In the Austrian market town Oggau lives a family you might recognise, even if you’ve never heard of them. Bertholdi is wise and full of stories, his wife Mechtilde a resolute but kindhearted old dame. Their son Joschuari and his sweet wife Wiltrude have two kids—the popular Atanasius and his shy sister, Theodora, who’s very close to her grandmother. They welcome visitors to their vineyard on Lake Neusiedl, but they won’t talk to you. That’s because they’re not people—they’re wines.
Gut Oggau is a family of cuvées created by Eduard and Stephanie Tscheppe. Eduard comes from a family of winemakers. His wife Stephanie is the daughter of a Michelin-starred restaurateur. In 2007, they took over the centuries-old winery, which had its heyday in the 50s and 60s when it was known as Vineyard Wimmer but had been all but abandoned for two decades. They decided to restore the vineyard’s traditions while putting their own modern stamp on it.
A family affair
I got to know several members of their wine ‘family’ at the RAW natural wine fair in London. Theodora, a young white wine, had a bit of attitude with only a hint of youthful sugar. Her ‘uncle’ Emmeram, a dry gewürztraminer, was extroverted but gentle.
These characteristics are reflected on the label. Each wine has its own story and illustrated portrait, with names referencing family members of the vineyard’s former owners. The labeling system was a creative solution to the challenges and lessons learned in the early days:
“The first vintage was a big adventure because we didn’t know the region in detail and we didn’t know what to expect in the cellar. When the 2007 wines were going through fermentation what was really special was the liveliness they had and how every one had such a unique character. We thought, why don’t we put that on the label?”
The family grew to 10 wines that fully express the different areas and conditions of the vineyard. Gut Oggau stopped including information on grape varietal because their wines don’t necessarily fit into people’s expectations of those varietals. “That gives us more freedom to express the soil,” asserts Eduard. With their approach, terroir becomes the most important element, followed by vintage, then grape.
They cultivate their 14 hectares biodynamically. Like organic farming, biodynamic viticulture uses no synthetic fertilisers or pesticides. But Eduard argues that simply growing organically isn’t enough to get a good grape harvest. So Gut Oggau takes a more holistic approach. “If you hang out enough with the vines, you get a sense of how they act and what they need,” he says. “You can slowly influence them without pushing them.”
The way the vines are influenced is a subject of much debate. According to biodynamic agriculture’s proponents, the moon and planets impact the growth of roots, vines and grapes just like they impact the tides. They believe sowing, cultivation and harvesting should take these natural cycles into account.
Beyond that, the biodynamic certification body Demeter prescribes ‘preparations’ that have been compared to homeopathic remedies. For example, its Preparation 501 requires that ground quartz be stuffed into cow horns and buried in soil over the summer. The horn is then dug up, its contents stirred in rainwater for an hour, and then sprayed over the vines at daybreak.
As you might suspect, biodynamic agriculture has its skeptics. But in a blind tasting of 10 pairs of biodynamic and conventional wines by Fortune magazine (reprint here), nine of the biodynamic wines came out on top. In fact, it’s a method highly respected in fine wine circles and practiced by some of the top estates in France, including Domaine Leroy in Burgundy.
In any case, the way Gut Oggau’s grapes are grown and fermented—with wild yeasts that occur naturally in the cellar, and without chemical additives or filtration—results in distinctive and really rather yummy wines.
Fittingly, Eduard talks about them as if they were real people. “They don’t all have to be in town every vintage. If the weather is bad we might lose one.” It’s a more accessible, tangible way of understanding wine that invites you in and leaves lasting memories. Just like a real family.
Photo credit (header): Phil Roeder