In the Wachau Valley, you’ll find the country’s most esteemed cellars; centuries-old enclaves featuring vintages going back decades; and 100-year-old foudres to house wines that are still ageing before being bottled. But it’s not just a region steeped in history; it’s also home to progressive thinkers; people like Martin Muthenthaler who challenge the status quo.
When Martin first decided to go out on his own, people told him he couldn’t farm organically in this region due to its steep slopes. They also told him he couldn’t make wine from the area known as the Spitzer Graben; that it was too cool to reliably ripen grapes. But Martin isn’t a ‘can’t’ person; he’s a ‘can’ person; and these days, he’s producing some of the most thrilling organic, naturally made wines that the Wachau has ever seen.
Before turning his hand to vines, Martin was a truck driver for the local cooperative. When it underwent a restructure to become what is known today as Domäne Wachau, he lost his job and found himself reconsidering his career path. His family had some vines (the fruit of which was sold to the coop at the time), and he started pondering whether he could start to farm — and make wine — from them himself.
“I said… well, I’ll try my luck at wine. I find it interesting. I had already tested out winemaking a little bit. Then, I started a small Buschenschank. The conversion to organics came a little later...”
Having begun making wines that were being enjoyed in his Buschenschank (an Austrian tavern-style restaurant where simple food and good wine is served), Martin realised he’d become self-sufficient: so far, so good. This meant he was able to start casting his eye to farming and how to progress towards organics. He had met makers from other regions who farmed organically, including the slopes of the Mosel, parts of which are equally precarious. He says,
“As I became further immersed in the wine world, I also recognised that in principle—in terms of the future,—there’s no avoiding organic viticulture, because sooner or later herbicides will be banned. It’s almost come to that now. I’ve always thought that we need healthy soils. I’ve never liked seeing those vineyards that have been sprayed to death, where only a bit of moss survives beneath the vines. Something happens in the ground when you’re constantly spraying it with herbicides, and somehow I never liked that.”
So, in 2008, the herbicides were ditched. Then, he continued to ponder:
“The question was whether we could risk converting fully to organics, because we didn't know how it would work on the terraced slopes. People had told me for years that it couldn’t work here. But then we said, well, some winemakers in the Mosel do it — so screw it, it has to work. The Wachau can’t be the only wine region in the world where organic viticulture isn’t possible on terraced slopes… and so that was the turning point where I said - right! I’ll show them how to do it!”
For him, it’s not just a philosophical gut feeling that chemicals are wrong; rather he’s convinced that the science is showing us, too. He says,
“When you have large amounts of herbicide in the soils, the plants somehow absorb it… take wheat for example, where they detected glyphosate in the urine of people who had never had anything to do with any kind of agriculture and definitely hadn’t come into direct contact with those kinds of chemicals. It became clear that it was contaminating the flour… that’s how far it can go. Yet, this still isn’t being communicated to people.”
Martin cultivates three hectares of vines in the Wachau, spread across numerous plots across the vineyards of the Spitzer Graben; and from single vineyard sites Bruck, the Schön, the Viesslinger Stern (a high small segment of the Bruck) and the Brandstatt. They are complex sites that require a lot of work:
“It’s just the Grüner Veltliner from Spitzer Graben that is really accessible with the tractor, which is also reflected in the price. Everything that’s Riesling; from the Bruck, the Schön; for those we’re right in and amongst the vines — with our hoes and manual tools — just like it was 150 years ago...”
The vineyards vary drastically in soil composition, and Martin’s wines in particular have become renowned for their capacity to translate the soils of the Wachau to the glass. The soils also greatly affect the production of the vines. He explains,
“We have very deep soils where the Grüner Veltliner Spitzer Graben grows. The soil is very rich in clay and it stores lots of water. Then, in contrast, there’s the mica slate, which is incredibly dry and hardly holds any water. That’s where we have the Riesling, and you notice the differences in the summer in terms of growth. From the deeper soils, you get a lot more fruit. That’s the effect the soil has on the wines, and of course there’s also this much-talked about minerality… you can’t deny there’s a difference.”
Everything is done by hand, even the tilling. They put down green manure in order to get a variety of plants blooming amongst the vines, and to attract all sorts of insects; butterflies, beetles, bees…
The idea of farming biodynamically has been on Martin’s mind for a while, too, but he wants to get to the stage where he has enough time to dedicate himself fully to the practice. He explains,
“I’ve just taken on some vineyards, so first I need to figure out how to get the new size of the domaine working smoothly. I also have biodynamics in mind — I just don’t have animals, that’s the main problem — you can’t farm biodynamically if you don’t have any animals. I’m not quite there yet; it’s a lot of work and it costs a lot of money, and you might need a worker who can help to take care of everything.”
