Nathan Zachary writes Having casually enjoyed wine dating back to my adolescence wherein we would be offered a glass with family dinner on Sundays, I am a relative latecomer to the fervent pursuit of understanding what makes wine the most special of beverages. I recently earned my WSET Diploma, and have shifted to studying for degrees in viticulture and oenological chemistry with the end goal of producing wines in Germany.
Vielfältig – The Multifaceted Regeneration of the Wines of Austria
‘There is a cleansing from winter darkness the moment we sink our fingers into spring’s fresh earth.’
‘Son,’—as my Granddad often called me—‘what makes life so special is that it’s ever-changing’. Hoisting me up on his shoulder to pick the perfect fig from their tree, he continued, ‘The figs are always delicious, but they are different with each passing year’. Indeed this dynamic quality, these ebbs and flows, this cyclic nature permeates our lives. Within the world of wine, vintage variation highlights these cycles of nature. Further, industry trends spanning viticultural philosophies, oenological practices, and consumer preferences are in a near-constant flux, with each shift sparking renewed interest and excitement. In Austria, whether that excitement is about biodiversity in the vineyard, restoring a sense of community, promoting the wines in the global marketplace, or establishing classification systems based on terroir, winegrowing there is experiencing a complete resurgence!
As with nearly every aspect of wine, the story of Austria’s contemporary renaissance starts in the vineyard. It is tempting to focus on the last couple decades and the emphasis on sustainable practices, but doing so would neglect the historical footing that prompted the need for sustainability in the first place. At the end of World War II, when the overarching goal of agriculture was to provide as much food as possible while minimising costs, the use of fertilisers, pesticides, and other chemicals became the de facto method for efficiently increasing yields. The cost of this reliance on agro-chemicals wasn’t monetary; the cost was the depletion of soil nutrients and the degradation of overall soil health (Baweja et al., 2020).
The silver lining to this agricultural dark cloud is that many winegrowers are now working to not only reactively restore soil health, but also to proactively encourage biodiversity and build more complete ecosystems. According to Roman Horvath MW, Winery Director of Domäne Wachau, ‘ecology is a key concern in [their] vineyard work’ with decisions being based on strengthening the land instead of merely sustaining it (R. Horvath, personal communication, 07 June 2022). To that end, Domäne Wachau wasn’t satisfied with the Sustainable Austria Certification that they achieved in 2018 or with promoting organics throughout their vineyard holdings. Those efforts, though foundational, would simply maintain the status quo and help prevent further degradation. Instead, the team is advancing regenerative viticulture by conducting its own research in two key areas of vineyard management: cover crops and composting.
Choosing the proper cover crop, both intra- and inter-row, depends on myriad local conditions and is therefore, specific to each vineyard plot. Over the past two decades, Lead Oenologist Heinz Frischengruber has studied the varied soil compositions throughout the Wachau in order to develop a specialised green cover of blossoming plants to address their distinct needs. Given that many of the vineyards in the area are situated on steep, terraced slopes, the primary focus here was on preventing soil erosion. Mr. Frischengruber has also noted additional benefits of increased organic matter in the soils as well as enhanced water retention. Extending this research, they are amidst a three-year project investigating small plants for the area beneath the vines that will simultaneously require less water and decrease the labour involved with manual mowing each season. Both of these advantages will ultimately lead to less soil compaction.
Compost, which is typically a combination of manure and leaves or other plant materials, has many applications in the vineyard with fertilisation being the most common (Extension Foundation, 2019). Though many options are commercially available, Domäne Wachau is producing their own from the post-harvest prunings and pomace. By then distributing that compost to each member of their grape-growing cohort for use as the next season’s fertiliser, they have created a ‘full circle economy’ that both reduces waste and improves soil vitality (R. Horvath, personal communication, 07 June 2022).
