In northeast Slovenia, located between Austria, Croatia and Hungary, you find the Haloze wine region, near the town of Ptuj. Here, some of the healthiest and most scenic vineyards we have ever seen are rooted. These are the vines of the Vino Gross winery.
Maria and Michael Gross are dedicated to tending their land organically, and guiding their grapes from vineyard, to cellar, to bottle in the most transparent way possible. They are two of the region’s brightest young stars and have been achieving extraordinary results since launching their own brand in 2016.
LITTLEWINE interviewed Michael Gross for this article
All photographs by @stellakager
Maria and Michael have a deep love for their land in Slovenia; so much so, that they left Austria to pursue their path here. Together, they manage every part of the business as a couple, with Michael mainly heading up the vineyard and cellar, and Maria mainly heading up the business side, but they help each other out in every aspect of the winery.
Before Vino Gross was founded in 2016, Michael had already had a long personal journey in wine. He says,
“I grew up in Styria, Austria, where my family has had a winery for over 100 years. When my parents divorced, they asked my brother and I if we wanted to take over the winery. I was 19, and my brother was 21, so we were quite young. But it would have made no sense for my father and mother to employ lawyers and go through the lengthy process of dividing the winery between them, only to then give the winery to us in a few years’ time. So, we made the decision to take over the winery together.”
In 2005, Michael and his brother, Johannes, decided to also purchase some vineyards in Slovenia. Michael says,
“We began to experiment by bringing some grapes from Slovenia to Austria. In Slovenia, there was the Furmint variety, which we didn’t have in our Austrian vineyards, so we were curious to see whether it was something for us, and if we liked it. We soon recognised that it was wonderful, and that Furmint has an amazing potential.”
Michael soon fell in love with the Slovenian vineyards and decided that this was where he wished to develop his own journey. He says,
“It became my wish to focus on the vineyards in Slovenia. I really loved the landscape — I was so impressed. Maria, my wife, felt the same way, so we decided to move here. Now, all of the Austrian vineyards are owned by my brother, and all of the Slovenian vineyards are owned by Maria and I.”
From 2011 to 2015, they bottled the Slovenian wines under the same brand as their Austrian winery. However, from 2016 — once they felt comfortable to branch out on their own — they began bottling under their own label.
“Now, we’re in the middle of building our house, with a space for tastings, too, so that people can come to visit us. We still have projects together with my brother, such as a grape juice project and some easy-drinking wines which we make together, as we love each other and like to work together.”
They began working organically in 2014 and decided to pursue organic certification in 2018.
“It was clear to us that we wanted to work organically. At the beginning, I didn’t think it was important to have the organic symbol on the labels, but now — as we export a lot of wine —I can understand the importance of it. When people look at the label and see the symbol, they can recognise your work, and your way of thinking.”
He explains that they are fortunate to work in an area that historically has not seen industrial farming. He explains,
“We work with such amazing vineyard sites. As there wasn’t much money in the region in the past, there also wasn’t big investment here, and hence herbicides weren’t used. There haven’t been the same mistakes made in the region like the ones you see in Germany and Burgundy, where heavy farming methods have been used. Here, you find in nature what existed here 100 years before. Nature is abundant, and we have healthy soils. I think that is why our wines have so much expression and life — because our soils are in such good condition. The land has been very well preserved.”
He tells us that it took a while for him to appreciate how the vineyards were planted:
“The vineyards are planted on terraces, with a lot of space between the rows. We have just 2000 vines per hectare, whereas the norm is between 4000 and 6000. When we first moved here, I thought, this isn’t good… we need more vines per hectare. But now, I realise how important the space is. Because we have so few vines, it means that we have so much diversity in the vineyards. There are many species of trees and plants, which means we also have so many insects working with us and for us. Now, I see it as a fortune, not the opposite. I really love these big terraces and the low density.”
They are also transitioning to biodynamic farming, having signed the conversion contract with Demeter.
“The wines we love the most are the ones made by biodynamic winemakers. Those wines have a certain vibrancy — a kind of light — something different. Wines which are made in the conventional way don’t have that at all. It’s hard for me to believe in the Cosmos elements of biodynamics, but I see it more from the farming side. Working with teas, being less aggressive in the vineyards… in the end you see that the vines are more vibrant and have more life. We aren’t changing that much in terms of farming, just working with things like the 500 and 501 preparations, as well as the teas. We aren’t making any changes in terms of the winemaking or the cellar practices; rather we just want to figure out whether this way of farming will make our wines more complex, or more authentic. We’re only in our first year, so we can’t yet tell you how it will affect our wines, but in a few years we’ll see!”
“When we visit the biodynamic wineries which we love, and when we see how they work and how the wine tastes, it makes us think that we can progress one step further. Plus, the idea of having an entire system with animals, and more diversity in the vineyards, that’s really what we want to achieve. We also want to have pigs, chickens… we love that idea; that it’s not only about wine; we’re farmers. Diversity is the most important aspect.”
They have reached a new level of understanding and respect for their land. Michael says,
“We feel more confident with our region and with what we do. I’ve stopped looking so much at what’s happening around me. Before, it was always, what’s that famous winery doing? How do they work? But now that’s totally changed. We’re focused on doing what’s best for our vines, our site, our region, and our family. Of course, we still appreciate what our neighbours and friends do, but I think we’re more comfortable in our own work, as we have so much trust in our sites.”
