In Austria, the category isn’t defined from a legal standpoint, but it encompasses organic and biodynamic wines made in a minimalist style, without industrial methods such as chemicals, cultivated yeasts or even sulfites in some cases. When natural wines started to gain attention more than a decade ago, many dismissed them as a fad. However, these wines continue to gain favor among the world’s top sommeliers and consumers alike, and Austrian winemakers find themselves at the vanguard.
“I am a classically trained sommelier, and was skeptical about the [natural wine] movement, but while writing my book [Wine Simple], I learned some things and got very interested,” says Austrian native Aldo Sohm, wine director at chef Eric Ripert’s Le Bernardin and partner of Aldo Sohm Wine Bar in New York City.
These wines hold particular appeal for a generation of wine lovers enamored with their distinct character, which often include funky aromas and cloudiness due to the lack of filtration.
“With natural wine, Austria in general was able to expand the sales channels,” says Carmen Augschöll of the Austrian Wine Marketing Board (AWMB) trade group. “[And] not only in the niche market of hipster Brooklyn, but also on a larger scale.”
Organic farming has gained momentum around the world over the past few decades, embraced even by large-scale producers. But the practice has taken off in Austria.
In 1993, the first year that organic viticulture was tracked in Austria, there were 529 acres of organic vineyards, according to Willi Klinger’s Wine in Austria. That number more than doubled by 2000. In 2018, nearly 15,000 acres were certified organic. That represents more than 13% of the country’s total vineyard areas.
By comparison, less than 3% of California vineyards are certified organic, according to the California Certified Organic Farmers trade group.
“Austrians are culturally very environmentally responsible,” says Kreso Petrekovic, a winemaker and natural wine importer in charge of Kreso and Zev Selections based in Brooklyn, New York, part of the ZRS Wines portfolio.
Austria has a long history of environmental consciousness. Biodynamic farming, which predates organic farming by 20 years and encompasses many of its practices, was developed by Austrian philosopher Dr. Rudolf Steiner in 1924.
The country is home to one of the world’s first biodynamic wineries, Nikolaihof, which began to implement some of Steiner’s principles in 1971. It’s now certified by Demeter, an international organization for certifying biodynamic agriculture.
In 2007, a dozen top Austrian vintners created Respekt, an organization for biodynamic viticulture that now includes 25 wineries from Austria, Germany, Italy and Hungary.
This “green” mentality built a strong foundation for the country’s natural wine movement, but natural wine isn’t just about farming.
“It is a lifestyle,” says Stephanie Tscheppe-Eselböck, who runs Gut Oggau estate in Burgenland with her husband, Eduard Tscheppe.
French natural wines began to receive attention in the early 2000s. The movement appealed to a small number of Austrian vintners.
“Upon the return to my family estate [in 2000], we decided to fundamentally change things and have a new beginning,” says winemaker Sepp Muster, one of Austria’s natural wine pioneers.
Muster refused to use artificial sprays to protect his vineyards from mildew. His vineyards are in Austria’s Styria region, where high annual rainfall often brings disease pressure.
The Muster estate earned its biodynamic certification in 2003. “You have to free yourself from old worries and trust nature,” he says.
Muster and his wife, Maria, work exclusively with indigenous yeasts. The wines are bottled unfined and unfiltered, with little to no added sulfites. Their approach inspired Maria’s brothers, Ewald Tscheppe of Werlitsch, who runs the estate with his wife, Brigitte, and Andreas Tscheppe, who runs his namesake winery with his wife, Elisabeth. They’re not related to the Gut Oggau Tscheppe family.
They were joined by Alice and Roland Tauss, and Franz and Christine Strohmeier.
Together, the five families established Schmecke das Leben (“Taste Life”), a vintner collective with the goal to make “living wines” with a holistic approach. Another Styrian winemaker, Karl Schnabel, began to make wines without added sulfites around the same time.
Austria’s natural wine movement was spreading, yet the wines were initially met with disapproval. “We had to fight with the windmills,” says Gut Oggau’s Eduard Tscheppe. “We had to always explain why our wines were cloudy, or why they smelled the way they did.”
Eduard Tscheppe had made more conventional wines, but when he bought his estate with Stephanie, they took the most natural approach to learn about their vineyards and how wines react without additives and filtration.
What sets these natural wines apart is their lack of technical flaws like volatile acidity, signs of Brettanomyces and “mousiness,” undesired traits for which natural wines are often criticized.
“They yield incredible textures, ageability and are resilient to flaws,” says Mackenzie Hoffman, a sommelier and wine consultant at Domaine LA and El Prado Bar in California.
A lot of it has to do with Austria’s cooler climate. “Austrian wines have high acidity and low pH levels [typical for cooler regions], which naturally inhibit bacterial growth that cause technical flaws,” says Petrekovic.
There is a perfectionist mentality that’s so embedded in Austrian culture. Aldo Sohm makes wine with Gerhard Kracher, a member of Austria’s most renowned family of winemakers. One day, Sohm met one of Kracher’s neighbors, natural winemaker Christian Tschida.
“Meeting Christian, I learned that natural winemakers are maniacs in the vineyards and cellars,” says Sohm.
“People often think that natural winemaking is easy, that you just oversee the fermentation and nature does the rest, but you have to strictly pick healthy grapes and have a very clean cellar,” says Tscheppe-Eselböck. “It is hard work.”