Thursday, October 20, 2011

At the Forefront of Biodynamic Winemaking: Visiting Werner and Angela Michlits and their Weingut Meinklang in Austria

Picture: Christian G.E. Schiller with Werner Michlits in Austria

Earlier this year I visited Werner and Angela Michlits at their Weingut Meinklang in the Burgenland in Austria, just a stone throw away from the Austrian border with Hungary. Weingut Meinklang is not a mainstream, conventional winemaker, but a – radical - biodynamic winemaker.

A number of things had come together, which made this visit possible and very enjoyable.

First, Siema Wines had organized a wine tasting with Werner in Washington DC, USA, where Werner was not personally present but virtually – via a Skype connection. Werner was sitting in his winery in Austria at 8:00 pm local time while we were sipping his wine at 2:00 pm local time in the US. He had opened the same wines we tasted, so we would show him the bottles via Skype and then he would sip and talk with us about the wines.

Pictures: Christian G.E. Schiller and Werner Michlits in Washington DC

Siema Wines is a Virginia-based importer/distributor of fine wines from small to medium-sized wineries. Siema’s portfolio represents over 500 wines from all over the world and the majority of wineries represented are family-owned and operated. Founded and developed under the direction of Emanuele Gaiarin, Siema Wines today is a leading wine supplier in the Southeast and Midwest of the US. Klaus Wittauer is also importing Weingut Meinklang wines into the US.

Second, during the skyping session, Werner and I realized that my cousin, Dagmar Ehrlich, a German wine journalist, is one of his closest allies in terms of pushing ahead with biodynamic winemaking. In fact, before the skype tasting Dagmar had just visited him to discuss a common project.

Third, I went to Austria this summer to attend a wedding at Schloss Halbturn. As it turned out, Schloss Halbturn is also in the Burgenland and just half an hour by car away from Weingut Meinklang. So I set up a meeting after the wedding and my wife Annette and I spent a couple of hours with Werner at Weingut Meinklang.

The Michlits Family Mixed Farming Operation

The Meinklang winery is located in the village of Pamhagen, directly on the Hungarian border, on the southernmost tip of the Seewinkel region, in the flat part of Burgenland. Burgenland is one of Austria’s 4 wine regions – Lower Austria, Styria, Burgenland and Vienna. For many years it was a bit on the margin, although it has a log wine growing tradition. Burgenland belonged to Hungary until 1921 when it was annexed to Austria post WWI. It is a melting pot of Magyar, Slavic and Austrian cultures. Many of the towns have two names, one Croatian or Hungarian and the other name Austrian. The vineyard area of Burgenland totals 14.000 hectares.

Pictures; Angela and Werner Michlits

“Our estate represents what used to be common practice everywhere in the Pannonian countryside: a mixed farming operation, managed by an extended family” said Werner. Thus, Weingut Meinklang is part of a much larger mixed farming operation. The farm’s 3 main components are livestock, agriculture and wine.

Pictures: Weingut Meinklang

The whole Michlits family lives and works on this estate: Angela and Werner jun. with their 3 children, Werner jun. parents Werner sen. and Anneliese and his brothers Lukas and Hannes. Angela is the winemaker and Werner focuses more on the operational aspects of Weingut Meinklang.

Biodynamic Principles

The whole mixed farming operation is done on the basis of biodynamic principles, following the principles of Rudolf Steiner ( As early as the beginning of the 20th century some farmers realized that industrial methods of agriculture were causing ecological damage. They invited the anthropologist Rudolf Steiner to explain his thoughts on this issue and in 1924 Rudolf Steiner held a total of eight lectures at Koberwitz near Breslau in which he presented a comprehensive treatise on the scientific principles governing the interrelationship between nature and agriculture. Rudolf Steiner made well-defined recommendations for agricultural practices in individual areas.

This philosophy revolves around the farm as an agricultural operation whose plants and animals become integrated parts of their natural environment. The fundamental objective of biodynamic cultivation is the creation of a farm as a self-sufficient living organism through the keeping of cattle, production of its own seeds and feed, fertilization with farm-produced compost or manure and the growing of leguminous plants. Adherence to these principles leads to a harmonization of the living relationship between soil, plant and animal. A healthy soil produces healthy plants, which in turn supply the nutritional requirements of man and animal.

