Martin Muthenthaler: A Legend in the Making
So what makes a legend? I guess if we can get literal, it is someone who has influenced enough people to continually be brought up in conversation. If we can get sentimental, it is someone who - to a fault - must embark against the grain, forging a path no one ever thought or dared to travel down. Clinging bravely to sight unseen, the only certainty they face is uncertainty. And yet still they drive forward, armed with one matchless intangible: conviction.
In Martin Muthenthaler’s case, the path in question did not take the form of tilled earth and a row of grape vines. There were no childhood imaginings, walking the vineyards knee-high to his father. There were no apprenticeships at wineries abroad. The closest Martin ever got to winemaking was driving a truck for Domaine Wachau. So what made a man with no formal oenological background decide to take over his family holdings in 2006? The answer is not glamorous. But the reluctant hero, thrust into his calling by events beyond his control is a protagonist most of us can get behind. A decade later his wine would touch my lips, and Viticole would get in line…
LEFT: Hofburg Palace on a stroll through Vienna RIGHT: Importer Volker Donabaum in black with Martin Muthenthaler in the vineyards
June 6th, 2016 – Prelude to first sip
The longer you’ve been in ‘the industry’, the rarer so-called wine epiphanies happen. But, when Justin Timsit, wine director of Grammercy Tavern, set foot in Vienna's Hofburg Palace, the annual VieVinum tasting would yield the exception to the rule.
Text from Justin: “There is a producer you have to try. Somewhat undiscovered…”
It was not the first time I had heard the whispers of ‘Muthenthaler’ (a less forgettable name than let’s say Johnson or Smith). Still, these were small circles - attendees of the Vienna tasting or East Coast retailers/somms with prior exposure via Volker Donabaum of Soilair Imports. So what was all the fuss about?
October 11th, 2016 – Email chain with importer Volker Donabaum
Me: “Let’s meet at RN74 (San Francisco). Shall we say 5ish?
Volker: “Great let’s do that.”
October 12th, 2016 – Email chain the following morning…
Volker: “Thank you very much for taking the time to taste. It was great meeting you.”
Me: “I’ll take everything you have and can you please phone Martin and ask for more?”
The meeting started with Aperol Spritzers and ended with Volker taking the red eye home. In between, smiles and expletives…
We’ll get to that…
January 29th, 2017 – On a plane to Austria
I’m supposed to be collecting my thoughts for an upcoming meeting with Martin…but all I can think about are the scores of protestors I walked past at the airport this morning. Their voices thundered off the glass walls of SFO’s International Terminal.
As the grandson of Syrian immigrants - knowing what they went through to make a better life for my mother and I - it is deeply troubling that our nation would turn its back on those who have earned the right to do likewise for their families.
But I am touched by the Inner America, bleeding for the droves of humanity who are - as of today - exiled from our borders. I can still hear their chants, rising up in unison…and I take comfort in the notion that there is no ban wide enough, nor any executive order loud enough to silence them.
Can’t really segue my way out of that so I’ll just move on…
THE SHINING PART II
January 30th, 2017 – THE SHINING PART II
Okay, it’s far from a Stanley Kubrick horror movie but the charming Lagler Hotel in Spitz is closed for the off-season. Just a short 1-hour drive from the Vienna airport, Volker (whose hometown this is) was able to snag the keys to the castle for us… Only us… “All work and no play makes Johann a dull boy...”
Catching up with Peter Malberg at his lovely new home. Vineyards Bruck and Brandstatt can be seen from the dining room table.
January 31st, 2017 – Prelude to Muthenthaler
Very few people know exactly where they're going in life. There are those rare occasions where talent shines so bright that a path becomes painfully obvious (I’m talking about you, Roger Federer). The rest of us try our hand at this or that until something clicks.
It’s a random episodic phenomenon really – or at least it seems that way mid-career hop. Only when the path is revealed do we tend to look back on those detours and dead ends as meaningful stepping stones.
Over schnitzel with Martin at his home, I managed (through Volker translating) to recreate his résumé:
1987 - 1988 completes training as a mechanic
1988 - 1999 completes mandatory service in the Austrian Army
1989 - 2006 drives a truck for Domaine Wachau
2006 - 2011 runs an Heurigen (tavern) in Spitz
2006 - Present takes over parent’s vineyards for wine production
2010 - converts all vineyards to organic
2006 would prove a crucial crossroads that altered the course of Martin's life forever. Corporate restructured and he lost his truck driving job at Domaine Wachau, forcing him to think outside the box. All along the way, Martin had farmed his family vineyards (3 hectares), selling fruit to local producers. Now, out of economic necessity, he would assume control of production from vine to bottle. To make ends meet, a tavern was launched that same year which helped introduce his wines to the village populous ( +/- 1400).
