"I had become more open minded. I was free in my opinions, further away from school education and finding my own tastes. I was ready for alternative methods."
is a winemaker who follows his nose. His winemaking and farming methods are modified and adapted every year and evolve continuously, in tandem with the development of his thoughts and mindset. He emphasises that the end to his agricultural and vinous education is nowhere in sight. This is part of what Franz loves about winemaking: the cultural journey.
Some notions, however, stay the same for him. Firstly, he has defended the indigenous grape varieties of Austria and Hungary since he took over the family estate in the late 90s. He believes that he should champion his local heritage, and that this is the way to build a bridge from the past to the future. Secondly, in the face of global warming, he believes the answer - and the solution - lies in farming.
Listening to Franz, it is his firm beliefs on wine culture that resonate the strongest. He emphasises the importance of sharing learnings amongst peers: that just because something isn’t rooted in scientific evidence, shouldn’t mean it isn’t true. He gives the example of a recent trainee whose school professor told her the concept of minerality was bulls&^t. He laughs in exasperation and says,
“At university people don’t understand that wine is also cultural. Nowadays, at wine school, the things you learn you could just learn from books, if you want to. The most important thing about winemaking is finding your character and your personality, and you do this only by learning with people, and by going to different places. You learn much more about yourself this way: and you form your own ideas of what wine should be.”
As he ponders on what he has learnt over time, it is the conversations with local farmers, and the experiences he has had, that have taught him the most. There are two experiences, he explains, that brought him to biodynamic farming and to where he is today.
The first experience involved a bottle of Jean-Pierre Frick’s wine, on two occasions. In his last year of wine school, after he had been working as an intern at the California giant, Kendall Jackson, where winemaking is very technological, his father gave him a blind tasting of an Alsatian grower he had been to visit: Frick. Franz didn’t like the wine: all he could see was the technical way he had learnt, and this wine, with its own quirks and individualism, didn’t fit into his predetermined category of what wine should be. Two years later, his father gave him a blind tasting of exactly the same wine. Franz, of course, had no idea. He laughs and says,
“I tasted it, and said, Oh My God. What is this? It’s the best white wine I’ve ever tasted.”
When his dad revealed the bottle, he couldn’t believe his eyes. He remembers,
“I was thinking… Did the wine change? Or did I change? Did my taste change...? I think I had become more open minded. I was free in my opinions, further away from school education and finding my own tastes. I was ready for alternative methods.”
The second experience involved one of his vineyards that got sick. Franz was devastated and rang his wine school professor to come and look at it, and also hired an enologist. The professor studied the soil and the enologist studied the leaves. Both thought that the vineyard was deficient in magnesium. However, as it turned out, the leaves were deficient but the soil had too much magnesium. Franz was baffled and asked what he should do, to which the professor and enologist replied that he should continually spray the vines with magnesium - for the rest of the vineyard’s life - as the vines couldn’t seem to process the magnesium that was in the soils.
For Franz, something wasn’t adding up. He says,
“I thought… this can’t be true. It’s like a hospital patient who can’t eat, so they’re fed by tubes or via injection. It’s good for a while, but at some point you have to learn how to eat again and get back to a normal life. This wasn’t the solution for me.”
So Franz began to look for another way. He spoke to some local organic vegetable and crop farmers, who told him to try adding manure, to rebuild the soil’s humus. One year later, the problem went away, and it has never come back. The vineyard is healthy and strong on its own.
Franz is from a long line of many generations of farmers, here in the Burgenland, Austria. His grandfather, and those before him, had worked in polyculture: they had four or five hectares of vineyards, but also farmed wheat and beans and raised cows for milk and meat. His father was the first to step out of the polycultural thinking and to focus on wine: so in the 80s, their four hectares grew to 28 hectares in Austria. In the 90s, Franz Senior would also become one of the first Austrian wine growers to invest in vineyards in Hungary, after the iron curtain fell.
There has been a key generational switch from Franz Sr. to Franz Jr, both in terms of varieties planted and in terms of winemaking methods. When Franz Sr. began focusing on wine production in the 80s, it was the heyday of the famed wine critic Robert Parker. Parker was the first critic to give wines points out of 100, and he favoured a richer, high alcohol style of wine. Franz explains,
“When my dad first started to focus on wine production, we were still poor farmers. When you don’t have money, well… you want money. It was the time of Parker, so dad made richer, full bodied wines. That meant Parker points, which meant money.”
When Franz reached his late teens, he went to wine school in Vienna and did several winemaking internships abroad. The first was the aforementioned giant California winery experience, where Franz notes,
“That experience was very important for me: to find out what you do - or don’t - want to become. I learnt so much. There were 300 of us in California, and on weekends we’d meet up and taste wine. Meeting these people from “The New World” [where land is very expensive] - when they heard we had our own vineyards at home and that we could make our own wine, for them that was simply a dream to be able to do that. That’s the first time I realised I have something special. Until then I didn't know, because everyone in the village had a vineyard, and anyone who didn’t could buy one - it wasn’t expensive or prestigious.”
Next, he went to a very small winery in Australia, which no longer exists, but where Franz learnt about organic farming and lower intervention winemaking, and next to Alto Adige, a region in northern Italy. This was trickier, as he neither spoke Italian nor French. Then, it was time to go home. He remembers,
“It was the time for me to make my own wine, and to see what my interpretation of wine tastes like, and where I go with it.”
