“Life is so short, and when we just think about things but don’t do them… well… it’s not like we’re making bread or pasta every day. We make wine, and we only have one harvest a year.”
Tucked away in the rolling hills of Alto Adige, you’ll find many vineyards; but a massive 95% of the grapes from these vineyards are sold to cooperative-style wineries. However, amongst the remaining 5%, you’ll find a slowly-but-surely growing segment of winemakers committed to farming their own grapes and making their own wine.
Two of these winemakers are Martin Gojer and Marion Untersulzner of Pranzegg; not just committed to their vines, but to every aspect of their 3.5-hectare farm; also their sheep, chickens and bees. For them, this isn’t just vineyard, nor is it just a job. It's a way of life.
LITTLEWINE met with Martin and Marion on Zoom in March 2021 for this article.
Meet Martin and Marion
Martin’s parents owned some vineyards, but like everybody else at the time, they sold the grapes to the local coop. Unfortunately when he was just 12 years old, his father passed away, meaning that when he turned 18 and his mother was retiring, he needed to figure out what to do... Continue doing things in the same way as before, sell the land, or do something different? He says,
“I had been at a very simple agriculture school in the region. When I turned 18, I was suddenly the owner of this small estate, and the question was what can I do? I could continue to sell the grapes, but that wasn’t so interesting. But at the time, the farm was too small to be able to generate income for the whole year—we couldn’t survive from that—it wasn’t financially sustainable.”
He decided to gain some experience, so went to work with some other small wineries in the area. However, they worked conventionally, which didn’t particularly interest Martin. He remembers,
“Those other winemakers weren’t working organically, and they did a lot of manipulation in the cellar. I wasn’t studying enology, and that wasn’t interesting for me. I preferred the idea of working in the vineyard to working in the cellar. But at the same time, I learnt a lot during those two years about what I don’t want to do.”
He then joined the Simonit and Sirch duo; a now-globally renowned company that consults on eco-friendly and sensitive, gentler pruning methods. He ended up working with them for six years.
“It was a very important time for me. The company started to evolve from their portfolio of Italian producers, to also find winemaker clients outside of Italy. I began consulting for a lot of clients in Austria, Germany and Switzerland. I was responsible for the German language area, so I met a lot of good friends, like Claus Preisinger, Gernot Heinrich, Fred Loimer, and the Styrian natural winemakers. That was my late study, I suppose — only this was in the vineyard and not at university!”
Marion, Martin’s wife, smiles at Martin and adds,
“That experience particularly brought you to the decision to make your own wines. The coops tell you when to pick and what to do, but you weren’t satisfied with that as you had a certain curiosity. You’re intelligent and open-minded and having seen more of the world that made your approach less closed. But that’s not to say we’re finished with our process at all! We still learn every day, and with every year there’s a different situation. We’re always looking for the right balance; the best way for nature; and the best way for us human beings. Our goal isn’t to get bigger and sell more wine. We don’t want to force that; it’s not our way. Rather, we hope to grow in terms of the quality of our wine, and the quality of our environment.”
Their vines are spread across two different plots: two hectares on their home farm, and another 1.5 hectares on the other side of Bolzano, in the mountains. 70% is planted to black grapes, with a focus on Schiava and Lagrein, the indigenous varieties of the region. Marion says,
“We really try to focus on the culture of the region, which is why we work with our indigenous varieties, and with the pergola system. It’s a lot of work, but we love it; creating our little paradise with vines, bees, sheep, chickens and the cats.”
They’ve been working organically since the start, and in 2014 decided to work biodynamically, too. This was largely an inspiration taken from the winemakers Martin had met while woring at Simonit and Sirch. He explains,
“Meeting people outside of the region is really important; it’s fun, interesting, and it allows us to open our minds and horizons more. Particularly in this region, where we have very high mountains, you only see the things around you. The horizon isn’t so wide, so having this natural wine family is a really good thing. It has opened the door to what we can do with our raw material.”
At the same time, however, they emphasise that it’s not a case of just out with the old, in with the new, but rather important for them to combine methods of the past with methods they learn elsewhere. Marion comments,
“Our work is also about the previous generations: asking ourselves: why did they work that way? Why did they choose the varieties they did? They had their reasons. It’s important to create our own mix between old and new.”
From their first biodynamic experiments, they saw a big difference in the areas they were spraying the preparations; not just from sight, but also from the taste of the grapes. The skins of the berries were crunchier. In addition, the 2014 vintage was tricky, with a lot of summer rain and not enough sun. The Schiava variety, in particular, was suffering. So, they tried spraying some of the prep 501 (silica, which enhances the effect of sunlight), at veraison (when the grapes turn colour from green to black). The vines seemed healthier as a result, and the phenolic ripening was faster and more in balance. They were pleasantly surprised and felt encouraged to continue.
“When we tasted the grapes and saw how the vines responded, it was just clear that biodynamics was a good way for us. We don’t need science or a university to give us proof, it’s enough to see and smell.”
“You also see it in the soil: biodynamic agriculture pays so much attention to the soil, and you really start to notice what grows there. The soil isn’t hard, it’s soft and healthy, and the colour of the leaves start to change, too. It’s all these small observations you notice, even in the animals and insects coming to the vineyard. Then, you can look to your neighbour, and well… there’s a direct comparison.”
