"I believe only a happy winemaker can make good wines. I had to convert to organics for myself; to have a good feeling in my stomach."
Alwin and Stefanie Jurtschitsch could have taken over the family business and kept everything the same. There might be the saying if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, but if we all adhered to that or remained sedentary, we'd be stuck drinking traditional wines and agricultural concepts wouldn't have advanced.
The current era of Jurtschitsch wines were born from a desire to work differently. From working on a biodynamic weed farm in Australia, to submerging himself in polyculture in the Ecuadorian jungle, Alwin developed an ardent belief in organic farming as a teenager and young adult. Seeing wine as an ever-evolving product of culture, their winemaking techniques have left old traditions in the past, making way for new ones to take their place.
Alwin grew up here in the Langenlois, in the Kamptal wine region of Austria; the epitome of rural living. He remembers,
“I was never really excited about the prospect of becoming a winemaker. Growing up here, you’re just surrounded by vineyards. Not much is happening. All the young winemakers were just talking about who has the bigger tractor, or who has more hectares. I never felt like being part of those country boys.”
Add to the mix an anxious, pacing father, worried about yields and the weather when harvest was approaching, and you end up with an uncertain Alwin:
“There were times where I really missed him because he didn’t seem to have time for me. I had the feeling that this is not the lifestyle I want. If you get the feeling as a child that harvest time is the most stressful time and everybody is nervous, you step back and try to escape.”
So he did. He left Austria at the age of 18, with a small amount of money and a plane ticket bought by his parents on the condition that he find work in a winery abroad, with the plea:
“He said, perhaps if you look somewhere else, you’ll pick something up.”
Alwin arrived in New Zealand. He laughs, remembering,
“In those days I sort of thought that New Zealand would be like Australia. I thought there’d be desert and sun and kangaroos. But when I arrived in Auckland, it was f*&king raining and I was freezing my ass off.”
Alwin had no working permit, just one contact (who he never rang), and the little money he had soon ran out. He tried to find work in wineries in exchange for food and accommodation, but to no avail. Eventually, he hitchhiked all the way through New Zealand until he eventually found a job at a giant winery. He says,
“It was a really huge place. The owner didn’t pay me, but I got to live there and work. My career began as a bucket boy because I didn’t have any cellar skills — I was working my way up to the role of press cleaner. But there, harvest was sunshine, it was short trousers, and lots of beer.”
It was also here that he came across the notion of being a travelling winemaker:
“The cool thing about it was the people I met. A French guy, an American guy, a German guy - at night we’d sit together, get drunk and talk about travels. I sat with them just listening to their conversations and thought, wow, I can go to France, South America, Australia... it was this new world style of being a free independent travelling winemaker, and I liked that.”
Alwin began to plan more trips in advance, with a working permit this time. Australia was next.
“First, I had two months’ free time, hitchhiking around. I became friends with some German hippies and joined them to go to work on a biodynamic marijuana farm. I spent a month there, and at 19, this was the first time in my life I had learnt how to make compost out of organic cow shit. I was being taught about biodynamics, and I liked it, this alternative life — we love each other, we love the plants and there’s such a strong community feeling.”
So, Alwin’s first agricultural job was planting 200 little biodynamic marijuana plants. It was also the first time he learnt about the dangers of chemical fertilisers; he was reading agricultural books amongst this newfound community. Next, he found himself in the Barossa Valley, making “big fat Shiraz and working my ass off."
He speaks about the weed farm with a lot more fondness than the Shiraz.
After six months, he returned home and worked on the family winery for the first time, and his parents obliged, letting him play with a barrel of Pinot Noir to make his own wine.
“I wanted to have a ceremony. I chopped off the top of a barrique, got into my boxer shorts and jumped in to squish the grapes with my feet. Everybody at the winery looked at me like I was crazy.”
It was 2003, and it also coincided with the certain meeting of a young German woman, Stefanie.
“That’s how we met. We had a cool time during harvest and I told her about those faraway places and how the winemaking lifestyle can be.”
With his plane ticket already booked on his initial return, they said their see you soons, and Alwin boarded a flight to South America — except this time he never made it to a winery.
“I somehow ended up in Ecuador, working for a permaculture farm, in the middle of the Amazon rainforest, with really badass snakes and s&*t. This is where I learnt about the symbiosis of plants: which plants do you need so that other plants can grow? It was a next-level experience: just wow. I fell even more in love with agriculture."
He only left once all of his clothes had essentially disintegrated. He had been offline for months – completely off the grid with no mobile reception, planting trees and cultivating the land by hand with a machete. On his return to Austria, his parents asked where he had been, as they had only received one postcard from Macchu Picchu and no other updates. On discovering that he had not worked at a winery, his father was furious, giving him an ultimatum: work at the family winery or go to study winemaking.
