OWNER, VITICULTURALIST AND WINEMAKER, ARTISAN WINES, BURGENLAND, NEUSIEDLERSEE, AUSTRIA
I always thought that to be in winemaking, it is important to be involved in it some way or the other, ever since you are born. Meeting up recently with Franz Schneider, Founder of Artisan Wines, completely changed my mind! This young man had a soaring career, flying high in the skies as an aeronautics engineer with Austrian Airlines before he gave it up for a highly grounded profession working with his family and vineyards, something he says, gives him equal thrill that has no regrets for! Infact quite the opposite, he has been instrumental in helping the Austrian wine industry “take off” through his ingenious and committed quest for going back to nature and purity.
Following a decision made with parents, Franz took over the vineyards and wine production, starting his own winery in 2009. By introducing a contemporary style of sustainable grape production philosophy, he is one of the new generation of young Austrian winemakers, to eschew conventional styles of barrel aged, heavily extracted and stewed styles of wines and instead focus on sustainable and biological methods of cultivation, where the soils and vineyards express themselves through the wines
Since then, Franz has been committed to his family’s 6 ha of vineyards in his small and peaceful village of Halbturn, located in the region of Neusiedlersee (part of the bigger Burgenland wine region of Austria). His mission is to bring out the true flavours of indigenous varieties of this region around Lake Neusiedl that borders into Hungary. A long and wide natural lake (22 miles long and around 7 miles at the widest side but a shallow 2m in depth), Neusiedl has been formed by spring water and has been a key landmark, responsible for moderating the continental temperatures around this region for centuries, which also makes it attractive for botrytis (noble rot) styles of sweet wines.
Franz’s Pure range of entry level Artisan wines include fresh and lean white wines with noticeable light fruit expression, that are the result of soft pressing of grapes to produce easy drinking whites from the classic grape, Welshriesling; then there is the crisp cranberry fruit forward, unusually delicate style of rosé wines from the red grape Zweigelt (cross between Blaufrankish and St Laurent grape varieties); equally impressive are the easily accessible every day fruity style of reds from St Laurent (whose parent grape is Pinot Noir). Franz has also been successfully cultivating international grapes such as Sauvignon Blanc, producing refreshingly dry, ripe, yellow stone fruit flavoured and textured wine within the Pure range, which has been gaining a lot of international attention.
The complex level of Reserve range of wines are made from 30 to 50 year old “alte reben” (old) vines of Welschriesling and St Laurent which are harvest later, fermented and aged in massive 500l old Hungarian oak in order to minimise the oak effect on the grapes and instead focus on maximising concentration and texture of fruit and acidity. Artisan’s Reserve Zweigelt, on the other hand is aged is Slovenian Acacia Barrels. Franz intentionally does not use French barrels as he seeks for neutral oak expression in his complex wines. This helps wines evolve gracefully without being overpowering or adding overly chewy tannic structure.
Here are the details of my talks with Franz.
SUMI: Share the history of your family and your background into winemaking.
FRANZ: Wine was part and parcel of our family and apart from grapes, we bred horses, cows, pigs, chicken, cultivated wheat, corn and many other agricultural products in our estate before. My father was the first to take up filling of wine bottles of our surrounding region and started to do deliveries throughout Austria. When I took over from my parents in 2009 we decided to shift our focus solely on wine. I am actually a trained aeronautical engineer and worked for 5 years with Austrian Airlines. My younger brother had plans to take over the estate but was unable to finish his enological training. So, I made a decision to enrol at the University of Applied Life Sciences in Vienna for a brand new course they had just started called “Viticulture, Enology and Wine Marketing”. I was amongst the first few graduates of this oenology study in Austria in 2009. My study at the university included several internships in Italy at Luciano Sandrone/Barolo, Research Center in Geisenheim/Germany, in Klein Constantia Estate/South Africa and a few estates in Austria. And that is how I came into winemaking! In short, not what I had intended to start off with… but now here I am for life! (with smiles)
SUMI: How do you manage to split time between the various aspects of your job?
