"I realised I wanted to work in a certain way, or I’d stop working in wine. With that decision, a door was opened: I knew there'd be a way."
is a winemaker who ditched the security of producing simple, easy-to-sell, “drink now, not for ageing” Sauvignon Blancs and Chardonnays. Inspired by the likes of Marcel Deiss, Gravner and Radikon, Ewald set out to see what his Styrian soils might be able to produce if given the chance. By throwing convention out of the window and by following an inert belief that biodynamic farming is the way forward, Ewald and his friends’ wines have changed how Styria is perceived.
They are wines of haunting aromas that age more impressively than most white Burgundies. They may be serious, fine wines, but they are in no way rigid or strict. Instead, they emanate good vibes and drinkability; testament to healthy farming and healthy wines. By giving the wines time and by not putting them into tight clothes by over-sulphuring them, he allows them to be true to themselves and to their place.
It’s mid-winter; the middle of January. Ewald steps through the snow-blanketed vines. The vineyards here have been credited for their quality since the early 1800s, when maps with a similar layout to the French appellation system were produced. The Werlitsch vineyards were part of the area named Langegg.
As we walk up the slope, his cat follows loyally in tow, meowing impatiently. Ewald picks him up and he purrs contentedly in his arms, as Ewald points to the various segments of the vineyard:
“It’s a like a ladder – there are three steps: the section at the bottom becomes Ex Vero I, the middle Ex Vero II, and the top Ex Vero III.”
The vines are in their dormant phase, without foliage, and while trees and fields nearby look bleak without their leaves or crops, here there is life humming omnipresently through the vineyard. We stand for a while, comfortable in our convivial silence, as the sun starts to set and the sky lights up. Eventually, we start to lose all feeling in our toes and head inside.
Ewald pours a glass of Ex Vero II 2006. It tastes as though top Chablis producer Raveneau met top Sancerre producer Dagueneau and had a love child here in Styria. There is nothing else quite like it. We ask a simple question: how? Ewald smiles and explains,
“When I began to make my own wines, Styria was all about fruit-driven easy drinking wines which should be drunk within one year. I didn’t want to work in that way. I knew what I liked in wine, and I realised quickly that with Sauvignon Blanc or Chardonnay on the label, it would be very tough because nobody would accept it.”
And so, in 2004 the Ex Vero family of wines was born instead.
The name of the farm, Werlitsch, is its historical name. When his grandfather married his grandmother, the name Tscheppe was introduced, and they took over the farm. During those times, it was a mixed farm; vineyards and orchards were tended, wheat was produced and animals were raised for milk, cheese and meat. Ewald explains,
“Overall, Styria was a very poor region. The people here lived mainly from what they could produce themselves, there wasn’t much business.”
It wasn’t until his father took over that Werlitsch became wine focused. He wasn’t particularly interested in raising animals, so he chose to focus on viticulture and wine production. He farmed the vines and produced wine for the local Styrian market, and from time to time also sold some to Carinthia.
When artificial fertiliser arrived on the scene in the region, it was the 1960s and it rapidly became readily available. Ewald says,
“My father spoke of this ‘miracle of growth and increase in yield,’ but after six years he realised that he always had to add more – there was this strong dependency on the fertiliser industry. He didn’t like that at all. So, he made the decision to find a way to work without fertiliser by the 70s, by working the soils to attain the same yields naturally. He always used to say – you have to watch nature and copy one of nature’s systems to bring you the result, without using all of these chemicals.”
The dependency on the fertilisers was enough for Ewald’s father to also never use herbicides and insecticides, and the vineyards returned to their natural pre-fertiliser state by the late 70s.
When the Austrian wine scandal of 1985 hit the news, in which it was revealed some producers had been using antifreeze to make wines appear sweeter and more full-bodied, demand plummeted. His father stopped producing wine himself, instead focusing on selling grapes to other producers. He depended on large yields, and this meant he was always too afraid to go fully organic, choosing to work with fungicides to combat disease pressure – these sprays provided him with a safety net of sorts. Ewald remembers,
“Today, if he could look at the farm, he would probably be proud, but when we discussed organics, it was very tricky. As he wasn’t making his own wine, he had to get enough money out of selling the grapes to survive. That always held him back.”
In the meantime, Ewald and his brother, Andreas, were growing up. They went to traditional wine school, and when they had finished education decided to recommence wine production. At the beginning, in the 90s, they made “more or less” classical Styrian wines made with a technical approach – in a sense "safe" wines that were easy to sell. In the late 90s, Ewald came into contact with the notion of biodynamic farming. Having been raised near organic farms, he was not fazed when the traditional wine schools taught his class that organic farming was not viable for quality grape production, saying,
“I had always deeply respected organic farming; it was something that came very naturally for me.”
