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For years I have been drawn to Styria. More precisely, to Leutschach. There, at the southernmost end of Styria, always just a few steps away from the Slovenian border, you will find a band of four winegrowers (Franz Strohmeier, the West Styrian, is the fifth in the group) who put an innovative exclamation mark on a region that is not necessarily known for experimentation, and who skilfully bridge the gap between tradition and the avant-garde.

Andreas Tscheppe, Winery E. & A. Tscheppe

Andreas, and here we are at the beginning of the story, I first met at the train station in Ehrenhausen. According to him, the perfect starting point to dive into the wine world of Styria and since I had never been down there before - quasi on the Slovenian border - we didn't take the direct route to Leutschach, but chose the hills, the wine road, the route past border pegs and vines. We passed the Slovenian-Slovenian-Styrian border a few times and while we proved to be physical border crossers, Andreas told me about life as a border crosser between the local wine worlds: "Actually, I had the vineyards from my father on the Riegersburg. But I actually wanted to do something at my place, so I decided to start new vineyards in my home country. Then a lot of things went wrong at first, and just before I threw it all away, I thought to myself, now I'll really start again."

How he did that can best be seen in the Krebskogel, a vineyard that is actually as old as the hills, but which has been lying fallow since last year. 2.4 hectares had to be recultivated. A herb meadow was to become a vineyard again. It was a bureaucratic gauntlet to get the vine planting rights, he says, but in the end he had a few folders full of documents and the permit on top. So he got into his excavator ("I'm a passionate excavator driver") and started terracing the Krebskogel from top to bottom, planting Yellow Muskateller, Goldmuskateller and Sauvignon on the high areas, which merges into Chardonnay at the bottom. This new planting not only demonstrates the commitment of Andreas Tscheppe, it is actually paradigmatic for a group of winegrowers who have not set themselves the goal of revolutionising Styrian viticulture (they lack the missionary zeal to do so), but are all the more consistent in implementing their own idea of high-quality, terroir-driven and truly sustainable viticulture. Tscheppe's concept is sophisticated, well thought-out and implemented with impressive passion.

Winemaker Andreas Tscheppe (Photo: Mario Zalto)

For example, he adapts the terraces to the terrain. He does not level the areas straight into the mountain, but goes with the slope ("otherwise I would have had to blast away half the mountain"), which also faces the sun in various exposures and incidentally - at least for urban people - opens up an aesthetic dimension. The plant density is high, as is the vineyard: 580 metres on its crest - "from up there you can look all the way over to Hungary". The warm Pannonian climate also comes from there and dries the foliage that has become damp at night.

In addition, the Krebskogel is protected from the cold winds of the Koralpe by a chestnut forest. Protection and sustainability are then also other buzzwords, and Andreas relies on a vital vineyard culture. Up here on the Krebskogel, a sea of herbs grows between the vines, the meadow is only mown once in spring, peach trees break up the rows of vines, and his real concern is to "slow down the monoculture that is viticulture".

He points to the foot of the Krebskogel, which is dominated by a mighty pear tree. "I try to preserve that tree at all costs. It's 80 years old, it's stood up here for generations, why should I remove it." Besides, and this is where it gets more complicated, "every tree has a certain energy." I will find out what that energy is in the course of the next two days. For now, we make our way over to Andreas' farm up on Langegg. We trudge through the foliage, and while we make out the Czamillonberg and other classic Styrian sites in the distance, the winemaker also tells me about the problems he has had to deal with since founding his small winery in 2006.

"In 2008, I had the biggest problems with the deer during the vegetation," he tells me. "When that was over, the birds came. They mainly eat my grapes because they taste better than the rest of the stuff here." He laughs, the absurdity of the situation calls for it, but actually it must have been quite a shock when he went to harvest his gold muscat in 2008. He had imported it from a winemaker friend in South Tyrol, and when he went to bring in his first harvest, he was faced with a vineyard that had already been harvested, eaten away by the deer. He was left with 25 litres, which he vinified on the mash in a glass balloon. In 2009, it all hailstormed away, 2010 was difficult, and only in 2011 was he able to harvest and process it as he had intended from the beginning: super ripe and aged in wooden barrels.

