“The soil is the most important thing. It’s your biggest investment. If you f*&% up your vineyard or your soil… well, that’s your base - it’s what you stand on, and you have to save it for you and the next generation.”
is a winemaker who also liked the idea of becoming a chef, or an architect, and his cellar is testament to that: it looks more like a gallery or a restaurant from a hip art district somewhere that has fallen out of the sky and landed right here in the Burgenland, Austria. But - as he emphasises - above all, it is practical. A winemaker needs practicality for crafting the best wines they can; just like architects need good paper, a sharp pencil and their toolbox.
In a sense, his wines are architectural. They are windows into different periods in his life; different visions and ideas. He has been through countless styles of wine, and he’s only just celebrated his 40th birthday. His cellar represents that. Once, it was full of classic oak barrels, but now, the oak barrels are dwindling in number and being replaced by foudres and clay vessels crafted from every corner of the world.
When you walk into Claus’ bright, half glass, half concrete cellar, it’s hard not to admire the space, but he didn’t always have a cellar as well thought-out as this one. He speaks with a boyish, enthusiastic grin:
“The idea of creating something is what pushes me - and to find or to build a place like this - well, it’s like being a boy in a big playground, doing crazy stuff. To do that, you need space! When I first started making wine, I was in a very small place and had to move all the time - I was renting a cellar, then a barn, then four different places, and I was just moving stuff from A to B and B to C. That meant I lost time, which means you can’t work as precisely. Finally, I’m really comfortable.”
His winery is his adult playground for experimentation. He compares his wines to sandcastles; some fall down and some stand strong. He explains,
“I follow this idea of borderline farming - risky in the vineyards, and I also take a lot of risks in the cellar. This means sometimes you lose a barrel or even a tank, but this is part of the game for me, and that’s why I like to work on a bigger scale of production - if I lose 5-10% then I still have a lot left. If you only have two vineyards, and you f&^k one up, then it’s 50%...”
Claus farms many different vineyards with many different grape varieties, on both sides of Lake Neusiedl - all on different terroirs. This means he makes many different wines - some blends, some single vineyards, some crazy experiments - and if one of the latter succeeds, it means he introduces a new wine. This happens on a frequent basis, and allows him to keep playing - encouraging his “laissez-faire” approach.
As we watch him disgorge a pét-nat in an apron, we can’t help but feel he even looks the part of a chef. Just like a chef experiments in the kitchen all the time, Claus does too: but he's in the cellar and his ingredients are grapes and soil.
Taking a sip straight from the bottle, he flings open the big doors and the sunshine comes flooding in. We follow him outside, where we’re greeted by a herd of baby chicks and kittens. He smiles. While he might be a daredevil in the cellar, he’s a bit of a softie when it comes to things that cluck and meow.
“The chickens we have here at the farm, we don’t eat them - we just have them for the eggs. They’re also good for the vineyards - they take out some bugs from the soil over the winter. The eventual idea is to create my own little farm here, to work a lot more with animals - sheep, cows, pigs, horses."
It’s clear that although Claus has worked biodynamically for fifteen years, he is still exploring his own relationship with nature. He says,
“When you’re sensitive, you really feel the difference: when you own your land, your place, if you feel comfortable, then the wine you produce will be a very good one…”
From a Hobby to 19 Hectares
Claus grew up here in Gols, in the Burgenland. His father made a small amount of wine, and Claus began to drink some wine as a teenager, making some wine with his dad as a hobby. He says it was a “domino effect;” before he knew it he was studying winemaking. However, he didn’t just stick to his school textbook. He says,
“With 20 years’ of experience I can now say it’s been a step by step thing. You start your winemaking career with what you learnt in school, and then you figure out that not everything you were told is right. Then, in the search of purity, it’s a trial and error thing. You keep trying out new things, and then suddenly you find you can’t really step back.”
This search led him to travel to other regions to get experience and to meet like minded people. He has amassed a huge collection of friends’ wines in his cellar. By doing so, he feels it allows him to see the philosophy of others:
“It doesn’t matter where the wine is from - if it’s from a cool area or a warm climate, what you definitely get is the energy out of the glass. You get to learn about the people’s mind, from their mindset about wine.”
It extends to much more than just what’s in the glass.
“With people, the cultural thing about wine is very interesting. If we stand in a bar having a couple of beers, we talk about fashion, football, the news or politics. But when we stand here with a bottle of wine, and everyone has a glass of wine, then we talk about the wine. We talk about the colour, the taste, the backbone whatever, and this… wine brings people together..”
Claus began with the three hectares of his father, and slowly expanded his vineyards to the 19 hectares he has today. They are dotted around, on either side of the lake, and consist of different elevations, exposures, terroirs and grape varieties: 64 parcels in total. While this might be a bit of a logistical pain in the backside, he wouldn’t have it any other way: the cellar is not his only playground. By having such variation, he feels it allows him to continually learn and discover more about the area.
