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Climbing through the vineyards of the Wagram, past thousands and thousands of vines of Grüner Veltliner, it sometimes happens that you find yourself eye to eye with a bee-eater. Or a hoopoe. Birds, in other words, that are not made fools of here by some grotesque straw dolls, but that have the luxury of having their own houses. "We have 600 birdhouses in our vineyards, and there will probably be 5,000 in the whole of Wagram," says Bernhard Ott. Why is that? Other winegrowers stretch hectare-sized nets over their gardens, and the grapes from Wagram are not so bad that they can't occasionally be picked away as a meal. "Trouble only comes with migratory birds." The hoopoe is admittedly sedentary, and in return for getting a house, it also clears the vineyards of insects - its preferred food. A hoopoe eats 60 kilos of them - preferably grubs. "That's why we don't need insecticides."

The Wagram is small and innovative. And also a pioneer in organic viticulture. After all, 16 percent of the 2,700 hectares of vineyards are certified, which is well above the Austrian average. Most of the vines on the Wagram are rooted on the southern side of a hilltop formed by loess drifts from the east during the last ice age. Metre-thick layers of loess characterise the Wagram and give it a homogeneity that is unusual for Austria and is only rarely broken. Loess is a crystalline mineral consisting of microscopic quartz grains, which on the Wagram are also interspersed with chalky particles - storage capacity and water permeability complement each other perfectly. Sensory expression of loess often comes in the form of subtle salty tones when vineyards are worked carefully and vinification is successful. The myth that it gives wines a special lushness was refuted in exemplary fashion during our two days in Wagramer.

"We want annoying wines," also declares Kerstin, Bernhard Ott's Swedish lady for everything (she knows everything about wine, the region, amphorae, biodynamics, fauna, flora, etc.), who fell in love with Ott's cellar master two years ago (which his wines alone justify) and is now explaining the ways and worlds of the earthworm in front of a soil profile. This is much more interesting than it sounds. Such an earthworm creates loose, well-ventilated soil in which the roots of vines and all kinds of other plants feel at home, in addition to countless microorganisms. Healthy soil is a catchphrase that many winegrowers take for granted as their intention, but at Ott it becomes an intensely lived paradigm. He spreads 1,000 to 2,000 tonnes of humus on his 33 hectares every year, mostly enriched with various biodynamic teas and preparations. In 2006 he switched to biodynamic farming, and when you hear him talk about it, you quickly know that someone has found a passion here.

Vine rows in Feuersbrunn (Photo: ÖWM/Armin Faber)

Ott's second passion is Veltliner. The Grüner. Apart from two small vineyards with Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling, the entire sea of vines on the Hengstberg, his Großlage, is planted with Austria's parade variety. Seven Veltliners in total, three terraced cuvées, three single vineyards and one that is undergoing its ageing period in amphorae. The rest is in steel tanks, fermented spontaneously if possible and then left on the yeast for a few months. It is obvious that the forms of vinification can change according to the vintage, but Ott explains this in detail. 2010 crushed grapes, spontaneous fermentation, long maceration, bâtonnage, the wines on the lees for a long time; 2011 whole cluster pressing, partial assistance at the start of fermentation (reluctantly), no maceration, no bâtonnage, etc. In Ott's case, wine definitely remains a natural product, but it is also a cultural product to the same degree. He steers, intervenes where necessary, and does it well.

The common thread is elegant, dense, nuanced, carried by fine spice that lingers, compact, juicy and structured. This was not always the case, but this style has solidified over the last few years. The wines have become more complex, Spiegel, Stein and Rosenberg, the three single vineyards, manifestations of finely knit Veltliners. Ott believes that he owes a lot to his constant willingness to look around internationally and to have found the ambitious benchmark for his efforts in Burgundy.

Another factor was the aforementioned step into biodynamic worlds. Another exciting aspect is that the holistic approach of biodynamics also includes a social component for him. Ten people work in his vineyards, more than twice as many as in a conventional farm of the same size. They meet in the morning, at lunch, eat together, hold training sessions, in short: they try to create as harmonious a working atmosphere as possible.