Today, Franz has 26 hectares in Austria and 24 hectares in Hungary. His old vines - the four hectares that have been passed down from generation to generation - are planted to Blaufränkisch and Zweigelt. His father, who had wanted to explore something new in the 80s and 90s, also planted some Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah, but for Franz, the future is focused on Blaufränkisch for the red wines, all planted via massal selection. For his white wines, he has become well-known for his work with the indigeous Furmint. The first vineyard he took over from his father in 99 is an old-vine Furmint vineyard in Sopron, planted in 1964. It is a living piece of history: it was planted during Communism and designed for the big Russian tractors, so the spacing between vines is enormous. This is perhaps somewhat impractical with regards to yields, but this vineyard is not going anywhere: you can tell by his smile that this is his baby.
He also works with the Welschriesling variety, as well as Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris, which produces his Szürke & Fehér cuvee. He laughs when asked about the latter:
“We got what we thought were Pinot Noir vines from a Hungarian nursery, but after three years we figured out that half the vineyard was Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc. The nursery just said, “Well, you asked for Pinot!” We were pissed off for around seven years - we essentially got a mixed field blend. But now - I love the Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc even more than the Pinot Noir. They both love the chalky soils, and the site gets the cold air from the nearby forest. Everything that the varieties love, they find there.”
After experiencing the benefits of compost and converting to organics in 2002, the next step - to biodynamics - happened in 2006. It was a simple stepping stone for Franz.
He explains that when first converting to organics, farmers are told to stop spraying chemicals, and to instead spray the less powerful (and natural) copper and sulphur, but to spray these more often. He says,
“So in organics, you’re the stupid guy who has to spray more often. But biodynamics opens up a whole new world of medicine - teas, preparations - that make you start to think about the immune system of a plant. Can I get that plant to a state where it doesn’t need the medicine - where it can be healthy on its own?”
It was this thinking that made him find the biodynamic path easier to follow than the organic path. He muses,
“Maybe it’s in the mind - but… I think when you feel more calm and safe - by using biodynamic preps - then your plants will feel more calm and safe. If I feel more comfortable with the work I do, and I see better results, then it keeps me more connected and I have a positive mindset.”
The next step for Franz lies in a return to a form of polyculture. He has long been promoting natural cover crops in his vineyards, but explains he still has to sow cover crops from time to time, as the natural plants of the area tend to take more energy from the soil than the vines, resulting in lower yields. This led him to think about returning to what the Burgenland was famous for decades ago: combining vineyards and agricultural crops.
“The Hungarians even had a joke name for winemakers: they called us bean farmers, because we grew vines and beans. Back then, we grew all kinds of vegetables and beans, so if we had a bad vintage, then we could still eat. It turned out to be very successful.”
He has begun to plant beans this year, and will see where the idea takes him. His goal is to try to create a new vineyard model:
“I want to make something out of it, it shouldn’t just be half a hectare, growing vegetables for the family. That’s also nice, of course, but it won’t change the world of agriculture. We have to develop and go further with the space we have.”
We ask Franz how his winemaking style has changed. He laughs and whispers to us,
“It’s changed a lot. For me it’s a bit scary. I turned 40 last year. The first wine I made after my California internship shows my different mindset back then. But my mindset won’t stop changing. I always thought at some point I’d find what I think is the best, but there are trends in wine - and we have to be realistic and accept that some things you follow because you like them, and some things you don’t follow.”
He is referring to experimentation, and at Weninger, there are bucketfuls of it. From destemming to using whole cluster fermentations, to skin contact for white wine, to amphorae to concrete, Franz has seen it all. In general, however, his wines are made in a simple way. He explains that he makes wine with a nod to his grandfather’s method, who just had three fermentation vats. When it was time for more grapes to come in he’d move the wine out, press it, and put it into barrels. This resulted in delicate, medium bodied styles of red wine that didn’t have too much maceration. This is the style of wine that Franz has in his mind too: a style he calls the “infusion” method.
Recent experimentations and adjustments that Franz has made are ones that are as much for practicality reasons as they are for stylistic. The first is the “floating cap” fermentation technique where he submerges the red wine berries in the grape juice, in the vats, which means he doesn’t have to do punchdowns. This saves a lot of time and simultaneously creates a very gentle “infusion” style. The other involves turning the barrels on their side, so that the bunghole is submerged in liquid, allowing less oxygen to enter, and meaning he doesn’t need to top up the barrels with additional wine as there is less evaporation over time.
“By making these decisions in the cellar, it means the wine is fine on its own. I don’t have to worry about it, and that gives me a freedom to focus on other things in the vineyard.”
It’s the true low intervention way: the idea of letting the wine take its own course, with the least amount of human intervention. Franz believes that by using less extractive techniques, and no new oak, he can best allow the vineyard to shine. This is his ultimate goal. He says,
“For example, the Steiner vineyard, which sits on gneiss and mica schist, gives a very delicate voice to the wine. When I first began to make wine, maybe I wasn’t hearing the small tones, whereas now these small tones shine through. Less extraction and less wood lets you hear the tones earlier on.”
It is clear that Franz listens to his vineyards and to his wines. Now that he has discovered their voices, it’s simply a matter of fine tuning them, and discovering what their future holds.