When a close friend of his, Sepp Muster, went on a three-month biodynamic course in 1999, this sparked interest in Ewald:
“Sepp and I started immediately practising biodynamics on small parcels, making the preparations, building equipment and steering each other. That’s when the biodynamic track really began.”
He also joined various Demeter groups (the biodynamic association), visiting various farms to share experiences. This is where he met Alex Podolinksy, an Australian of Ukranian heritage, who popularised the biodynamic way. Ewald says,
“Alex spoke in such a practical way, and I understood it. It didn’t feel like a dream, or just like a nice talk, and nothing was hard to follow. That made me feel confident in using this method on the farm.”
Until then, Ewald had been put off by some farmers who held the belief that biodynamics had to be performed in a certain way, with rigid rules, saying,
“Rudolf Steiner [the founder of biodynamics] left behind such a huge field of knowledge, and even today you have different streams. You can take what you feel comfortable or familiar with from his teachings, there are many different ideas. I never liked it when people said it “has to be this way” – that made me want to run away from biodynamics, but with Alex, I felt… he’s a real farmer just speaking from experience.”
In 2001, Ewald and his wife Brigitte travelled across Europe and to Australia to learn the basics, and it became clear for them that this was the way they wished to work. By 2004, Ewald had taken over the vines, although his father remained involved. They still couldn’t see eye-to-eye on organic farming, so he decided to try without telling his father in 2004, saying,
“I had progressed personally. I realised I wanted to work in a certain way, or I’d stop working in wine. With that decision, a door was opened: I knew there'd be a way. For several years before, I had tried farming some parts organically, but when you know you have the option to return to fungicides, it doesn’t work - if you’re worried about the weather, you use those chemical sprays to be safe.”
Unfortunately, 2004 turned out to be an incredibly difficult year, with a huge amount of rain and disease pressure. Additionally, there was an unexpected tragedy: his father passed away in the summer. At the time he died, 50% of the crop had already been lost. Ewald says,
“If he hadn’t passed away that summer, maybe I also wouldn’t be alive anymore – he might have killed me when he realised. It would have been very hard for him. It was one of the smallest crops we had ever had, but even that made it clear I had to go 100% biodynamic, and it helped me to do so with more conviction. Perhaps it sounds a little strange, but when I look back, I have the sense that my father moved on out of this world to leave behind the place to me, so I could have the possibility to do my work. If my father was still alive, I don’t know if I would ever have converted. It was a very important experience and year for me.”
“It convinced me even more to look for the knowledge: there is so much knowledge around for working in the organic way, but you have to collect it, at the same time finding your own inner security. If you feel comfortable, it will work. If you don’t have that feeling of, ‘Yes, I can do it,’ it will trouble you a lot.”
Ewald ‘signed the contract’ with Demeter later that year to fully convert to biodynamics:
“Within me, I knew this was how I wanted to work. But on the other side, I knew that I had to survive: It was a jump into the cold water, and it was challenging, but that’s how it is in life. If you doubt yourself, that’s when it becomes tricky.”
It helped that he was surrounded by his brother (who in the meantime had begun his own winery – Andreas Tscheppe), and friends Sepp Muster and Franz Strohmeier. Together, they helped one another and made their hope of a biodynamic journey become reality.
Ewald reflects on how his farming practices have evolved since ’04:
“Today, I try to focus more on the common biodynamic principle of seeing the farm as an organism. I try to build up a system where everything can work as naturally as possible. There’s nothing wrong in nature – everything has its place – no plant grows without a reason.”
By allowing nature to function undisturbed, Ewald hopes to minimise the effect of a monoculture. He doesn’t want the vineyard to just be a vineyard; he wants it to be an ecosystem in its own right, saying,
“The more you work on a farm, the more you change the nature’s own development. Of course, I grow vines – this is a monoculture; cultured land, not the wilderness. That said, I try to do the least possible; to build up an environment where it’s not just the vine itself; where grasses can grow high and where trees can live. It’s just a nice environment for nature and insects; everything that’s living has its own habitat; and within that I try to do my work.”
This means that Ewald is as hands-off as possible. When he has to cut the grass, he cuts it in alternate rows, so that insects can jump across into the neighbouring row, leaving the vineyards with a “high potency of vitality.”
“I have developed the habit of observation: to be attentive, to be sensitive, and to be open. If something is out of balance, I think – how can I help to bring it into a different state? I try to bring this thought process into my everyday life.”
When Ewald began farming biodynamically, it also signalled a change in wine style. He says,
“When I was first introduced to biodynamics, I also came into touch with orange wines and more naturally made wines. I didn’t necessarily like them straight away, but I was fascinated by the idea of them, so I bought many bottles to taste.”
There is a particular tasting that stands out vividly in his mind: the wines made by Gravner and Radikon:
"They were so far off anything I had tasted before. It changed something in my mindset. From then on, I was more attracted to the idea behind these kinds of wines. Together with biodynamic farming, it made sense.”