It’s not just the dedication to organic farming that Martin has become renowned for; it’s also the persistence to find a more natural route in the cellar that has piqued the interest of wine lovers and sommeliers around the world. It wasn’t an overnight decision by Martin to do so, but rather a gradual realisation that he could be crating more interesting wines with the grapes he was farming. He explains,
“At the very beginning—when I began with the Buschenschank—it was just about having ‘good’ wine, you know, it wasn't about great wines. It wasn't about oak, it was just about wine that’s simply good. I didn't really have indigenous fermentation or lees ageing on my radar; I filtered and was adding sulfites; making wine like it tells you in the textbooks. I didn’t know about the other methods yet—that came bit by bit. Eventually, since 2010/2011, we’d arrived to the methods we use now.”
It was also from his friendship with Veyder-Malberg that Martin learnt about this more natural side. He remembers,
“I got to know Peter in 2008. We immediately became friends, because we could completed each other. I was the farmer; I knew how things worked in the vineyards; and Peter knew all of the great wines of the world, having been in the business since the 90s. He was able to show me a lot, you know, and I was able to show him how terraced vineyards work, and so we got to know each other better and we were able to benefit from each other. Our ideas came about as a result of long, long discussions and many bottles of wine...”
The Wachau is known for its classification system, and for it Vinea Wachau group. This is a prestigious group of wineries, and to be part of it you must label Riesling and Grüner Veltliner with Steinfeder (alcohol up to 11.5% ABV), Federspiel (11.5% ABV – 12.5% ABV) or Smaragd (12.5% ABV and above). At the start of Martin’s journey, he produced Federspiel, saying,
“I was part of the Vinea Wachau back when I had the tavern, because you had to have a Grüner Veltliner Federspiel in your Buschenschank, just like you have to have a pint of beer at a pub in Vienna. But when I gave up the Buschenschank, it was no longer necessary. Since then, well… I’ve never released a Federspiel in the US or in London. For me, it’s always been about the vineyard’s location, not about the sugar or alcohol.”
At the beginning of Martin’s winemaking journey, he also began to correlate the classification system with a need for irrigation; something he didn’t wish to do. He explains,
“I don’t use irrigation anywhere. And I noticed in warmer vintages, in some terrasses, such as the Viessligner Stern, as it’s so barren up there, if the water is missing, then the ripening process on the vine also slows. Then, the growth is missing, and you can’t get the levels of sugar you’d need for a Smaragd. A winery’s best wines are always Smaragds if you’re a Vinea member, but I knew that some of the vineyards in this cool valley won’t produce that without irrigation. I didn’t want to use botrytis-affected grapes in order to get higher alcohol, because I only work with clean grape material. That’s when I realised that you can also have good wine with little sugar.”
It was this realisation that led him to ditch the system completely, and instead focus on the vineyard site, in a sense quite the Burgundian approach. It was also the pursuit of freshness that led to this choice:
"What I want — and this is also part of the reason why I don’t make high-alcohol wine — is to be able to detect a certain freshness (even in warm vintages). I want the wines to reflect the cool valley here. I know what it looks like, how cold it gets in the nights, how hot it gets during the day, and how the soils reflect this. I know how dry it is, and I want to have that in the wines. I don’t want botrytis, I’d rather capture the Spitzer Graben in the bottle.”
The introduction of older oak barrels has allowed Martin to increase the complexity of his wines. He says,
“I love to let the wines age in oak barrels… approaching winemaking like they do in Burgundy. This is an idea that’s been thought through, because that’s what I want to have in my wine.”
As Martin consistently produces delicious, mouthwatering white wines that average around 12 % ABV, many of the classic Wachau white wines are teetering on the edges of 14% ABV. Are these becoming too rich for the average drinker? We can’t help wondering. Martin nods, saying,
“You can’t forget that we winemakers in the Spitzer Graben were laughed at—just 15 years ago, people said to Peter [Veyder-Malberg], ‘why do you want to buy vineyards back there in Spitzen Graben? Nothing ripens there!’ That was the position of the Danube winemakers back then. But then in more recent years, winemakers in the Wachau began looking for parcels here because it was getting too warm…”
The best wines are made by people who don’t forget to listen to their instinct; both when farming and when winemaking. Martin proves that sticking to your guns often means that the future will be fruitful.