Images: Markus Altenburger Winery / Kristina Leidenfrostova
Location: Jois, Leithaberg DAC, Burgenland, Austria
Owner & winemaker: Markus Altenburger
Vineyard area: 17 hectares (half estate-owned, half in long-term rental)
Vineyard management: certified organic (practicing since 2014), biodynamic practices
Soils: limestone (called Leithakalk) and slate, clay loam
Main varieties: Blaufränkisch for the reds, Neuburger for the whites
Winemaking: spontaneous fermentation in open-top vats, very gentle pressing with low juice yield, aging in bigger neutral Stockinger barrels. No filtration, no fining, tiny amounts of sulfur added (15ppm max)
Annual production: 50–60,000 bottles
- Markus started to make wine naturally thanks to his childhood memory of snacking on Neuburger grapes – when he couldn’t find this taste in wines as an adult, he realized it was due to all the modern winemaking additives that make the wine taste standardized. His decision to eschew them step by step allowed him to find the pure grape taste again.
- A significant part of Altenburger’s 17 hectares are older vines with very low yields – two-thirds are more than thirty years old, and the oldest ones were planted in 1969 by Markus’s grandfather.
- The Altenburger family originates from the mountainous western part of Austria (Tyrol); in the 16th century, they moved to Burgenland and have been farming there ever since, cultivating a traditional mixed farm with vines and other crops.
- The labels are based on the imprints of Markus’s own hands, using the lees of their wines as “paint” – Blaufrankisch for the reds and a skin-contact white blend for the white wines.
Jump to wines | Markus Altenburger Website
To introduce you to Markus, his exciting range of Blaufrankisch and his farming philosophy, we discussed all that during our visit to his historical family operation in Burgenland.
You’re very focused on Blaufrankisch–what’s the story behind that?
Northern Burgenland is historically a region of diversity where growers usually work with quite a wide range of grape varieties – we have 10 different whites for example, which makes a winemaker’s life more interesting. I needed to find a focus when building up my own winery, and Blaufränkisch is growing in 75% of our vineyards. But actually, the main motivation came from hanging out with French growers. They were all so convinced about their respective local grape varieties and had such a huge knowledge of them, and would never plant a grape from anywhere else on their best plots. I had the best experiences with Blaufränkisch–we have some lovely old plots planted by my grandfather in 1969. I wanted to learn more and it simply dragged me in. It’s delicate and powerful at the same time, and versatile enough to fascinate me, vintage after vintage. I actually find it very funny when somebody asks me “Why do you make so many different Blaufrankisch wines?” – nobody would bring that up with, say, a grower from Beaujolais who’s making a whole lot of different Gamays, right? [laughs]
Where do you get your grapes from? Do you ever purchase them from other growers, or do you farm everything yourself?
I use my own grapes only, and I’m very proud of that. Half of our 17 hectares are now estate-owned – it’s a mix of old plots that have been in the family forever, and newer plots that we managed to buy. The rest is in a long-term rental, usually 25 years, which means that we can treat these sites with the same effort and love as our own. When I started in 2007, I had no vineyards at all and used to buy grapes from my parents, neighbors, or my father’s friends, guys of his generation. When these long-term grape suppliers and my parents gradually retired one after the other, between 2011 and 2017, they left their land to us, asking us to take care of the vineyards on those plots. So today, we don’t buy grapes anymore and we farm everything ourselves, which is very important to me and has been one of my big targets.
Why is that?
Ever since I started making wine, using purchased fruit back then, I was dreaming about working in my own vineyards, making my own decisions. I wanted to be a grower rather than just a winemaker, to spend more time in nature. Our way of making wines means that we have to create quality in the vineyards–there’s no “catching up” on poor material by tinkering in the cellar. Also, very importantly, I wanted to leave some healthy soils to future generations. And I can only be 100% sure that’s the case if I do the farming myself.
Images: Markus Altenburger Winery / Kristina Leidenfrostova
So how would you describe your method of farming?
We’ve been working organically since 2014, although it took some time to complete the certification because of the gradual vineyard takeover. To get living soil, we add our own compost (stems, grape skins mixed with cow dung from our neighbor) and experiment a lot with different cover crops. This also helps manage water stress. We’re lucky to be farming in a landscape with a lot of variety–there’s a small forest on the top of the hill, different crops in between, etc., so there’s biodiversity around our vineyards. And where there isn’t, we’re planting trees and trying to leave some space for natural vegetation. We use biodynamic practices, such as the 500 and 501 preparations, without being certified biodynamic, as one part of our very own farming concept.
