A new, more widely travelled and internationally trained generation of Austrian winemakers is now at the helm of many traditional establishments. They have revolutionized the work in the vineyard and in the cellars, combining an international outlook with an unwavering devotion to indigenous grape varietals and wine styles. Their dedication and efforts have allowed the wines of Austria to make another leap in quality and worldwide recognition, leading to the opening of markets abroad, and to a renewed interest in this old wine country and its new wines.
Franz Schneider and his Artisan Wines project (established in 2009) is part of this club.
Thirty-something Franz took over the estate from his parents in 2009, taking care of all aspects of the business (form vineyards to marketing) with his MSc in Viticulture and Enology along with his wife Ulli, trained as well in the wine world and business. The couple has twins aged four years.
Based in the north eastern part of the lake Neusiedl in the village of Halbturn (resident population: 2.000), Artisan Wines has reached considerable attention and interest by wine critics, in Austria often so conservative, and general public.
Burgenland lies on the cusp of two climatic zones, broadly speaking the Pannonian, with its hot summers and cold winters, and the western European. And it is divided into four wine regions: Neusiedlersee (where Artisan Wines is located), Neusiedlersee-Hügelland, Middle Burgenland and South Burgenland. The two northern regions take their name from their unique climatic conditions from Lake Neusiedl, a lake 22 miles in length and only 6 feet deep, divided between Austria and Hungary. It is fed only from ground-water and by springs. As does every large body of water, Lake Neusiedl has a moderating effect on temperature change.
Neusiedl, with its combination of soils presenting mainly loess, black earth, gravel and sand, has been put on the map by the late Alois Kracher, but this area has much more to offer than just worldwide renown sweet wines.
Here are some vintage notes.
2015: Very warm summer with a heat period of 37°Celsius for 3 weeks, irrigation saved plants and quality, very high ripeness levels with balanced acid structures for whites and reds.
2016: Huge spring frost in the last week of April plus snow and unusual cold temperature. Unfortunately production level has been definitely down compared to 2015. At Artisan Wines production was down by 80%!
2017: A long winter with warm spring temperatures made vines thrive. Heat wave during summer slowed maturation by 2 weeks. Perfect harvest conditions during September and beginning of October led to fully ripened grapes.
2018: Harvest time got some beneficial rain which gave a nice break after a long sunny and warm July and August months. Overall qualities are very good with ripe tannins due dry summer conditions. Quantities are on average except for the Welschriesling and Zweigelt’s crop which suffered a bit the hard dryness.
Forget about big, chewy wines as Franz never joined waves of young Austrian winemakers aiming at producing wines in order to please consumers with shortcuts: overripe fruit, high alcohol, some sweetness here and there, and obviously a lot of new oak barrique. Artisan wines are made in a total opposite way. In two adjective balanced and elegant.
Franz farms only 6 hectares producing 35 to 40.000 bottles per year (5,5 hectares are owned and 0,5 is rented). The breakdown of the production is very balanced, almost 50%-50% between whites and reds but this can change according to the vintage, once again. Among the white varieties Welschriesling, Grauburgunder (aka Pinot Gris), Sauvignon Blanc, Muskat Ottonel and Chardonnay play a major role. Zweigelt, Sankt Laurent and Merlot dominate the red scene. By chance two of the oldest vineyards in Halbturn planted to Grüner Veltliner (from 1957) and Blaufränkisch were rented in 2018.
Just a conventional winery? Franz cares of the environment. When asked about farming methods Franz replies: “Within our integrated cultivation of the vineyards, we apply a combination of biological, mechanical and chemical procedures in respect of recent scientific research. Due to this mixture, our intervention on the environment is minimized in terms of CO2 output. All non-avoidable CO2-emissions are compensated by donations to Climate Protection projects certified by Climate Austria”. By the way the Schneiders live so close to the vineyards … and who wants to damage at first his own family?
When we asked Franz to describe his wines his words were clear: “I feel like an experimenting student (or like an … Artisan) as most of my mid and top levels wines vary according to what the each vintage gives in terms of fruitiness, sun light, temperature, wind, and the performance levels of every single grape in the vineyard. It’s an ongoing process and trying to catch the best expression of the vintage, no matter if it has been challenging or easy, is part of my job. Rules are written only to be in case canceled and rewritten”.
When temperature conditions outside are ideal Franz uses indigenous yeast. White wines are pressed gently and fermented under controlled temperatures to ensure the optimal forming of aromas. Further maturing takes place in stainless steel and Hungarian oak barrels. Red wines are fermented in traditional open vats with several daily punch downs of the skin cap by hand. Further maturing occurs in small and large oak barrels. Acacia wood is something that Franz particularly likes.
