What Is Authenticity in Wine?

What do you do when a region challenges your notions of how to define authenticity in wine? Zachary Sussman on how the Styria region of Austria is reshaping the perception of "identity"—and sauvignon blanc—in the wine world.

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Bodenständigkeit. This is how Styrians typically describe their homeland, Austria’s second-smallest and least populated winemaking region, nestled above the densely forested Slovenian border. Derived from the adjective bodenständig (“native” or “rooted to the soil”), the word translates most closely to “earthiness.” It connotes a certain rustic, homespun simplicity.

As visitors to Styria soon discover, nowhere is the virtue of bodenständigkeit more evident than at the buschenschank, or farmhouse-style wine tavern, all of which obey a strict set of rules: The preparation of any hot food is prohibited, and, with very few exceptions, only items that have been produced on the premises (including wine) can be served. The experience—which typically includes heaping plates of house-cured meats, garden-fresh salads and rustic country bread, all drizzled with the region’s nutty green pumpkin-seed oil—pushes the concept of locavorism to a radical extreme.

It might come as a surprise, then, to discover that Styria’s wine industry has centered itself around a grape that appears to be anything but local: sauvignon blanc.

When I arrived in the region this past June, my assumption was that Styria had jumped on the sauvignon blanc bandwagon as late as the 1980s or ’90s, when New Zealand’s smash success with the grape inspired countless regions across the globe to cash in on the trend. That hunch was rooted in a specific cultural narrative, which rose to prominence in progressive wine circles around a decade ago, as a backlash against the globalization of wine.

According to this trope, which director Jonathan Nossiter famously articulated in his 2004 documentary, Mondovino, the proliferation of lucrative “international” grape varieties threatens the survival of the little-known “indigenous” grapes that preserve local heritage, contributing to the erosion of diversity and the corporate homogenization of taste.

By presenting the issue in such clear moral terms, this paradigm shaped the politics of an entire generation of drinkers, including my own. After all, I told myself, I hadn’t traveled all the way to easternmost Austria just to drink sauvignon blanc—a non-native grape that, as far as I could tell, had no justification for being there. In retrospect, it’s embarrassing how easily I dismissed the category just because it didn’t conform to my readymade framework for “authenticity” in wine. The longer I stayed in Styria, though, the clearer it became that this framework wouldn’t be useful. In fact, it represented a glaring blind spot.

This touches upon a larger, if somewhat paradoxical, truth: Rather than passively inherited, this elusive thing we call “identity” in wine is often discovered over time.

“It is difficult to make a clear division between indigenous and international varieties in the vineyards of Austria,” writes Steven Brook in the 2015 edition of The Wines of Austria, noting that “some international varieties, such as Syrah and Merlot, are definitely imports, but others … have a long history.”

Sauvignon blanc, it turns out, falls squarely in that latter camp. Far from a modern import, the grape arrived in Styria as early as the first half of the 19th century, when Archduke Johann—the infamous Austrian field marshal and social reformer, whose 1829 marriage to the daughter of a postmaster scandalized the Vienna court—introduced it under the name “muskat-sylvaner.”

“The first books showing signs of sauvignon blanc in Steiermark are from 1826 and 1841, all initiated by the Archduke himself,” says Christoph Neumeister, of the critically acclaimed Neumeister estate. For perspective, that’s a really long time ago: both Barolo and Champagne were still sweet wines and the 1855 classification of Bordeaux hadn’t even happened. In light of this lengthy tenure, does the term “international” really do justice to the grape’s status in Styria? And at what point does an adopted variety become, well, if not specifically “indigenous,” then a naturalized citizen of sorts?

According to Neumeister, this is a question of cultural acclimation. Sauvignon blanc belongs to Styria, he argues, because it emerged as the most efficient grape for transmitting the nuances of the region’s soils. “An ‘international’ variety becomes ‘traditional’ once it starts to exhibit its own distinct character,” he explains. “Our terroir exerts a strong influence on lots of varieties, but sauvignon blanc shows that influence the most.”