(Photo: Mario Zalto)

Andreas Tscheppe's life takes place mainly at the top. On hills and hilltops. At the top is also his farm, in front of whose entrance is a sign with the picture of one of his - at least in a small circle - famous labels. A stag beetle is depicted on it, anatomically precise, and just a reference to what kind of creatures are allowed to move around in his vineyard. From Langegg, which is almost entirely planted with his brother's vines, we look into the distance, and at part of the four hectares that Andreas farms. He knows it's not much, but "you can't go from zero to a hundred right away either". So he buys, sometimes from conventional winegrowers, but mostly from his brother, who is also a member of the group. The group: that's Andreas and Ewald Tscheppe, the brothers, plus Roland Tauss, Sepp Muster and, geographically a little remote, but programmatically completely in line (and perhaps the most experimental of all), Franz Strohmeier. They function collectively under the name "Schmecke das Leben" (Taste Life), and if you read through their manifesto, you will come across, among other things, the following aphorisms: "Schmecke das Leben is a community of values of five Styrian vintners.... Their common path of a shared understanding of nature leads them to a new lifestyle - a new style of wine..."

Tasting notes: The cellar where Andreas Tscheppe ferments his wines is located at the foot of the Langeggerberg, at his brother's farm. His wines, however, are further up, and so we start exploring this new wine style together (we'll get to the lifestyle, too). We don't flinch for long and start with one of his almost legendary (is that possible in such a short time?) earth barrel wines. Andreas buries a barrel in the ground to allow the wine inside to mature as calmly and stably as possible. Dug out and bottled, the single-varietal Sauvignon Blanc first smells and tastes of herbs and oranges, the body is dense yet firm. Three weeks of maceration ensure fine tannins, the malolactic is not directly noticeable, it just makes the wine a little rounder and more balanced. The interventions, which are already limited to the most essential in the vineyard, decrease again in the cellar. Pressing is gentle and slow, sulphurisation is minimal, the temperature is not regulated, fermentation is spontaneous. The wines remain in the barrels and on the lees for weeks, months and years, and only when Andreas feels they are ready, they are bottled. This can take years, and so it is that we are now sitting in front of the Sauvignon Blanc 2007, the Grüner Libelle, which offers everything but primary fruit: Camomile, herbs and blossoms dominate, the wine has pressure and pull towards the palate, a maceration day gives it an additional kick. The wines are uncompromising and offer a completely different approach to Styrian Sauvignon Blanc. They are an antithesis, an impressive alternative design and, in their naturalness, at the same time question the standardised typology of the grape variety. Here, one is light years away from passion fruit and gooseberry notes, from green pepper and elderberry notes, aromas that normally put their stamp on Sauvignon. The same goes for the Blaue Libelle, which with its graphite and herbal notes is more reminiscent of Chablis than of Steirische Klassik, and then what is even more surprising is the Muskateller, which appears more aromatic but is also grippy, firm and compact, a wine with power and structure. We sit back contentedly and then decide to drive down to the brother, past old vines that are kept in an old Styrian vine training system and already belong to Ewald's vineyards.

(Photo: Mario Zalto)

Ewald Tscheppe, Werlitsch Winery

Unlike his brother, Ewald Tscheppe has his nine hectares of vineyards almost completely around his farm. This gives us the opportunity to trudge uphill again (in the direction of Andreas) - under a blue sky and armed with a spade to get to the bottom of the biodynamic soil life. Soil in itself is of elementary importance in viticulture, but with the five winegrowers the word, the substance, its structure, the life in it, takes on a new dimension.

