the winter of our content

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Last month we negotiated our tumultuous relationship with Domestic Chardonnay, and got lost in the alchemy of dissention. “To oak or not to oak?”…“Can America hang on the world’s stage?”… What became apparent, in one long haze of a social media thread, is the innate human gift for setting fluid ideas in stone. It’s a time-honored tradition. We enter this Narnia of a wine community, eyes wide and tail wagging, eager to have our horizons expanded. Quickly, we narrow the field, honing our preferences. Herein lies the rub: Progress arrives on the heels of discernment but requires a perpetually open mind. How do you draw from the same block of marble when it’s already been whittled down and polished? As creatures of habit, we tend to throw stones at the new. And why? Because wine is hard. And after multiple ‘let-down’ bottles, if the glutton can resist writing off an entire category, his/her wallet will put the nail in the coffin. 

So what’s the takeaway? Suck it up and keep tasting. Confront sedentary thought. Change is good. Embrace it, however painful, and with a clear eye separate truth from fashion. And when in doubt? Producer first. In the grand scheme of things, grape means very little…regions are for splitting hairs. Every knee will bow to the winemaker’s hand. Find that special someone…and once you’ve got the ball, run with it…


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When I found Martin Muthenthaler in mid 2016, a small group were already gathered at the well, but one before the rest. Volker Donabaum was kind enough to share the treasure he had known, growing up in the tiny village of Spitz. By early 2017, Muthenthaler was introduced to the U.S. en masse, having been previously earmarked for the New York market. I must confess, after a couple of low yielding vintages, I didn’t think there would be a 2018 wine club shipment. And yet, here we stand a year later, freshly discharged from a second tour in Austria’s Wachau region. 

Last year’s blog chronicled Martin’s working-class hero ascension. The headline was too good: Out-of-work Truck Driver Turned Winemaking Superstar. We spared no praise, heaping on the highest hopes for ‘A Legend in the Making’. And in 365 days, he’s done nothing to disappoint. 

We also extolled the virtues of Martin’s Riesling holdings in the Spitzer Graben - a brisk, high-altitude valley at the west end of the Wachau. Cloistered to the north, away from ground zero (the more thermal vineyard terraces lining the Danube), dry Riesling finds completeness at 12% abv. Bad news for those trying to catch a quick buzz…


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Today’s discussion traverses the same geography, but shifts the philosophical landscape to explore change in its various forms. From institutions to anarchy…Riesling to Grüner…market trends to climate trends…no two days are the same for the ever-evolving Muthenthaler regime. And for a man whose gaze looks firmly forward, he wouldn’t have it any other way. 

Austria trip Part II started with a bang. Volker’s plane pulled a u-ey over Iceland after a hydraulics failure, which is never a fun announcement from the inflight crew. Martin managed to throw out his back and remained supine in hometown Muhldorf. So, the Americans were left to their own devices for two days. There are worse places to wash ashore than the Imperial City. 

But this would be a different Vienna from just a year ago – that pesky natural wine movement, storming the nation’s capital with two freshly-minted wine bars:  Heunisch & Erben and MAST Weinbistro. Joining a gaggle of ‘green drinking’ establishments, this feels more like a sign of the times than an isolated novelty. 

Amidst the traditional Heurigen – quaint Austrian taverns, serving meat-laden comfort food, alongside harvest wine from the motherland – Vienna’s nouveau campaign echoes the Parisian model, cleaner fare and a multiregional wine list. At Heunisch and MAST, you’ll encounter selections from France, Spain, Italy, South Africa, Lebanon, and yes, even the good old US of A. Not to suggest the new kids on the block are somehow denying their heritage. On the contrary, they ooze patriotism with multiple verticals of organic/biodynamic Austrian producers taking center stage. And at Heunisch, one of the finest interpretations of Schnitzel known to a plate...


