“I look for purity, origin and drinkability. To be able to recognise where a wine comes from is so unique. Then, wine should be fun—you should want to drink one, two and then three glasses of it."
The Wachter-Wiesler wines saw a radical change in style when Christoph took the winemaking reins from his parents, but instead of becoming more radically affected by the winemaking, the opposite occurred; the wines became more subtle and dialled-in to their source—the vineyards. The hand of the human stepped back and instead the voice of the fruit itself became louder.
Today, the Blaufränkisch wines they produce are amongst the most nuanced versions found in Austria; they compete with the famed ability of Pinot Noir to express their site. As for the 15% white grapes that they work with—this cellar has become home to some of the most thrilling examples of Welschriesling since they flipped their way of thinking.
Most importantly of all, the domaine has led by example with regards to healthy viticulture. The soils thrive and wildflowers bloom throughout the year, providing homes and food for a swathe of beneficial insects. Indeed these days, the change has been so positive than Christoph hasn’t noticed herbicide use by other growers in the area for two years; a giant step in the world of Sudburgenland’s vineyards.
A gentle soul with a big smile and the most adorable hound called Stoney, being in Christoph’s presence - in his vineyards brimming with life - brings about an immediate sense of calm. This is a calmness that is somehow transferred to the wines; whether by energy or intention is beyond our capacity for understanding, but regardless - there it is in the glass. These are wines of subtlety and elegance; wines that keep you coming back for another sip to try to understand the secrets that lie beneath their indigo surface.
Christoph studied wine and pomology at a very technical school; mainly learning how wineries producing one million litres per year operate.
“It was very technical; a lot of what we learnt I didn’t need at home - so I had to forget a lot of it quickly. Instead, I asked questions - why are the wines made in the way they are? You need to ask yourself how you can bring your own ideas to the wines.”
In the family winery scenario, this can be awkward if the older generation doesn’t embrace new ideas, but with Christoph’s parents the opposite was the case; new ideas were welcomed; and as such the domaine underwent a rebirth when Christoph returned from his studies in 2009.
The first to change was the farming; while the vineyards had never been treated badly by any means, they weren’t yet organic. So, bit by bit from 2009 to 2012 they eliminated all chemical use. In 2015, they became certified.
“The idea of asking someone else what we should spray was wrong in my mind. I wanted to be closer to the vines myself, and that meant going organic. To make wines of origin; that was the first step. It was never about the organic label, but I know people who say, ‘oh we’re nearly organic,’ whereas I want to be honest and tell the true story. We can do this through certification.”
Then, with regards to the winemaking, it was a step-by-step process. An internship making wine with Dirk Niepoort showed Christoph another side of wine than what had previously been made here.
“We were making these drinkable wines with freshness, but somehow most of the wines in our region didn’t have this, even though we have a cool climate that should easily be able to produce wines like that.”
So, Christoph and his parents stripped the wines back to the basics and began experimenting with different vinification methods. As such, a new era of Wachter-Wiesler was born.
The vineyards are located in the Sudburgenland - the southern part of Austria’s Burgenland - with many sites in the Eisenberg DAC. The majority of the Wachter-Wiesler vines are older; between 30 and 60 years old; and - in Christoph’s words - “thank goodness they didn’t plant too much Cabernet or Merlot.” Instead, this has always been Blaufränkisch country; and their old vineyards portray a diverse genetic pool of the variety. The white portions, meanwhile, are planted to old-vine Welschriesling and Furmint.
“I’m not a fan of replanting - I want to keep the vines healthy and alive for as long as possible, so we prune very gently.”
The geologic complexity of the area means that soils vary immensely from one vineyard to the next with regards to the percentage of topsoil. The Eisenberg - meaning Iron Mountain - is home to incredible green schist bedrock.
“The iron in the soils brings a kind of bloody freshness to the wines. They have focus, texture and body, which in combination with the cool climate gives acidity and balance. Somehow, this gives a unique red cherry bloody iron mineral taste.”
He explains that although the eye might only see sandy loam and pebbles, there are many nutrients and minerals in this loam from the ancient soils. Underneath, one can see the green schist. Depending on the depth of this loamy topsoil, the wines will show more or less of this iron mineral taste. Climate-wise, the region is straddled between the influences affecting its neighbour regions; MittelBurgenland and Styria, so it receives more rainfall than its northerly counterparts, meaning drought doesn't tend to be an issue.
