"I call my wines 'projects' because I always want to learn something, to take a step forward and to see what is possible here on our soil."
Christoph Hoch is one of the kindest, most inquisitive wine minds we have the fortune of knowing. He is full of energy; bubbly, chatty, and asks loads of questions. It is this character trait that has led him to quickly become known as one of the wine world's natural wine stars; he is a deep thinker, and will try anything.
Open-mindedness is the name of the game at Hoch. When you travel into the cellars and see his blackboards on the walls, his wines make sense. They are wines born from a love of biodynamic farming, and from a quest to make wines without additions. This is Nature Meets Science.
We are in the midst of planning a one-week trip to the vineyards of Austria, emailing growers in the hope that they’ll be available to meet us. Just a few hours later, an email pops up on our screen.
It is from Christoph, and it says,
Hello, it’s great that you are coming here to the Hollenburg! To use your short time (side note: 2.5 hours) as efficiently as possible, please let me know (beside the wines) what you are interested in the most... Looking forward to it! Best wishes, Christoph
- Biodynamic Viticulture: Challenges vs benefits? Can you see the difference? Do you taste the difference?
- Hollenburg Conglomerate: A Geological-exotic limestone island on the Danube
- Non-Vintage Still Wines: More complexity, maturity with youthful acidity, balance
- Natural Wine Stability: What does unstable mean? How do you make wine stable? & "The Great Role of Time"
- Sparkling Wine: Natural and constant bottle fermentation without tirage and without additives
- Serious Natural Wine: Natural wine doesn’t have to be freaky! It can be reliable and serious
We’re simultaneously speechless and grinning from ear to ear. Over the past few years, we have had the honour of visiting countless winemakers, but never before have we received such an enthusiastic and precise planning email. We feel it is a good omen, and quickly hit the reply button with;
Thank you so much for your speedy and enthusiastic reply. We are touched by the extent of your planning. If it’s not too much trouble - sorry to be a pain - we’d quite like to speak about all of those things. It’s clear that we can learn a lot from you.
He replies with one word: “Sure!”
A few weeks later, we find ourselves in Christoph’s cellar; a modest, tucked away arching room stuffed to the brim with old barrels. He pulls out a blackboard and chalk, and starts speedily drawing all sorts of illustrations at every angle imaginable.
“The most important thing to know is that biodynamics is a very modern form of agriculture. I often say that it functions like clockwork…,” he begins, sketching a clock.
We sit down, our ears pricked. We think we’ll get on very well with this newfound teacher of ours.
Christoph’s family have been here in Hollenburg, in the Kremstal region of Austria, since 1640. Back then, there was a key harbour on the river Krems, and like almost all the villagers, his family worked in the transport business. However, everything changed when trains came along, so they became fruit and vine farmers.
We are introduced to his grandfather, Karl Hoch; so named after the nine generations of Karl before him. He is a cheery, kind eyed little man, constantly cracking jokes. Christoph murmurs to us that he is unstoppable even in his old age; to ensure he stays fit in his old age he has taken on the task of managing the entire hand riddling program. For a wine estate where the majority of the wines produced are sparkling, this is no mean feat.
Karl beckons to us to follow him into the cellar.
We slowly follow him to the wall, where he points to something in the darkness. He smiles, his eyes crinkling at the sides, full of memories.
“Look at this photograph. This was in 1945, when the war was over. That’s my father, cousin and I. There were no means of transport other than by oxen. The grapes would be stomped right in the vineyard and then the must transported by the oxen. This is Fritz,” he points to the left ox, “and this is Max,” he points to the right ox. You had to call them by their correct names or they would ignore you!”
His happy laugh echoes around the room. He clears his throat and pauses for a minute, continuing in a serious tone now;
“Many people didn't have a wagon, so you had to help each other. If you look at the picture, you see the old cellar as it used to be. There were no rubber tires yet; everything was carried with carts – steep downhill, that was a tough time, we didn’t have much. But the wines; they were fermented completely naturally, simply, just as my grandson does now...”
Christoph bundles us into his car and drives us up the hillside to one of his vineyards. He points down to the Danube River and gives us a brief geology lesson.
The vineyards sit high above the village of Hollenburg, at between 220 and 380 metres above sea level. As he mentioned in his email, he calls this part of the Kremstal a “geological, exotic island” due to its high concentration of chalk; chalk not from the sea, but rather brought to the region from the Alps, via the Ur-Traisen River. When the Ur-Traisen River and the Danube River crashed together, they formed this unique “conglomerate” soil; a combination of chalky limestone and dolomite rocks.
Here, Christoph tends 12 hectares of his family’s vines biodynamically. He initially started working with five hectares, in 2013, and when his parents were pleased with the results he converted the whole estate. We ask him why he decided to convert to biodynamics, and his answer couldn’t have been much more simple;
“After I had finished viticulture school, I went in search of which styles of wines I wanted to make. I ended up discovering that in all the cuvees that I liked, from Burgundy to Champagne, and here in Austria too, there was a common denominator: they were all from biodynamically farmed vineyards.”
