Clemens Strobl officially began his winemaking journey in 2007, having previously had a successful career in advertising. A great winelover, eventually the call to learn how to make wine himself drew him out of the office, and he made his first experiment with a winemaker friend in Slovenia.
At first, he worked fairly technically and by the book, but after tasting and meeting with other winemaker colleagues he soon became convinced that organic viticulture and a more hands-off approach in the cellar was the way forward. He has never looked back.
These days, he is joined by his son Lukas, who is steadily taking over the helm. The estate is going from strength to strength, as they employ regenerative techniques in the vineyard, and embrace open-minded trains of thought in the cellar.
LITTLEWINE spoke to Clemens and Lukas for this article
Meet Clemens and Lukas
Clemens tells us,
“My big passion is wine. I began collecting wine at the beginning of the 90s, but collecting wine is very different to producing wine! I wanted to gain knowledge about making wine, so the first step was learning with a friend in northern Slovenia, in 2007. I started here in the Wagram in 2008, with 1,000 bottles and one vineyard. Then, I also started a wine bar in Linz, which was very special and ran for four years with around 1,500 wines.”
Bit by bit, he began to find new vineyards, and the winery grew. Simultaneously, his taste and experience grew from the bottles he was drinking and pouring, and from conversations with the winemakers he was meeting. Now, the Strobl family has plots mainly in Wagram, where despite the relatively short period of time, they have already become heralded as one of the top producers. Additionally, they have also taken over some plots in the neighbouring regions of the Kamptal and the Kremstal. Clemens says,
“For me, Wagram is very special because of the terroir – the loess soils make the wines very authentic, especially for Grüner Veltliner. We have also really good conditions for Pinot Noir — my favourite grape variety for red wines. And so that is how I decided on the Wagram. It is also great in terms of its geographic situation, as it is between the Wachau Valley and Vienna. We are very urban people and like Vienna, and here we live just 30 minutes away. So, we feel great here!”
Like his father, Lukas also has definitively caught the wine bug. He smiles:
“I obviously grew up in a very wine enthusiastic family. Wine was part of my life from a very early stage; family vacation was usually a wine trip! And later, we’d go to restaurants, order wines and taste them blind together. So, I felt that passion very early on. Then, once we started producing wine and had our own vineyards, I also got very much into the agriculture part of wine business.”
This led him to decide to pursue wine studies, taking a degree in international wine business at the university in Krems. To gain more experience, he also went to work with Pranzegg in the Alto Adige, and with Clemens Busch in the Mosel. He says,
“At Pranzegg, I began to learn more about the natural wine business, and how relaxed you can feel while working! With Clemens Busch in the Mosel I learnt a lot about how to work with Riesling. I also learnt how much perfectionism you can put into wine! Since 2019, I’ve been back at the winery.”
Working across three regions means that Clemens and Lukas can explore different soil types, as well as different varieties, enabling them to gain an understanding of the complex relationships between terroir and vine. Clemens says,
“In the Kremstal, we have one hectare of Riesling. In Kamptal, it’s mainly Grüner Veltliner, and most of our vineyards are here in the Wagram. I think we have some of the best conditions for Grüner Veltliner and for Pinot Noir in Austria, especially in the famous Hengstberg vineyard. It’s not as hot as in Burgenland, for example, so you get a little bit more of that freshness; it works really well. Meanwhile, I think Riesling is better in in the Wachau and Kremstal.”
We ask how much the terroir varies from region to region.
“Quite a bit! Especially in the Kremstal where there are really prehistoric rocks, and the vineyards are almost cliff-like, with drystone walls. There is very little topsoil. Then, towards the east there are more loam/loess soils, but still rougher, with more stones and big rocks. Here in Wagram, most of the vineyards are pretty heavy formations of loam and loess; very rich and soft soils with good water supply. Sometimes in the Kremstal we also get some gravel and small rocks on the top of the surface. But mostly we deal with loam/loess soils which are ideal for wine growing, as they give a lot of extract to the grapes and to the wines.”
