Weingut Kracher, one of Austria's finest producers, is celebrating its 60th anniversary this year. Kracher has been hugely influential in raising the reputation of Austrian fine wine and continues to produce wines of the highest quality with staggering consistency. We met with Gerhard Kracher, the third generation of Kracher currently at the helm, to find out the fascinating history of this winery that went from a hand-to-mouth self-sufficient farm to leading fine wine producer in just 60 years.
The History of the Winery
Can you briefly outline how the estate became established by your grandfather? Was he the first / one of the first to start producing sweet wine in the region? What was his influence behind producing the wines?
My grandfather started in 1945, right at the end of WW2. At this time it was a mixed farming place, self-sufficient. So he had everything from corn to pickles, garlic, chicken, a horse, 2 pigs,... AND a very tiny vineyard.
It was a very poor area, so high end and botrytis wine production was very rare at this time. My grandfather had to sell the grapes or sell wine he made by bulk to get money faster. He always had the dream of being a winemaker, so it took him until 1959 to transform the mixed farming place into a little winery. We always mention 1959 as our foundation, as my grandfather always said, that this is the first year where he could produce and bottle the quality he wanted to achieve all the years before. Before that he needed to earn money fast for feeding the family and covering costs - so selling grapes or making simple wines to sell in bulk.
He was from the beginning one of the first to see the potential of our region for producing some of the world’s greatest botrytis wines. It took him nearly 15 years, until 1959 to really start his dream. He always said, he hated farming, but being in the vineyard and then making the wine was for him more than farming - it was art.
His first customers were tourists coming to our area at the end of 50s beginning of 60s. It was the start, when our area became a tourist attraction and people started to use the lake and the surrounding landscape. Years later everything became a National Park. My grandfather's first sales in restaurants were also at that time. He went to Vienna, with a friend who owned a truck for delivering milk there. So he took some bottles with him and knocked on restaurant doors offering his wines. From the end of 60s onwards, he also sent his wines to award shows. He read in the newspaper about the show Wine World Champion in Ljubljana, where he started to send the wines and achieved a lot of Gold-medals, which helped our popularity in the German-speaking area a lot. Before handing over to my father in 1982, he vinified the 1981, which is said to be his masterpiece. For that vintage he achieved the title he always wished – Wine World Champion twice, for a Welschriesling BA 81 in 1984 and for a Welschriesling TBA in 1986.
Whilst your grandfather is seen as the pioneer of the Estate it is your father that brought international recognition. What do you think were his key influences to bring this about? What do you believe were the key interventions your father made working at Kracher?
When my father took over the winemaking side in 1982, the estate was still very small, only about 5 hectares, so it was too small to feed 2 families, as my grandparents were not retired at this time. My father was in the beginning part-time-winemaker and had a daytime job in Vienna in the pharma industry. But he had a big vision. He said right from the beginning, that there will be a day, when a Kracher wine can’t be missed on a great restaurant wine list all around the world.
At this time everyone in the region was laughing about this goal because no one has expected that Austria will ever be known internationally for high quality wines. In the 80s most of the time we were struggling. We had to invest a lot in the vineyards and cellars. International traveling was very expensive and was not very successful in the beginning. The problem was my father couldn’t get the right people to taste the wine. Everyone refused and said it was not interesting for the markets in international countries. So it was quite depressing.
At the end of the 80s he organized a tasting in London. At first it was going to be a Kracher-tasting for journalists. But no one accepted the invitation! So my father used a little trick. He wrote a new invitation, which was a tasting of Yquem vs. Kracher. It worked, all the important journalists showed up. It was 5 flights shown blind, same vintages. 4 out of 5 flights were won by us. (The vintages were selected very carefully, so it was quite sure we will win ;-)) This was the first time we got real international recognition. Immediately after this journalists wrote about the tasting and we began importing to several European countries and made our first steps into the US market.
We always knew that you can’t really compare Sauternes and our wines, they are two different regions and different varieties, it is like comparing Bordeaux blend with Chilean Malbec. It is both red, but that is all they have in common. The same is true of Kracher vs Yquem - they are both sweet, and that’s all they have in common. But we needed to get attention fast, and this was the easiest way to do so - and - it worked!