Martin's education was trial by fire, essentially going door to door, asking other winemakers what they did. The local impact bore a rather commercial style in the early years - that is until he met Peter Malberg...
LEFT: Martin's mother's homemade schnitzel RIGHT: Stone terraces in Brandstatt vineyard that Martin is restoring by hand
February 1st, 2017 – The New Wachau?
All legends have their influences. For Leonard Cohen it was Irving Layton…for Van Gogh, Gauguin…and for Martin Muthenthaler it was Peter Veyder-Malberg.
A quick backstory: Peter Malberg comes to the Wachau in 2008 armed with radical ideas, both in the vineyard and the cellar. Behold the rap sheet:
1. Organic Farming: As Martin put it “You can count on one hand the number of Wachau producers who avoid chemical farming.”
2. Bone-dry Riesling (little to no sugar remaining after fermentation)
3. Zero botrytis (‘noble rot’ that is a huge part of the Austrian identity with many of the Wachau’s main players). Botrytis adds spicy/honeyed complexity and texture while reducing acidity. Many very high level Wachau producers utilize - quite skillfully - a balance of botrytis in their wines, but for Peter "I don't want to drink wine from grapes I wouldn't eat."
4. Picking early ...way early. The Austrian model in the Wachau is based on different levels (e.g. a bottle labeled Federspiel is 11.5-12.5% abv, a bottle labeled Smaragd is 12.5+ abv). A hierarchy of style based on ripeness was counterintuitive to Peter’s vineyard-centric approach. He would escape these regulations not wanting to be pigeonholed.
5. Natural Yeast: uncommon for the area
6. Lower doses of sulfur: about half of the norm
Needless to say, the establishment didn’t take too kindly to a fringe-thinking outsider. Peter's retort, “To me, this style is the Old Wachau. I'm just trying to preserve it...” Retrieving several empty bottles from the 70's and 80's on his mantle, he showed us all of the stated alcohol levels - well below 13%, and by his account, zero botrytis influence...
In fact, the only person who seemed to listen and take an interest was Martin. A chance meeting in the vineyards in ’08 would lead to a deep friendship that shaped Martin’s philosophy and practice.
The town of Spitz
"Martin is very smart and we have a very similar palate. Our relationship was and is give and take...symbiotic. I would challenge his thinking by introducing him to great wines of the world and he would help me tactically in the vineyard. We are extremely close."
-- from our conversations with Peter Malberg
Peter's gregarious nature is a perfect foil to Martin's stoic sensibility. They are both kind and generous people which makes for excellent dinner companions. Martin cooked an amazing meal at his home, and Peter poured Volker and I wines from around the world. It was then that the conversation turned to Spitzer Graben (illustrated in the photo above).
For the trade and the avid learner
Let's say you wanted to make the best lemonade on earth. How would you go about it? Maybe you'd look into high quality lemon varieties, experiment with homemade simple syrup recipes...honing the proportions to create a perfect balance of sugar and acid. A logical starting place... Martin and Peter, on the other hand, might say, "What if we harvested the lemons in such a way that adding sugar would be unnecessary? What type of lemons would we need and where would we need to plant them?" Purity and the road less travelled...
If you want to make bone-dry riesling at 12-12.5% alcohol...fully developed bone-dry riesling at 12-12.5% alcohol, a number of factors must prevail - none more important than vineyard site. And with vineyard site, we venture down the rabbit hole to a host of different elements that need to co-exist in harmony. Within the Wachau, perhaps no other region is more suited to walk this line than Spitzer Graben.
For those playing the home game, Spitzer Graben is a valley that starts in the town of Spitz and winds its way west and north. Spitz is somewhat of a demarcation - the only village in the valley that comes into contact with the Danube River.
Why is the Danube important? The vast majority of the Wachau's vineyards line the Danube, facing mostly south. The river reflects a lot of sunlight warming the region up.
By contrast, the vineyards of the Spitzer Graben valley have zero influence from the Danube. They are the last westerly stop before agriculture takes over en route to Prague. With vineyards perched mostly on schist (broken-up slate rock) at very high elevation, the result is a noticeably cooler climate than the rest of the Wachau. As Martin states, “This isn’t your picnic spot even in the summer.”
Cooler kopfs prevail
Cooler region = longer growing season = full flavor development at lower alcohol.
We saw this played out with Veyder-Malberg's whites earlier that day. A good chunk of Peter's vineyard holdings are in Spitzer Graben (Bruck/Brandstatt/Schön). The rest reside further east along the Danube. 2015 is a warm vintage and the whites from the Danube vineyards in turn were higher in alcohol than those from Spitzer Graben.