This led him to discover the works of Steiner, and soon after to his own adoption of the philosophy.
We stand gazing together, and despite the fact it’s the middle of winter, there is so much life here. Wild roses, valerian and wild grasses are growing amongst the vines, and a forest is just above us, backing onto the parcel.
“It is so important for us to have biodiversity in our vineyards; it is a core part of biodynamics, and it forms part of the terroir...” he begins.
Christoph's wines are born from many varieties; Grüner Veltliner, Riesling, Pinot Blanc, Muskat Ottonel, Zweigelt, Sankt Laurent and Blauer Portugieser. He is now also joined in the cellar by his wife Julie, who he met in 2016 at a "natural sparkling wines and raw milk cheese" event.
"I was working at Domäne Wachau as an intern, and was only planning on staying in Austria for two months. I went to this event as a guest of a colleague; I didn't know anything about natural wine. After the fifth wine (out of more than thirty), I quit making tasting notes. I just couldn't find the words for these wines, and this impressed me... I met Christoph, and we started to talk about how to describe these wines. Discussing it with him, I developed my own new version of wine language. I still remember the first description; my grandma's strawberry marmalade -freshly cooked. I never went home to Germany."
Christoph goes one step further than abandoning traditional tasting notes; he doesn’t even call his wines “cuvées.” Instead, he affectionately dubs them “his projects." Laughing, he freely admits that sometimes these projects don’t work out and never come to fruition. This is one of the many aspects that identifies Christoph both as one of the most forward thinking young growers of Austria; he is constantly experimenting, but he will never release a wine that he is not fully content with.
In short, he is the human paradox of a mad scientist with the utmost precision.
Christoph's still wines are created as non-vintage blends. He feels that by working with experimental components from various types of fermentations, and across multiple vintages, he is able to add complexity and layers to the wines. Here he plays with the balance of freshness for current vintages, and skin macerated, sometimes oxidative styles for the smaller percentages of "reserve" wines.
Some of his wines can also take many months to finish their fermentations, if not years. He emphasises that you must never rush them, and by leaving wine for a longer period on the lees, sometimes over 32 months, the wines become naturally stable. This is the Gift of Time.
He's not at all fazed by not marking specific vintages on his labels, saying;
"We need to think with our own minds. We must be flexible. There is a part of terroir that's about your own interpretation; what do you think your terroir is capable of?"
There is one project that Christoph is particularly proud of; a blend predominantly composed of Pinot Blanc. It is called Kalkreich, meaning “Rich Chalk,” and it became a permanent resident in the Hoch wine stable in 2013.
“A friend of mine told me that I could make good sparkling wine here, because of the natural acidity in the grapes. However, I didn’t want to make a “traditional” Champagne-style sparkling wine, with added lab-yeasts and cane sugar. So, I contemplated how to do this naturally…”
This led him to research far and wide, and he reached out to a few Champagne growers to ask them for advice, and to listen to his ideas. One grower told him that while they thought his idea was a good one, they could assure him that it would never result in a stable wine with the correct atmospheric pressure. Christoph didn’t let this dent his enthusiasm however, and was determined that his idea would work. This clash of opinions resulted in them placing a bet. If Christoph were to succeed, the Champagne grower would give him the gift of success: twelve fine Burgundy barrels. The stakes were high.
Listen to Christoph's barrels slowly fermenting: The Gift of Time
We can just imagine Christoph beavering away with pieces of chalk and the chalkboard in his cellar, calculating complex mathematical equations relating to grape must and desired atmospheric pressure. First, he took his "reserve" wine, which had been matured for one year in old barrels, with no additions whatsoever. Next, during harvest the following year, he added fermenting juice from a vineyard that had been farmed specifically with the vision of creating juice to referment this wine. This juice is nicknamed the “Hochleistungssturm” - a word that Christoph invented. It’s the first time we’ve come across somebody who gives a scientific method a pet name, but we find it rather endearing. It roughly translates to English as "High Performance Fermenting Juice". The blending was the tough part to perfect. It had to be done at exactly the right time, as fermentation juice in constant flux.
In Christoph's words,
"The juice tells us when it's ready, the human being cannot decide!"
It worked. It resulted in a completely dry wine with just the correct amount of pressure. For this style, it is of utmost importance that the wine is completely dry in order for it to be naturally stable, as no sulphur is added.
“So, I got in my car and drove to collect the barrels.”
He shrugs, as if it’s no big deal, gets up and grabs a bottle of his next project. He tells us casually that it is a Sankt Laurent created in the same vein as Kalkreich, and it has been ageing on the lees for five years. It's the first time he has opened a bottle since he made it in 2014.
We’re left staring at him, utterly speechless, mouth slightly ajar.
Want to taste a naturally produced sparkling wine that defied all odds? Fancy grooving with a glass of Grüner?