"People forget to observe the vines. Everyone is stressed—needing to jump on a tractor and do something—but if you just stop and observe the plant, it’s clear. You get a much better feeling for the vineyard."
Every now and then you meet a winemaker who approaches wine from a completely different angle. These are the people who make you subconsciously cock your head to one side while getting lost in thought.
One of these people is Markus Altenburger. From the way he describes how a vine interacts with its environment in an easy, matter of fact manner, to his pragmatic thinking behind skin-contact white wine, Markus has a logical explanation for everything. It’s a logic you also find in the wine, but that’s not to say they’re simple ‘tick box’ wines.
Rather, these are rubix cube wines: you need to take some time to get to know them.
Markus was born into a long line of Burgenland farmers; his grandparents and the generations before them had tended vineyards as well as raising livestock and producing corn and cereals; but like with so many growers in the 70s and 80s his parents had decided to focus on their 6.5 hectares of vines and make their own wines. These were simple, easy-to-drink cuvées for the local market, which has a strong tourist presence due to its proximity to the beautiful Lake Neusiedl.
When it came for Markus to decide what he wanted to do in life, it was the indigenous Austrian variety, Blaufränkisch, which made him decide to become a winemaker. But they only had one hectare of Blaufränkisch, so little by little through the years he has rented and purchased more vineyards planted to the variety to bring the domaine to its 17-hectare size today. Along the way, he also fell in love with his wife, Bernadette, who works together with him in the vineyards and cellar.
He wasn’t, however, content with the wines yet. Although they were good and ticked several boxes, there seemed to be an imbalance in the fruit; he couldn’t work out how to gain physiological ripeness. As he tasted other wines in the region and made friends with growers who worked organically, he decided to pursue conversion. He never looked back, and in 2017 he employed Kathrin Lautner as cellar master — his "right and left hand woman." She has also made her first wine in 2019, Wilde Karotte, from one of the Altenburger vineyards (named after the wild carrots which grow there).
It doesn’t stop at organics. The domaine is currently in conversion to biodynamics, and inspired by permaculture and the likes of Fukuoka’s iconic book One Straw Revolution, Markus has been working towards a philosophy of no-till; figuring out a way for his vineyard soils to be permanently covered. He explains,
“We’re certified organic, but we also practice minimal intervention in the vineyards. We don’t cut the grass, we let the shoots of the vines grow, wrapping them around the top wire. For the vineyards which produce our single vineyard cuvées, we also no longer pass through with a tractor, using only backpack sprays. Everything we do revolves around trying to leave the soil undisturbed.”
He is working to uncover how he may combine the principles of permaculture with biodynamics. He says,
"I found Fukuoka's idea of letting things go their own way intriguing; "to do less in order to have more." I liked that he did this in practice and lived for many years on his farm observing plants and nature. It is a contrast to Rudolf Steiner, whose approach seems both theoretical and spiritual to me. In a sense, biodynamics focuses on enhancing certain things, whereas Fukuoka is rather about discovering the essence of the plant, and then not disrupting it too much. Both ideas are fascinating and we try to make use of both in our wine growing."
Each vineyard is different – and there are a whopping 30 of them, all located around the village of Jois in the Leithaberg DAC. As well as Blaufränkisch, they're also home to Zweigelt, Chardonnay, Neuburger, Grüner Veltliner, Traminer, Sauvignon Blanc, Muskat Ottonel and Welschriesling. As they’re located on differing soil types and home to differing fauna and flora, some vineyards might to be ploughed once every five years to re-sow a cover crop if there’s a particularly dominant family of weeds, whereas others are so balanced that he hasn’t opened their soils for over ten years, as the natural growth is so diverse and in tune with the vines themselves.
The main problem lies with neighbours. Markus explains,
“Some of the vineyards are located next to growers who work conventionally, using synthetic fertilisers. These fertilisers can seep through the soils into our vineyard. Just from looking at the difference on the border it’s evident that the nitrogen mineralisation also affects my vines. There’s one vineyard which has conventional neighbours on both sides; you can see it in the right side of the vineyard and the left side of the vineyard. Those vines produce huge bunches that are tightly packed. That’s when you get problems with mildew. In the middle section, which the artificial fertiliser can’t reach, the berries are smaller and the bunches are looser. There we have no problems with mildew.”
