The Muster wines have become some of the most celebrated wines of Austria, but this isn’t due to a specific or technical aspect of winemaking. There’s no magic recipe here — rather these wines are so good because they’re allowed to simply be themselves: this is wine, uninterrupted. There’s a certain energy found within these bottles; an energy that can only appear in wine if the raw material — the grapes — have an intrinsic balance. This balance, meanwhile, comes from years of getting to know their vines. And there’s one thing we can say with certainty: Sepp and Maria know their vines.
Meet Sepp and Maria
When Sepp’s father bought the property in 1978, it had fallen completely into disarray. It was in a state of dilapidation; a microcosm of the region as a whole, which had suffered greatly after the second world war. He says,
“When my father bought the vineyard, the vines were lying flat on the ground. We had to rebuild everything. At first, we tried to work with the old vines, but sadly it turned out to be almost impossible, so we replanted, meaning our oldest vines are now around 40 years old.”
Before his father’s generation, the farm — and Styria in general — had been focused on polyculture. As a historically fairly poor region that is far removed from large cities, as well as making wine, people also tended livestock, worked as foresters, and grew their own grains. The Muster property, however, is home to such steep slopes that it would be almost impossible to farm anything other than vines, but Sepp and Maria are content to focus on wine. Sepp says,
“We’re specialised in grape growing. We concentrate on that, and on making our own style of wine, and we’re pretty busy doing that.”
He chuckles. We get the feeling that 'pretty busy' is an understatement.
“Being able to really concentrate on what we love to do is the best part of our work. We know each plant and every patch of our land — every part of our soil — we’re very much embedded in this property.”
The Muster family have rebuilt everything according to how it looked historically:
“When we rebuilt, we tried to keep everything how it was before, and people are really happy when they come and can see these old farmhouse traditions. That’s not really common at the moment… Lots of investors are coming here and building big hotels, which I don’t think is good for the atmosphere we have in Styria. You lose the sense of farming a bit, and instead it goes more in a business-led tourist direction.”
Thanks to growers such as Sepp and Maria, however, tourists coming to the area to see a snippet of Styria’s history can still experience the real deal.
After Sepp’s father had replanted the vineyards, he got to work farming and winemaking. This was a different path to the one Sepp and Maria would eventually choose — the first priority was simply putting food on the table. Sepp says,
“My father wasn’t really thinking about winegrowing on a high-quality level, but rather how to survive and make money after the second world war.”
Sepp worked with his father until 1994, and until then he hadn’t really had the chance to consider organic viticulture as a viable option. He says,
“Organics wasn’t in my thinking yet, but I had a feeling that I wanted to do something different. In 1998, Maria and I travelled around the world, and in India we came across a biodynamic farmer and specialist from New Zealand: Peter Proctor. It was very interesting to meet him — to see a farmer who was really connecting with nature and working together with nature. It was mindblowing. We said, if we have the possibility, we will try to work the biodynamic way.”
So, in 2000, they began their biodynamic journey, and by 2003, they joined Demeter. Sepp says,
“Once you start working biodynamically in the vineyard, you don’t stop. But it doesn’t really matter what you call it, whether it’s biodynamic, organic, permaculture, etc… and it doesn’t really matter which group you’re connected to. The most important thing is what you’re doing in the vineyard, and the feeling that you get.”
It was a true plunge:
“We had no experience, no technique, no machines.”
However, they did have friends, and these friends were also interested in pursuing a more natural direction. Ewald Tscheppe, of Weingut Werlitsch, was the first with whom Sepp and Maria shared their learnings, and he was joined soon after by Andreas Tscheppe, Alice and Roland Tauss, and Christine and Franz Strohmeier. Together, they created Schmecke das Leben: a sort of study-meets-support group to share information, learnings and philosophies.
“Sometimes, in a group it can be difficult as you have different interests. But for us, we have the same interests, we just approach them in different ways, which works very well. Helping each other was so important at the beginning, and meeting Alex Podolinsky (a biodynamic educator) was very important for us. He showed us how to do everything. Of course, you learn how to apply preparations, but it’s so much more than that — it’s a very sensitive process. You can’t just buy preparations and suddenly you’re biodynamic. We were lucky to have such good mentors at the beginning, and from there we built up to the stage we’re at now.”
“It’s all about observation — constantly continuing to improve the small things. But you must also remember that when you improve, it can suddenly go in the other direction, too, so you always need to be careful.”
They have also learnt how to tend their vines via their own unique trellising system:
“We copy nature a bit. In nature, vines grow up trees — when they grow upwards, they’re in the vegetative phase. Then, when they’re heavier after some time, they move down by themselves, due to gravity. Then they’re in the ‘generative’ phase. The focus of the plant changes to growing grapes. By working like this, I think we get better physiological ripeness: more balance. Not more sugar, or more or less acidity, but just a balance of everything. We use stems for our orange wines, and even in cool and wet years, we never have green tannins in the wines. That’s a good sign.”
Sepp emphasises that there is no single biodynamic way, explaining,
“For example, we don’t use compost. That’s not common in biodynamic farming, and at the beginning, it was tough with the association (Demeter) but now they tolerate it. There’s no real name for what we do… It’s just farming. It’s watching nature, how it works, trying to see what’s going on with all of these complex processes. When you keep going, the complexity becomes simple. You learn that you’re part of the process, which is a nice thing of course, but you’re not the most important thing. You become connected.”