Bernhard Ott vinifies some of his wines in amphorae. (Photo: A. Essl)

Of course, biodynamic work is expensive and Ott feels a little let down by the state. "If you work sustainably, you should be subsidised accordingly," says the winemaker, but manual labour, as practised by him, is labour-intensive, and "while labour is taxed extremely high, there are no taxes on herbicides and chemical fertilisers."

Fortunately, there are no taxes on amphorae yet, but transporting them from Georgia to Feuersbrunn costs a lot of money. Ott has 13 of them buried behind the house, more than any other vintner in Austria. He likes the neutrality of the clay, the art behind shaping these filigree containers - ultimately he sees himself as a craftsman.

The results prove him right: his Qvevre (a modification of the Georgian word for amphora) are brilliant wines that precisely bring out the character of the vintages. There is no manipulation here, the fermentation temperature is set by the environment, vineyard yeasts ensure a spontaneous start to fermentation, sulphur is only added months later and shortly before bottling, and the time factor does the rest. And so it remains to say in all brevity that the first Qvevre (2009) harmoniously, crystal clear, concentrated and juicy tops the current ranking ahead of the 2010, which is taut, tightly meshed and lively opens up a completely different dimension, as well as the 2011, which with its open spiciness and softness again opens up another chapter that will definitely reveal additional details over the years.

Over a few hilltops, through criss-cross vineyards, we continue a few kilometres to Großriedenthal, to the Diwalds, of whom a winemaker recently said that Hans, the elder Diwald, was the Che Guevara of Austrian organic viticulture. And that was definitely meant admiringly. The young Diwald at least has the hair of the young Che. And his energy. So before we jump into the car to drive to the vineyards, we first go to the back of the house. There runs one of the few barn roads in Austria - huge old barns stand there, whose façades - protected by the heritage office - must remain unchanged for future generations. "The Diwald barn dates from the 1930s," Martin tells us, and "the construction is meant to last forever." Two 23-metre-long continuous beams support the roof, under which Diwald's press house and cellar have recently been located. A lot of steel flashes from the tanks here, but there are also a few 500-litre tonneaus in between, which he will also use for white wine with the coming harvest.

Winemaker Martin Diwald (Photo: A. Essl)

It grows a few hundred metres away from the estate, on the Goldberg and the Eisenhut. And again it's about Burgundy. Similar to there, Martin explains, the heart of the Wagram-Grand-Cru, so to speak, lies in the middle of the slope. Vineyards directly above the hill are blown out by the wind and quickly have to deal with wind frost in spring, while at the bottom constant erosion makes the winegrowers sweat. On the Goldberg, the heart is green; the Veltliner grapes hang loosely and healthily on the vines, while on the Eisenhut a few metres further on, the heart is reserved for the Riesling, from which Martin in the future wants to press his own reserve. The future is constantly circling in Martin's head, and that's why we also take a look at his experimental vineyard. There is a sprawling Sauvignon Blanc that is allowed to regulate itself with minimal pruning in order to produce a light, fresh, but physiologically ripe wine.

It looks a bit wild, but it makes sense. Tonnes of grapes fight over the vine, which leads to a harvest delay of two weeks - and therein lies the advantage. Martin only harvests the grapes at the end of October, taking advantage of the cool nights in the autumn of increasingly warmer years, and thus gets them into the cellar with decent acidity, low alcohol content and yet also ripe.

In the courtyard of the winery we taste the results while Martin summarises his personal wine worlds and ideas. "Everything here is loess," he emphasises an essential characteristic. "Lösslöss. It's cool, but also a bit bland." That's why he's happy about the iron sprinkles on Eisenhut, where his Riesling grows. They give it an extra dimension - a mineral one that complements stone fruit and flowers.

His single vineyards are fermented spontaneously. When it comes to temperatures, opinions differ a little: Martin likes the wines to ferment for a long time, i.e. the temperatures are somewhat lower, while his father Hans, who has joined the team, thinks higher temperatures are better. The compromise are the reserves and single vineyards, from which we get the 2008 Riesling in the glass. While herbal notes and stony aromas spread, Hans tells us about the beginnings.

