In the vertiginous landscape of Südsteiermark, near Austria’s Slovenian border, Maria & Sepp Muster have led the revolution for biodynamic farming, minimal intervention and notably for long skin maceration ‘orange’ wines. The delicate Countess, ‘Gräfin’, and concentrated and earthy ‘Erde’, offer kaleidoscopic expressions of environment and terroir; vibrant and unique.
Weingut Sepp & Maria Muster
Maria & Sepp Muster are based in Südsteiermark, Southern Styria to give the anglicised form, near Austria’s Slovenian border. After taking over Sepp’s parents’ 10 hectare estate in 2000, they began farming biodynamically, an easy transition as no herbicides or pesticides had previously been used in the vineyards. There was already long history of winemaking on the estate, with the first documentary reference in 1727, and the vineyards recorded in the 1787 ‘Josephinischen Landesaufnahmen’ (Agricultural Records of Emperor Joseph) as belonging to the domaine of Arnfels, under the house name of Graf.
The local landscape is dramatic, with steeply undulating gradients intersecting each other at unlikely aspects, in doing so creating a myriad of different micro climates. In general the region has a weak continental climate, with warm summers and mildly cold winters, but they’re affected by being at the confluence of several different weather systems, in an ‘illyric’ microclimate of hot days and cool nights, influenced by the cooling winds of the nearby high mountain plateau of the Koralpe.
Their 10 hectares of vineyard are at altitudes from 450 to 470 metres, on rocky lime soils composed of clay and silt, known locally as ‘Opok’. Some of their neighbours have vineyards at altitudes exceeding 700 metres. They mostly farm their vineyards by hand, sometimes a challenging task in the vertiginous topography. It from this unique environment and terroir that the character of their wines stems, with the Opok soils resulting in warm and concentrated wines with pronounced varietal characteristics.
Sepp first became inspired by biodynamic principles after meeting Peter Proctor, a Kiwi evangelist of biodynamics, while visiting India in 1998, and the estate has been certified by the particularly strict Demeter Austria since 2003. Sepp’s extensive knowledge of biodynamics is learned from hands on experience, having never read a book on, or had any formal training. They’re now amongst a group of five of the region’s winemakers who are fully committed to biodynamic ethics, going under the umbrella of ‘Schmecke das Leben’, or ‘Taste Life’. While each has a different approach and vision, collectively discussing their experiences in the vineyard and winery helps everyone in the group.
Sepp’s experience shows that vigorous, lively vines can only grow in healthy soil, so he prioritises building soil vitality using biodynamic practices. This includes the potentising and spreading of plant, mineral and animal substances, and also following the patterns of the planetary constellations, according to the Maria Thun calendar. As well as making the use of chemical herbicides and fertilisers unnecessary, this shows in the quality the wines he produces.
Vines & Winemaking
Sepp’s vineyards appear natural and living, with grass and wild flowers allowed to grow between the rows of vines, which include Sauvignon Blanc, Morillon, Welschriesling, Zweigelt and Gelbermuskateller. They’re managed using traditional single wire trellising on approximately 1.8 metre chestnut posts, allowing the one year old canes to hang down from the wire, giving a slightly wild look. The reasoning is that with this method, developed by their ancestors, the vine’s energy does not go into growing a canopy of leaves, but towards producing a physiologically ripe crop of grapes. They thin grape clusters partly by hand, partly naturally, aiming to produce small and highly aromatic berries, forming the foundation for characterful and complex wines. Sepp’s wines all share the same natural character, and are typically fruity with soft minerality and good acidity. He makes wines in numerous styles, including a traditional Schilcher, the distinctive crisp and bone dry, aromatic rosé made from the indigenous Blauer Wildbacher grape.
Winemaking is as natural as possible, with spontaneous fermentation in large oak barrels, no temperature control and naturally occurring malolactic fermentation, before long barrel ageing for up to two years. The wines are bottled without fining or filtration, with minimal or no use of sulphur dioxide. Their approach emphasises the need for observation and awareness of tradition, while providing the healthy environment, that will with time allowed in the cellar for the wines to reach optimal maturity, best express terroir and vintage. This harmonious approach, allowing the vineyard and wines time and space to organically make themselves, unconstrained by normal winemaking rules and practices, translates into significant vintage variation, especially in Southern Styria’s unreliable climate.
It was blind tasting Friuli winemaker Josko Gravner’s Breg 2001, which he describes as ‘a wine with texture, but also freshness’, that first inspired Sepp to start making white wines using long skin macerations. Since 2005 he’s made two wines this way, fermented with the skins, and partly the stems. These contain colour pigments, tannins and phenols, giving the wine an orange colour, that varies each vintage in intensity from pink to vibrant orange, and give the wine additional aromas, texture and complexity. ‘Gräfin’, meaning ‘Countess’, made from Sauvignon Blanc fermented on the skins for 2 to 4 weeks, is the fruitier and more floral of the two. ‘Erde’, appropriately meaning ‘Earth’, is a blend of 80% Sauvignon Blanc and 20% Morillon (the local synonym for Chardonnay), fermented on the skins for 6 to 12 months, before further ageing in distinctive clay bottles; perhaps a nod to the the Georgian clay Amphora where the wine’s roots lie. Only the smallest and tightest skinned berries are used for these wines, which are spontaneously fermented and matured in wooden barrels for 20 to 24 months, before bottling without any fining, filtration, or added sulphur.
Maria & Sepp Muster Erde & Gräfin 2013
Rich, peachy orange colour, more intense than expected given limited skin contact.
Rich & pronounced on the nose, giving aromas of peach and apricot stone fruit, dried pear and tinned tangerine segments. There’s a sweet herbal character of wild sage and lemon thyme, with a slightly bitter, almond like nuttiness.
The fairly full bodied palate has a polished, oily mouthfeel that skirts with flabbiness, possibly benefiting from a touch more acidity. There’s a sinewous, stalky, grippiness, that melds with subtle herbal notes of rosemary and sage, and fresh moorland grassiness. Plenty of fruit character, dried apricots, pear, and sweet tinned tangerine segment citrus.
Excellent. The delicate sweet herbal aromas are followed by lovely soft and textured palate although marked down a touch for a slight lack of persistency in the finish and flirtation with flabbiness.
Maria & Sepp Muster Erde 2013
Bright, reddish, coppery orange colour, with a slightly rosé hue.
Pronounced and distinctive on the nose. Understated tropical fruit, mango and tinned tangerine segments, with distinctive aromas of powdered dry ginger, and subtle floral notes of jasmine, fushia and rose petal turkish delight.
Very savoury and earthy on palate, unexpectedly so given the vibrant nose. There’s tropical fruit again, but dried rather than fresh, apricot and pear, with sweeter hints of candied lime and sour jelly sweets in the background. Quite woody and sinewous, pear stalk like, tannic grip, and herbal notes of rosemary, sage and lavender. Edgy, zesty orange juice acidity, with a mineral saltiness, reminiscent of sea salt crystals, rather than being briney. Persistent, lasting finish.
Outstanding. A super complex kaleidoscope of flavours, which is quite extreme, while managing to remain reasonably approachable.