Maria & Sepp Muster are winemakers in Südsteiermark, southern Styria, near Austria’s Slovenian border. They are committed to following strict biodynamic principles (certified biodynamic by Demeter since 2003), including practices such as the potentising and spreading of plant, mineral and animal substances, and also following the patterns of the planetary constellations. With these methods they aim to maximise the vitality of the soil and vines, consequently impacting upon the quality of the resulting wines, and make the use of chemical herbicides and fertilisers unnecessary.
The vineyards are steeply sloped and on rocky lime soils composed of clay silt known as Opok, at an altitude of around 450 metres, and are worked mostly by hand. Sgaminegg, the best vineyard of the estate, has southern facing slopes of pure Opok soil (apparently the word Sgaminegg is a Slavic word meaning ‘from stone’). Sgaminegg is sparsely planted with old Sauvignon Blanc and Morillon (traditionally used in Steiermark as a synonym for Chardonnay) vines, in the top third of the vineyard slopes. This has very poor soils, yielding fewer clusters of small berried grapes, all of which are hand selected and picked.
Vines generally grow best in poor soils where they must work hard to find nutrients and water. This lack of water stresses the vine and forces it to prioritise the development of the berries rather than the leaves and canopies, because the berries (which contain seeds) are the vine’s mechanism for propagating. Restricted water and nutrition also result in lower yields of smaller berries which have more concentrated flavours. In poor soils the roots must work harder to find nutrients, increasing the mass and depth of roots, meaning more nutrients ultimately reach the vine, and also making the vine less susceptible to changing weather patterns.
Steeply sloped vineyards aid drainage and are typically low in nutrients due to years of erosion, consequently the soil will be poorest higher on the slope. In the northern hemisphere, vineyards in cooler regions benefit from a southerly aspect, which has the greatest exposure to heat and sunlight. This helps ripen the grapes, with steep slopes increasing the affect further.
Stony soils are generally well drained with limited water holding capacity, and not too fertile. They help moderate diurnal temperature variation (temperature variation over the course of a single day), by absorbing heat during sunshine, and radiating it during the night and cloudier periods.
They have a weak continental climate, with warm summers and mildly cold winters, influenced by the nearby Koralpe high mountain plateau, which gives cool nights and winds. Continental climates are characterised by short summers, then a large rapid temperature drop in the autumn. A northern continental climate typically has severe winters (no moderating ocean influence like Bordeaux) and hotter summers (but here these are moderated by the cooling effect of the mountain plateau). The winds of the Koralpe have particularly significant influence on the wines from the Sgaminegg vineyard.
The vineyards are managed using the traditional single wire trellising on 1.8 metre chestnut posts, with the one year old canes hanging down from the wire, giving a slightly wild appearance. Winemaking is as natural as possible, with spontaneous fermentation often in oak barrels and casks, and long barrel ageing for up to two years. Wines are bottled without fining or filtration, with no or minimal use of sulphur dioxide. The grapes are destemmed and gently crushed over 4 hours, with the concentrated juice fermenting and maturing in small oak barrels, then maturing for a further 12 months in large casks.
They believe all these factors result in warm and complex wines, which have distinct varietal aroma character and potential to develop over a period of years. The wines from the Sgaminegg vineyard have a fuller structure, with more extract/density, and a pronounced mineral character.
And so to the important bit…
Sepp & Maria Muster Opok 2013
A blend of Welschriesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Morillon and Muskateller.
Pale lemon colour.
Pronounced nose giving distinctive impressions of cider apple vinegar, sightly soured apple/orange juice, and tropical pineapple. Funky, farmyardy, slightly cabbagey, with baked apple, straw and hay. Some yeasty Fino notes.
Dry, medium to high acidity, medium alcohol, medium body, medium plus intensity. More citrus fruit on the palate (orange zest/pith), with a distinctly mineral/stony character and some saline tang. Medium plus finish.
Excellent, quite distinctive, creamy mouth feel, but with some mineral elements.
Sepp & Maria Muster Sgaminegg 2008
A blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Morillon (Chardonnay)
A pale lemon colour in the glass, distinctly golden and bright. Glossy, oily and glass coating.
Wow – a pronounced and complex nose, savoury and sophisticated, with definite signs of development. There’s a distinctly vegetal, slightly cabbagey, aged Sauvignon character, but with some fresher asparagus and white floral wild garlic flowers. The wine is rich and nutty, with brazil nut, polished hard wood, tanned greasy leather. For me there’s quite a musty sense, like dusty, cobwebby cupboards, with a cereal, wet wool character. Still some tropical and stone fruit (apricot, pineapple) remaining.
Dry, with medium to high acidity, medium plus alcohol (feels fairly spicy and warm), pronounced intensity. The vegetal cabbagey character distinctive again on the palate, along with some saline, slightly salty seaweed. There’s more citrus than on the nose, tart, mouth puckering lemon juice, and some green apple. Savoury black peppercorn spice, especially on the long finish.
Outstanding, complex and multi layered (add own superlatives).
Developing, but still with plenty more potential to develop (plenty of acidity and vibrancy remains).
I think this is is a superb wine which I love, however it does have fair amount of tertiary character, some of which may not be the everyone’s taste.
Sepp & Maria Muster also produce a wine Erde, using same varieties but fermented on the skins and stems for 6 to 12 months, which I’m looking forward to an opportunity to try.