"We know that plants communicate and that root systems communicate. If you have more diversity, you have more life."
Stefanie and Susanne Renner are a force to be reckoned with. With just five vintages under their belt, they’re already considered one of the most dynamic duos of new wave Austria. Drinking their Intergalactic cuvée makes us want to dance around in our living room with Eurythmics on full volume. If the neighbours complain – well, we’ll just give them a glass and they'll join us.
Throughout global history, it has so often been a son who takes over the family estate, and it is often the man's name found on the label. But history is changing. In the case of the Renner family, it was the middle sibling – Stefanie – who took the winemaking reins, joined by her older sibling Susanne. It wasn’t until late last year that their youngest sibling and only brother, Georg, quit his technology job and decided to join his sistas. Now it it’s a dynamic family trio. Will a RennerBrotha cuvée join the stable? Time will tell.
Meet The Renners
The three siblings grew up here in the Burgenland. Their parents had always ensured that they explored whichever career options interested them; by no means did they have to carry on the family estate; selling it was always an option if none of them became interested in viticulture or winemaking. Susanne says,
“There was never pressure put on us. We grew up running through the vineyards while they were working, when other kids were in the playground. I think perhaps because it was so normal for us — to be in that environment — that’s why we wanted to do something else first. Our parents always said, you need to finish school and be able to stand on your own two feet, but you can do whatever you want in life, you don’t have to take over the business at home.”
Stefanie didn't see her future as being a winemaker when she was a teenager. She explains,
“When we had ‘open cellar door’ days growing up, I never liked them. I remember people would come and when they saw me, and I greeted them, they’d be like, ‘oh and where is the son, who’ll eventually take over?’ So, all the time in my head, I thought – you’re a girl and you can’t do it. It sounds stupid now but when you’re fifteen and people said that to you, it just seemed like the truth. So, thinking I couldn’t do it anyway, I went to Vienna to do my own thing.”
After school, Stefanie and Susanne went to Vienna to study; Susanne first studied tourism, followed by fashion design. Stefanie initially studied mathematics, but changed path after a year decided to broaden her studies to include some agricultural science. This brought her to a module of environmental engineering and water management. In turn, this introduced her to soil science. This sparked an interest for her:
“I just found myself becoming really interested in learning about geology, soils, plants and botany.”
Susanne had been travelling a lot with her fashion job, and had started to realise that she missed the country life; perhaps cities weren’t for her after all. After their studies, the girls decided to go home together, to figure out what their next steps should be. When they began tasting wines and socialising with other young winemakers and farmers of the region — of a new generation, something clicked. Susanne remembers,
“We looked at each other and said, okay – let’s do it. Our parents never said 'you have to, and this is how it will be,' but when they spoke about selling the farm, we knew we wanted to try, but with our own way of doing things. And they were happy. Mum always says the best things happen when you stop making so many decisions – and just work because it’s fun instead.”
However, the duo also realised that neither of them had particular winemaking experience, other than having observed from a distance what their father did while growing up. Stefanie says,
“Instead of going to winemaking school, I decided it was perhaps easier and more exciting to go and actually do some internships with winemakers. It seemed like a fast way of learning, and especially learning from people who produce wines that we actually like – not the very classic wines, but rather wines made by the more dynamic natural winemakers.”
Susanne had scratched her itchy feet already with her fashion job, and didn’t feel the urge to travel as much as Stefanie did, so they mutually decided that Stefanie would be the one to take the initial winemaking reins. Moritz Herzog, who works for Weinskandal, was one of the first to import more naturally made international wines to Austria. It was through him that Stefanie and Susanne fell in love with the wines of Matassa, made by Tom Lubbe. She got in touch with him via email, and he agreed for her to come and work with him later that year.
A couple of months later, the sisters went to the first and only RAW Wine Fair hosted in Vienna to date, where Tom Lubbe would be pouring his wines. Stefanie was keen to meet him. On arriving, Moritz called her over and introduced her to Tom. Stefanie says,
“I was thinking, really? He doesn’t look like Tom, but I was just so excited to meet him. After a while chatting, the real Tom Lubbe walked in through the door and I was like, f&*k… I think that’s Tom Lubbe. Wait… So who am I talking to?!”
They introduced one another and laughed. This other mysterious Tom was in fact the Australian winemaker, Tom Shobbrook, who would one day become her second winemaking mentor — Stefanie interned with him in the Barossa Valley after working at Matassa. This is the benefit of being able to hop between northern and southern hemispheres for young winemakers: two harvests a year.
When working at Matassa, Stefanie also met Johan Meyer, young winemaker from the Swartland in South Africa.