"Soil observation is everything," says Ewald, "you can read the soil and at some point you will know about it. About its fractures, its structure, the compaction horizons, its rooting. Of course, this requires practice, and as Ewald sticks the spade into the earth and digs up a piece of humus, he reads while I sit opposite him like an illiterate person, listening, looking and smelling the soil that Ewald holds under my nose. Soil just, you might think, but with the passion and analytical ability with which Ewald talks about it, you soon realise that you'd better pay attention and listen: "You have to look at the soil in its entirety, as an organism - and like any organism, it needs balances." In the meantime, we have arrived in the middle of biodynamics, where precisely this totality forms a fundamental principle. "And to create these balances, you have to finely control, feed the soil a little bit where it needs it, observe what happens, how it reacts," he continues. Ewald Tscheppe uses two biodynamic preparations, he has not composted for a long time, allows natural competition in the vineyard, and at some point "the system runs itself".

The close observation of the soil ultimately also led to the fact that the idea of origin is much closer to him than the idea of variety. He is well aware that he is skating on thin ice. "In Austria, varietal thinking is absolutely dominant. Customers want the grape variety, the rest plays a subordinate role," Ewald knows and then does it quite differently. All his wines are cuvées, although the exact composition is nowhere to be found on the label. There are the names Ex Vero I to Ex Vero III, Tscheppe's personal division. They stand for the sites - all of which are on Langegg - their exposure, their steepness, their structure. While Ex Vero I, for example, is located at the end of the slope, where the bedrock is somewhat deeper and only meets rock after half a metre of brown earth, Ex Vero III is found on the uppermost slopes and the roots of the vines are directly in the rock from the beginning. Ex Vero II is the golden mean.

(Photo: Mario Zalto)

As we descend, Ewald continues to talk. About how he is happy to live in isolation at the end of the valley, in his little oasis where no one looks at him askance when he is not mowing. Or about the three stages that a thing usually goes through when someone starts something new: "In the beginning, someone does one thing and it is ignored. Then he's still doing it and then suddenly there's a headwind, and if he still passes it, then it's said we've always said that." He, at any rate, no longer wants to work any other way, he confesses, and when you look at his mighty old but sturdy sticks, you know why.

A little later, in Ewald's tasting room, we try to find out what they yield and to what extent the differences between the vineyards can be sensed. His first gesture is already decisive. It goes in the direction of Burgundy glasses, mighty goblets that normally only hold red wines - and Ewald's complete Ex Vero range.

We start with Ex Vero I, and while the wine is getting the necessary air in the glass, we get straight to talking about sulphur, one of the hottest potatoes in the current wine world, controversially discussed and often misunderstood. Ewald Tscheppe has his own opinion on the matter: "Sulphur," he believes, "in no way destroys the vitality of the wine. Too much sulphur, too early, however, brings it completely out of balance. With the addition of sulphur, you get young, fresh aromas in the wine. What is essential, however, is what time does to the wine. Complex structures that have formed in the vineyard must be broken up over the years - at the same time, long aroma chains must form in the wine, and these do not develop overnight. Aromas have to remain mobile, but sulphur has to remain fixed." In short, the only way to get to the complex product that is wine is through the time factor.

Complexity is definitely a keyword that characterises the wines of Ewald Tscheppe. Starting with Ex Vero I, which is always mainly Chardonnay. Spice dominates across the vintages (although interestingly, these gain fruit after years of ripening), subtle nutty tones alternate with filigree herbal notes. All this is embedded in a perfect structure of acidity and body, the wines are dense, juicy and long, harmonious and well-balanced, even though they have often been open for days. The vinification is similar to that of the brother, the wines undergo biological acid reduction across the board and without exception end up in wooden barrels of different sizes, provenance and age.

(Photo: Mario Zalto)

When Ewald took over his father's winery in 2004, he did not - as often happens - change everything abruptly, but he did make three decisions immediately. He registered the winery with Demeter, bought wooden barrels and decided to bottle all the wines as cuvées. These were all courageous measures that definitely did not follow a trend at the time, but for which he has plausible explanations: "I have no problem at all with wood. However, not all wood is the same."

And so, in the beginning, he spent a similar amount of time on choosing the right wood as others do on choosing the right aromatic yeasts. "Wood has to be able to do the same thing as the wine that is in it, it has to integrate in such a way that you don't notice the manipulation, and above all the wine becomes rounder and smoother. If that succeeds, then the wine also gains in complexity and longevity," he explains. And to make sure there were no unpleasant surprises, he also went on a week-long search for the right cooper.