These unique circumstances ensure that they consistently find balance in their wines; they are concentrated yet remain fresh. Lukas continues,
“We don't need a lot of sugar, not high alcohol. Usually, we have low pH levels yet still achieve good body in the wines. Plus, so far, the vineyards are easy to work; we don’t need to irrigate. Being quite spread out also means that the hand work is a bit easier, as not everything has to happen at the same time. We have somewhere between 40 and 50 parcels in total, over around 15 hectares. We work with a lot of small, old terraces. We prefer to keep the old vines rather than grub them up and plant new vineyards.”
They decided to convert fully to organic farming in 2012. Clemens explains,
“At the beginning, we had less knowledge and education about organic wines. But we began to learn more and more and became very interested. Some people told us that it’s not really possible to make organic wine, but I read a lot and spoke with winemakers who work organically, and I became sure that I wanted to change and move in that direction. It’s a big movement, not only for the wine itself, but also for nature and for the climate.”
It wasn’t just a case of ditching the chemicals; it has been a long and gentle process of fine-tuning their practices, learning what methods best suit their soils and climate. Lukas says,
“Cover crops are a big topic for us, but always along with the natural cover crop. We don’t force cover crops on a vineyard if we don’t think it needs it. I’m not a big fan of ploughing or digging up the soil or anything like that, so I’d rather leave it. But if you cut the grass, then all that stays is pretty much a lawn after a few years. So that's when we start seeding some plants again.”
They do this with the intention of keeping the soil healthy and increasing its organic matter, which in turn supports the vines, resulting in healthier vineyards. Lukas continues,
“The soil is definitely a very big topic for us. We are really trying to be gentle with it. We keep it covered for most or all of the time, even during drought stress like this year, when we had very little rain during the summer. I’ve also learnt how to prune gently, from my time spent at Pranzegg [Martin Gojer worked with the gentle pruning pioneers, Simonit + Sirch]. This is something that we’ve already translated to our winery and to the vineyards. We have also been establishing ponds and planting fruit trees to give habitats back to the wildlife, and to provide breeding sites for birds. Usually we don’t collect the fruit, we just leave it for the wildlife.”
All of the work they do to the vines is done by hand, and they also have a vineyard in Krems that is completely tractor-free, where they only work by horse. Lukas summarises,
“There’s been development, but even back at the beginning we were gentle with the soil and didn’t plough too much. Now, we almost never do. The only soil machine we use is when we seed the cover crop, and we cut the old cover crop at the same time, so it’s very gentle and most of the carbon stays in the soil.”
The work in the cellar has been an evolutionary experience which continues to evolve. Having learnt from a technical winemaker, at first Clemens used lab-cultured yeasts, but he quickly veered away from this. Lukas says,
“Often at wine school, they tell you that natural fermentation is a risk. “Don't do it!” But then you start trying it, and you see it actually works out really well. It wasn’t a case of switching to natural fermentation from one day to the other, but rather we did some first trials, and we were happy with the results. Then, the next year we did more, and then eventually changed our whole production. The wines have even more character this way. They have more reduction, a longer life, and they’re just more complex.”
“The wines are different; you get more of a sense of origin. We’ve learnt a lot and developed, and you see that in the wines — you can taste it and smell it. I think we’re on a good path; I hope the right way. At the start, I think that the wines were quite good wines, but now they're a little bit more than that.”
“I think the wines are now a bit more authentic and unique. They’re less technical.”
In addition to fermenting their wines naturally, they also decided to let all their wines go through malolactic fermentation, even at the entry level [malolactic fermentation is the process whereby the harsh malic acid is converted into the softer, creamier lactic acid]. Lukas says,
“There have been some changes to achieve wines that are more focused. They are now a little bit lighter and fresher, and a bit more reductive due to the longer contact with the lees, and because we add sulfites a bit later in the process. We’ve also moved away from filtration, starting with a lighter filtration – so no sterile filtration or anything like that – and now most of the wines are unfiltered. Slow and steady changes!”
In addition to working with regular oak barrels, Lukas and Clemens also particularly enjoy working with concrete eggs. Lukas explains,
“We would love to work with a lot of old wooden barrels, but old barrels are not so easy to find. Typically, you buy new ones and then they become old. And then of course during those first years, you have this oaky taste in the wines, which we don't want to overdo. Stainless steel is the other option. It's easy to work with, but it's almost too sterile. If you leave the heavy lees in there, the wine usually turns bad because it doesn't get enough oxygen.”