He is frustrated, understandably, but the area is seeing more and more growers convert to organics and biodynamics, so bit by bit there are fewer conventional neighbours.
They have also begun converting to Demeter, one of the main bodies for biodynamic certification. One of the first aspects Markus began implementing was working according to the Maria Thun calendar. He notes,
“When we prune, we work on earth days, when the moon is descending and the sap flow is lower in the plant. For picking – particularly for the single vineyard wines – we try to pick on fruit or leaf days.”
Since working with the biodynamic preparations, he has also noticed more insect life in the vineyards, as well as a greater diversity of species, although this is likely also due to the developing cover crop. His yields have decreased somewhat, but not drastically, and he explains that actually this has a positive side:
“The vines are reducing their growth; they are rediscovering their natural balance. This means I no longer have to practice green harvest [the practice of cutting off too much fruit early in the season] as over-production is no longer an issue.”
“I underestimated the stress vines experience. Every time you cut the plant, it wants to reproduce fresh leaves. Then, it has no time to focus on the grapes. Instead, they kick into ‘emergency ripeness’ mode – rapidly filling the fruit with sugar – a natural survival mode of the plant as it wants the birds to eat its fruit – but the fruit doesn’t have time to reach phenolic ripeness. That’s why you often find high alcohol in conventionally farmed wines without the flavour. It’s so logical. People forget to observe the vines. Everyone is stressed—needing to jump on a tractor and do something—but if you just stop and observe the plant, it’s clear. You get a much better feeling for the vineyard."
It also means less work, and less soil disturbance. Win for vineyard, win for humans.
As for so many winemakers and winelovers, the notion of terroir continually fascinates Markus. But he has a specific reason to delve down the rabbit hole: as the region has such varying soil types, and they have white varieties and red varieties planted across them all, this makes for fascinating taste comparisons.
Once upon a time the Leithaberg region was largely under sea. When the sea receded, the coral, seaweed, algae and other living things fossilized into limestone. Today, this is the renowned ‘Leithakalk’ limestone of the area, which Markus believes gives the wines their distinct salinity. The bottom of the slopes is home to deeper chalky loam, and the areas that sit at higher elevation (and thus were not underwater) are home to primary rock: slate soils.
Markus contemplates how they affect the wine:
“I feel that Limestone gives length and a certain density of tannin for Blaufränkisch. There seem to be more tannins, but they are also finer. I really think you can distinguish the soil types from mouthfeel. When it comes to taste, slate seems to give more of the direct fruitiness and pepperiness (rotundone). For the whites, the slate gives a certain clarity and fresh fruitiness. When they’re on limestone, there’s always this certain tea-like taste; a herbal character and a saltiness which you also find in Blaufränkisch. The wines from limestone are somehow lighter and fresher.”
In addition to noticing the results in the vineyards, he also feels that the chance to organics has directly impacted the wines. He says,
“The mouthfeel has changed. The tannins are no longer bitter or green; they always seem ripe. The wines seem to have more length now, too.”
Feeling more confident in the tannic profile of the wines also led him to experiment with skin contact for the white wines. When you think of Austria, you might think of cool-climate wines, but the Burgenland has been getting warmer and warmer due to climate change, and summers are very dry. This means the white varieties can get particularly ripe. To introduce an additional layer of freshness, Markus' whites undergo between three to five days’ skin-contact. Furthermore, he also makes the Skins & Stones cuvée which has longer periods of maceration, toying on the fringes of orange wine.
By working in this manner, instead of using the classic ‘direct press’ method for white wines, it helps to ensure a healthier fermentation, meaning he has less issues with 'stuck' ferments. In addition, Markus is able to access a larger class of phenols; compounds that are present in plants and fruit. This includes pigments (anthocyanins) and tannins (structure, mouthfeel, astringency and bitterness), as well as others important for oxidation reactions found in the pulp as well as the skins. He explains,
“If you introduce skin contact for the white wines, thereby adding some tannin in particular, it gives a certain freshness and crispness to the wine. I like to call this phenolic acidity.”
“Phenolic acidity” is the kind of term that makes our thoughts whirl. It’s a made-up, conceptual phrase; one that perhaps doesn’t make scientific sense; but one that does make sense through taste. It’s the reason winemakers like Markus keep us coming back for more; every vintage there’s a new idea to be found in one of these bottles.