Michael Wenzel – The patient observer

It was Frigyes Bott who recommended the Wenzel winery to us. The wines were convincing and the story behind them was even more so. We went to the Burgenland in the spring and on the main street of Rust at the house numbered 29, we tasted delicious wines and had a good chat with the winemaker, Michael Wenzel. Michael is a balanced character who makes his natural wine with an extremely logical attitude. Even then it was obvious that he regards himself more as a patient observer than as a grape grower or winemaker. In the autumn, we managed to get hold of him on the phone at the peak of the harvest and we could talk exactly while the press worked. 

All our vineyards are here in the neighbourhood

All our nine hectares are here in the surrounding area of Rust. The area is special because it can also bring limestone and quartz separately. We can experiment a lot with the varieties to figure out which soil suits them best. It’s Pinot Noir that shows the differences the best. I planted my white varieties, like Sauvignon Blanc, on quartz soil as well. A bit of Chardonnay grows in the limestone vineyard and next year Furmint will be placed next to it.

 

I don’t want aerials in the vineyard
If you see wooden trellis systems around Rust, there’s a chance that they are my vineyards, because I don’t use metal posts. Metal works the same way as an aerial, and there are more and more of electromagnetic waves and I don’t wish to collect them all. They are not good for the vines. I use Hungarian acacia and I also like it because every pole functions as a hotel. They are lived in by millions of insects and biodiversity is important. 


 

 

It’s difficult to pack the climate from New Zealand in a suitcase

I did four harvests in New Zealand. After the first, I returned home saying that we would do things the same way from then onwards. I wanted to make a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc in the Burgenland. But while it’s easy to bring home the experience, the characteristics of the climate and the cool nights are more difficult to pack into a suitcase. Luckily, we quickly realised that we should use what we have here. We found our own style with the foreign knowledge in the background. Our 20- to 25-year-old vines keep getting in better and better shape. For my 2017 Sauvignon, we harvested at the beginning of September, in two batches. We destemmed and soaked the bunches from the earlier harvest on their skins. This gives 30% of the wine, that is its structure. For the remaining 70%, we harvested five days later and we pressed the completely ripe bunches without skin contact. Here we concentrated on the primary fruitiness of the variety. We blended the two in December, then it rested in tanks for half a year. It’s a taut Sauvignon with good structure and a strong medicinal herb character. 

 

Why unfiltered?

It’s not a novelty, my grandfather didn’t filter any of his wines, yet they could have been aged for decades. There are a million reasons why filtering is a common practice in the cellar: fermentation might halt, the grapes are littered by synthetic materials, diseased skin, fungi… These are all problems that make filtering worthwhile. But since we don’t spray with synthetic chemicals, we harvest healthy berries and the wines ferment nicely, why would I do it? The colloids give the body, which is what make us truly feel the wine. And filtering only takes away from it. I want to feel the flavours of the grapes that I bite into among the rows in the vineyard come through in my wines.

 

 

… to make the yeast happy

We have five Blaufränkisch plots, all of them on limestone soil. It suits the variety very well. We make single vineyard selections from two of them, the other three are put into the bottle, ‘Aus dem Kalk’ – that is from limestone. We strive to harvest as late as we can and pick as ripe bunches as possible, but we don’t care about the sugar level – we harvest for tannins. I walk among the rows and chew on the grape skins and seeds. It’s hard to say exactly what I pay attention to at these times. One thing is for certain, Blaufränkisch is really sensitive to phenolic ripeness. 

We ferment with the tried and tested ‘sandwich method’. We put the crushed destemmed mash at the bottom of the vat, the next layer is provided by the whole bunches, and the top consists of intact berries. While the top and the bottom level ferments in the classic way, something completely different happens in the middle of the sandwich. This is fermentation within the berries, an enzymatic reaction with lower alcohol, more flavours and primary fruitiness. We only punch down during the first days of fermentation and even then we only move the top layer. We don’t go for deep colour and strong extraction. We only get involved to make the yeast happy. This way it gets oxygen and proliferates. When fermentation is full blown, we get out. Earlier we macerated Blaufränkisch for a long time, even for six to eight weeks. In return we got a jammy texture with unripe and dry tannins. We had to change, I simply got bored of it. According to the new approach, we harvest for subtle tannins, we do less punching down and we take the wine off the skins before the end of the fermentation. This way, there is no bitter taste, but high quality silky tannins. The fermentation is finished in 12-hectolitre barrels and old barrique. We bottle the wine unfiltered in May.