This shift from sustainability to renewal can be directly seen in vineyard practices, but that’s certainly not the only area that can benefit from rejuvenation. Especially with the isolation spurred by the global pandemic of the past two years, we have lost the sense of community that once connected us with one another. As a quality-focused wine cooperative, Domäne Wachau is advantageously positioned to be a driving force in restoring that lost spirit of connectedness. Unlike many co-ops that simply purchase grapes from the member growers with barely more than a footnote about each vigneron, the 250 vintner families here are treated as employees critical to the winery’s success. Every grower receives ongoing education and training to help them produce the best fruit possible on their parcels, and they are regularly invited to lectures and symposia to keep them abreast of the latest viticultural research (Sustainability, 2021). Further, the winery has a prominently-featured webpage listing each family’s vineyard plots alongside personal details, such as their favourite wines produced by the co-op. This inclusion and spotlighting not only shows each grower’s contribution to the wines produced here, but also joins them together as a single family unified through the pride they share in conscientiously working their land.
Though Domäne Wachau is responsible for farming more than 400 ha of the region’s 1300 ha under vine, there are many other producers in the area and in neighbouring appellations contributing to the transformative renewal of Austrian wine. At the 2022 International Riesling Symposium, Michael Moosbrugger, CEO and Lead Oenologist of Schloss Gobelsburg in Kamptal, spoke to an often overlooked aspect of the industry: marketing and sales. His lecture covered four facets of a wine that he believes contribute to its marketability: grape variety, place of origin, winemaking styles, and the potential for ageing. These four attributes, he suggested, are all valuable in promoting a wine but the value of each differs based on the target group of consumers. For example, he posited that the grape variety is more important to the novice consumer whereas wine aficionados and professionals tend to focus their attention on origin—a wine’s ‘sense of place’. To that end, he posed the question of ‘whether every Riesling [from] Ried Heiligenstein truly meets our vision of grandness?’ (p. 7). Simply by asking the question, he reaffirmed his viewpoint that although grape variety, origin, and winemaking styles are all individually important, it is the summation of the three that makes a great wine truly great—in essence, a Gestaltist approach.
In terms of consumer perception, Austrian wines have been undergoing a rebirth since 1985, when it was discovered that some producers were adding diethylene glycol to their wines in order to increase the body and sweetness (Tagliabue, 1985). The substance is toxic, leading many people to fall ill from drinking the adulterated beverages, and subsequently causing the image of Austrian wines as a whole to suffer. The past few decades have already shown a renewed interest in the country’s wines, and Mr. Moosbrugger suggested that holding back more wine to bottle as ‘Library Releases’ is the next needed step. He noted that over the last decade the ‘demand for mature wines… has far exceeded [their] supply’ (p. 7). In response to that imbalance, Schloss Gobelsburg has focused on keeping additional reserve wine for later release. At current, they have over 100,000 L held back in large barrels and have expanded their cellar to accommodate a remarkable 600,000 bottles!
As Mr. Moosbrugger indicated, a key component of a wine’s character is its origin and its ability to express that sense of place. In the Südsteiermark region–located in the southeastern portion of the country, bordering Slovenia–Weingut Tement has renewed this interest in terroir by diligently working to establish a legalised classification system based on the Burgundian model. Starting in the 1980s as a founding member of the Steirische Terroir-and-Klassikweingüter (STK)—a grower’s association whose goal is to produce wines that distinctly show the character of their land—Tement proposed three overarching categories of Gebietswein, Ortswein, and Riedenwein which correlate to ‘Regional wines’, ‘Village wines’, and ‘Single-vineyard wines’, respectively. In 2007, they finalised a further refinement of Riedenwein by setting forth criteria for both Erste Ried (1STK, equivalent to Premier Cru) and Große Ried (GSTK, or Grand Cru). These criteria included permitted grape varieties, vine age, maximum yields, maturation requirements, and even minimums for the number of years that the wines have been available on the market. For instance, GSTK mandates at least 15-year-old vines, 4500 L/ha max yields, 18 months of maturation, and at least 10 years of continuous market availability (STK, p. 11).
