Austria, farming and the new biodynamics

by Jon Bonné

None of the advances in Austrian wine, as I wrote about here and here, could be possible without an exceptional commitment to farming. In recent years there has been more focus than ever on improving work in the vineyards. While the country was an early hotbed of biodynamic farming, it more recently has become the site of a new counterpoint to traditional biodynamics, which follow an elaborate set of procedures and rules (see here [PDF] and here) governing the timing and methods of vineyard work. While the new school is similar in ways to the practices governed by the Demeter certifying authority (which maintains an intellectual-property claim, at least in the U.S., on the word “biodynamic”) and the lesser-known concern Biodyvin, those organizations are more closely tied to the lunar calendars and sometimes mystical modes of farming devised by biodynamics’ father, Rudolf Steiner. While widely admired, Steiner’s original concepts have at times been derided by some farmers, and the occasional writer: The burying of cow horns, the tiny amounts of homeopathic mixtures used in the field, the new-age spiritualism. This new effort, called Respekt, is less concerned with Steiner’s mandates and anthroposophy, and more concerned with managing farms as living entities. It could be viewed as somewhat more pragmatic biodynamics, although I have no doubt there’s a debate coming about exactly what that term means. Respekt is still quite new; it officially debuted earlier this month at Vienna’s Vie Vinum wine fair. Details are still being sorted out, although its purpose is more to assist with organic certification, with an added set of farming goals, than it is to be another official arbiter of biodynamics. It includes, for instance, a major focus on biodiversity — working with bees, birds and beneficial insects to the vineyard, ensuring that fruit trees are planted to diversify the crops on the land, preserving bushes and animal habitats among the vineyard. (With a hierarchy of beneficial animals; I watched Bernhard Ott honk away a jackrabbit as we drove in his minivan between vineyards.)

Paying constant attention
It also promotes the farm as a nearly self-contained ecosystem, with close attention paid to workers’ well-being, to producing as much as possible for farming needs: growing grass for milking animals, whose manure might go back into the field, for instance. Many of these ideas correspond to the work of biodynamic consultant Andrew Lorand, who has advised a number of Respekt’s founding members. Those ideas aren’t out of line with what biodynamics now requires. But Steinerian biodynamics places great importance on its calendar; certain days are better for fruit, others for roots, and those govern what to do in the field and, theoretically, affect the wine’s quality. Respekt seems less concerned with precise timing of soil applications and the like, and more concerned with farmers paying constant attention to the health of their soil and vines. (Also, unlike Demeter, it currently doesn’t charge for the use of its mark.) What’s most notable about Respekt, though, is its composition: a broad section of Austria’s wine elite, with a couple from Italy’s Alto Adige and Hungary. The 15 members include Fred Loimer in the Kamptal; Bernhard Ott of the Wagram; Hannes Hirsch of the Kamptal; Paul Achs and Kurt Feiler (Feiler-Artinger) from Burgenland; Fritz Wieninger from Vienna and more. There are other advances in the Austrian fields. While many of its vineyards are ancient — the terraces of the Wachau in some cases dating at least to the middle ages — the vines mostly aren’t. Much recent planting has been an effort to improve vineyards established during waves of postwar planting, which primarily were geared toward industrial-scale production. The Lenz Moser system of vineyard layout, popular after the war, called for wide spacing of plants and high trunks, all to get more grapes from fewer vines, facilitate the use of tractors and mechanical harvesting. It was, as Philipp Blom put it in his book, “The Wines of Austria,” “designed in part as an answer to the problem that increasing numbers of people from rural areas were migrating to the cities.” But this wasn’t a path to quality wine, and eventually top growers began to spread out their canopies, plant the vines more densely (and closer to the ground) and reduce the crop on each plant, all to improve the fruit they were harvesting — increasingly by hand. This was no different than the changes witnessed near the California coast in the 1970s and 1980s, as top growers turned their back on the industrial-level farming advice they had received and sought to grow ever-better grapes. Austria is also that rare European country that allows irrigation of their top vineyards. It can be jarring to see irrigation tubes among the terraced vineyards, but Austrian vineyards can be far drier than some of their counterparts. The Kamptal, for instance, receives 400 to 500 millimeters of annual rainfall, about half as much as Germany’s Mosel. That’s also the reason for the terraces, versus the Germans’ steep rows: They helped trap more water in the soil.

‘If it were up to the bureaucrats … ‘
And yet there is also a desire to revisit the vine material that made some of the country’s most interesting wines. While much of what’s planted comes from humdrum nursery selections, the sort of stuff meant to propel the wine industry after the war, there is also a growing desire to revive heritage vines. In the Wachau town of Weissenkirchen, Peter Veyder-Malberg prizes his parcels of 50-year-old Gruner Veltliner, themselves selected from older vines for their ability to produce. The grape clusters are more loosely bunched and smaller. At Schloss Gobelsburg, the historic Kamptal estate, Michael “Michi” Moosbrugger has selected the best vines from vineyards dating to the 1940s and 1950s, even if they show latent signs of disease, finding them — just as elsewhere — markedly different from the nursery clones. In sites like the Renner vineyard, he has tapped the potential of old genetic material. “If it were up to the bureaucrats, they would only have people use certified material,” Moosbrugger says. “My feeling is that … it’s coming from plants that survived 50 years with that virus, and if a plant survived 50 years with that virus, I don’t care.”

Beyond botrytis
One other thing that has changed farming in Austria: While harvests still routinely stretch into late November, there is less tolerance for botrytis, the noble rot that Austrians frequently welcomed as a means of further concentrating grapes. (There’s still a botrytis school, as evidenced by the work of wineries like Hirtzberger.) The botrytis made wines more powerful, but also sometimes more flourishy when young, more unctuous, and quicker to age. Botrytis maintains an important role in some wines; the sweet bottles from the eastern town of Rust, for instance. But as dry white winemaking in Austria is ever more finely tuned, there’s a solid bet that its presence will increasingly be replaced by a fondness for ripe, but clean, fruit. “I totally try to avoid botrytis,” says Hannes Hirsch of the Kamptal’s Weingut Hirsch. In fact, he opts to pick slightly early rather than risk rot. “I think the classic Kamptal wines here were picked early. I’m not a fan of too-heavy wines.”