Knowing that Stefanie was heading to Geisenheim wine school in Germany, Alwin also enrolled. He credits this time spent in Germany with his introduction to the notion of terroir; working on the steep slopes of the Mosel and spending many a night having blind tasting bottle parties with friends, trying to guess which wines came from blue, green or red slate soils. Meanwhile, his roommate was writing his thesis on conventional versus organic and biodynamic farming; still considered controversial in the mid 2000s. it was him that urged Alwin and Stefanie to travel to France. So they packed their bags, again.
“We took the whole summer off, we pimped out our Volkswagen bus with some nice curtains and a mattress, with the idea that we would help people in the vineyards in exchange for permission to camp there.”
They began over the German border, in Alsace, but didn’t have much luck finding work; language barriers were posing a problem. They drove down throughout France, visiting vineyards and creating quite the impressive rock collection, featuring La Tâche and Romanée-Conti. Deciding that they wanted to reach the Atlantic to go surfing, they got wind of a “crazy South African guy making wine in the south of France” who might be able to help.
The crazy South African was none other than Tom Lubbe of Domaine Matassa in the Roussillon; today seen as one of the driving forces behind a new mindset for mindful farming and winemaking. He offered them work as pickers, and they ended up spending the entire harvest there. Again, they found themselves aware of the notion of terroir; which soils the vines were growing on; even where which food source was coming from. It was also the first time that they encountered a different way of doing things; one that didn’t involve laboratories and analyses.
“It was the first time that we learnt how to judge grapes by their taste. This was one of the most important moments for me; something I remembered for my future life.”
Lastly, after another vintage with Matassa, Alwin also worked at a much larger organic winery owned by Chapoutier, to understand how organics could work on a larger scale. This was crucial for him; if he believed in farming organically on a large scale, he knew he could return home to over 70 hectares of vines with the hope of converting them successfully.
Organics at Jurtschitsch
After finishing his studies, Alwin gave his parents an ultimatum this time: he would return and carry on the family estate if they converted to organics. Expecting to put up a fight, he was surprised when they agreed, but on one condition: he return home that year. So in 2007, Alwin returned.
For the first two years, he just worked in the vineyards; all day, every day:
“I didn’t want anyone to know I was back in town – i just wanted to be out in the vineyards, to get a sense of every parcel; and that takes time. I’m sure my parents were testing me to see if it was just ideology; if I was just a hippy returning home or if I could really manage it. Yes, there’s a romantic impression of changing to organics, but on the other side it is really, really hard work.”
There were many parcels and varieties to get to know — from the Grüner Veltliner of Käferberg, to the iconic Riesling of Heiligenstein, to Pinot Noir, Zweigelt, Sankt Laurent and many others in between — including an abundance of old vines to protect. It was a struggle. Despite the fact his parents had never used herbicides or pesticides (only systemic fungicides meant they weren’t organic) yields plummeted, and the vines were struggling immensely. Alwin recalls,
“It was a very heavy load on my shoulders. In those days, there were more than 70 hectares and as soon as the rain was coming, I couldn’t sleep because I wasn't sure if I had made the right decisions, and whether we could really be organic. Being an organic winemaker isn’t this romantic ideal of a guy in a straw hat with sandals on. You have to be super precise and to have so much knowledge about how nature, climate, soil and disease functions. If you're an honest winemaker, you can never say, ‘Now I’ve made it.’ So much changes.”
At the same time, Alwin realised that although it might seem contradictory to reduce the size of your farm, sometimes it may be necessary. Vineyards that were previously leased have now been returned to their owners, so they could concentrate on tending the land of their own. Vineyards that didn’t necessarily make the most sense for viticulture were sold, and slowly they began purchasing other vineyards. It is the case of square peg, round hole: the vineyard version. This is their core philosophy: to work with land that is suited to vines, and then give that land the attention it both needs and deserves. Alwin says,
“In organics the first question should always be, ‘where should we plant a vineyard?’ Maybe you have really nice soil but planted to the wrong exposure, with humidity problems, meaning it’s hard to keep your grapes healthy. So we’ve sold more than ten hectares over the last years and I’m still collecting and buying old parcels which are better suited to being vineyards.”
Some of the vineyards he has bought from other farmers had been pummelled with chemicals previously, taking many years to recover:
“The vineyards were addicted to the chemicals; it’s like drug addiction. I put them on cold turkey and the vines really struggle as they have lost their inner ability to protect themselves. My highest goal is to be a free and independent farmer; to be independent of all that. We must learn how to read the soil and to be good farmers.”