With the vintage 1995, being said to be the best vintage my father made, it was another major milestone in our history. In this vintage he made a collection of 15 different TBAs. It was also the first time our wines were rated by Parker and it was the first time ever Austrian wines were rated by the Wine Advocate. All the wines were rated very high! From 90-98+ points, and this gave another lift to our popularity. My father gained an uncountable number of national and international awards during his life and was 8 times winemaker of the year by the magazine “Wine”.
New Projects at Kracher
You took charge in 2007, what was the biggest challenges for you taking on the responsibility? What innovations and experiments are you currently working on?
When my father died and I took over I was only 26 years old, which sounds very young and unprepared. But I had the great chance to work already since 2001 from age of 20 side by side with my father and my grandfather who both had the same targets, but different ways to go there. So I always tried to pick from both which I thought was the best approach between them.
Since 2004 I was the right hand of my father for the business and was fully responsible for the winemaking. So I was very well prepared, but it is a huge difference being the number two in the winery than being the boss and standing always in the first row. On the winemaking side at the winery, I didn't make major changes - never change a winning system ;-) I started some new projects starting in 2009 together with my close friend Aldo Sohm under the brand Sohm&Kracher. We only make Grüner Veltliner there. When we started it was just meant to be fun and we make a very year a small amount, like one barrel of 1000 or 1500 Liters together, half sold in New York and half in Austria. The vinyards are in the Weinviertel. Very quickly we received great ratings for this first wine. Wine&Spirits Magazine awarded us 97 points, so very soon we increased production by adding new wines. The original wine remained at the same volume, as it is a tiny vineyard (the wine is labelled Single Vineyard). We added a wine called Alte Reben (old vines) in 2012 which is also from the Weinviertel, from four different vineyards.
In 2013 we added a Grüner Veltliner made in Burgenland on the Leithagebirge named St Georg, as it comes from the village St. Georgen. In 2014 we added the Lion Grüner Veltliner made in Weinviertel to our portfolio, which is made in the fresher lighter side for restaurants for by the glass, which was a great success and is by volume by far the highest amount produced in this project.
In 2014 I started to partner up with a cooperative, Winzerkeller Neckenmarkt in Mittelburgenland. I always wanted to make a great Blaufränkisch, but didn’t have the right vineyard crus. There we are using grapes from a very famous cru in Neckenmarkt called Hochberg, the oldest vines being 45 years old. This project is called REUNION. The name is because we worked already 15 years ago together, and we were consulting with them for marketing and selling-channels. It was at this time very successful and all the people involved became friends. Their Winemaker, Gerald Wieder, is a very skilful man in the sense of winemaking and we are sharing the same philosophies on Blaufränkisch, so it made things quite easy for partnering-up. The first vintage we made was 2015 which we started to show in March 2018 and started to sell in June 2018, so it is very new on the market.
There are now two wines being released and both already received nice ratings too. Passion 2015 91 points and Vision 2015 94 points which we are all very proud of, making this project one of the highest rated red wines from Austria.
In 2015 I also partnered with Romanian winery Liliac to make an ice wine. Since our climate has been changing increasingly rapidly over the past decades, it has been very hard, nearly impossible, for the last couple of years very hard to nearly impossible to produce ice wine at home, so I started to look for new opportunities elsewhere. I found it with an Austrian owned winery called Liliac. They have the right climate nearly every year with frost around mid-December. This project was immediately awarded a Platinum in Decanter on its 1st vintage.
Between the three generations what has been the biggest changes and what do you feel hasn’t changed at all?
Well, in winemaking things haven’t changed so much. The biggest changes were when my father took over, as during this time the winery grew very fast and the technical things like cooling systems and filters were more easily available. Sure, there might be slight stylistic differences in the three generations, but we also have to know that most of it is due to the ongoing climate change in the past decades. So stylistically we are still about the same! And this will not change, as our clients are used to and love our style which is very unique - and - there is also no reason to change that. I think having a family-winery, the thinking about style, the thinking about vineyards does not change in a matter of years or decades, but over generations - and this is what makes a winery in the end really great and finally after several generations historical.
