on to what they were used to, and in 1961 it was decreed that uhudler was only allowed to be produced for personal use of the wine maker. After the big wine scandal in 1985, it was totally forbidden, but this ban was lifted in 1992. At the moment, making uhudler and selling it is allowed till 2030. It is also subject to some sensorial tests before it is allowed on the market. And in 1989 the wine got its own society of friends: the Verein der Freunde des Uhudlers.
At the Moschendorf wine museum though, we did not get a sip, despite the sign Uhudler-Verkostung! At the bar in the tasting room several bottles were available, but it seemed as if our hosts were a little embarrassed by our asking to taste it. And yet it is promoted to visitors of the region with a brochure, a website and on websites of producers.
Anyway, I got my sip of uhudler last week. And let me tell you: it stayed with that sip. In my glass, I found a very deep pink wine, like a Navarra rosé but a little redder. There are white uhudlers also, by the way. The smell was very chemical, a bit like cherry flavoured chewing gum, with a hint of muskiness. That foxy and at the same time sweet smell gave it away as an American vine immediately for me, since I had tasted and smelled wines like that in the US. For example at Maryland’s Fiore Winery, or at wineries in the Finger Lake area. But those wines were sweet also! So I expected the uhudler to be sweet too. Well, nothing of the sort: this fizzy uhudler from Weingut Gassler was rather sour! The taste reminded further of red fruits, like raspberries and strawberries. The combination sweet-sour was very odd, and I don’t think I can think of any food combining well with the uhudler. It really is an acquired taste! But nothing to be ashamed of, or embarrassed. The wine was well made and clean, and I was glad of the chance to taste the wine, and add a little bit of wine history to my palate. I am glad the Friends of Uhudler and their fathers decided to keep the wine alive!