Alwin quickly realised that with sixty hectares, he could not do everything on his own:
“I realised I needed to find people with the same spirit of those I had met on the agricultural farms. Today, I have a great team. We all have the same feeling, and those guys – they’re faster than me!”
Alwin realised that his childhood fears were behind him and instead, it was the opposite; working with nature turned out to be much more stressful than working in the cellar, but when the weather was judged correctly and reactions were fast, the grapes that came in were healthy and they could relax when it came to winemaking. Alwin says,
“I told my father that I didn’t know if the wines would improve, but that I believe only a happy winemaker can make good wines. I had to convert to organics for myself; to have a good feeling in my stomach.”
The first year Alwin and Stefanie worked in the cellar was 2009, after two years of familiarising themselves with the vineyards. Their first step was to return to indigenous fermentations for half of the wines; to experiment and see what their indigenous yeasts would bring.
Next, they stepped away from the ‘tradition’ of late harvest wines. Alwin emphasises that throughout the 80s, 90s and early 00s, Austrian wine was struggling with an identity crisis: trying to make richer, higher alcohol wines from a cool place. In doing so, Alwin ended up having wines with too much sugar that wouldn’t finish their fermentations. Instead, Alwin and Steffi chose to follow their senses; a combination of gut instinct and taste. They had learnt the ancestral practice of picking by taste - deciding when the sugar/acid balance of their grapes is ready for harvest - in France, with Tom Lubbe of Domaine Matassa in the Roussillon.
“As a winemaker, I’m making wine: it’s a cultural thing. I can adjust my work in the vineyard to get the quality of grapes I want to make wine with. And old traditions, they’re not true for me anymore – like late harvest. For every young winemaker, the most important thing is to rediscover your own terroir in a very personal way.”
Next, it was time to say goodbye to the new oak. However, one day he found himself at loggerheads with his father again about which direction the wines should take stylistically. The father-son bond was being tried and neither could seem to see eye-to-eye. Alwin asked his father which of the many wines he had made throughout his long career was the wine: the wine he was most proud of?
His father replied that it was a 1969 Riesling from the Loiserberg vineyard. They went to the cellar together and ceremoniously shared a bottle. It was a bottle that would unite their points of view. Alwin asked how it was made, to which his father responded,
“We only had our foudres, we had no temperature control, but we had the time, the wine spent all the time in the barrel till the next harvest.”
1969 was before modern technology arrived on the scene in the cellars of the region; no lab-cultured yeasts had been added to the wine, no new oak had been used, and it had been bottled unfined and unfiltered, yet it was the most special wine for his father regardless. With that realisation came understanding.
The small new French oak barrels were eliminated, and instead the old foudres were put back to use, and oak was purchased from the nearby forest for more foudres, which will hopefully last for centuries to come.
Belle Naturelle became the first in what would become a series of macerated cuvées. They quickly discovered that too lengthy maceration periods in their climate could result in astringent wines, settling on approximately two weeks. They were not born out of a desire to make skin contact styles, but rather through a instinctive gut feeling. Alwin says,
“We’ve always been curious about the taste of the grapes we grow. We want to see all of the aspects of taste. For the last 100 years we’ve pressed directly - but couldn’t we be missing out on other aromas?”
He explains that many other winemakers are too afraid to step out of the stylistic box that has been drawn for them by their predecessors. Tradition, he argues, can be the Achilles' heel for so many.
"If you made wines like these thirty years ago, you would have been sent away because this is not 'tradition.' Tradition is a good base. It gives you a certain security, but it can be super boring. If you don't manage to get it right for you; for your heart and your personality; then you’re lost and just following some old papers."
Next on their agenda came sparkling wine. They had begun making traditional method sparkling wines in 2007, but the notion of making sparkling wines completely naturally had persistently intrigued them. In 2012, Stefanie bottled some wines that were fermenting from barrel, directly under crown cap, to see if fermentation would continue and result in sparkling wine. They forgot about the experimental bottles, tucked away in a corner of a room. It wasn't until Alwin came into contact with pét-nats in Australia while working with James Erskine of Jaume Wines on a working holiday, that he realised this was what Stefanie had unwittingly created. It would lead to a new collaboration pét-nat project between them and two close winemaker friends, Martin and Anna Arndorfer: Fuchs Und Hase.
By working with a combination of pragmatic process of elimination and experimentation for the past decade, the duo has arrived at an exciting time in their lives. Their vineyards are fully converted and brimming with life, and they are confident in their cellar system.
This is not about extreme winemaking, or adolescent rebellion (anymore). The subtle wines of finesse that are created here speak of reinventing the wheel; of combining the old with the new; and they're not about to start resting on their laurels. Every year brings something different. Before we say our goodbyes, Alwin adds,