The Nittnaus family of Burgenland, Austria, is family of renegades — but respectful renegades. They might have thrown the rulebooks out of the window, but it hasn’t just been for the sake of doing so, but rather to see if they could improve the way the rulebook had been written in the first place.
The sons of Anita and Hans Nittnaus, Martin and Andi, are joined by their cousin, Lydia, in their quest to take their family’s work one step further. Together, this trio is carving their own path, adding another dimension to the work already achieved. And in doing so, it’s like they’re forging a new genre for their region — they are the punk group to their family’s rock band.
Meet Lydia, Andi and Martin
When you chat to this trio, many jokes and friendly banter flies around. Martin says,
“I didn’t study winemaking, rather I chose a subject where I was really in it for the money — literature. As the saying goes, the first generation founds the company, the second builds up the fortune, the third runs it into the ground, and then… the fourth studies literature.”
We have a joker on our hands, but he gets serious:
“While I was studying, some people got me into wine. I found this new side of winemaking and got hooked immediately. Coming out of a famous winery, I didn’t want to follow exactly in my father’s footsteps, so it wasn’t easy at the beginning, as I wanted to create something of my own. But — one thing was for sure — I didn’t want to do it alone.”
Martin and his brother, Andi, grew up with their cousin, Lydia, as the family lived together at the winery. Lydia says,
"I am the oldest, but Martin and I are only a year apart. My mother is Hans' sister, she's a protestant pastor, and we all grew up together. We're very close — we're like siblings."
Lydia originally also chose an alternative path to winemaking:
"I studied culture and social anthropology — I wanted to do something different. My dad is from New Ireland in Papua New Guinea, so that’s where the anthropology interest kicked in. Then, during university, I worked in a winery, helping out for tastings, cellar door days... and I started to develop more of interest in wines — once I'd started drinking other things than just sweet wine."
She took her WSETs, then her sommelier diploma, and went to South Africa to do a vintage in Stellenbosch. Then, she worked in hospitality for a while, including a stint at Newcomer Wines in London, and also took a course in vinification and viticulture. Meanwhile, Andi had decided to go down the official winemaking route, going to wine school in Montpellier and then doing an oenology masters in Copenhagen.
By 2019, the three decided to join forces: their own Nittnaus label was born.
Their father (Lydia’s uncle), Hans, was open minded when it came to their own project. Lydia says,
“We’re at different stages in our lives. My uncle’s first vintage was in the 1970s. Now, he’s trying to perfect his wines. He tried so many new things, and he really revolutionised the wine landscape here. Now, his focus is single vineyard Blaufränkisch. But for the three of us, we’re just starting out. Our focus isn’t to perfect our wines yet, but rather to think: what can we do? What can we change?”
“Yes, my father has always been a terroir obsessed guy, and really wants to describe the vineyard in the wine. He does that really well. When it came to our wines, our parents gave us total freedom. Of course, they like to see that there is demand for the wines, as that’s important, but they love the wines, even though our father would do things differently. But that’s just it: these wines are our wines.”
It takes a rebel to know a rebel:
“We didn’t have to fight my father — he just said, well… you’re on your own out there, but I think we’ve proved something to him. My father comes out of a renegade position himself; he was the first to introduce barriques, and then the first to abandon them again. He was also the first to work with Blaufränkisch across single vineyards. Then, when he found his ideal vision of his wine, he stopped.”
“We are a different generation to our parents —we drink wine differently. We don’t buy wines to cellar as much, and restaurants have changed. Wine has changed. It’s no longer a value thing — you can’t say “this is good, or this is bad.” Who dares to say “this is how Grüner should be?” It’s just a vision of wine.”
The vineyards are farmed the same as the Nittnaus family vineyards, the only difference being that the Nittnaus trio harvest earlier to harness more acidity. Lydia contemplates,
“Even though there’s a different approach to each wine, I still think you can taste this common origin. There’s a sense of place in all the wines, something that for me is typical of Jois.”
“I was just kidding before. Yes, I studied literature, but we did not come out of the ashes, we’re fortunate to have come out of a well-known winery and to have the chance to work with well-established vineyards that are biodynamically farmed.”
Following in their family's footsteps, the trio are fully convinced that biodynamic farming is the way forward. Lydia says,
"Hans and Anita converted in 2004 — they are one of the founding members of the biodynamic group, Respekt. Andi is a nerdy guy who is science focused (Martin too), so they do question some of the aspects in terms of homeopathy. But we can see from our family's experience that the vineyards simply do better — there is no way we would go back to conventional farming."