Franz has spent a good time in South Africa where he basically had his international training experience.“The time in Cape Town with Klein Constantia was definitely a key experience in my wine life. Coming from a small family wine farm it was extraordinary to see how the big players are working. I was very lucky to see every aspect of the production and even more as I was doing a job rotation after the harvest including vineyards, sales, deliveries, administration for Klein Constantia. After the very busy time of the harvest we visited many other estates and so I came to know in person many famous winemakers. I still feel very connected with this wine country and we always have many SA bottles in the cellar”.
Understanding Austrian indigenous varieties requires a bit of patience. Let’s start from the Welschriesling which is known as Riesling Italico in Italy and Graševinain Croatia. Genetically is unrelated to the famed Riesling from the Mosel area and the parentage is … unknown, though Elbling is the most closely related variety. The variety is very good for the production of sparkling wine and for fruity still wines. The quality range can be affected by viticultural techniques and terroir’s key elements as in the vineyard Welschriesling needs early-warming sites and soils with an ample magnesium supply. The vine is very sensitive to dryness – too much can result in a lack of shoot development and lack of acidity of the wine. In the cellar this variety doesn’t like much any kind of oak. Quoting Franz Schneider: “Welschriesling produced here nearby the lake region is completely different from those ones produced in Styria: we research a more exotic fruit roundness, while down south acidity and citrusy flavor is the most preferred style. Once again climate is different, soils are different and traditions as well have their share of influence”.
In the vineyard Vinica adopts conservative and eco-sustainable cultivation techniques with particular reference to the green manure (sovescio in Italian) on the entire surface. Dry framing and no irrigation system also causes the roots to descend into the soil in search of nutrients and minerals. Vinica’s vineyard presents two key elements: high altitude and wide temperature excursions. Above all … no chemistry at all, no pesticides, herbicides, etc.
Healthy grapes are the only ingredient here. Once hand harvested, grapes are brought to the cellar, destemmed and pressed. Fermentation starts spontaneously and usually takes place in steel tanks. The estate doesn’t add yeasts outside those present in the grape skin and doesn’t control the temperatures, refusing any chemical agent during vinification, except for a minimum of sulfur. Vinica’s wines are also neither filtered nor clarified as both operations affect the vineyard’s pure expression.
Rodolfo explains: “We practice a low yield policy and in 2016, we produced 30,000 bottles, but this year, unfortunately, drought has reduced production by 30% despite the fact that younger vineyards have continued to grow, but the fruit has not come. We do sell in Italy, but foreign markets are rewarding our efforts, specifically Canada, United States, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany and Ireland”.
According to local and specific wine market culture, the choice of using the screw cap guarantees consumers of the freshness and quality of young everyday wines, taking away the risk of oxidation and external contamination, also clearing the risk of “plug failure” that may result from the use of natural TCA cork. This type of closure completely blocks the oxygen intake and slows down the evolution of wine in the bottle while keeping intact all its organoleptic characteristics. Obviously Stelvin closure is replaced with natural corks when it comes to high end wines or when a specific market rejects it from a wine cultural standpoint.
Natural Burgunder seedling. St. Laurent wasnamed after St. Lawrence Day, August 10th, the day when the grapes begin to change colour. One of the parents is supposed to be Pinot Noir, the other is unknown. With its somewhat low yield, the variety is considered difficult in the vineyard. It was not always appreciated. Needs good sites with deep soils. It is sensitive during the flowering period, and sensitive to late frost. It brings inconsistent yields. St. Laurent was most likely imported to Austria via Germany in the 1870s, although some attribute it to the Cistercian monks who colonized the Lake during the 13th century. It is highly aromatic and dark-skinned and grows best on limestone.
Steep Hill imports wines from both the ranges produced by this small estate: The “Pure” wines and the Reserve ones.
The “Pure” entry level tier is the ideal start in order to understand Franz’s wines which here express the variety on its own without any blending (hence the name). These are highly enjoyable wines for everyday consume. Varietals involved are Welschriesling, Zweigelt (also in a Rosè version) and St Laurent.
The Reserve wines currently imported are the Grauburgunder, the Sank Laurent and the Zweigelt (the latter one labeled under the DAC appellation system). Coming from the best parcels of property vineyards and from older vines, these wines represent Franz’s research for subtlety, elegance and refined expression of the grapes involved.