The grape variety Furmint was one of the reasons the duo became smitten with the Slovenian vineyards. Michael explains that Furmint is a very old variety in this part of Europe. It has a long history in Slovakia, Hungary, the eastern part of Austria, northern Slovenia, northern Croatia, and some parts of Serbia.
“My grandmother told me that she also had Furmint in Styria, as part of their Gemischter Satz vineyards (the Austrian term for field blend). However, back then, it was the acidic one which often couldn’t ripen. After the war, the government told people to rip out the Furmint vines and to replace them with Welschriesling and Grüner Veltliner, as they’re more consistent in crop.”
However, in Slovenia, and in Hungary in particular, growers continued to work with it.
“We knew about the famous sweet wines of Tokaj, but otherwise we didn’t know much about it. So, at first, we brought just 400/500kg of grapes to the cellar in Austria — just to try making it to see what it tasted like. Then, we discovered that it was very interesting. We see it in a similar way to Riesling; it’s very interesting when it comes to high quality wines, but less interesting for easy-drinking wines. Other varieties, like Müller-Thurgau, Sauvignon Blanc or Muscat, can be great for both easy-drinking and high-quality wines. But Riesling and Furmint are really for high-quality wines, else they can just taste a bit like water with alcohol, and that’s not interesting.”
Although capable of producing very fine wine, Furmint is not always the easiest to work with. Michael explains,
“We were quite lucky. When we did our first experiments, we had several good vintages in a row. Hence, we decided to focus on Furmint for Vino Gross. We went to Tokaj to learn more about the variety, and we also visited Michael Wenzel in Rust, in the Austrian wine region of the Burgenland. He organised for us to plant some high-quality selections from Tokaj. We are lucky to have had guys like him help us.”
It was a move of passion; they stuck to their gut feeling:
“At the start, it was out of our interest for the variety. Then, we quickly found out that we think it’s one of the best white wine varieties in the world. I compare it taste-wise a bit to Chenin Blanc; for me it’s quite similar. It can make really pure, mineral-driven wines, with high acidity and low sugar content. That’s what’s so fascinating about the variety. However, it’s very difficult in the vineyards. As we have a lot of rain, and the variety is late ripening, it’s hard to get ripe grapes sometimes. Seven out of 10 vintages we manage well, whereas for the other three vintages it can be a bit tricky. We take it year by year.”
In the cellar, this year-by-year approach also rings true. Michael says,
“Winemaking is such a process, and it will continue to be a process for my whole life. There will always be changes. I come from quite a classical side of winemaking; my father made wine with added yeasts, in a more technical way. When my brother and I started, we slowly moved in the direction of hands-off winemaking. Here, with Vino Gross, we are now at the point where we know our vineyards. We trust them, know their strength, and understand that the wines don’t need additions. Rather, we can just guide them somehow.”
They progressed one step further, deciding in 2019 and 2020 to make all their wines without added sulfites.
“We’re not dogmatic; we know that there will be vintages where it might be necessary to add sulfites. But, in the good vintages like 2019, 2020 and 2021, we didn’t need to. Making wine without additives is the perfect way for us to express our terroir, and to show the great potential of our region.”
We ask him whether this decision reflects a greater evolution in their vision of winemaking. He says,
“What I look for in wine changes quite often. When I first started to drink wine — once I really understood what I was drinking — I loved wines made with some reduction. For me, reduction in combination with ageing in wood was the best thing ever. Then, I really liked Riesling – that complexity, acidity and freshness — the minerality. Now, over the past few years I have figured out that there are so many ways of making great wines in the world. There is space for so many different winemaking styles. I still love reductive wines aged in wood, and I also still love Riesling, but for me it’s now more about complexity and harmony. Harmony is a combination between everything – reduction, oxidation, juiciness, minerality… It’s something that you can only achieve from the vineyards. It’s not possible to somehow create it in the cellar. That harmony is what I’m really looking for. It doesn’t mean that wine has to taste the same everywhere – it can be different in Burgundy, Austria, Slovenia, Hungary... anywhere in the world. More and more I think in this way, but it’s still an evolutionary process. Maybe in five years’ time what I love to drink will change again! But right now, I look for authentic wines, made more or less without additives.”
He emphasises the notion of purity:
“When my father made wine, it was all about perfection… making the perfect wine. But I don’t think that’s what we want to drink anymore… When you buy wine from the supermarket, it tastes clean and straight somehow, whereas when it comes to more naturally made wine, you have a different taste. There may be more tannin, or oxidative or reductive notes. But the wine should still taste clear, it should be without faults. I really dislike wines when they have faults, as I think the winemaker has done something wrong. Ultimately, I think the wine should taste like it hasn’t been influenced too much by the winemaking. That’s what I want to achieve. I don’t like over-oaked wines, or wines where you can tell that the winemaking is more important than the winegrowing. You can taste that in the wines. For me, the best wines are always in harmony. That’s what I really love.”
When you drink a cuvée made by Gross, you find an intrinsic balance. We can experience their magical vineyards through a bottle of wine, and this is amplified due to the remarkable health of their vines. It is not only their grapes which give us these wines; the diversity of fauna and flora that thrive here ensure that the soils are full of life, which in turn ensures that their vines are as healthy as possible. Although vines don’t smile in the way that human beings do, if the vines of Vino Gross could, we are sure they’d be beaming from ear to ear.