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The Mysterious Origins of Morillon, Styria’s Signature Grape

There is no other place in the world where Chardonnay has infiltrated as well as it has in Styria, in the south of Austria. This Burgundian native grape is considered an international variety today, and it grows wherever winemaking exists. But in Styria, local winegrowers would uniformly agree that Chardonnay, known here as Morillon, is their traditional grape.

“For us [Morillon] is not just a synonym—it stands for the taste of Steiermark [Styria],” says Katharina Tinnacher, winemaker and proprietor of Weingut LacknerTinnacher, explaining how Chardonnay here is not quite Chardonnay.

Exactly when the grape got to Austria is not clear. It most likely arrived with other Burgundian varieties brought by the Cistercian monks, but it was confused with Pinot Blanc for a long time, making the lineage difficult to trace.

However, the theories of how Morillon became a Styrian signature variety are unrelated to the Cistercians and how it got to the rest of Austria. Its local name indicates that it arrived in Styria separately, as the name Morillon is not used in any other Austrian region.

The most established theory dates to the late 1800s. Phylloxera ravaged Austrian viticulture and Styrian vintners traveled to France to select vines for vineyard reconstruction. Although, this claim is problematic given that Chardonnay, or Morillon for that matter, is not resistant to phylloxera. Another issue is that Ludwig Hermann Goethe (1837–1911), who oversaw the Agricultural Association for the Protection of Austrian Viticulture during the outbreak, claimed that the name Morillon was in use long before phylloxera arrived in Styria.

Another possibility, and the more likely one, is that Archduke Johann of Austria (1782– 1859) sent his men to bring back vine cuttings from France in an effort to improve the quality of wines produced in the area. His farmers planted over 400 varieties as a test, most of which were forgotten, with only Morillon and Sauvignon Blanc remaining.

“Archduke Johann brought it as he realized that special terroir and soils need special varieties,” says Armin Tement, a winemaker who runs his family winery Weingut Tement, one of the largest privately owned wineries in Styria.

Another point of contention is the origin of the local name, Morillon. The most popular explanation is that the people who brought it back from Burgundy named the variety after the French town of Morillon. The problem is the town is not in Burgundy but in Savoie in the French Alps, where Chardonnay is hard to find.

“The discrepancy led to such confusion that the two varieties were considered unrelated.”

“Another story is that the winemaker who brought it was a drunk, and he forgot the actual name and just used the name of the town where he most likely stayed overnight on his way back,” explains Michi Lorenz of his eponymous winery.

His colleague, Ewald Tscheppe, proprietor and winemaker at Weingut Werlitsch, relates a different theory. “I read an article where the map was showing that Morillon Blanc was also the old French name [for Chardonnay]. It is highly possible, since Morillon was part of the old names of quite a few Burgundian varieties. Jeff Carrel in Languedoc grows a Chardonnay he calls Morillon Blanc, claiming that this is the original varietal name. Over time, this discrepancy led to such confusion that the two varieties were considered unrelated. It was not until the 1980s that people identified Styrian Morillon as Chardonnay.

“My grandmother didn’t know it was Chardonnay 50 years ago,” says Tement. “They thought it was an indigenous variety, then about 40 years ago, they did tests and realized that the DNA is identical to Chardonnay.”

Of course, because of natural evolution, Morillon and Chardonnay differ to an extent, despite sharing the same DNA. There are marginal morphological differences in the leaves and vine shoots. “It is slightly different. Some people say that you can see the difference when you compare the leaves, but it is really hard to tell,” explains Lorenz.

Ewald Tscheppe says that although it is hard to see the difference, the two make distinct wines. “My brother [Andreas Tscheppe of his namesake winery] brought clones from France, and his Chardonnay tastes very different,” he asserts.

A fitting description of Morillon is that it is a clone of Chardonnay that has adapted to Styria so well that it produces unique wines. However, producers can opt for either name of the variety on their labels. “We started to name our Linea Chardonnay that way in 1993, simply because it didn’t fit into the idea of a Styrian Morillon, which was, back then, mainly a light, fruity and classic wine,” says Selina Weratschnig, partner of Manuel Ploder, who runs Weingut Ploder-Rosenberg.

Indeed, in the past, Styrian Morillon was primarily vinified in stainless steel and for the most part didn’t undergo malolactic fermentation, creating straightforward fruity wine. This has changed in the last two decades. “Today, you will find a lot of crazy good Morillons and Chardonnays that wouldn’t fit in the old idea, as well,” concludes Weratschnig. Krešo Petreković, who imports Weingut Werlitsch and Michi Lorenz to the United States through ZRS Selections, says that Morillon is not just the grape itself but the combination of both the grape and this region. He insists, “Morillon without Styria is just Chardonnay.”

This article originally appeared in the April 2023 issue of Wine Enthusiast magazine. Click here to subscribe today!