FRANZ: Actually, I am in charge of all and every working aspect at Artisan Wines. Starting from winter pruning, to covering the green works in the vineyards whether done by hand or mechanically, full wine production, cellar work and everything up to and including promoting and marketing our wines worldwide. My family tries to help wherever possible but we don’t have any employees. Time management is super important but the daily workload is definitely way more than just a 9 to 5 job. Especially during harvest time, I do end up easily with a 15 hour day. Suffice to say with twins, my wife and I have busy lives!
SUMI: The terroir of your vineyards; what have been the challenges and what are the strengths that have worked well for Artisan Wines over the recent vintages.
FRANZ: The total vineyard size I work on is 6 ha and I produce 8 grape varieties from 12 different sites which is quite a big strength. Our soils vary dramatically, even within a short span of 10 meters in our vineyards. The diversity we attain from this is something we are very proud of! The topography is quite complex varying from very light and spare sites with huge amounts of lake gravel brought in from the ice age, then there is loess, sandy soils all the way up to deep, fertile black chernozemic (earthy humus heavy) soils, that is the range. The diversity in our soils is the reason for different aromas noted even within one grape variety but from different sites. All vineyards and varieties are picked and vinified separately to highlight these differences. The lake moderates the cold temperatures, as a result, we have been blessed with decently sunny and ripe vintages such as one in 2015.
Our challenge will be to fight late frosts, like the one which hit us severely in 2016. We lost about 80% of the crop! 2017 was also witnessed some spring frost but the last few weeks of September were incredibly warm in Burgenland and the Sep warmth makes it one of the earliest harvest regions for Austria.
Another real challenge is the climatic severity because we are so inland. It is challenging to find the right balance between cover crops, canopy management and periods of severe drought in late spring and summer.
SUMI: Where are most of your currents exports to and where do you see UK fitting in?
FRANZ: Exports are shared mostly within Europe and a bit of wine is shipped to the US. With Brexit on the doorstep there is a bit of uncertainty on both sides but I truly believe and hope there will be a good outcome out of this. There is definitely a growing interest for modern style and traditional styles of Austrian wines in the UK.
SUMI: How would you describe your wines?
FRANZ: Personally, I would describe them as elegant and feminine. We are not aiming for “blockbuster” wines with loads of oak and tannic structure. Our wines should always display the grape variety and their origin. They should be a pleasure to drink and the intention is for every wine lover longing for another glass! As mentioned,I grow 8 different grape varieties on 12 different sites. From these grapes, wines are produced in 3 different ranges. Each year I experiment something new. Different varieties, different production methods, something that I have not done before. That’s how I try to learn each year a bit more. If my palate deems it worthy to be bottled it will be released in the Experimental wine range. The production is limited to one barrel so the quantity ranges from 300 to 450 bottles. The current experimental wine is a skin-fermented Sauvignon Blanc, matured in used barrique for 1 year. Bottled without filtration or SO2 addition.
SUMI: Your next best beverage of choice…
FRANZ: Cider or IPA from a local micro-brewery are my favourites after wine!
SUMI: Future opportunities for Austrian Wines
FRANZ: Opportunities definitely come from the versatility of local Austrian grape varieties. Even red grapes such as Zweigelt are so diverse in expression ranging from light and fruit forward with soft tannins to bold, structured and age-worthy. I think Austrian wines are coming of age now and I wish to show this versatility to the world.
SUMI: If not in wines, what would you be doing today…
FRANZ: Been so busy with vines and winemaking that I never had a chance to think about it!
SUMI: Given an opportunity to travel, which country (or countries) would you love to produce wines in?
FRANZ: The first country of choice would be South Africa where I had the opportunity to work and understand the commercial scale of operations in and around Klein Constantia and how different each winemaker and their production styles are. Gave me a lot of confidence to come back to Austria and work on a style of wine of my own that I like to relate to and is appreciable as well. The other areas I’d love to spend some time and work in is Burgundy and Tuscany. All 3 regions are definitely my all-time favourites after Austria! A mix of old world and new world regions and so much to learn from each. Each one has a unique progressive style.
SUMI: A very enjoyable and educative talk. Thank you!
Artisan wines are available through Clear Wine Company