“Johan had already taught me so much at Matassa, so I went to work with him for three months to learn more. All three of the vintages I did abroad were in warm, hot and dry places. Even though we are in a cooler climate, we’re still the warmest region in Austria and we also suffer from extreme droughts. This year, for example, it’s felt like Europe is standing on its head. In April it was cold and wet in the Roussillon – where Tom Lubbe is – and it’s been hot and dry here.”
Meanwhile, Georg was at school. He had subconsciously been wondering whether his parents expected him to take over the estate, as the son of the family, but it turned out to be the inverse. He says,
“I guess 10 or 20 years ago it was normal that the boy would become the farmer and stay at home, continuing the family estate. I didn’t feel any pressure, but it was on my mind. In school I always remember thinking I didn't want to finish school and just stay and work at home. I wanted to see other things, too. So, my parents told me to go to university, saying, your sisters did, so why shouldn’t you get the chance?”
He went to university to study economics and IT, followed by working at an international logistics company. After a few years, however, he realised he didn’t really love his job, or the 9-5 office routine. He picked up the phone to his sisters, and asked what they’d think about him coming home. The sisters were overjoyed. Stefanie says,
“As siblings, we have a connection. We were raised by the same people, but we made our own choices and have had our own lives and pasts. But, in the end I often feel like we can understand one another. We’ve grown up together.”
“I was also relieved - I was pregnant at the time and knew there’d be a limit as to how much I could do when baby number two arrived, and mum and dad are now at an age where they don’t want to work from dawn till dusk.”
The community of Gols in the Burgenland region in Austria has become known globally for its pioneering community spirit. The Pannobile group, founded in 1994, is testament to the power that community spirit can bring to a region. The Renners’ father, Helmuth Renner, was one of the co-founders, and today the organisation continues stronger than ever. All members share ideas, opinions and experiences at monthly meetings, as well as tasting together and taking study trips together. It is arguably this community vibe of helping one another and sharing learnings that makes this part of the Burgenland one of the leading organic and biodynamic regions. While many other regions in Europe tend to sit at 10% or below in terms of organic vineyard surface, the Burgenland is steaming ahead at 17.1%.
Birgit and Helmuth Renner began their own organic conversion in 2009, and prior to that, the only treatment they had used which stopped them from being organic was their use of systemic fungicides; often considered the less damaging of non-organic treatments. However, Stefanie explains that her father had read some reports that made him think twice about using systemic sprays back in the 90s; he no longer had a good feeling about them. In addition, the idea that they remain within the plant (systemic) instead of just sitting on the surface of the plant (such as the organic copper and sulphur treatments) made them feel uneasy. By speaking with friends and colleagues of the Pannobile group, they took the decision to convert.
Bit by bit, they began converting all of their vineyards in the mid 00s, by using more compost and sowing various cover crops. By 2012, all 13 hectares achieved organic certification.
The vineyards sit in different plots by Lake Neusiedlersee, including Altenberg, Schafleiten, Goldberg, Gebühl and Ungerberg. They are planted to an abundance of indigenous Austrian varieties, such as Grüner Veltliner, Welschriesling, Blaufränkisch and Sankt Laurent.
The Rennersistas began to manage the vineyards and vinification in 2015, both under the Rennersistas label and for the Renner family label. They began experimenting with biodynamics that same year, inspired by the work of friends and colleagues. Before deciding to certify, they wanted to give it a go themselves for two years, to see if it was the right path for them. One of the friends who helped them with advice and equipment was fellow winemaker and Susanne’s boyfriend, Claus Preisinger, who is now also father to her two children. Happy with how it was progressing, they took the Demeter biodynamic ground course in 2016, and decided to certify.
They believe that the practice of cover cropping, which their parents had already begun implementing in the mid 2000s, has had the largest effect on the wines. Steffi says,
“We know that plants communicate, and the root systems communicate. If you have more diversity and different plants, then you have more microbiological life. Everything is just healthier and more resistant, like a strong immune system. You see the effect of the growth in the vineyards, but you also see it in the wines.”
"A lot of people say that they are spicier, with more herbal tones now. I think that has a lot to do with the cover crop. When you taste organic grapes, the taste can be really intense, whereas the conventional grapes are often just really big: they’re full of water, but there’s no taste. They’re just farmed for quantity. It’s really sad to taste such berries, because they don’t really feel alive – and nor does the wine made from them.”