Concrete egg-shaped vessels, on the other hand, work very well for them:
“I think eggs are the perfect vessel for us, because of how they store yeast and bacteria, and you get micro-oxygenation. The shape is ideal, with the small surface area on the top, and no big edges. It’s the perfect combination of a rough surface, and a similar shape — or maybe even a better shape —than a barrel. They’re also very thick, so if you leave the door open and it gets cold in winter, the wine doesn't feel it at all; you would need days until the temperature reached the inside. Plus, concrete doesn't have any taste, so it’s easier to work with in that sense, and it enables us to introduce oak barrels more slowly. We don't have to buy five oak barrels at once, and so can avoid that our wines taste oaky. The concrete eggs are very clean, and they give good reduction in the wines. We can work with a lot of yeast. And because of the egg shape, it does this sort of mini bâttonage — it takes up the yeast from the middle and drops it down the sides.”
They have also introduced (or rather, reintroduced) a basket press.
“We found a basket press when we bought and renovated this winery. Clemens said, let’s use it again! So, we built a new basket and trod the grapes and the must. We were so happy with how good the juice looked, how easy it was to work with, and how gentle and how fast it was. So, we decided to renovate it. Now all of the red wines are pressed with the old basket press. It’s very gentle, and as it is elevated, we work via gravity — so no pumping. It’s easier for us actually!”
“We restored a historic moment — 150 years ago they worked with this press in this house! We also want to keep this tradition, and it works really well, especially for Pinot Noir.”
“It’s been a constant development, to gain more knowledge, and also to have more confidence in our grapes and in our wine. We realized that we don’t need most of the things that you learn in wine school. Plus, it’s a question of time. Over the past few years, we also added another half-year of ageing in the cellar for the premium wines. Usually after bottling, we keep the bottles for a while before we start selling them — just to ensure that there's no bottle shock or anything like that. If we make our wines in the way that we want to, we have realized that they need that time.”
“The time is very important. Now, we have some entry level wines from the 2021 vintage being sold, but the current vintage of the single vineyard white wines is 2019, and the Pinot Noir is 2018.”
Lukas comments that despite the fermentations taking longer in certain years, they no longer make any adjustments to speed them up, but rather give them the additional time that they need to stabilize themselves. This series of tweaks and edits has seen the winery produce wines that become more fine-tuned and profound every year.
We ask what they ultimately look for; both in their wines, as well as in wines made by other wineries. Lukas says,
“I look for freshness, crispness, and I want to feel that this is artisan wine; not too technical. If I can feel the sulfites in my nose, or taste the yeast, well, I don’t like that very much anymore. I'm a big fan of reduction and freshness. Crisp wines are easier to drink. If they're overloaded with alcohol or sugar, it might be nice for a sip, but, but when drinking a bottle, I think the wine needs freshness.”
“We like the same wines. We drink the same wines, and we try a lot of wines from other winemakers. We have a big collection, and we always try all kinds of bottles with our clients and people from the gastronomic world. I love French wines from all regions. France has great conditions for making wine — whether for blends, for Pinot, for Riesling, for Sauvignon… fine wines, elegant wines and authentic wines with freshness, not wines that are too loud in alcohol, and wines without residual sugar. Those are my favourites.”
“We also love the diversity. That’s what brought us into the wine business. We love tasting wines from all over, and enjoy many different styles. I wouldn't say there's one style of wine that I like the most. If you look at the wine pairing for a menu, you need a lot of different wines. Sherry and port, too! If you chose the same wine for all the dishes, it probably wouldn't fit. Plus, sometimes I look for a different wine in winter versus summer. But within that, I look mainly for authenticity, and drinkability.”
When you drink a bottle made by the Strobls, authenticity and drinkability are indeed two of the first qualities that spring to mind. You simply need to sip one of their mouthwateringly delicious cuvées to instantly see that drive and passion for their region, and for transparent, expressive wines, has been passed from father to son. We can’t wait to see what the next chapter entails.