The aim of stringent regulations like these for Große Ried wines is to ensure not only a certain level of quality, but also that the wines truly represent the land from which they are born. Viewing the criteria in a vacuum, though, casts a sterile and dispassionate light on the classification system in its entirety; that couldn’t be further from the truth! Zieregg is one of Weingut Tement’s most treasured vineyards, and has earned the distinction of being classified as GSTK. It is a very steep south-facing slope reaching up to 490m above sea level, and features clay-based marl atop limestone. However, those are just the ‘facts’ or the ‘stats’ of the vineyard. ‘The Zieregg’, as Armin Tement disclosed, ‘has a personal connection with their family’. Noting that it’s difficult to explain, he believes that because their family home is situated ‘on the top of the Zieregg’, and that they spend ‘every day in this beautiful vineyard’, they have ‘a feeling how to interpret the taste of it’ (A. Tement, personal communication, 08 June 2022). The classification of vineyards then is a coming together of science and art; of technical details and the human touch.
As do many of the top producers in Burgundy, Armin believes that understanding the ‘typicity of a place in connection with the grape variety, vintage, and the people behind it’ is paramount to appreciating the character that every individual wine displays. With origin being so central to a wine’s identity, it’s natural for passionate winegrowers to want to classify their vineyards. Doing so not only protects the place-name, but also showcases each unique terroir.
Showcasing terroir and protecting the place are inextricably linked; one cannot exist without the other. Without the nuances that make each wine-producing region and each vineyard singular, the wines produced will be formulaic and homogenous. Decades of conventional ‘chemical based monocultural agriculture’ have undoubtedly contributed to the climate change we are witnessing first-hand, and have decimated vineyard ecosystems (Saxgren, 2022). In order to reverse those effects, winegrowers need to implement and promote regenerative practices. While those practices most directly apply to vineyard management, they extend to many other segments of the wine industry as well.
Early on in his presentation at the 2022 International Riesling Symposium, Michael Moosbrugger asked ‘what is it that makes our hearts beat faster [about wine]?’ Whatever that answer is—experimenting to find the most effective cover crops, building a stronger community of grape growers who are focused on improving their land, telling the story of a wine that best promotes it to consumers, or legislating vineyard hierarchies—it serves as the inspiration for change. This varied and holistic approach, or ‘vielfältig’, is underpinning the transition of the wines of Austria from being merely sustainable to being truly regenerative.
Baweja, P., Kumar, S., Kumar, G. (2020). Fertilizers and pesticides: Their impact on soil health and environment. In Giri, B., Varma, A. (eds) Soil Health (pp. 265-285). Springer. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-44364-1_15
Extension Foundation. (20 June 2019). Compost use in vineyards. https://grapes.extension.org/compost-use-in-vineyards/
Moosbrugger, M. (10 May 2022). Riesling-Langläufer unter dem Aspekt der Chancen in der Vermarktung und notwendiger Voraussetzungen im Weinbau und in der Kellerwirtschaft [Presentation]. International Riesling Symposium, Eltville am Rhein, Germany. https://www.international-rieslingsymposium.com/fileadmin/user_upload/Downloads/2022/ Riesling-Langlaeufer_DE.pdf
Saxgren, J. (2022). Our Mission. The Regenerative Viticulture Foundation. https://www.regenerativeviticulture.org/about/
STK. (n.d.). The vines of the Steirische Terroir-and-Klassikweingüter. Retrieved 25 May 2022, from https://stkwein.at/wpcontent/uploads/2019/03/EN_stk_folder_mail_RZ.pdf
Sustainability. (2021). Domäne Wachau Nerd Notes. Retrieved 28 May 2022, from https://www.domaene-wachau.at/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/DW_Nerd- Notes_sustainability_NEW.pdf
Tagliabue, J. (02 August 1985). Scandal over poisoned wine embitters village in Austria. The New York Times, Section A, Page 1. https://www.nytimes.com/1985/08/02/world/scandal-over-poisoned- wine-embitters-village-in-austria.html
Vintner families. (2022). Domäne Wachau. Retrieved 28 May 2022 from https://www.domaene-wachau.at/en/the-winery/vintner-families/
All images are the author's own.