This means that it’s easier for Christoph to maintain a cover crop year-round, as the vines generally have sufficient water resources deep in the soil. This cover crop is Christoph’s pride and joy, and his eyes light up as he speaks about it - perhaps even more so than when he speaks about his wines. The plants that Christoph sows amongst the vines are a mixture of buckwheat, crimson clover, field pea, common vetch, sainfoin, phacelia, white sweetclover, white clover and camelina sativa.
“We plant the cover crops to prevent erosion, but also for greater biodiversity. By having plants with various root lengths, they help the soil to aerate and to work well. When they decompose, they become food for the fauna and flora. It also just makes sense to see flowers in the vineyards; to see something blooming, and to see bees. I don’t want to look at my vineyard and just see green - I want to see yellow, white and all sorts of colours of flowers. We love to see this and to walk in the vineyard and feel and see something more than just vines. We want to have a system that isn’t just a monoculture, but rather a mixed culture.”
At the beginning, Christoph experimented with whether it would be possible to leave the vines grassed over permanently; to never till the soils. However, it became too difficult for the vines; they suffered and yields diminished to an unsustainable amount. So, now he just opens every other row once a year to seed the flowers. This seed mix helps to prevent the wild and invasive grasses from taking over, as they can be too competitive for the vines. This is the perfect example of man and nature working hand in hand to provide a better environment for farming crops, in a natural manner. As such, it’s not just a question of working organically, and following an organic recipe instead of a conventional one. Instead, it’s a question of practical thinking with regards to soil management. Since converting to organics, the change came about fast; vines that had previously been growing too rapidly were now in balance, without shoots and leaves all over the place.
“Farming vines - that’s a culture. The vine doesn’t do everything on its own. That’s why we’re vintners - why our wines taste the way they do. You have to see, feel and adapt. That’s the work of a grower who really looks after their vines and wants to produce the best grapes.”
Above all else, it’s really a question of soil health. Christoph muses,
“To get more humus in the soil - that takes many years. 10, 20, 30 years - it will never stop. I’m working for the next generation. We’ve seen the soil structure change a lot already, and we have more life - in the soil but also around us. Open soils are the worst - you lose the humus and you lose animals.”
With faithful Stoney’s doleful eyes and unconditional love, Christoph isn’t just thinking about himself; his vineyards don’t just provide a living for him and his family, they teem with life.
“I like wines with acidity, I love freshness and I love origin. We love when the wines taste of where they come from. To find this in our wines, we started to do less in the cellar, and to instead follow our instincts.”
This meant getting rid of new oak, working with less extractive methods, and instead choosing larger format barrels, which they felt gave a purer expression of the vineyards. So, gradually, they replaced their Bordeaux and Burgundy barrels with 500L, 600L and foudres. To continue on their quest of rediscovering their soils and sites, this meant separating themselves from external influence. In turn, this meant losing some of their original client base who were looking for the old-school styles, but in their place came new buyers looking for a fresher style, and other existing customers were excited by this new vision.
“We were being radical without thinking about it. Year by year, we got more and more focused and gained more feeling for the wines and for the vineyards. It’s not that my dad did anything wrong, it was just a different time. I was the next generation with other ideas, and thank goodness my parents embraced and followed these ideas. We can do this together as a family without any big conversations or fights.”
All decisions were taken as a family. Christoph remembers,
“We all preferred those bigger barrels. It was such an important tasting and I’ll always remember it. We just followed our hearts and what our instinct told us. Somehow, it worked out...”
In the meantime, the old grandmother vines of Welschriesling, often nestled in between the old grandfather Blaufrankisch vines, had also taken Christoph’s attention.
“Before, the Welschriesling we made was pretty basic. It was okay - lots of primary fruit and acidity, but I thought something more might be possible. When you taste the grapes from the old vines, you don’t have so much fruit, but rather salty, mineral tastes. The grapes begin to show where they come from.”
So, Wachter-Wiesler became one of the first wineries to start taking Welschriesling seriously - to ferment naturally and to do longer ageing with the lees. As a result, the white wines have become more saline-driven, with umami flavours. They are compelling wines, but as ever, Christoph remains humble, saying,
“I have the feeling that Welschriesling can tell a very nice story. Maybe it’s never going to be the finest wine in the world, but it’s such a great variety to show the soil, with freshness and ripe acidity. They’re getting more focused and more pure; we’re just making white wines that we love to drink.”
The sulphur levels were also lowered, but in 2010 Christoph reckons he might have gone too far.
“We had a bad experience in 2010… basically, I’m not a big fan of mouse taint. If you have the bacteria in your cellar you must be really careful. So we add as little as possible, but as much as we need to get our focused style.”
This amount remains really small: only 20ppm at racking, and then around 10 at bottling, plus the circa. 10 produced naturally by the wine itself.