Instead of industrially manufactured chemical fertilizer and sprays containing toxic substances, bio-dynamically managed agriculture employs the use of special herbal, quartz and dung preparations, which are of vital importance for the production of compost and for the care of soil and plants. This continuous composting process with farm-produced manure and compost preparations creates the basis for a living soil. Preparations derived from cow-dung and medicinal plants such as chamomile, dandelion and valerian support the process that creates fertility. Similar to the principles of homeopathy the stirring of these substances into water creates a dynamic force that acts as a carrier of life. A preparation produced in this manner is applied as a fine spray in vineyards and fields and takes effect.

It is of fundamental importance that all processes are applied at the right time. The art of Demeter-cultivation lies in choosing the right time of application. This requires sensitive understanding and long experience in order to be able to observe and make use of the rhythms of the earth and the cosmos. The influence of the cosmos on flora and fauna has been positively proven. An Australian study conducted at the University of Adelaide has shown that bio-dynamically cultivated vines exhibit a significantly better growth of roots.

Biodynamic Principles and Weingut Meinklang

Some wine people declare that biodynamics is bogus, a hoax. Others approach the concept with almost religious reverence. After spending a couple of hours with Werner, it became clear that he is a true biodynamic fundamentalist. The depth of his faith was hard to miss … or to resist.

“At the center of our mixed farming operation is our herd of Angus cattle” Werner said. He explained that these good-natured beasts of the steppe are wonderfully adapted to the Pannonian grasslands and are not only an aesthetic addition to the Seewinkel landscape, but they also complete an ecological circle. “We keep approximately 300 mother cows and calves at present and our goal is to eventually extend the number of mother cows alone to 300.” In addition, the Michlits are breeding a special kind of pigs - Mangalitsa pigs - on the farm. “Cattle, horses, and pigs - our animals are of very special significance, as they serve a very useful purpose by providing manure for our farm. In turn their feed comes from agricultural produce from our own farm. Their excrement is composted and processed and subsequently becomes a valuable source of natural dung for our vineyards and fields – a unique occurrence in the wine lands of Austria.”

Work in both the vineyards and cellar is carried out with due reference to the phases of the moon as well as of various stellar constellations. The estate has been certified as an organic producer by the DEMETER association since 2005. There might not be a more careful and well-run biodynamic wine estate anywhere in the world than that of Meinklang.

Weingut Meinklang

“Meinklang is more than a fancy name” Werner said “There is more behind it”. “Mein” = “My” Means: the personal signature of the young winemaker couple Werner Michlits and his wife Angela. And “Klang” = “sound” symbolizes: the harmony with nature. The wines are intended to fully reflect the nature, in which they arise.

The Vineyards

The vineyard area totals 55 hectares. We did not have a chance to visit the Meinklang vineyards, but Werner explained that the vineyards are surrounded by natural ponds and wild herbs such as meliot, vetch, red clover and wild grasses, which offer a domicile for beneficial insects and soil organisms. These wild plants along with the wild herbs in the vineyard are in competition with the vines for water and nutrients and provide gentle, desirable stress for the vines which contributes positively to the development of aroma an phenols in grapes.

With over 2000 hours of sun per year, not only do the red varietals (70%) such as Zweigelt, Blaufränkisch, Merlot or Cabernet ripen excellently, but the white Grüner Veltliner with its typical peppery nose (“Pfefferl”, as the Austrians say) is also very convincing. “Zweigelt and Blaufränkisch are our most planted grape varieties and are the typical varieties that best reflect our region. The white wine varieties (30%) are also indigenous and include Welschriesling, Pinot Blanc, Grüner Veltliner and Pinot Gris – varieties that nicely highlight the character of the region.”

Weisssee and Graupert

There is one particularly noteworthy vineyard, Weisssee, the source of the fruit for the Graupert. Here, the ancient principle of giving the vines maximum freedom is practiced, i.e. the vines are not pruned at all. “Our Pinot Gris vines are a special experiment for us. We abstain completely from pruning and let the vines grow wild. In the way a natural metabolism is achieved the vines regulate the production of fruit on their own. The vines yield an above average number of bunches with extremely small berries. The yield volume is thus smaller than normal. This brings the advantage of a high skin to fruit flesh ratio and thus more aroma, extract and complexity. Because the vineyard has a truly “unkempt” appearance, it receives the local dialect word for this, “Graupert”, as its name.”

The Wine Cellar and the Concrete Eggs

When it comes to wine making, Werner felt that there was little to say about the winemaking facilities. “Because we do as little as possible there.” Indeed, working gentle and hygienic in the cellar is nothing special anymore, but the Michlits’ doing it without chemicals is. Of course, fermentation takes place with wild yeasts as they appear naturally in the vineyards and the cellar. The wines are not pumped over in the cellar, both musts and wines are moved only with the aid of gravity.