Next came the animals. A couple of years ago they received an offer to buy another vineyard, and thought about it, but it was too expensive. Marion says,
“We were thinking, ok… let’s buy this vineyard, but then we have more work, more wine to sell, yes we’ll earn more money… but what does that bring? So we decided to grow in another way instead—to get more animals, plant more trees, plant more flowers—to gain in biodiversity. That way, we’re not just about wine, but we have a mix.”
They began with chickens, which quickly captured their hearts. They say in unison,
“Today, we can’t imagine not having chickens, they’re so beautiful.”
Then they decided to start keeping bees, and will increase their number this year .
“Since we’ve had the bees, we really notice the beauty they add to our environment. Every time we see a bee, we think: is that one of ours? What’s she up to?”
They’re also continually planting more flowers for the bees, and bought some sheep in 2020, which currently live in the mountains. They’ll bring them to the farm this year.
“We’re looking forward to seeing how the sheep will change the farm, I’m sure they’ll have a strong effect. At the same time, it’s important not to do too much at once. Rather it’s step by step, so that we can live together with them, but also not be forced to stay here 24/7. We must try to find the balance between working with animals and being free.”
Martin began making some small-batch experiments in 2001, but just a couple of hundred bottles here and there; to begin to understand the terroir. 2009 saw the first official Pranzegg vintage. He says,
“The idea was not to copy a wine style from anybody, but just to try and make characterful, interesting wines that would age.”
In order to do so, he wanted to try things both ways: artisanal, like in the old days, but also in more of a modern, technological style, i.e. by using lab-cultured yeasts. So, the first year was half wild fermentation, half inoculation.
“It was really important for me to do that. I have a pragmatic approach; it’s interesting to try these things and to compare; to really see the differences. It’s the same for biodynamics; we began by just trying with small plots. But back to the wine — in the first weeks, the natural fermentation was wilder, and I was nervous, whereas the inoculated ferment was clear and brilliant. But after nine months, it was clear to me that we should ferment naturally. That wine was more complex, deep and interesting, whereas the other was more superficial. The same goes for choosing not to fine or filter the wines.”
Whenever a new idea presents itself, it’s a now-or-never approach they follow. They grin, and Martin says,
“I never was a big friend of just trying small quantities. When I have a new idea, I commit!”
“No risk, no fun!”
“Life is so short, and if we just think about things but don’t do them… well… it’s not like we’re making bread or pasta every day. We make wine, and we only have one harvest a year. Then you have to wait a whole year before you can try something again.”
Aside from fermenting naturally and not fining or filtering, there’s no rulebook. They use small amounts of sulphur, as they feel sometimes the wine needs it.
“We don’t have a specific plan, and no rules. We taste the wines every month and think: how is the wine now? What’s the future of the wine? And then we decide what to do. It all depends on the vintage; that tells us how to approach the fruit and the wines in the cellar.”
For example, in 2015, they had just rented a new vineyard of Schiava, Lagrein and Merlot, which they were converting to biodynamics. They decided the fruit quality wasn’t quite powerful enough for a red wine yet. So, they decided to make a short skin-contact wine, for something more drinkable and lighter in style. They really liked it (as did their customers). Then, in 2016, they had the idea to introduce a touch more tannin to that cuvée via fermenting the juice of the red wine on the skins of their white wine – Caroline (Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Viognier and Manzoni Bianco).
“That was a good idea. For us, it’s a very special drink – like a white wine, but with red colour. You have this yin and yang idea – the smell and colour of red wine, but the taste is more like skin-fermented white wine.”
They also decided to move away from Merlot, which doesn’t excite them so much, and top-grafted the vines to Gewürztraminer – a variety the region is well-known for, and which is better adapted to the climate.
All of their wines are fermented with some element of skin contact; the whites with around five or six days, and with some degree of stem inclusion.
“Our grapes aren’t naturally so high in acid, so by using some stems, the tannin helps to bring crispness. It means we can add a certain lightness to the wines, and a kind of freshness in a different way. It gives the wines not necessarily more acid, but a sort of saltiness, which ageing on the lees also brings.”
They’ve also found that by combining lees ageing, including stems, and introducing oxygen early on in the fermentation period, they are able to use less sulphites, as the wine protects itself naturally. It’s a never-ending journey of learning and exploring, and they're nowhere near finished yet. Martin reflects,
“It all happened so fast; the past ten years feels like such a short time. But – the world is changing, the wine world is changing, and maybe we’re also changing. So it’s an open process, there isn’t an end goal. We just try our best!”
Marion laughs, adding,
“Yes sometimes our decisions are right, and sometimes they’re not.”
Martin joins her in laughter and shrugs,
“Yes. It’s simple at the end of the day, not something so sophisticated.”
Marion finishes his sentence with,
“Yep! No business plan, but a gut feeling. That’s it, really.”
That’s it, really. We nod. Often the most thrilling wines are those made through instinct. But it also takes a lot of courage and self-belief to follow that path, which is one of the many reasons we admire this couple – and their wines – so much.