And for a few years now, we’ve been brewing teas from herbs collected in our vineyards, woods and fallows around them. We use these as part of our crop protection system, as it yields astonishing results in the vineyards. And I use the Simonit and Sirch pruning method that enables the vines to be healthier and live longer, a very important thing for both our older vines and our young plantations.
Did you learn that as part of a winemaking or agricultural degree, or is wine your second career?
Like many skilled growers, I’m self-taught. When I was growing up, the Austrian wine scene wasn’t the most inspiring thing, you know, and my parents thought I’d be better off studying economics. I remember my grandmother begging me to do something else than farming, to find a job where I don’t hurt my back and get to be dirty and poor all the time [laughs]. This is funny when you consider that these days everyone I talk to has got back pain issues because of sitting in the office all day long. [laughs again]
What made you decide to make wine in the natural way? I suppose your ancestors were more on the conventional side of winemaking, as the story often goes…
When we were kids, we used to snack on Neuburger, a traditional local white grape, all summer and autumn. See, back then, our fruit baskets didn’t include bananas or lychees, but apples, cherries and Neuburger. I have incredibly strong and positive memories of this particular grape taste. Then I grew up and started to drink wine, which was mostly the conventional stuff of 1990s Burgenland, and I was disappointed to realize that I couldn’t find this joyful grape taste in the bottle. It had been replaced with unified, cold-fermented, selected yeast generic aromas, and sulfites. So, like many local winemakers of my generation, I made my way through by getting rid of all the modern “achievements” of vinification step by step, which finally brought back that real grape taste to our wines as I remembered it.
Most of your reds are macerated as whole bunches–why did you choose this method?
Blaufränkisch, our main red grape, has distinct tannins and good acidity. It can be very elegant and shows this fantastic cherry flavor when not over-extracted. So we try to treat it as gently as possible, meaning we mainly don’t want to crush the grape skins too much during the process. After years of experiments, working with whole bunches turned out to be the subtlest and most suitable way to get the result I want. We use old-style big wooden fermenters for the fermentation and maceration and work with native fermentation, since my very first vintage in 2007. The only additive we use is a tiny dose of sulfur, between 7 and 15 ppm, just before the bottling. And, of course, no filter, no fining ever.
Your wines are elegant indeed–and so are their minimalist labels. Who made them and what was the inspiration?
I did the labels myself with my bare hands, using wine lees left in our barrels as the color – Blaufränkisch ones for the reds and the sediments of our skin-fermented white blend for the whites. The entry-level wines have more colorful elements on the label, while the single vineyards carry only one “symbol”, which makes them look a bit more elegant to me. The idea actually originated by coincidence – I was cleaning barrels in the cellar and accidentally touched a white box afterward, so my dirty “Blaufränkisch hands” left a mark. My wife Bernadette and I liked it so much that we decided to create a label in a similar design, and gradually we created a whole series for all our wines, finding a suitable symbol for each one, and having my friend who is a graphic designer put it all together.
I suppose your wife plays an important part in the winery. Do you have a clear task repartition, or is her role more fluid?
As you can surely imagine, everybody is doing everything when you have a family business [laughs]. Bernie used to work as a journalist for an Austrian culinary paper and wrote about wine as part of her job before becoming the mother of our two wonderful girls. After maternity leave, she didn’t go back to this job, but started to help me out in the winery, while also leading our village’s marketing board [Jois is an important tourist destination in this part of Burgenland] in her spare time. This year she began working full-time in our winery, dealing with the office stuff, taking care of marketing, and generally creating a good spirit in the place. Her distinct tasting skills are crucial for helping me detect potential wine flaws that my enthusiasm might have made me overlook… And, of course, she helps me in the cellar and vineyards whenever she can, mainly during harvest.
Are you happy with the current size of your winery, or do you plan to grow further? Or is there another vector of growth, such as adding animals or different crops to the mix?
