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Michael Wenzel

Michael, a 12th generation winegrower from the Burgenland, Austria, always dreamt of continuing his family’s legacy. When he attended wine school in the late 80s and 90s, he was taught all about the latest methods coming from the new generation of technology. At the time, like so many of his fellow peers, he thought that this was the way forward. However, fast forward to the early 2000s, and he realised that something was amiss.

It was around this time that he had a sudden realisation: he didn’t need to use all of these additions and techniques in his wines. Rather, he could return to the methods of his grandfather, learning by doing — and taking things vintage by vintage. And so, the current generation of Wenzel wines were born — a fresh interpretation of ancestral methods.

Meet Michael

“I wasn’t pushed or forced into my position by my parents, it was simply my dream to be a wine grower. I do what I always wanted to do, and I am happy with that!”

Having pursued an education in wine, he remembers,

“It was a five-year course — a long and detailed education. It was at the peak of technological winemaking, so I was trained very technically. We learnt how to minimise risk, and honestly, I forgot all about how my grandfather made wine. I thought this technological approach would be state of the art, and when you’re between 15 and 20 years old, you believe what the professors tell you. I was brainwashed, I guess you could say!”

He graduated in 1994, and then had the chance to travel internationally. He went to New Zealand, Australia and California, broadening his horizons.

“In New Zealand, I learnt how to handle spontaneous fermentations. And at this time, of course, so-called ‘new world’ wine countries were at a new peak — I learnt how to create very fruity and expressive wines. But looking back, they were still very technical, even with spontaneous fermentations.”

He returned home in 2002, and then began looking to neighbouring countries and regions for inspiration. Burgundy, in particular, had him smitten — he visited 11 times!

“I like to say that I learnt philosophy in France, and craftsmanship in New Zealand. Then, I was convinced of our potential in the Burgenland.”

The Vineyards

The next step for Michael was organic conversion. He explains that he was fortunate to inherit vineyards that had never seen synthetic herbicides, nor severe chemical treatment, so his soils have always been healthy. However, converting to organics wasn’t just about taking his farming one step further, it also changed his way of thinking:

“Everything changed when we converted to organic management. It had the deepest impact on my wines, because you start to look at things very differently. You try to understand all of the networks in nature — the diversity of nature — and how all of it fits together.”

Naturally curious, he was also looking for alternative methods, not quite satisfied with the wines he was making. He chuckles,

“Honestly, I had become a bit bored! I had been working for 15 years in wine, and I was looking for new challenges. I was asking my father more and more questions about how he and my grandfather used to make wine. I realised that my grandfather was what we call a real natural winegrower.”

In addition, he tasted with many winemakers, both local and international, and had many discussions. From bottles shared and from his experience in New Zealand, he realised that one aspect was of critical importance: natural fermentation. Then, he realised this was intrinsically linked to his farming methods. He explains,

“I think we need to change our perspective. I am not the winemaker — I cannot turn juice into wine. Only yeasts can do that, so our winemakers are the native yeasts living in the vineyard. We must do everything to make sure that we have a diverse ecosystem, in order to have healthy yeasts. The alcoholic fermentation is finished by Saccharomyces, but there are other natural yeasts that also enhance the complexity, the weight of the wine and the mouthfeel. The more complex the yeast environment, the more complex the wine. It’s that simple, but it took me a long time to understand that.”

This realisation led him to further develop his approach to organic viticulture. He says,

“It has made me think: which cover crops and which soil treatment can lead us to more diverse microbiology in our vineyards and soils? All of my research now focuses on that.”

He tells us that climate change is also a consideration:

“During the last three years we’ve had such incredibly dry summers. We need to have cover crops that don’t take too much water, as there is a correlation between water and wine quality: a fundamental correlation. The less water you have, the more your wines will struggle to ferment, and then you have unwanted yeasts like Brettanomyces, or acetic acid bacteria. That can become a problem. So, I’m going to start with a more systematical approach to our cover crops.”

Michael grows Furmint, Gelber Muskateller (the German synonym for Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains), Pinot Gris, Sauvignon Blanc, Blaufränkisch, Pinot Noir and Merlot. It is Furmint, in particular, that his family has become so renowned for. Due to decades of war and turmoil, the grape had been all but lost in Austria during the 20th century, but Michael’s father, Robert, was convinced that Furmint held great potential, bravely smuggling suitcase cuttings across the iron curtain from Hungary in 1984. The vines that he planted first bore fruit in 1987, and already by 1988 had the variety been announced by the Austrian Wine Board as a quality grape for wine production. You can read a detailed account of his efforts and the grape variety here.