Before they decided to join up together, Martin had made his first wine in 2015, from a Blaufränkisch vineyard.
“The former owner had a vineyard employee from the Philippines. One day, she stood in the vineyard — a beautiful southerly exposed vineyard facing Lake Neusiedl — and she said… Well, it’s almost as beautiful as Manila. Later, I met a friend who had recently been to Manila, who said he thought it was the ugliest city he had been to. I love that as a metaphor for polarization, and it can also be used to describe thoughts in winemaking: using well-established aspects but giving them a new perspective.”
In 2017, he was able to work with a 40-year-old Grüner Veltliner vineyard named Lindauer, planted on pure limestone soils. He destemmed the fruit and fermented the wine on its full lees. He remembers,
“When I first tasted it in spring… I’d never tasted a wine with such electrifying acidity, but not sour acidity. It was amazing how the acidity was like a carpet of the wine itself, and I said… well I’m going to bottle it like this. It was old-school made — no skin maceration — but it was totally ‘non’ Grüner. So, I thought let’s call it something from Greek mythology; something classical that’s also anti-classical; and that’s how Elektra came about. It’s always that vineyard, hopefully a timeless wine, but also a wine that makes waves.”
It’s the latter — making waves — that distinguishes their work. Martin says,
“Everyone in Austria has an opinion about Blaufränkisch and Grüner Veltliner. I always say that they are world class grapes despite the people who say they are world class grapes.”
He chuckles. A little playful dig at the old-school thinkers.
“Our work is about mixing up the preconceptions and reinterpreting the varieties into something new. We hope that shows in the wines.”
“We are three highly individualistic individuals, so to speak. We never argue, we always agree on everything.”
Lydia laughs, and they give each other a playful nudge. We get a feeling that this is the best kind of camaraderie.
“If you haven’t guessed by now, we really come up with some crazy stuff in terms of vinification. But it wouldn’t be the same if we used Chardonnay or Muscat. For us, the subversive exciting element of our work is using a heavily stereotyped grape variety, like Grüner, and showing how much more it can be. It’s about working with something indigenous to our area, but interpreting it as something new: traditional grapes, with a new spin — maybe even the more exciting way to look at the grape.”
Together with their colleagues in the Burgenland, they bought their first amphorae in 2018, to see what these vessels could bring to their wines. Martin says,
“When using amphorae, the tannin structure is very precise, it gets smoother… It’s not as closed off as steel, and not as porous as oak, so it’s really exciting to explore the tannins it gives.”
He explains that Blaufränkisch and Gruner Veltliner are often made in an almost-universal style, so if anybody steps outside of the box, people aren’t used to it.
“There is this political side to the traditional grapes. Every time we taste with people from Austria, they are shocked and say, this isn’t a Grüner! It opens up a new chapter of how traditional grapes can be reinterpreted.”
“As it’s our main white wine grape, people have certain expectations, whereas in East London for example, natural wine is already more of a thing. So, people know how to taste the wines, and they are pleasantly surprised.”
“Our Manila cuvée is about subversion, and the beauty of subversion. We’re freeing the grape from its own stereotype and sending it on a journey. It is about experimenting — polarization — working with our material and turning it upside down, producing thrilling stuff.””
The 2018 edition was destemmed, the 2019 saw a longer period of skin maceration, and the 2020 edition was 1/3 whole bunch, 2/3 destemmed, fermented in amphorae for one week with skin maceration, and then pressed and aged in amphorae.
“We really play around, depending on the vintage. The 2020 Manila has 10.5% alcohol, but with a backbone from the skin maceration. That was important for us — it’s very versatile food-wise, as it has this saltiness. People have told me that every conceivable dish can go with it, or you can have it on its own. We always keep that in mind.”
Their Elektra, meanwhile, is simply destemmed, foot-stomped, naturally fermented in amphorae, and then racked into large old oak barrels where it ages. Although the vineyard is only 500m from the Manila vineyard, it is later ripening, so also picked later.
Martin comments on the importance of natural fermentation for finding the true essence of the grape and vineyard:
“Grüner is so suitable for natural fermentation. It has thick skins, and it’s a very good fermenter. When it’s ripe, you can do great stuff with skin fermentation. Else, with direct press, it’s like a phantom — you always hear winemakers say they want to bring the terroir into the bottle, but with Grüner it really works. Whether on chalk, or limestone, or gneiss in the Wachau, it really forms its own shape. That’s what’s so great about it.”