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So, before reuniting with a banged-up winemaker and a now-aviophobic importer, I was left to consider the catalyst behind this paradigm shift in Vienna. Is it as simple as the cult globalization of natural wine, weighing heavily upon a new generation of business owners? Or is this a grass roots phenomenon, emanating from the vineyards surrounding Vienna? 

All arrows point south, according to Kamptal producer Matthias Hager. “The natural wine movement began 15 years ago in Styria. Sepp Muster and Werlitsch were the first ones, adopting natural methods from Slovenia.” Martin Muthenthaler adds, “From there it moved north to Burgenland with producers like Claus Preisinger and Judith Beck, and on to the Kamptal...”(Matthias Hager, Alwin Jurtschitsch , etc...). 

Many of these Austrian names I recall, inked on the pages of Vienna wine lists. But when it came to the Wachau, the same 3 producers on heavy rotation: Nikolaihof, Veyder-Malberg, and Muthenthaler…


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Kultur Wachau wrestles with thinking outside the valley. For a nation, second only to Lichtenstein in the percentage of organic farms in Europe, what has spread more fluidly in other Austrian winegrowing regions, has gone against the grain in the Wachau. “You can count the number of organic producers on one hand,” adds Martin. It’s understandable. When your last few albums have jumped to the top of the Billboard charts, it’s hard to justify exploring the studio space in pursuit of a different sound. The Wachau is Austria’s crown jewel – blue-chip vineyard land at blue-chip prices. In its humanity, we find a collection of small, rural villages, sequestered in a river valley, whose inhabitants seem rather unsettled by the avant-garde. They just happen to make jaw-dropping wines. 

Some, who remember the summer of 1985, would say “‘Twas not always so.” After German wine labs caught the addition of diethylene glycol (an ingredient in antifreeze) in Austrian wines, the country went dark. It’s important to note that the wineries who were hurt most by the scandal were blameless on all accounts. Of the 27,000,000 liters of wine recalled by German authorities, not one drop belonged to the Wachau. Yet, having gained worldwide recognition for their Riesling and Grüner Veltliner, the region became a casualty of war, unilaterally banned from just about every export market. 

Over time, people would learn the Wachau and the vast majority of Austrian wineries were unfairly lumped in with a few bad seeds. They would remember that the Vinea Wachau – a voluntary organization whose membership comprises “roughly 98% of Wachau wineries” maintains Volker Donabaum – codified regulation of honorable winemaking practices in 1983, a full two years before the scandal broke. But what loyalty to winemaking integrity the Vinea Wachau has engendered, it has done little to stop its members from using irrigation lines and chemical products in the vineyard. The premise of the organization’s 3-tier classification system is the subject of more modest debate. Framing three categories of Wachau wine by ascending ripeness - Steinfeder (max 11.5% abv), Federspiel (11.5%-12.5% abv), and Smaragd (min 12.5% abv) – the door was open for the “my Federspiel beat up your Smaragd” bumper sticker. Enter the Parker Era in the mid 90’s and no Austrian region could pull off the heavyweight style quite as dashingly as the sunny Wachau…


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By the time Peter Malberg (Veyder Malberg) came to town, it was 2008, and Wachau wineries were only beginning to contemplate draft one of dial back the ripeness. Despite a reputation for some of the driest Riesling in the world, the Wachau’s use of sugar and botrytis for textural balance and complexity is still a very common and highly-skilled practice. Some indulge less than others. “I like my wines bone dry and botrytis free” states Peter. When pressed for why he avoids botrytis, the answer is uncomplicated, “I don’t want to make wine from grapes I wouldn’t eat.” When you combine a fairly outspoken anarchist with a minimalist playbook – organic farming, natural yeast, very early picks and low sulfur – you can imagine how well Peter went over with the Wachau establishment. 