He certainly did a good job. The latest Ex Vero II (2008), which is always a little Sauvignon-influenced, seems a little more full-bodied, juicy and punchy than the first version, and the lime comes through more strongly. But all this is topped by the 2007. It seems to be at a peak ("my wines change and that is important and good"), the aromas are pronounced, herbal spice dominates at first, but is then replaced by berry notes and ends with almost exotic aromas. Ewald says the wine is like bundled light. You don't have to understand that, but it's not really difficult to comprehend it either. The wine seems open, bright, powerful - and you don't notice any wood. Nor of any green Sauvignon aromas. This is partly due to the ageing process, but also to the fact that Chardonnay is a congenial partner. Both are harvested, fermented and vinified separately, but after one year they are blended, and then the wine matures for another year to find a perfect balance. "The wines start to mature again, so to speak," explains Tscheppe, "which is why cuvées take longer to finish." It all sounds simple, but all these measures require extreme stamina - because time is money, even for winemakers. But time is also an elementary quality factor. Ewald Tscheppe has opted for the latter.

This is most evident in the Ex Vero III, which is first aged in barriques for a year and then further matured in large barrels. Whether they are three or six years old, the wines are young, even if you can taste the first fine balsamic-etheric hints in some of them, and full of tension and power. Ewald is proud of his wines, and quite rightly so. They may be a touch different, less fruity-sweet and aromatic, but they are complex, original and long-lasting - they are, in a nutshell, wines with character.

(Photo: Mario Zalto)

Roland Tauss, Winery A. & R. Tauss

On the drive to the Tauss family winery, Ewald comes to talk about the diverse yet different influences that shape and have shaped the group. "Sepp and Maria [Muster] were travelling the world in the late nineties, and when they arrived in India, a three-week seminar by Peter Procter on biodynamic agriculture was just beginning there. The two of them studied this in depth and brought it back to Styria. I then watched it, was fascinated and then rather by chance came across Alex Bodolinski, who put anthroposophical thinking on a rather pragmatic pedestal. My brother dived into the works of Viktor Schauberger in particular and filtered out many ideas. Franz [Strohmeier] then joined in and has since amassed a small library of relevant literature."

Roland Tauss' approach was more mundane. "My son had neurodermatitis," he says, "and that's when you start thinking about it. I took over the farm at a young age and continued in the conventional way - spraying, fertilising, sulphurising...". Until allergies brought the classic system crashing down.

In the meantime, Alice and Roland Tauss' winery is Demeter-certified - but that is ultimately only the official confirmation of an impressive project. Because apart from a decidedly organic viticulture, or rather an extremely well thought-out cooperation with their vines and their natural environment, the two run a winegrowers' house with guest rooms that manifests their convictions just as clearly as their wines and is a role model in terms of sustainability, at least in Austria. They produce their own electricity, heat with wood chips, warm the pool with solar energy, collect water in rainwater cisterns and treat waste water in their own biological sewage treatment plant. They recycle what they can, eat organic food and print with vegetable oil inks. The list could be extended at will, but let's take a look in the cellar instead, after the sun has already set on the Werlitschs and darkness lies over the vineyards.

"Actually, there is hardly anything to see in the cellar. We don't really do much," Roland tells us. And so we stand between a whole lot of wooden barrels and talk about non-intervention. The most essential intervention is the choice of container. "We chose wood, firstly because it is a tradition here in the region, secondly because it gives our wines the right texture and density, and last but not least because wood is a living element that also allows the wines to breathe - albeit on a microscopic scale," explains the nature-loving winemaker. Otherwise, the approach down in the cellar is the same as that practised by the other four members of "Taste Life": Spontaneous fermentation without temperature control, minimal sulphurisation (if any), occasional racking of the wines to expose them to deliberate oxidation, lots of time on the fine lees - and otherwise? "Nothing!"

(Photo: Mario Zalto)

After half an hour we are already out of the cellar and sitting with the first wines. "You shouldn't confuse this nothing with doing nothing," smiles Roland. And strikes the same note as Tscheppe before and samples after him.

