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Sepp Muster, Maria & Sepp Muster Winery

The wind blows over the hilltop where the Graf House, the Musters' vineyard, stands. Once again we are at the top - as we were at Andreas Tscheppe - surrounded by vineyards, some of them steeply sloping and with various exposures. Terraces are unusual in Styria, and so the continuously planted vineyard opens up in all its vastness. Thousands of vines lie before us, and Sepp Muster knows them all. At least I think so, and the longer I listen to him, the more certain I am about this.

The next 90 minutes are a lesson in nature observation and also more exciting than Dortmund against Bayern or, to stay in the region, more entertaining than Sturm against Kapfenberg.

25,000 sticks stand here in the vineyards. A few young ones, "for the next generation", and many old ones, to which Sepp's heart is attached. "Old vines have more substance, everything over 20 years old is more compact, more complex. This substance has to be brought into the cellar, and to do that you have to keep an eye on the vines, their environment, in short, the entire natural system."

So right at the beginning, the basic principles already emphasised on the previous day reappear in Muster's explanations: Time and exact observation are also decisive factors here, on the Leutschacher Schlossberg.

We wander downhill through the vineyards. Past massive canes, all wired in an unusual and idiosyncratic training. The wire is stretched almost at eye level, and until then the shoots grow a little upwards before they are pulled downwards in an arc (it is still too early for this in April). This so-called reverse training, which is also practised by the Werlitsch winery, is a relic from times past and has the advantage that the sap accumulates at the end of the vine over the course of the year. Muster believes that this is the best way to get the character of the soil into the wine, but admits that reverse training only makes sense if the growth can be controlled. The vines are therefore pruned rather heavily. "If the pruning fits, then the shoot goes into space, following nature. Each shoot consequently looks for its own space for the most perfect photosynthesis possible," says the winemaker.

Winemaker Sepp Muster (Photo: Mario Zalto)

Sepp spends the rest of the time explaining to me what you don't have to do to make a living vineyard thrive. He does not fertilise, not even with compost (natural yield reduction), he does not plant vegetation ("Nature comes by itself anyway. What grows then grows strongly anyway."), he uses biodynamic preparations rarely and selectively. He drives the tractor through the vineyards as rarely as possible (soil compaction), hardly ever mows, mulches twice a year.

This requires, on the one hand, an acceptance and immense trust in the processes of nature that can hardly be experienced, and on the other hand, a serenity that even grounded biodynamicists do not often display. "I don't strive for anything" and "I take what comes" are then also sentences that best demonstrate Muster's self-understanding and self-confidence in his work.

But what comes along is also taken by some of the best restaurateurs in the world. Getting Sepp's wines in Vienna is anything but easy, but you can certainly find them at Le Ciel and Steirereck, Vienna's (Austria's?) best restaurant, and if you happen to be in Copenhagen, you can also drink Muster's wines at Noma, which recently rose to number 1 in the culinary world rankings.

Still, there is a lot of work to be done. Because in order to be able to cooperate with the soil and the plant, you first have to develop a feeling for it. And in order to get that, you have to learn to understand the processes of the environment, gain experience and experiment in order to ultimately offer the vine the most perfect and balanced environment possible.

One would certainly expect Muster to tease a little against the big winemakers of the Styrian south and their megalomania, but nothing could be further from his mind. "Everyone should do what they want. After all, everything is legitimate. People can do whatever they want in the cellar. It's just not his way - besides, he relies on the young, who in turn often rely on him. Not only from Styria, but from all over the wine world, he receives requests from graduates of various viticultural schools who, after years of conventional apprenticeship, want to expand their knowledge in the alternative field of viticulture.

Back up at the winery, we take a quick look in the cellar and gather the bottles for the tasting and lunch. Muster continues with his tale of minimal intervention, which also finds its continuation behind the cellar door.

"Generally we rape and crush and then the grapes fall through a roof opening directly into the press. After pressing, the must is transferred to its fermentation container, and there it stays for about a year. In that one year I don't really do anything except taste the wine from time to time," after which the wine is transferred once, minimally sulphured (10 to 15 milligrams per litre), and then nothing happens for another year. Except that Sepp probably tastes it again occasionally. After two years, the wines are generally bottled without having been filtered beforehand. Red wines - Muster has a few of those, too - may stay a little longer in the barrel. And barrels always are. Steel tanks are only used as containers for the assemblage. And the temperature control devices hanging from the ceiling? Those, Muster laughs, he uses to cool down grape juice. And possibly to briefly calm down wines that have fermentation temperatures above 30 degrees (these are temperatures that would make most winemakers break out in a cold sweat).

Muster Winery (Photo: Mario Zalto)

Warmth does us quite a bit of good, too, and so we walk into the main house, past a buried amphora that Muster is no longer quite so convinced of. In the end, it was always a marginal story in his range, an experiment that, in his opinion, didn't quite work out. He thinks he crossed his subjective line too often. The attempt to produce the wine as naturally as possible did not work the way he wanted. He lost the feeling for it. "And ultimately," says Muster, "the amphora has no tradition here anyway. We've actually been working with wood since time immemorial."