And yet, he would insist, “To me, this style is the Old Wachau of the 70’s. I'm just trying to preserve it.” Martin is one of the few who listened. It is apparent why, having spent more than a few hours with the two in their homes. Not unlike Vienna, endless plates of schnitzel would cohabitate with natural wine from around the globe. We would blind taste, analyze, discuss, and be challenged. At the genesis of a 10-year relationship he now calls ‘symbiotic’, Peter would find inspiration, tracing Martin’s footsteps along the Spitzer Graben, while Martin would see the world around a dinner table in Muhldorf…


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It is never a dull pit stop at Chez Malberg, even if the menu offers tea and sauerkraut in lieu of a sold-out vintage. Peter is nature’s empath, which sees joy in the face of vineyards, teeming with life. But a sprinkle of doom and gloom is always lurking. “You are lucky. This is the first snow of the season. It comes less and less each year…” 

Certainly, the recent trend would have alarmists quivering in their boots: 

Spitz snowfall average 2009 – 2013: 79.7cm 
Spitz snowfall average 2014 – 2018: 31.9cm 

Whether a straw in the wind or a passing phase, Martin is not taking any chances… 

“Over there on the other side. You see those vineyards?” Martin points. “Those are new north-facing parcels that will go into Spitzer Graben Grüner.” Traditionally, vines exposed to the north will struggle to ripen – an extra hectare or two providing a bit of climate change insurance. 

“With warmer temperatures, we have to think differently, farm differently…” Martin continues, while hiking up to Brandstatt. The current weather – along with a shot of lidocaine from the doctor – bring Martin comfort. “Snow helps burn away unwanted grasses.” Free labor is a precious commodity among the wounded. 

JANUARY 15th, 2018 – MUTHENTHALER 2.0 
A quick barrel tasting at Martin’s house reveals an added layer to the house style. He doesn’t approach wine the same way he did in the beginning (2006). He doesn’t approach wine the same way he did last year. The lineup from top to bottom was textbook Muthenthaler, soulful and transparent, but with an ethereal ease that hints at where this is all going. “I am more measured with my use of sulfur, and I’m starting to utilize more neutral wood on the top cuvées.” The forwardness of the 2017 vintage undoubtedly played a hand in how complete these wines felt, but the extra level of refinement is a testament to craft. 

The notion that a more minimal approach to winemaking somehow equates to smoking a bowl, rather than topping up barrels, is perhaps a motto to some. But to the finest expressers of natural wine, 'burning one down' means reducing dead vine clippings to ashes during winter pruning. To be more hands off, you must be more hands the vineyard, on the sorting table, monitoring fermentation, shepherding aging, and taking your baby to bottle. Martin is as vigilant a parent as they come. And while I’d love to offer him a joint to soothe an ailing back, he’s the last man on earth to leave his kid at the supermarket…


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Well, I had really hoped to discuss broad market perception of Austrian wine in the U.S., in addition to efforts on our own soil with standouts like Graham Tatomer, but we just didn’t get there, did we… I had also planned a deep dive with Grüner Veltliner, a grape that has made quite the splash in our backyard over the last decade. Free from the shackles of Riesling’s “is-it-sweet?” stigma, Grüner keeps on trucking. If the grape has been thrown any shade in the marketplace, perhaps the 1-liter jugs and attractive price tags have pigeonholed Grüner as “the fun guy.” Point Break Keanu is a guilty pleasure. Matrix Keanu has a bit more to say. But alas, I’ll let Martin’s wines do the talking. 

For now, I’d like to remind myself that there is room for growth everywhere, and the Wachau has embraced positive change, perhaps, more than we give it credit for. It has been just 33 years since the country had to reinvent itself. I suppose they deserve a little breathing room. For if anything has been apparent historically, it’s just how special these wines can be. And when Peter Malberg pulls no punches, calling the Wachau “the finest terroir in Austria”, I am confident that their best days lay ahead… 

- Brian McClintic 

A special thanks to Viticole operative, Lauren Hamilton, for taking all these lovely photos...