Furmint

The Wenzel winery

The Wines

Having been inspired by his grandfather’s organic methods in the vineyard, he also asked more questions about how he worked in the cellar. This further encouraged him to ditch the hyper-technological techniques:

“My grandfather had a very down-to-earth approach to winemaking. He actually started to foot stomp the grapes in the vineyard, as he didn’t have enough containers to bring the grapes back home. Fermentation started outside, and the juice would stay on the grapes overnight, so I guess he did what we’d call a ‘controlled skin contact’! But it wasn’t done by research, just by feeling.”

Michael tasted some of these older vintages from the estate, and realised that the wines were still remarkably stable, despite having very low sulfite levels.

“They were fresh, fruity and complex. I started to understand what low intervention winemaking really meant. It was an evolution that brought us to where we are now.”

So, he himself began working with lower sulfites — despite never having been taught this was an option. He says,

“It’s been a fantastic journey. There’s so much disinformation out there when it comes to sulfites. At wine school, I was trained to believe that after fermentations wines must have 70mg/L of sulfites added. Nobody questioned that: after all, we thought that this was state of the art winemaking.”

However, once he began experimenting, he realised that with his balanced grapes, he could drastically reduce these levels.

“I can tell you that sulfites destroy the natural reactions in a wine. Wine has alcohol, it has a low pH, it has tannins. These are three components that stabilise the product. So, if you add additional sulfites, you destroy the wine’s natural ability to self-stabilise. Of course, sulfites have microbial benefits, but this comes back to what I mentioned before: you need to have a healthy microbial population in your vineyard, and then you get a healthy yeast composition in the wine.”

Next, he also became fascinated by playing with longer periods of skin contact.

“We did many trials: how long to leave the wine on its skins, and which grape varieties worked best in this style. I realised that Furmint, for example, doesn’t need longer skin fermentations as it has a lot of tannin in the skins, so with additional skin contact, it becomes over-extracted for my palate. But Gelber Muskateller, Traminer and Pinot Gris handle fermentation on the skins very well.”

We ask him why he thinks this is:

“Good question, I’ll try to give you an answer!” He smiles. “I think it’s connected to the chemistry of the wine aromas. The Muscat family of grapes have terpenes, like Traminer also, and they’re very stable. So after skin fermentation you still recognise these aromas and you find the variety’s characteristics in the wines. Furmint, however, is more like Riesling. It has a different type of flavour — and skin contact takes this flavour in a different direction — giving you something less typical of the variety.”

It makes a lot of sense — when you taste a Gelber Muskateller with skin contact, for example, its natural flavour profile is heightened. Whereas sometimes skin contact for non-aromatic varieties can make their ‘mineral’ flavours less evident. Michael nods in agreement. He continues,

“The length of skin contact also depends on the vintage. This mainly depends on the water supply of the vines. If they suffer from drought, then the grape tannins become harsh and bitter. That means you have to be careful with long skin contact. On the other hand, if you look in Friuli (a northeastern Italian region with a reputation for long skin contact wines), they can do macerations of one year! And somehow that softens the tannins… so at the end of the day, it comes down to the notion that every winegrower has to know their vineyard.”

He pauses — deep in thought — then continues,

“And we must remember — the human being plays an integral role in natural winemaking. Many people think that natural wines mean that nothing has been done in the vineyard or to the wine, but that’s not true. We have to consider that for 2000 years, the vine has been a cultivated plant. Our cultivation starts with grafting, and it’s also a human decision when it comes to which grape variety is planted on which soil.”

We nod in total agreement, and say that in fact natural wine can be harder to make, as there is no set recipe. Michael says,

“Natural does not mean we don’t do anything. In fact, you’re in the position of controlling processes, while the art is about intervening as little as possible. The goal is to create an expressive wine. If you don’t do anything, then wine becomes vinegar very quickly. That’s a natural process that we don’t want! And I don’t want mousiness — that means something is wrong, too.”

He continues,

“I read old wine books from 19th century, and it’s fantastic to read about wine faults. Already back then, with their natural winemaking approach, they defined that mousiness is a fault. So, we cannot defend it — it doesn’t contribute to wine quality. We must be very careful when it comes to defending wine faults in natural winemaking — we can’t make excuses. It comes down to drinkability — I want to enjoy a great glass of wine. That’s it. I don’t want to discuss mousiness or brettanomyces while drinking a wine!”

We ask him what he considers to be the most important part of winemaking. He says,

“The last decision we can make in the vineyard is the picking time. When you get that right, that’s more or less the most important decision the winemaker has to make. Then, of course picking by hand is important, so we can have the human factor in deciding what goes into the wine. That’s very important.”

They are simple notions, but paired with sensitive organic farming, they are the deciding factors in wine quality. Less machines; more human beings. Michael has such a down-to-earth approach to wine, and we couldn’t agree more with the importance of using intuition to create delicious and stable wines. At the end of the day, isn’t a delicious organic glass of wine — made by people who care — what we all want? And on top of that, if the wine is able to act as a mirror into the vineyards and the world of the person who made it — like the Wenzel bottles do — well, we simply couldn’t ask for more.

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