The cover crops also fulfil another purpose. When they are rolled or mowed, to prevent too much competition for the vine, they start to die off and become yellow. This light colour reflects the sunlight, giving an overall cooler temperature to the soils and thus to the vine. This protects the soils, keeps them cool, and allows them to better retain moisture. In a region that is struggling more every year with drought, this is crucial. Stefanie says,
“Biodynamics - or whatever you want to call this way of farming - is not a simple science. You can’t say ‘just do this and you’ll get a result.’ It’s gradual. We feel that now there just seems to be more balance in the vineyards. In the biodynamic thinking, you look more at the long-term; the plant understands that it doesn’t always have to produce a lot. The work in the vineyard becomes easier and easier too, as the vines produce less leaves and shoots that you need to take away. The vine is more balanced, whereas if the plant gets the message it has to grow a lot, all the time, then it produces more water shoots and it’s just chaos."
Susanne explains that the vine also seems to be more resistant to extreme climatic conditions; drought but also the opposite, if flooding occurs. The soil is more spongy and can better absorb and store water, meaning that risk of erosion is lessened. She says,
“If your soils aren’t healthy; if they’re unstable or unbalanced, then extreme weather conditions harm the whole system a lot more. That’s the main idea of our farming - to allow the plant to be able to adapt to all of the extremes.”
Most recently, they also planted a new field blend vineyard in 2017, to Muscat Ottonel, Gewürztraminer, Grüner Veltliner, Welschriesling, Chardonnay, Grauburgunder (Pinot Gris), Sankt Laurent and Pinot Noir, from a massal selection. It sits at a higher elevation, which they hope means it will remain just a bit cooler, as it is exposed to more wind.
The work for the wines begins in the vineyard. Even when working during spring, before bunches have fully formed, they begin to think about the wines. Stefanie says,
“When working in the vineyards, you have the feeling that you’re really forming something. There are always ideas – you begin to see something has potential that year, and you start to think about what you can create with it.”
From her travels, Stefanie picked up many pieces of winemaking advice to bring home to her toolkit; in particular the importance of not picking too late, in order to preserve acidity in the wines. She also learnt what whole bunch vinification could bring to a wine, as well as skin maceration for the white wines. They also work using gravity wherever possible, use very little sulphur, work more with the lees, and bottle their wines unfined and unfiltered. Stefanie says,
“I have to admit that I’d never really joined our father in the cellar when he was making wine. It was definitely a fresh start; I only learnt how our father made wine wines once I came back home.”
She jokes that her father had always very much been a one-man band in the cellar, and teases the girls for taking on two winemaking interns every year, but where he used machinery, the girls do not. They have returned to ancestral practices of foot stomping and doing punchdowns by hand. She laughs, saying,
“I remember the first year when I was more responsible for cellar work, dad came in and he said... I don’t know where everything is - what’s this? What’s that? .. And I was just like... you know what? It’s ok. I have a plan, and sent him away.”
They also always work with several microvinifications on the go at once. Stefanie says,
“You can try different styles. One of the key things I learnt was that it’s ok to have lots of small batches so you can see how the wines develop. Even at the end if you decide to blend, it’s nice to see that development. It’s a constant learning process for us.”
Since converting gradually to biodynamics, they have noted that the formation of the berries has altered, and they consistently see lower pH levels and faster fermentations. Susanne explains,
“Even when we pick earlier, with lower alcohol, there’s more complexity in the grapes. That is from the farming. The relationship between the skin of the berries and the water content is just different. There’s more concentration in the berries which also seems to give more acidity. When you have nice healthy grapes that just taste good, they feel more alive, and that shows in the wine.”
So, we ask, what’s next in the Rennersistahood? Susanne ponders,
“We’re always thinking about something else: what's next. This year it will be so fascinating to see what our new team member – Georg – thinks, and what things he wants to try. We’re always tasting and talking – and now there’s three of us.”
It will be exciting for them to develop their baby vineyard and see what wines it will produce. The 2019 vintage saw the first wines made from it: Intergalactic, an aromatic blend of the white varieties with a short period of three to four days’ skin contact, a straight Grauburgunder (Pinot Gris), and a pét-nat produced from Sankt Laurent. 2020 should hopefully see a larger crop. Stefanie says,
“We’re just excited to have more of that great juice. We are still very much on this journey, sometimes it still feels like the beginning. The first years felt more like a test, as we were still learning, but now it's really started to be our own thing. When making wine, you’re constantly playing, and there’s always so many ideas. Like in 2020…"
She trails off and the siblings nudge one another. Stefanie laughs and says,
"Oh ok, yeah. I can’t talk about that yet. It’s a surprise.”
Georg nods and adds proudly,
“It’s still a secret.”
Well, we can’t wait to find out.