Where the rubber meets the road:
For my palate, I prefer low alcohol, botrytis-free, dry Riesling, but more often than not these wines are uninteresting. It is a rare feat - especially with a grape as transparent as Riesling - to pull off this style with depth and soul. Riesling is elusive. If any one note is off-pitch, it'll let you know about it - so to emasculate the grape the way Martin and Peter do takes courage. And success favor a site that is even more elusive, where all the details are finely tuned with uncommon precision: climate, soil, aspect, slope, diurnal shifts in temperature, and so on...
Riesling on such a site is like an arrow splitting an arrow. This is why I flipped out back in San Francisco. Martin (whose vineyards are exclusively in Spitzer Graben) has essentially been sitting on the sword of Excalibur his whole life and has just now pulled it from the stone...
Shall we move on?
Post-offer ski trip with Muthenthaler in the Austrian Alps. Because why not.
For the drinker
Austrian whites have a very distinctive character. Regardless of region or grape, there is an undeniable salty/smoky/savory character that is hard to articulate. I've asked many winemakers where that distinctiveness comes from and I can't get a straight answer. It's just Austria, and I - as one who bends toward savory things - frankly can't get enough of it.
Martin's 2015 'Spitzer Graben' Grüner Veltliner and 'Bruck' Riesling are chiseled like the stones he uses to build his terraces. He told me on a vineyard walk "I love building the stone terraces. It relaxes me." Loving the process of building stone terraces is like Andy Dufresne being enamored with pecking away at the Shawshank prison walls. I asked Martin when he expects to be done with the terraces in his new Brandstatt parcel. His reply, "If I'm lucky, I can finish in 10 years."
LEFT: Malberg RIGHT: Muthenthaler CENTER: Some guy
A word about screw caps
Don't want to get into a lengthy dissertation, but you'll notice Martin's wines are under screw cap. It has been my experience that the screw cap closures play right into the hand of crisper whites, enhancing their freshness. In a retrospective tasting at Proidl (a wonderful Kamptal winery just north of the Wachau), Franz and Patrick poured us separate vintages of the same bottle of Riesling and Grüner in both screw cap and cork, going back to 2007. The screw cap wines were much cleaner and younger, so expect Martin's wines to age effortlessly.
Final thoughts - Peter Malberg
Malberg is already a legend. The rising prices of his wines are a testament to his inherited mantle as the Wachau’s most coveted outlier. Case in point - Peter’s flagship Riesling ‘Brandstatt’. It’s a ghost. If lightning strikes, you may stumble upon one on a wine list (expect a triple digit price tag). His 2015's were fantastic. Do track them down if you know a good hound dog.
Final thoughts - Martin Muthenthaler
Is it too soon to call Muthenthaler a legend? Probably. But I know where my money is. In the end, glory is a less inspiring attachment than purpose. On our vineyard walk, I asked Martin, "Had you not lost your job, would you still be driving that truck?" He found that question silly, "100%."
Martin Muthenthaler never would have chosen this path and yet he found his way home. He truly loves what he does. I'll take peace over immortality any day.
Tasting Notes: 2015 'Spitzer Graben' Grüner Veltliner: citrus and underipe peach notes give way to white pepper, sea salt, and rocky minerality. Beautiful freshness for grüner in a ripe vintage. 2015 'Bruck' Riesling shy on the nose at first, leading out with citrus and salty/savory mineral notes. This is pure and soulful with piano-wire texture whose edges will cut you in all the right ways.
Seasonal Pairing: Sausage and sauerkraut. Just do it...
When to Drink: 'Spitzer Graben' Grüner: now - 2022+ | 'Bruck' Riesling: Accessible now but best from 2019-2028+
Geeky Things: 12.5% abv. Bruck is currently Martin's only dry Riesling vineyard until the Death Star (Brandstatt Vineyard) is complete. .3 hectares comprise both parcels. Incredibly steep south-facing slopes
Area Eats: Get drunk at local Heurigen just once to say you did. Then find someone who cooks homemade Schnitzel. It's a sparse dining scene until you get to Vienna.
Vintage Report: 2015 is a benchmark vintage. Complete with ripeness and beautiful acidity, the only knock is lack of quantity. 2016 will be even lower in quantity.
When In Rome: Hike the terraces and run along the Danube. Then go ski Schladming if it's still winter.
Bigger Than Wine: Each month Viticole donates $5 per each case sold of the monthly offer. This month's featured charity is Long Beach Ronald McDonald House whom I will be working a charity dinner for in a couple weeks. They operate a cost-free, medically-supervised Camp for children with cancer and their families... You can check them out online.