He was introduced to biodynamic farming by fellow winemaker and mentor, Hans Nittnaus. In a similar way to winemaking, Claus feels that classic wine education has its limitations:
“What I learnt in school, I can’t really use nowadays. What they taught you isn’t necessarily true anymore. Working with biodynamics in the vineyards brings much more respect.”
When his own biodynamic journey began, like all other practitioners, he was reading the teachings of Rudolf Steiner, the founder of the philosophy, and many other books and essays on farming. These days, however, he feels he has built a base of knowledge and is able to explore his own notions further:
“Those first years - it was like following the rules. Nowadays, I see it more as working with a diagnosis - I see and feel what the soil needs, and what your wine needs. Then I react, or don’t react.”
He is on a constant quest to improve the health of his vines and vineyards, sowing cover crops and composting. He says,
"A vineyard is a big monocultural system. The biodynamic idea is to break this system with a lot of different cover crops. Together with the animals, this creates an ecosystem that works well. Then, you find you don't have as many problems with diseases and so on."
Due to global warming, the area is getting drier and hotter every year. This means the winter rains are becoming increasingly important, so Claus works hard in this period to try to retain moisture in the soils, by working on improving the soil humus. He covers the topsoil with straw or hay from the lake shores, which he finds is a cheap but very effective way of keeping the moisture in place longer into the season.
“The soil is the most important thing. It’s your biggest investment. If you f*&% up your vineyard or your soil… well, that’s your base - it’s what you stand on, and you have to save it for you and also for the next generation.”
He also employs methods such as gentle pruning, respecting the natural sap flow of the vine. He also ensures that any wood of the vine older than three years is not cut, as he says that vines cannot cure big cuts in old wood, causing them to dry out and die later.
The first step away from making wine in the way that he had been taught was to use natural yeasts instead of lab-cultured packet yeasts, which he did already in his second vintage, 2001. He remembers,
“It was simple. The last grapes I brought in started fermenting on their own, so I thought, Why use something when they start on their own?”
Next, came a move away from the traditional wine barrel. Claus first learnt to make wine in barriques, in the early 2000s, when a bigger, more alcoholic and extracted style was fashionable. Claus, however, wasn’t entirely happy with this kind of wine, and wasn’t about to start resting on his laurels. He began to experiment with foudres, and then clay in 2009 - one of the first in Austria to use amphorae. He feels that these vessel types bring more purity to the wines, musing,
“The main goal is always to produce wine as pure as it can be, and these materials can help you go further towards this direction.”
He works with Weissburgunder (Pinot Blanc), Grüner Veltliner, Blaufränkisch, Sankt Laurent, Zweigelt and Pinot Noir. The latter was perhaps the driving force for his change in style.
“Pinot is a very special variety for me, I love it. I have six different plots of Pinot, with different clones and everything, and I have travelled a lot to Burgundy to understand the variety more. But nowadays, I’m on the search for my own unique way of working with it.”
He explains that in the past, he made Pinot in a bigger style - both in terms of alcohol and the percentage of new oak. However, he was seeking something more lively. Today, he is content, and feels that he has achieved this with his current method: whole bunches to bring freshness, a short, one-week maceration, ageing in 1000L amphorae, and bottling with no additions (including sulphur) and unfiltered.
The Burgenland is warmer than Burgundy, but this doesn’t deter him.
“I really love this super light style of Pinot, but here is not the coolest area, so we harvest the grapes in mid-August, early. We pick them in the morning, when it’s cool, and this means 11.5% – 12% alcohol for my Pinots is possible, even in a warmer area.”
Over the years, he has also found that he had a sensitivity to sulphur: if he drinks wine with high sulphur levels he gets really bad headaches. This means he began to drop down the levels in his own wines early on. Today, he bottles many cuvées without sulphur at all. His pet passion is to create pétnat: he now creates three cuvées per year. These are perhaps the most hands-off wines of all, as Claus explains,
“With pét-nat, you’re out of the game already at fermentation. That brings you a very interesting product. The idea of having a Blanc de Noirs wine with only one fermentation in the ancestral way… that’s cool.”
He emphasises, however, that none of wines - made as they are, with no or very little sulphur - would be possible without his work in the vineyards, saying,
“It all starts there. You need the balance in your vineyard - and that gives balance in the grapes. Then, you find you just don’t need the additions in the cellar...”
He smiles, and continues,
“Every year is a different growing season, and every vintage is different. You’ll try out different things, it’s all part of the process…. That keeps pushing me forward, and that’s why I really love my job.”
Want to see if you can taste the limestone for yourself in Claus' Kalkstein? Want to drink a wine that's so fun that it's simply called DOPE? Want to taste a delicious, white blend of Weissburgunder, Grüner Veltliner, Muskat & Welschriesling, from pebbles and limestone soils, fermented on the skins?