Sauvignon Blanc in Greenland
If Austria seems green and peaceful from here, then South Styria (Südsteiermark) within it, is very green and very peaceful. So, we were surprised when our first host, Michael Gross, asked us to stop at their Slovenian estate first, at the Stajerska Slovenija, in the Holze wine region.
He said the reason they established an estate over there as well is because it’s a lot greener and calmer then Steiermark.
An estate from a holiday home
Vino Gross, Štajerska Slovenija and Weingut Gross, Südsteiermark Hobbiton
Originally, the father brought the family here to relax after the opening up the borders, says Michael Gross, the younger son, who with his wife is in charge of the Slovenian estate, about the house with its wooden porch. Of course, we immediately fell in love with the soil here, the so-called opok soil, which is a grey and fatty clay that formed from sedimentary rocks. And we also fell for the landscape, the people and the ancient terraces where the grapes grow on every inch.
Hills everywhere, and all the slopes have different aspects. One that looks to the north is cool and loud green. The other runs down south with a road winding over it and is a warm amphitheatre. The grapes ripen on it two weeks earlier than on the windy east-facing terraces 50 metres away. There are winding roads, on the peaks there are beautiful press houses everywhere among the vineyards.
This wine region used to be a poor and remote part of Slovenia with hard-working people who lived off the grapes. The strictly-guarded Austrian border of the former Yugoslavia with its 1,000 hectares of vineyard, a viticulture school that was founded during the Habsburg Monarchy and Sauvignon Blanc terraces that were planted 150 years ago
One month’s difference
It’s only a half hour drive that separates us from the Austrian sibling estate that is now managed by the older brother, Johannes Gross. Still it seems as if we were in a different world: wide terraces with grass and flowers, surrounded by forests. The wind blows as if we were next to the sea, the rain is only a fraction of the other terroir and the harvest starts a month before it does on the other side.
The Gross family grows the grapes organically in both wine regions. Here, in the Holze amphitheatres, it’s a lot easier: there’s less rain, the constantly blowing wind and the sunshine are real assistants to the local winemakers. In complete freedom, Michel and his spouse, Maria, make their Slovenian-Styrian wines in their simple and immaculately clean cellar, free of any technology. They destem the green and tiny bunches that are picked in one round, crush the taut berries, then soak them for half a day before pressing. Following a night of settling, the long fermentation starts spontaneously in tanks and finishes in 30-year-old oval barrels they inherited from their sibling estate. After pouring over, the wines age without sulphur for a year and a half on lees, then are bottled unfiltered, yet totally cleanly.
What we want
“We can thank our dad that we own these two estates and also because me and my brother can do whatever we like in complete freedom. Maria and I manage the Slovenian vineyards, my brother mostly works on the other side but we also have one mutual project, the Jakobi. Here, we only have 36,000 vines on 18 hectares. From this, we slowly and tranquilly make 30,000 bottles a year.”
On St Jacob’s day, July 25, there is a huge festival in Gamlitz. The forever blowing Styrian wind that moves the cold air of the Alps, the warm air of the Hungarian Alföld (Great Plain) and the moist air of the sea, powers huge windmills on the steep green hillsides. These huge windmills protect the grapes that start ripening at that time from the starlings.
The common wine of Michael and Johannes, the Jakobi Sauvignon Blanc, celebrates this day. There is an old agricultural map on the label that once helped the farmers with vineyard work. This ‘Mandl calendar’ is re-drawn by the two young winemakers annually in accordance with the characteristics of the given year. Only one ‘Saint day’ remains unchanged and that is July 25 when huge klapotetz (mechanical wooden bird-scarers) start rattling. They harvest the grapes from a picturesque landscape, from the oldest staked-vines, through the tall, old and woody Lenz-Moser to the modern, low cordons. The grapes grow differently from soil to soil. It’s the mosaic of the diverse locations and colourful soils that gives the exciting aromas and flavours of the Austrian Jakobi.