"You have to sensitise yourself - have to learn to notice the details. To have patience. And to accept natural processes. Both in the cellar and in the vineyard." And you also need good nerves. For despite all this acceptance, much of what Roland Tauss does is a rigorous counterpoint to common scientific doctrines. He is on thin ice, but he seems to feel quite comfortable on it. Dealing respectfully with his vines and his wines is definitely more important to him than dealing respectfully with science. Yet experiments definitely have their place in Tauss' philosophy. After all, what really happens when you suddenly start radically minimising sulphur? Does the wine turn into vinegar, as the teachings suggest? And what about the preservative function of alcohol? Roland's Welschriesling from 2006 gives the answer: as the only allusion to vinegar, it has a slightly balsamic note, a discreet 11.5 per cent alcohol, otherwise it is packed with herbs and camomile, elegant, creamy and floral and far from the end.

Or what happens if you simply leave wine on the fine lees for three years and move it several times? It simply becomes more complex, Tauss' 2007 Pinot Blanc is an eloquent example of this. Roland Tauss' wines, whether they come from his somewhat simpler Opok series or from the Hohenegg line, are exciting and sometimes spectacular wines. Above all because they shatter expectations, always articulate themselves only through hints and nuances and constantly challenge the wine drinker. Not because they are difficult to drink. On the contrary, the wines are digestible and lively: Those from Opok, a loamy sandy soil with a high proportion of dissolved lime, which is found throughout southern Styria, are above all delicate, elegant and mineral, the wines from Hohenegg, also Opok, but with a higher proportion of sand, are spicier, denser and more substantial. But they are also one thing above all: different every time.

"Why not," Roland says laconically. We don't make an industrial product here, we operate in an annual cycle that always demands new ideas and reactions from us." But if that's the big picture, perpetual differences also occur on a small scale that most consumers often don't want to acknowledge. "Minimal temperature fluctuations support completely different aroma structures, storage shapes, each wooden barrel differs from the next, cork is never the same as cork, and air and time change even more." Ultimately, this means that even wines from the same vintage can often taste one way today and another tomorrow. In the end, of course, this should not be a problem, especially if the consumer integrates himself into the creative process of the winemaker. If one is aware of the winemaker's intentions, one has, on the one hand, a constantly new taste experience and, on the other hand, a legitimate answer to controlled standardisation.

Wine landscape around Leutschach (Photo: ÖWM/Anna Stöcher)

This standardisation and especially the Sauvignon Blanc Hohenegg raise the next question, which is based on the distorted image of typicality and authenticity. Because what is in the glass here has little to do with the taste profile of Sauvignon Blanc that is often conveyed. If you are looking for fresh gooseberries and passion fruit, limes and green peppers, you will do so in vain. Instead, we are dealing with a soft, substantial, floral wine that leaves fine oily traces on the palate and yet always remains precise in its herbaceousness and minerality. "You don't get a test number for this in Styria," Roland remarks with a shrug, "although for me this is pure Styria."

How can that be? One obvious explanation is that most wine drinkers are so conditioned to primary fruit notes that they are no longer aware that they are actually based on multiple manipulations. Pure-breeding yeasts, for example, do not necessarily have to release aromas into the wine, but they can emphasise aromas in the wine. Fermentation temperatures, on the other hand, can be regulated in such a way that extreme fruit aromas dominate the wine from the very first second. Steel tanks, which definitely have no tradition in Styria, are preferred to wooden barrels and thus help define a type that is now considered classic in Styria. The situation is grotesque, but before one laments for a long time, it makes much more sense and, above all, fun to also taste Roland's Blaufränkische. They are as exceptional in southern Styria as they are remarkable on the nose and palate: the one from Opok is spicy, cinnamony, dark berry and tight, elegant and long, the Hohenegg shares this profile but adds pepper, power and compactness and sends you on your way home with a finish that lasts even in bed.

The E. & A. Winery Tscheppe in the Wine Guide

The Werlitsch Winery in the Wine Guide

The A. & R. Tauss Winery in the Wine Guide

To Part II of the article series: "More from the 'Gang of Five'".

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