Loess characterises the soil structure on the Wagram. (Photo: ÖWM/Lehmann)

Committing to organic viticulture in 1980 was tantamount to leaving the village church in the heyday of technological faith. If he had been embedded in the classic village culture - voluntary fire brigade, hunters, brass band - he would probably never have made it. Even so, it was not easy. "There were no certifications, no guidelines, no backing," he says - only a handful of like-minded people who realised even then that the path taken by the wine industry was a dead end for themselves. There was also a portion of stubbornness and the realisation that "it is an uplifting feeling to suffer in a persecuted minority."

Today it's all different. If you ask around in Wagram, Hans Diwald is met with the greatest respect. Prophet, revolutionary, lateral thinker are just a few of the compliments he receives. Martin has big shoes to fill, but he carries this burden with great composure. And above all, he makes good wines. A retrospective of his Goldberg variations concludes the Diwald visit and at the same time traces Martin's history as the person responsible for vinification. He has been making wine since 2006, and much of what he has done is worthwhile. The tendency and intention is similar to Bernhard Ott's over in Feuersbrunn: the wines are elegant, juicy and compact, dense and yet never expansive. And they tell the story of their origin.

The wines of the Salomons also do this to an extreme and admirable degree. But even if the wines of the winery were not so good, a visit to Oberstockstall and the estate located there would be worthwhile. It has been in the family since 1857, but the estate, the chapel and the castle were built much earlier. The estate has been built over the centuries, from the early Middle Ages to the Renaissance and on to the Baroque. The Oberstockstall estate is a cross-section of Austrian architectural history in the truest sense of the word.

The vineyards are often laid out in terraces. (Photo: ÖWM/Lehmann)

"Fritz is bringing in the hay," Birgit tells us in the cool tasting room. It is supposed to thunderstorm in the evening, so Fritz is in the field, despite the sweltering heat. Farming sometimes does not tolerate any delay, especially when one is completely committed to biodynamics. For the Salomons not only cultivate 14 hectares of vineyards, the estate also includes 90 hectares of agriculture and livestock breeding. Everything is certified. Sheep between Veltliner and Blondvieh in vegetable gardens - the Salomons, like hardly anyone else in Austrian viticulture, cultivate a holistic way of thinking.

They compost, spread their own cattle manure, and only for the teas and preparations do they call on the help of Rudi Hoheneder, a veteran of the Austrian Demeter movement. He also steered them in this direction years ago, but he was not the only one. At that time, Fritz Salomon's gaze was mainly across the border, and what he saw, heard and tasted in Burgundy he then slowly adapted for his own vineyards.

They are rooted mainly in deep loess in vineyards whose names may not have the renown of wine-growing regions further north, but which should nevertheless be remembered: Brunnberg, Maulbeerpark, Tobel and Glockengießer are such loess sites, and on them are Veltliner and Riesling, but also Pinot and Zweigelt. All of them are elegant, slender, taut representatives of the varieties, which manifest themselves more through hints than through clarity. Only Traminer (one of the best in Austria) is grown on gravel in the Ederin vineyard.

In the garden, there is no use of any kind of systemic means; on the contrary, in addition to the application of humus and selective biodynamic preparations, the cosmological component also plays an important role. The same applies to the cellar, so to speak. The Salomons ferment spontaneously, the temperature is not controlled, and sulphur is added late and sometimes not at all. We are always weighing up what is good for the vines, the soil and later also for the wine. Experiments that have led to the Salomons being among the most exciting, innovative and ultimately also the best winemakers in Lower Austria.

Zweigelt (left) and Pinot Noir (right) are also used to produce full-bodied red wines on the Wagram. (Photos: ÖWM/Faber)

And represent the Wagram brilliantly not only in terms of white wine. If you want to question your own opinion of Zweigelt, you should look at examples like Fritz Salomon's. You know the cherries on the nose, but then it becomes surprising, crisp, punchy, spicy, even the tannin is given a role here, resulting in an elegant yet powerful structure, and ultimately the conclusion is an impressive wine. And the Pinot shows that brilliant examples can also be found north of Vienna.