The region of Seewinkel comes across as quite a unique place – is there a particular identity / lifestyle/ culture associated with the region and what was it like growing up there, particularly as you have had the opportunity to travel so widely.
I was born and still live in the small town of Illmitz, which has only 2,500 people living there. So basically everyone knows each other. I love to live there, as it is small, it is very safe, it is very quiet, kids can play on the street, they go by themselves to school , all without being watched by parents. It was a wonderful childhood which I had, and I am very happy to offer the same to my kids now. I still love to live there, but I really love to travel, I spend at least 90 days a year outside of Austria, this year it will be more than 120 - for representation of the winery. This interview I am answering from Shanghai.
I love to get to know different cultures. I always like to know how the different markets work, which new trends are happening in different markets... I always want to be informed about what is going on. So traveling is a big part of my life, and I love it, maybe I am a little bit addicted to it. BUT, when I am gone for I week or 2, I always love to come home to the winery, to the small village of Illmitz with its beautiful landscape. So I think it is the mixture which makes me really happy.
In regard to the climate in Seewinkel, is the warm-humid weather pattern reliable enough to produce botrytis wines every year? Is it more reliable would you say compared with other famous regions – Sauternes, Mosel, Alsace?
Our area is very special. We are living in the middle of a national park and we are part of a world heritage site. We live next to the Lake Neusiedlersee, which is 36km long and 3km wide, but just 160 cm deep. So that causes huge humidity. Plus our village is surrounded by a lot of very small very shallow lakes. And all this water, with right temperatures, makes our special climate perfect for the botrytis to grow. There are also other areas where botrytis wines are made around the world, but in our area, since our foundation in 1959 it happened every year, and we could produce every year the highest quality, up to Trockenbeerenauslese.
For many it is unusual to think of Chardonnay producing high quality botrytis grapes – largely because you don’t see it much elsewhere (although Thevenet from Maconnais produces amazing wines using the grape) can you describe why Chardonnay works so well for you and the flavour profile it brings?
First of all Chardonnay has a long history in Austria, it was brought by the monks around 200 years ago. It makes a very charming botrytis wines, because on the one hand it has this nice concentrated citric aroma and on the other hand it has the power/structure from the grape and this wonderful finish like salted caramel candy.
Can you outline similar flavour profiles and styles of the other key grapes you use to make sweet wines – Welschriesling, Traminer, Scheurebe, Muskat-Ottonel, Zweigelt?
No, all our varieties have a very individual profile. It is also important for us, having great clones and treating the vineyards very carefully for getting the very clear grape profile in every wine.
You talk about how long yeast contact provides freshness in the wine can you outline how this works?
Our fermentations take very long because of the high concentration and we do spontaneous fermentation. So the contact is automatically very long, up to 1.5 years. I think having a long yeast contact brings an extra complexity to the final wines, but it only works with perfect grapes.
The F+R Kracher 60th Anniversary Collection Case
Please can you tell us more about the 60th Anniversary collection case you have curated for us? How did you pick which wines to include?
All wines in there have a special meaning to the winery and/or to myself. So this Anniversary box has a very special meaning, not only to mark the 60 year milestone.
1995 No.12. - This was the best vintage made by my father, and maybe the best vintage we ever had. It was also the first vintage rated by Parker and many other international magazines.
This vintage also symbolizes the start of international fame of our winery.
1998 No.3. - 1998 was the first vintage I helped during harvest. It was after 1995 the 2nd of the great vintages done by Alois Jr.
2000 No3. The millenium and official start of Gerhard Kracher in the winery.
2006 No9. The last vintage vilified by my father and me together.
2010 No7. - For the past two decades a very atypical vintage by being colder, reminds me of the style of 70 and 80s as it was a colder period. Unusual high acidity levels with very high concentration. A vintage which will live for ever.
2015 No8. - For sure one of the greatest vintages we ever had. How great, the future will show. This wine received 100 points from Wine Enthusiast!
Don’t miss this exclusive F+R collection case due to be released next week.