We crack open the first bottle, his Sauvignon from Opok, full of yellow fruit and a fine earthiness, while Maria Muster chops vegetables next to us. Muster's wines are fabulous food companions, and since they are not simple wines either, he especially recommends new customers to drink them with food. He also gives more advice, and for all of them there is also a comprehensible explanation. You should drink your white wines at 12 to 14 degrees, because at lower temperatures the tannin closes the wine, or you should drink them over days, because the wines develop over several days (due to the intended oxidative ageing on the fine lees). The most extreme, and even Sepp was surprised, was his unsulphured (!) Morillon from Opok. The wine had been in the fridge for three weeks, and what was then in the glass was far from being either vinegar or, worse, dead: rather, it was finely fruity, animating and lively.

What you are getting into with the sample wines can also be read from the labels. For the Opok line, they chose a green background, as the wines are dominated by herbs. The Graf line has warm brown tones, a reference to the earthiness and yellow fruitiness of the wines. The macerated wines have a red label - an expression, of the orange and berry aromas and ultimately the colour of the wines.

If one tastes Sepp's wines in a concentrated way, another basic pattern also emerges: from the simpler Opok wines to the amphora wine, one is dealing with fine-bodied, multi-layered, elegant, long and long-lived wines. "20 years," Muster also says, when asked about the potential of his wines.

Two to three minutes. That's how long the Sauvignon Blanc Graf hangs on the palate in all its chalkiness and earthiness. At the end, ripe fruit aromas also accompany it. The texture in the mouth was compact, the acidity as well, and if Muster is all about harmonies in the vineyard, then his wine in the glass reflects that analogously. Elderflower and primary aromas should not be expected here.

Opok, Graf and Sgaminegg are fantasy names, by the way: Since Muster's wines are also declared as country wines, he is not allowed to write the vineyard name on them, in this case the large Schlossberg vineyard. Muster has no problem with this, and the guests at Noma don't seem to care either. The situation is nevertheless a little absurd. In the best restaurant in the world, his wine is the talk of the town, in Japan, Germany and Scandinavia just as much, but in Austria itself, his clientele is reduced to two or three merchants and an ever-growing number of followers who buy directly from him. "Of course I would rather sell in Leibniz than in London," but that also requires customers who are willing to go along with the winemaker's concept.

This includes an orange wine (the "Countess" lies in its maceration bed for two to four weeks) that Muster personally appreciates similarly to his unpolished, radical, earthy amphora wine "Earth". Not only for its balsamic, earthy and orange notes, but also for its digestibility and liveliness. Orange wines are more rustic than classic white wines (which Muster ultimately prefers), but they offer a perfect drinking sensation on some days and the perfect symbiosis with some dishes.

Perhaps this is the very word that best sums up Muster's ambitions: symbiosis - the balanced interplay between man, soil and vine in the overall structure of nature manifested in wines that may be idiosyncratic and special, but which declare war on monotony.

Vineyard (Photo: Mario Zalto)

Strohmeier Wine and Sparkling Wine Manufactory

If you cross Styria from Leutschach in a westerly direction, you end up 45 minutes later in Stainz and a few minutes later in St. Stephan. Schilcherland. But at the Strohmeier Winery, this is only half the truth. Although Schilcher is their most important product commercially - and here above all the sparkling wine - there are hardly any limits to the experiments and ideas at the Strohmeiers. Innovation and crossing borders seem to be Austria's symbiotic mottos at this end.

Whereas first there is Schilcher sparkling wine, produced according to the champagne method, part of it aged in steel tanks, the rest in wooden barrels. And Franz Strohmeier also immediately goes out and projects the future concept into the tasting room. "In the future, it will all be in wooden barrels - I think that will make the wines more annoying. And yet more substantial." Franz Strohmeier would in all likelihood deny his curiosity and his eagerness to experiment if he had not long since begun bottling the first batches in wooden barrels. There are vintage sparkling wines from 1999 or 2004, all fermented in wood, but he admits - as good and complex as the products may be - that it is still difficult to sell matured Schilcher sparkling wine in Austria.

How serious Strohmeier is about his basic sparkling wines can also be seen in the fact that he serves them in Burgundy glasses. They open the wine better, give it the necessary air and also emphasise volatile aroma nuances. "We haven't used champagne flutes for a long time," Christine Strohmeier explains, "and the idea of comparing the aroma expression in different glasses then also fails because we can't find the flutes."