He decided to forge his own concepts, instead of just following the model of varietal labelled, fruit-driven Styrian wines. Although his interest had been piqued by orange wines, he also knew he wanted to make white wine - but it wasn’t until a trip to Italy’s VinNatur fair and an encounter with Marcel Deiss that a new idea formed:
“His top cuvées were made as field blends according to vineyards. That’s when the idea rose in my mind – this could be a good idea for me – to not work with single-varietal cuvées, but rather with the characteristics of the soils.”
He created the ladder format of Ex Vero I, II & III. Each cuvée is a blend of Morillon (the local name for Chardonnay) and Sauvignon Blanc. The soils are known as Opok – also a local term, used to describe the limestone-rich clay soils, but the degree of limestone vs clay varies drastically up and down the hillside. From the bottom, where there is more clay, comes Ex Vero I, from the mid-slopes, where the clay/limestone balance is more equal, comes Ex Vero II, and from the top slopes, where the limestone content is higher, and the soils are rockier and more free-draining, comes Ex Vero III. They are a blend of Sauvignon and Chardonnay, although there is more Sauvignon at the top (III), and more Chardonnay at the bottom (I).
These wines have always been made in the same way, the only difference being that Ewald now feels comfortable in using extremely low amounts of sulphur (or none at all) - whereas at the start he was more judicious. They are destemmed and direct-pressed into old, large wooden Pauscha foudres. He says,
“You need two ingredients: a wooden barrel where the wine can naturally breathe, and time. Then, you don’t need to add sulphur. When you work like this, I think you can naturally bring stability to the wines. Right from the beginning, this was my idea, but of course every year you have your own experience. Step by step, you start to understand the process.”
Sometimes the wines are kept for several years in the foudres:
“By letting the wine drop a bit into an oxidative state, then into a reductive state, and then back into an oxidative state, I think this helps to make more complex aroma chains. For me, this is the basis for a healthy wine that is long lasting. I was never interested in the expressive aromas that give you an explosion when you put your nose into a glass, but that disappear quickly with age. I had made wines like these before and I was bored of them. So, I tried to bring long-lasting and deep aromas to the wines.”
Later, he also added varietal labelled Sauvignon and Morillon.
In 2007, he began exploring skin-contact styles; those wines of Friuli were still tapping at the corners of his mind.
He created two cuvées: Glück and Freude. Glück is destemmed and fermented in open cask for between two to three weeks, and aged in two-year-old barrels. Freude is macerated with whole bunches: 100% in a good year, or 50-70% in a tough year. He says,
“The goal was always to play with the tannic structure in the wines.”
Initially, he began working with Georgian qvevris for these wines, and as they were raised in clay, he and Sepp has the idea of also finding ceramic bottles for them. He says,
“As they were made in clay, he wanted them to stay in clay. That was the idea, but we also realised that the clay bottles influence the wines in a positive way.”
They tried bottling many of their wines - both clay-aged and foudre-aged - in glass and the ceramic bottles. After some time, they opened them to see if there was a difference.
“There was a clear difference. It’s very hard to explain why. When you opened the wines in the ceramic bottle, they were more open and harmonious. Perhaps it’s because the ceramic itself is 100% dark – no sunlight can reach the wine, or maybe it’s because changes in temperature are slower in the ceramic.”
It remains a mystery, but it was enough to convince Ewald to continue keeping his skin contact wines in these bottles, even when he stopped vinifying in clay, choosing foudres instead. He ponders,
“Every material has its own quality, vibration and identity. If you live in a wooden house, it will feel different to living in a concrete house. This has a certain kind of influence. In our way of making wines, there isn’t one aspect that makes the wine, there are many little things that make the wine unique. Every small detail is important. The more alive a wine is, the more every detail plays a role.”
He also adds that it is useful for the person buying the wine: the Ex Vero and other non-skin contact wines are in glass, whereas the skin contact wines are always in ceramic: an easy differentiation. The only thing that bugs him is how good-looking the ceramic bottles are. He says,
“The negative effect is that people are more attracted to the bottle than perhaps to the wine itself. I don’t like this idea, and I was close to not using it at all when I stopped ageing in amphora... but I liked the effect of the bottle so much that I couldn’t not use it.”
The Werlitsch wines speak of place with their haunting aroma profile that returns vintage after vintage, but they are also wines of texture. Even Ex Vero, produced without any skin contact, has a certain fine-grained bite. Ewald shrugs, nodding:
“It’s just something in the juice. We’ve always had it, but it’s become more obvious since we switched to biodynamic farming.”
These are wines that will convince any sceptic of the notion of terroir, and we are certain that the good vibes which emanate through every glass are testament to healthy farming and healthy wines.