Pure, elegant, timeless
Weingut Lackner Tinnacher
The region’s old family winery, Lackner Tinnacher, stands among vertical hillsides, loud green rows and old vines. There are clear-cut surfaces and contemporary devices in the renovated farmhouse, while in the cellar you can see hard-wearing equipment and immaculate cleanliness. Surroundings like these might feel too serious and overly sterile. But here all details feel authentic – this is the natural milieu of wine like this. Experience and familiarity with the place of growth of almost 250 years cemented in the hands of the composed female winemaker, Katharina Tinnacher, who harvests Sauvignon Blanc from her best vineyards.
Far from the trends of fashion
We are a family enterprise that has been running since 1770 – the oldest privately- owned winery of the region. The fact that we could keep this status for so many years gave us the freedom to make wine the way we like to, far from the trends of fashion, in an elegant and timeless style.
I was born into it
Even at the age of 16, I was able to taste wines from the best vineyards of the region. However, for a long time it was hard to imagine my future here. I was interested in art. I started university and dreamt of my own gallery. Not long after that I realised that the identity I searched for in art is here, with its 240-year-old past, in an amazing place. My dad handed over the management of the winery in 2010. And he did it in a completely relaxed manner, having completed his 50th harvest.
Most of my time
We produce grapes on six steep vineyards, on almost 30 hectares. Luckily, my dad replanted these plots in the ‘70s, so for a long time we will not have to bother them. The average age of the vines is 50 years, our main variety is Sauvignon Blanc, including our own selection that we inherited from our ancestors. Our soils are diverse, there are different things that define the vineyards – the limestone-rich clay (opok) soil is frequent but we also have vineyards with sandy, pebbly soil. We leave the spaces between the rows for the natural weeds that along with the annual 1,000 mm of rain and rich soil keep the balance with the vines, on which we wish to see few bunches and small berries. I tend to have a strong relationship with the vines. I spend most of my time in the vineyards.
According to tradition
We seek the deeper flavours of Sauvignon Blanc, and they are in the skins. That’s why we macerate the grapes for 12-48 hours, depending on the vintage, before pressing. Even if they did not necessarily do it consciously, they used to do it the same way earlier: the grapes were kept on the skins until the press was full. (However, we try to avoid fermentation on the skins, it doesn’t have a tradition here). My dad used to work with this 300-year-old press until 1978, [she points to the several-metre long, rugged device]. We try to imitate the way it works with pneumatic presses now: during the process we don’t move the marc – this way we get less but a lot clearer must. Accordingly, the natural ‘pre-filter’ is the marc itself. Then, the must is put into oval barrels, there is no inoculation with yeast, and we wait for it to start fermenting spontaneously in its own time. When the fermentation is finished, we don’t rack the wine, and everything stays in its own barrel until the next harvest. We don’t move the lees in the meantime, what settles remains at the bottom of the barrel, we don’t work against gravity. Before the next harvest the wines are put into tanks where they continue ageing for another half a year.
We would never bottle an opalescent, messy wine. We don’t like drinking that either. They became this clean by themselves during the long ageing, she says pointing to the glass. We rarely use a filter. It’s worth being patient.
A chameleon variety
Weingut Maria und Sepp Muster, Südsteiermark
Before returning home, we climbed up a hill. We were going to see Sepp Muster whose natural, thick wines – which are given long skin contact – we’ve tasted several times. We wanted to know who makes these close-to-earth Sauvignon Blancs.
As the son of an old Styrian farming family, he has been growing the high-stretching, wired old vines with his wife, Maria, since 2000. They only cultivate 10 hectares and more than half of them are planted to Sauvignon Blanc. Sepp changed direction as a result of an Indian biodynamic course, since then he has been living together with the biodynamically cultivated grapes on the steep slopes of the hill around the house. They don’t cut back the enormous vines, the canes hang down and by the end of the summer, just like some kind of jungle shelter, there are grassy rows full of flowers between the vines.
There is no manure or compost, no plough or disc plough, no intervention of sulphur and copper in the vaporiser of the tiny tractor with which they drive on the scarily steep hillside.
“Sauvignon Blanc is a chameleon variety,” Sepp Muster, concludes the story. “It’s different in every vintage. And as the weather changes around here, we support it with the slightest possible intervention so that it can show its given face in its most natural form here in this cool place.”