“If you start fertilising or using compost, or seeding legumes, then I think you bring the overall story more out of balance than in balance. But if you leave the vineyard [in a hands-off way] for 5-10 years, then the vineyard finds balance by itself. The weaker vines become stronger and the stronger vines become weaker — they meet each other — and this balance brings vitality to the grapes, and then to the wine.”
“At the beginning, we had to disconnect from our education. It took me ten years to lose what I had learnt previously about winemaking, as it’s always there in the corner of your brain. It disturbs you all the time. I’m doing the opposite to what I learnt. It works — it tastes different, but it works, and people like it.”
The first step was to embrace natural fermentation — ditching the packets of lab-cultured yeasts. Then, they moved from precise filtering to rough filtering, and then to no filtering at all. They also stopped racking as much (moving the wine off the lees).
“We stopped racking before fermentation, because we realised that what we racked off was actually the sense of the vineyard — of the soil.”
Next, they began to age the wines for much longer — between 20 to 24 months. This required cash flow and market demand, but the wines had found a new audience, and the newfound demand made it feasible for them to work in this manner. For ageing, they found oak to be the best option:
“We use wooden casks, and that’s very important because we’re working to preserve life. It’s a balance of nature — trying to keep the balance of the grapes from the vineyard — not destroy that balance. If you fine or filter or move the wine too much, you bring the wine out of balance and then you lose life. The wooden pores of the casks mean that we can keep the wine alive through that small amount of oxidation.”
It’s also a journey of humility — of constantly learning and adapting:
“It’s a process, and it’s always changing. If you have an idea in your mind, you try it. If the result is good, you continue. If it’s not, you stop. It’s actually very simple.”
In their part of southern Styria, they have a soil type named locally as ‘opok:’ a form of silty clay-limestone which is hard, appearing almost like schist. When Sepp and his friends began to make wine in a more hands-off manner, their wines inevitably began to taste drastically different to the wines they had made before. Sauvignon Blanc, in particular, expresses itself very differently when made with natural yeasts, unfined, unfiltered and with low or no sulfites. To avoid confusion with its conventional counterparts, they began labelling these wines as “Sauvignon vom Opok” (Sauvignon from Opok) instead of “Sauvignon Blanc.” Sepp says,
“It was difficult to sell our wines with the name of the variety on the label, because they didn’t taste like the other wines from the region. That’s actually an honour for me because I see that there’s more to the variety. We try to show our customers the soil, the climate, the place… and by using the word ‘Opok,’ that gave this connection.”
To complicate matters, they weren’t allowed to label the wines under the DAC system, because they were deemed atypical. This meant they weren’t allowed to label them as ‘Syrian wine,’ and had to instead label them under the basic ‘Austrian wine’ designation.
“Because we don’t make the DAC wines, we aren’t allowed to use vineyard names on the label. It’s very restrictive, and at the beginning they said that we can’t use ‘Opok,’ either, as people could think it’s a vineyard site. But we always find a way. It’s not important for us what’s on the label really, what’s important is what’s in the bottle, and people can feel that. We don’t want to do what the government or wine specialists on the board tell us to do. We aren’t doing marketing, and actually by not having the DAC on the label it’s a good filter for our customers, as they’re looking for a different style — one which doesn’t fit within the DAC regulations.”
It simply comes down to a matter of different tastes and philosophies. Sepp says,
“Our customers are conscious and alert, and it’s up to them to decide what they like. That’s important — when people drink our wine, they either like it or they don’t like it — they can choose what to drink. They can make those decisions, I can’t.”
Sepp and Maria are also celebrated for their orange wines, which they’ve made since 2005. Although now a popular style, back in the 2000s, they were still rare to come across. Sepp smiles, remembering,
“There was a guy who said something is going on in Friuli. We were at a restaurant and had a wine pairing, and there was one orange wine from Gravner. I didn’t know what it was, and I was so fascinated by the taste, so thought: I’ll also try this! I’d heard it was just maceration on the skins, in qvevri. We wanted to try with qvevri but it took two years before we could get one, so we began with a cask instead. I kept the wine for one year on the skins, and that was a really interesting experience…”
He laughs, continuing,
“At one point, I thought… these good grapes are gone now. But after one and a half years, the wine changed a lot, and then we suddenly really liked it. We opened the 2005 Erde one year ago — the first one — and I’m quite happy with how it tastes now. It was quite tough to sell it at the beginning, so my wife suggested that we could do a softer version with a shorter maceration. That became the Gräfin. We macerate it for three weeks, and at the moment that’s the wine we sell most all over the world. It’s fine and elegant, it’s not too much; not too intense in the mouth.”
It’s like an entry point into the world of skin contact ‘orange’ wines; a gateway for many. For drinkers, as well as winemakers, ultimately this world of wine is about freedom of expression. In a similar sense to taking a stance after reading a fairly written article, the drinker is free to choose which path aligns with them. Sepp compares it to our role as reporters:
“It’s like journalism. As a journalist, for you it’s important to show people what’s possible in this world. You have a lot of experience, and you can bring ideas to your readers — whether it’s things happening in California, Hungary or here in Styria. Then, at the end of the day, it’s up to the reader to decide. But if a journalist says someone has to do something in a certain way, then… well, I don’t think that’s a good idea. But I think people are more open now and see that a lot of things aren’t always true, and they need to be responsible for themselves.”
It is an important and refreshing conversation. These wines are about so much more than the wine itself: they represent a certain liberty. Sepp nods, saying,
“This isn’t about making natural wine, or biodynamic wine. It’s just wine. Wine from Austria — wine from Opok.”
And it really is that simple.