This touches upon a larger, if somewhat paradoxical, truth: Rather than passively inherited, this elusive thing we call “identity” in wine is often discovered over time. Although the variety existed in this remote corner of Austria for centuries, sauvignon blanc only emerged as the area’s main attraction after a period of trial and error.

“It was about 80 years ago that winemakers recognized sauvignon blanc’s potential for our climate and our soil,” says Alex Sattler of Weingut Sattlerhof, one of Styria’s iconic estates. “They had time to determine which varieties fit best. Even when my grandfather started out, they were still experimenting quite a lot with sauvignon blanc, trying different styles and figuring out the best vineyard sites.” With time, in addition to the efforts of a group of quality-minded winemakers who organized during the 1980s to support the “development and the preservation of a common Styrian wine identity,” sauvignon blanc’s personality there crystallized into two definitive styles.

Fermented in stainless steel tank, the entry-level “Klassik” wines highlight freshness and purity of fruit; crunchy and clean, with textbook grassy notes and flavors of gooseberry and lime, they occupy a crowd-pleasing middle ground between New Zealand’s fruit-forward succulence and the cleansing mineral austerity of Loire sauvignon blanc. By contrast, the richer, more opulent and eminently age-worthy “Lagen” wines, fermented in neutral oak fuders and often sourced from the area’s perilously steep, geologically diverse single-vineyards, signal an unmistakably Styrian take on sauvignon blanc. For all their textural density, the best among them manage to transcend the grape’s sometimes overpowering varietal character, channeling the kind of site-sensitivity revealed in only the finest expressions of the grape.

“When I pour these wines for Burgundy drinkers, they’re amazed at the complexity,” says Aldo Sohm, beverage director at Manhattan’s Le Bernardin, who regularly incorporates Styrian sauvignon blanc into the restaurant’s wine pairings. “The vineyards are super steep, and they’re all so different. It’s beautiful how the wines are capable of expressing that.”

All considered, it’s a shame the category isn’t better known. But in a global market saturated with sauvignon blanc from all corners of the globe, from Chile and California to New Zealand and France, Styria faces intrinsic challenges. For one, given the artisanal scale of production and intensive labor involved in farming the area’s rocky, high-altitude vines, the wines aren’t exactly cheap. Typically falling in the $20 to $25 range, even the entry-level “Klassik” wines signal a splurge for drinkers accustomed to paying half that amount for mass-produced sauvignon blanc from New Zealand or Chile; at $40 to $50, the prestigious “Lagen” wines push the upper limit of pricing for top Sancerre.

“Sauvignon blanc is one of the most popular grapes in the world, but the majority of consumers expect it to be cheap,” says Armin Tement, whose family estate’s single-vineyard bottlings, including the cult Zieregg sauvignon blanc, serve as benchmarks of quality for the region. “It will always impossible for us to compete with ‘big players’ like New Zealand, as our production costs are so much higher.”

More than cost, however, there’s the zeitgeist problem. To be blunt, industry leaders and tastemakers aren’t exactly breathless with excitement for sauvignon blanc these days. Given the trade’s current fetish for the rare and obscure, the quintessentially mainstream grape has become a punchline, of sorts, to buyers who view it as the kind of “basic” by-the-glass pour that consumers with little knowledge will order by name, no matter the price.

“In general, wine is fashion, which has nothing to do with quality nowadays,” says Austrian wine importer Monika Caha. “Most sommeliers and retailers find these wines sensational—they’re fascinated by them—but unless somebody writes an incredible article or a famous industry personality is running with them, they don’t actually buy them.”

I’m as guilty of embracing this mindset as anyone. But this lack of an obvious hook, so to speak, is precisely what I find so refreshing about Styrian sauvignon blanc. It offers a corrective to many of the biases I’ve inherited as a 21st-century drinker, which tend to constellate around a convenient set of binaries: “international” versus “indigenous,” “modern” versus “traditional,” “mainstream” versus “fringe.” There’s a way in which Styria resists checking off any of these boxes: Neither hip nor square, it’s uniquely what it is. One might call that bodenständigkeit.