If we get the opportunity to work on some new unique vineyards around Jois, we might take them, but only for quality reasons or out of curiosity– we don’t really want to expand much just for the sake of it. We have planted some new vineyards on my beloved Gritschenberg recently – not all of them are producing grapes today, but once they have fruit, we’ll have enough grapes to make a living off it for us and our kids, which has always been my goal in terms of size. Instead, we go more in-depth and work on details, bio-diversity, and having healthy soils. And we’re going to plant more herbs for the protective teas I mentioned. We’ve been planting some heirloom cherry and walnut trees within our plots, and we definitely want to have more of them– with no commercial intention but for diversity. Most of the fruit is collected by tourists, birds and kids anyway [laughs].
Blaufrankisch vom Kalk — Back to the top
Markus’s village wine that he describes as “an everyday wine that never gets boring. Our most easygoing Blaufränkisch. Everybody’s Darling, Everyday’s Darling, house wine, afternoon wine…”
Vineyard: Blend of 7 different plots in the Leithaberg DAC, young vines as well as vines up to 40 year old. Some on limestone, some on chalky loam (richer soil with better water supply in the lower parts of the slopes). Dry-farmed, certified organic.
Making of: Grapes are hand harvested, destemmed, and macerated as whole berries for 7 days. Spontaneously fermented in stainless steel and wooden fermenters. Aged 9 months in old wood barrels. Bottled unfined and unfiltered, with 15 mg of added sulfites.
Personality: fun to drink, sappy and cherry-like, but with depths and fruit intensity perfect for any occasion where people come together and enjoy themselves. Can easily age a couple of years.
Helden Red — Back to the top
Winemaker’s note: “The name Helden (German for heroes) refers to the vintage 2014 when, after an intense hailstorm in August, only a few grapes survived without a damage – real heroes. Given the miniscule quantity, we fermented the grapes from two very different terroirs – half schist, half limestone – together back then. It was a first time using whole-bunch fermentation, an approach we’ve stuck with since.”
Vineyard: blend of two distinct terroirs. Hackelsberg is pure dry schist soil, Bergschmallister is white limestone. Dry-farmed, certified organic. Leithaberg DAC
Making of: Grapes are hand harvested and macerated as whole bunches for 3 weeks. Spontaneously fermented in wooden fermenter. Aged for 14 months in used 500l, 600l and 700l oak barrel. Bottled unfined and unfiltered, with 10 mg of added sulfites.
Personality: opposites definitely attract in this lovely balanced red. Schist brings out the rich dark fruit of Blaufrankisch while limestone gives the wine length and softness. Focused and super-interesting.
CRIC — Back to the top
Winemaker’s note: “The next generation of our precious Gritschenberg vineyard, made from young vines coming from our own selection massale. The vines were taken from and grow right next to the old vines planted by my grandfather in 1969.” The name refers to this “generational bond” as well – CRIC [kritch] is short for Gritschenberg.
Vineyard: Gritschenberg. A young plantation from own selection massale, growing on the same spot as the source material. Pure white limestone. Dry-farmed, certified organic.
Making of: Grapes are hand harvested and macerated as whole bunches for 2 weeks. Spontaneously fermented in wooden fermenter. Aged for 12 months in a used 2000l oak barrel. Bottled unfined and unfiltered, with 10 mg of added sulfites.
Personality: fruity, aromatic, with uplifting acidity. “Our freshest and most elegant limestone-born Blaufränkisch,” Markus says.
Gritschenberg Alte Reben — Back to the top
Winemaker’s note: “The old Gritschenberg vineyard was the first Blaufränkisch vineyard I could work with. Planted by my grandfather in 1969 with low-yielding loose bunches type of Blaufrankisch coming from selection massale, this vineyard became my biggest source of inspiration to become a winemaker and focus on this grape. The plot hasn’t been touched by a tractor for 7 years now, even spraying is done manually, by me carrying a backpack sprayer. The native cover crop regulates its growth, keeping yields low and aromatic intensity high.”
Vineyard: Gritschenberg. Old vines planted in 1969 by the winemaker’s grandfather. Pure white limestone. Dry-farmed, certified organic. Leithaberg DAC
Making of: Grapes are hand harvested and macerated as whole bunches for 4 weeks. Spontaneously fermented in wooden fermenter. Aged for 23 months in used 500l oak barrels. Bottled unfined and unfiltered, with 15 mg of added sulfites.
Personality: a true terroir wine – its tight, impressive structure and length and aromatic concentration attest to the old-vine and prime limestone terroir pedigree. Great aging potential.