Kirchberg am Wagram, less than five minutes from Oberstockstall, is more or less the heart of the region, and in the middle of it is Weritas, definitely the most beautiful regional wine shop in Austria. Wines are available from all corners of the region and you can drink them - and that's what makes it so beautiful - on a terrace that opens up a view into the distance and across the vineyards. Here, in a short time, you can get to know the wines of the Wagram and, fortunately, taste them, combined with fresh trout and ham from the area.

At the end of the route taken, in the eastern Wagram, "where no one goes by chance", Josef Fritz presses wines of a special class from an almost forgotten grape variety. "In 1982 I grubbed up my last Red Veltliner, then in 1987 I started again," he explains. The turnaround in thinking simply caused the awareness that the full potential had never been extracted from a rare grape variety here. "Roter Veltliner is one of the original Central European varieties, a parent of Rotgipfler, Zierfandler and Frühroter Veltliner," he explains. "It ripens late and is not necessarily the easiest grape variety to cultivate in the area. It has hardly any tendrils and is therefore difficult to knit into the wire frame, and it would have the genetics to really bear a lot." But that makes it clumsy and boring, and that's why the main thing is to get a grip on the yield by using the right soils (barren), cover crop and pruning. Once you've done that, it gets really exciting. Once you have highly ripe material (Roter Veltliner, like Traminer, only works really well from 13 percent alcohol by volume, according to Josef Fritz), then the game with the potential of the grape variety can begin. Fritz relies on spontaneous fermentation, large wooden barrels, relatively high fermentation temperatures and time.

The Wagramer Terrassen are already fun and promise a lot, the Steinberg is then juicy, with filigree fruit and mineral length. And above all, it has one thing that its much better-known colleague in Grün often lacks in warm years: acidity, "sometimes more than Riesling". In 2011, this was an immense advantage, and so the two wines also appear balanced, lively, with good tension. The top wine of the year, however, is still in the barrel, and so we focus on the 2010 Roter Veltliner Privat, which turns out without hesitation to be a masterpiece - powerful, full-bodied, salty, mineral, precise, crystal clear, full of stone fruit and full of promise for a glorious future.

View of Klosterneuburg (Photo: ÖWM/Armin Faber)

The basis for this future lies in the vineyard. Josef Fritz refuses to get involved in the hysteria surrounding biodynamics because he simply doesn't believe in it ("maybe I've become a mechanical monster"), but he has a lot to gain from organic viticulture à la Diwald. And finally, he, who has several years of experience at the Vienna University of Natural Resources and Applied Life Sciences under his belt, also relies on many measures that are also used on declared organic farms. He has been planting greenery for many decades, looks at the sky and the phases of the moon from time to time and draws conclusions from this. He considers the meticulous observation of the plant world as a parameter for the soil to be much more sensible than soil samples, and in the cellar he relies on the "anti-authoritarian vinification" already recommended by the old Josef Jamek.

This is how his wines develop into independent greats that stand confidently even years later. The Chardonnay, which tends to lead an outsider's existence on the Wagram, is powerful, close-meshed, full and yet elegant, with light honey and stronger exotic notes, the Traminer is a prime example of how to make the unloved variety popular again. To do this, Fritz deviated a little from his principles and pressed it authoritatively into wooden barrels, but this suits it amazingly well - it gives it edges and corners that compensate for the lack of acidity - and yet leaves enough room for the roses and tropical fruits to make themselves sufficiently felt.

It has become dark over the Wagram, the moon hangs in its waxing phase and it is time to go - without having seen even close to everything. The Wagram is a bustling playground of the Austrian wine world, an experimental field of a special kind, a haven of innovative minds. You should come back and visit the many others who missed out here: Karl Fritsch and Franz Leth, Toni Söllner and the Wimmer-Czernys. But of that another time.

The Berhard Ott Winery in the Wine Guide

The Diwald Winery in the Wine Guide

The Oberstockstall Estate in the Wine Guide

The Fritz Winery in the Wine Guide

The Fritsch Vineyard in the Wine Guide

The Leth Winery in the Wine Guide

The Söllner Winery in the Wine Guide

The Wimmer-Czerny Winery in the Wine Guide

To the magazine article "Austria In Focus: Wagram and Traisental".

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