No problem, we continue with Schilcher in the still wine version, and here a similar phenomenon emerges as already with her sparkling wines. "Actually, the wines belong on the fine lees for longer. But we can't put Schilcher on the market in autumn when everyone is already waiting for the new vintage," but Strohmeier wouldn't be Strohmeier if he didn't have an alternative answer.So he also has a Schilcher from the 2008 vintage, which he bottled unsulphured only recently and which is to present itself as the first big highlight of the afternoon. What is in the glass here breaks the chains in which Schilcher is so readily placed and gives the classically rustic texture a fine, soft and subtle answer: the wine is peppery, soft, fleshy, juicy and berry, and if you didn't know any better, you would be in the middle of a wooden path to Burgundy.

This incredible reinterpretation in terms of Schilcher (and ultimately rosé) belongs to Strohmeier's Trauben-Liebe-Zeit line (TLZ), which is the real repository of his innovations, and stands, obviously, for the colour pink. The line is complemented not only with red and white, but also with yellow, orange and black, and each colour stands for its own type of wine. While we first look at the white version, a combination of Pinot Blanc and Chardonnay, Franz and Christine talk about beginnings, ideas and fence-sitters.

Vines at Stainz Castle (Photo: ÖWM / Anna Stöcher)

They like to stand by their vines and comment on the fact that nothing is mown there, the leaves are yellow earlier in autumn and some also have to struggle with peronospora. "The fact that these apparent deficits are based on dedicated organic viticulture and that such vineyards develop differently remains hidden from most of them. "We work with humus and add biodynamic preparations, we apply teas and try to keep copper spraying (permitted in biodynamics) against potential fungal diseases to a minimum. If peronospora or oidium (downy mildew or powdery mildew) does appear, the Strohmeiers like to reach into their personal bag of tricks. Last year, Franz washed the vines with a whey-water mixture, and because he doesn't like to do things by halves, all eleven hectares were given this idiosyncratic shower. "I just had a good feeling," he laughs. This feeling is usually confirmed by reading tons of literature. And by the quality of his wines. The TLZ White is elegant and soft, almost velvety, full of finesse and subtlety.

It is almost superfluous to say that the wines went through their cellar time quasi without intervention. And there they went through their ups and downs. Strohmeier himself always finds it astonishing what happens in the cellar. Wines close themselves off, hide behind their tannins, slowly open up, withdraw again and sometimes, when you are already losing patience and all hope, they are suddenly there. This can often take a few years, but he knows about the time factor and its eminent importance for his wines. And he tells a nice story about an old cellar in Stainz, whose wines grew on the vineyard that the Strohmeiers recently revived. There are wines from the 1930s and 40s, natural Schilcher, Traminer and Muskateller. From times, then, when soldiers were cut down by systemic means and not vines. Sometimes the group tastes there, and what they then find in the glasses must be spectacular at times. "The wines are lively, digestible, filigree and still carried by aromas." Franz would like to go back there, but without losing sight of the present.

This manifests itself for us in the TLZ Gelb, a single-varietal, spontaneously fermented, unsulphured and unfiltered Chardonnay. The new wood is perfectly integrated, as are fruit and spice. Salty notes join in, and all this is embedded in a ping-pong of power and elegance. Again and again, Franz pulled the wine off, found it too lush, gave it more air, considered sample fillings in different phases to be inharmonious compared to the barrel development, and only after three years gave his final OK for bottling.

Impressions in Western Styria (Photo: ÖWM / Egon Mark)

He also received the OK and even more praise from many of his colleagues, especially from vintners abroad. The gang of five is busy and seeks mutual exchange at the big natural wine fairs abroad - in Montpellier, Vicenza or London. There, they meet like-minded people and over time have carved out a niche for themselves that is extremely appreciated, especially by sommeliers, experts and freaks. So people know each other, visit each other, learn from each other, and so it is not surprising that Franz also talks with great enthusiasm about his colleagues in other world wine regions. Of Roussillon, for example, where the winemakers, like him, have strongly ferruginous gneiss as the basis for their vines and thus sensory similarities also emerge.

Strohmeier's interest in the world of ideas of others is paired with a tremendous enthusiasm for his own cause. And one quickly learns to share this enthusiasm with him. For his Orange, which he macerates for six months, for the Schwarz, a dark masterpiece made from Blauem Wildbacher, powerful and compact, juicy and dense, and last but not least, of course, for his Wein der Stille: This represents the quintessence of his great white wines, a Sauvignon Blanc (with a little Chardonnay and even less Muskateller) with a velvety texture, fine tannin, pressure and minerality - in short: the playful interpretation of a complex wine.

Admittedly, the winegrowers in the southernmost corner of Styria themselves should become rather noisy in the coming years. For basically, their approach of sustainable viticulture, based on exact observation of nature and yet extremely individual and high-quality, is groundbreaking for a monoculture that in recent years has distinguished itself more by standardisation than originality, by permanent intervention than conscious cooperation, but above all by mass rather than class.

The Sepp Muster Winery in the Wine Guide

The Strohmeier wine and sparkling wine producer in the Wine Guide

To Part I of the series of articles: "Taste life".

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