They also play around with experiments just for themselves. In 2020, they took a couple of litres of Elektra and inoculated it with lab-cultured yeasts, just to see. Lydia says,
“It was so interesting. We couldn’t recognise the Elektra with the added yeast. It just wasn’t Elektra. If you ferment with lab-cultured yeast, the complexity and individual character just gets lost. Natural yeasts give something else unique to the wine; they give the wine its character.”
Their white Tochter comes from a tiny vineyard (just seven rows) on the Nuremberg, planted on limestone soils. it began as a project by Andi. Martin says,
“Andi always wants to go out on a limb with Tochter — to play around with new methods. The 2020, for example, had intracellular fermentation for one week (like carbonic fermentation, commonly used in the Beaujolais). We took CO2 gas from one tank and put it in another. It shows the great tannic quality of Grüner, while being super juicy.”
Only 290 bottles were made in 2020. Lydia and Martin laugh, saying,
“It’s a bit crazy to make the wine as the vineyard is tiny, old, with low yields, so the effort is high, but the result is just so unique — which is why we do it.”
They also make each cuvée as a red wine, using Blaufränkisch. They explain that there are two big advantages to working with Blaufränkisch. In a hot year, it has stable acidity, so you can pick later without ‘emergency harvesting.’ Whereas with Merlot, for example, it becomes too ripe very quickly. Meanwhile, in a rainy and cool year, Blaufränkisch doesn’t rot overnight, so they can take their time to find the perfect point of ripeness. A low-stress grape.
“Blaufränkisch is the big traditional grape of Burgenland, so our subversive moment here is… can we do something and be relevant also? It’s late ripening and there are many examples of very complex and well-established single vineyard wines. We try to approach it from the opposite side — so we pick early — with around 11.5% alcohol. Our goal is to make a Blaufränkisch that’s super easy to drink, fresh, but not too glouglou — none of the yoghurt-y flavours.”
The red Manila is half whole bunch, half destemmed, in amphora, with very gentle punchdowns and a short maceration period of ten days: a balanced insight into the lighter side of the variety.
Meanwhile, the first Elektra red was born in 2020. It was hand destemmed, with two weeks on the skins, and aged in old 500L barrels — very simple old-school winemaking, while verging on the low-intervention side, like the Elektra white. It comes from different parcels on the Leithaberg mountain range, on limestone and slate soils.
“We have a different approach here again, we aim to show the great juicy potential of Blaufränkisch, a bit later picking, so 12.5 alcohol — a little more flesh on the bones — while really bringing out slate and limestone character.”
Tochter red is another tiny cuvée from a tiny place.
“The Tochter red mirrors the white as it’s also a tiny vineyard, right next to the Tochter white. Here, we did whole bunches, foot stomped, with open maceration, and ageing in barrel.”
“A barrel we usually use for our teas! Andi built it himself after doing an internship at a cooper. Someone just needs to take up glassblowing now and we can do the whole production line in house.”
“It’s very different; we wanted to work out to the fullest how amazing Blaufränkisch can be when you work with whole bunches. It has this really nice tannin quality — that’s one of the most fascinating aspects of the variety: these silky tannins that border on tightness, but they’re not really tight. Almost in a spooky manner the red mirrors the white Tochter in terms of exotic lushness and texture, but in a red wine context.”
Ultimately, they taking it step by step to discover what suits each site best, and how to make wines that they themselves find delicious. Wine can only be made once a year, and they know it will be a long journey of discovery. Martin says,
“We’re not experimenting for the sake of experimentation — we actually want to drink our wines. It’s about appreciating the varieties, and then trying new methods in case something new and great comes out — using new ways to reach our goal. Manila is a radical drinking wine, Elektra is one place worked out to a T, and Tochter is a tiny amount of wine from a special vineyard, with a crazy interpretation. Something drinkable and new. Each wine is an idea of a special place and region.”
“Of course, we’re also informed by what we like to drink… things like Poulsard and Trousseau from the Jura, or Gamay from the Beaujolais. It’s a matter of taste and perspective. At the moment, our range is only 5% of the production of the winery, but we can see that it’s shifting — the demand for these wines is growing, and luckily there are other vineyards which we could take on for Manila. We make such a small amount of wine that we’ve already sold out! We had to sort allocations of just 12 or 18 bottles, and only kept around 4 or 5 bottles of each back in our cellar.”
Well, we’re counting our lucky stars to have the chance to taste their wines. They may be born from experimental methods, yet there is also something classical about them. This is postmodern winemaking, and we’re thrilled by it.