Picture: In the Weingut Meinklang Cellar

One thing that hits you when you tour the wine cellar of the Michlits’ is the army of concrete eggs. Typically winemakers age their wine in stainless steel tanks, wooden barrels or in the bottle. The Michlits’, however, have constructed 100 concrete eggs and age the wine in these eggs. Werner was inspired by the egg the way it appears in nature. From his point of view the egg is nature’s ideal form for making wine. Werner and Angela believe that if the wine ages in these eggs, it develops the finest aromas and, most importantly, the highest rate of natural stability. So, less sulfur, for example, is needed.

A Very Mystic Room: In the Stone Cave Below the Winery

Towards the end of the tour, Werner led us to a very mystic room - a stone cave below the winery, where Werner showed us his magic cow poop and other ingredients for biodynamic farming. The cow poop comes from the bovines that live on his farm, and he ages and ferments it in horns from those very same cows. The manure is then rolled into small, hardened balls, which he handed to us. They were cold and smooth and smelled clean.

Pictures: Werner Michlits and Annette Schiller in the Stone Cave

The Michlits in Somlo, Hungary

The Michlits’ also grow vine in Somlo in Hungary. With 800 hectares, Somlo is one of the smaller wine regions of Hungary. Most of the vineyards are on the slopes of an almost symmetrical, cone-shaped, dormant volcano, crowned by the ruins of an 11th century castle, rising from the plains of the Tapolca Basin. It is a fascinating view when you approach the region. Mainly autochtone Hungary grapes are grown here: Juhfark (Sheep’s Tail), Hárslevelű (Linden Leaf), Furmint and Olaszrizling (Welchsriesling). The Somlo wines tend to be dry and full-bodied, with a salty pure mineral character, bright acidity and a rich texture.

Picture: Somlo in Hungary

Interestingly, after Weingut Meinklang, our next stop was in Somlo, visiting Istvan Stephan Spiegelberg the following day.

Meinklang Organic Ale

The Michlits’ also make a biodynamic beer, created with ancient and traditional grain varietals unique to the region, called Urkorns. The Meinklang brewery is the only Demeter brewery (organic) in the world.

In the Tasting Room

We finished up in the modern tasting room, next to the concrete eggs, where we sampled quite a number of Weingut Meinklang wines.

Pictures: In the Tasting Room

Weingut Meinklang Wine Portfolio

Here is a summary of the Weingut Meinklang wine portfolio.

Picture: Meinklang Wines in the USA

WEISSWEINE (White Wines)

Grüner Veltliner Jahrgang: 2009 | Alkohol: 11.5 %vol. | Gesamtsäure: 6.8 g/l | Restzucker: 3.1 g/l, trocken, zertifiziert (certified) : Austria Bio Garantie | Demeter

Graupert Grauburgunder Jahrgang: 2009 | Alkohol: 13.0 %vol. | Gesamtsäure: 5.6 g/l | Restzucker: 3.3 g/l, trocken, zertifiziert: Austria Bio Garantie | Demeter

Welschriesling Jahrgang: 2009 | Alkohol: 11.5 %vol. | Gesamtsäure: 5.2 g/l | Restzucker: 3.0 g/l, trocken, zertifiziert: Austria Bio Garantie | Demeter

Burgenlandweiß (Welschriesling, Grüner Veltliner, Weißburgunder)Jahrgang: 2009 | Alkohol: 11.0 %vol. | Gesamtsäure: 6.2 g/l | Restzucker: 5.4 g/l, trocken, zertifiziert: Austria Bio Garantie

ROTWEIN (Red Wines)

Burgenlandrot (Zweigelt, Blaufränkisch, St. Laurent)Jahrgang: 2009 | Alkohol: 13.0 %vol. | Gesamtsäure: 6.1 g/l | Restzucker: 2.6 g/l, trocken, zertifiziert: Austria Bio Garantie | Demeter

Zweigelt Jahrgang: 2009 | Alkohol: 13.0 %vol. | Gesamtsäure: 5.7 g/l | Restzucker: 1.1 g/l, trocken, zertifiziert: Austria Bio Garantie | Demeter

St. Laurent Jahrgang: 2009 | Alkohol: 13.0 %vol. | Gesamtsäure: 6.0 g/l | Restzucker: 0.7 g/l, trocken, zertifiziert: Austria Bio Garantie | Demeter

Zwerest (Zweigelt and St. Laurent) Jahrgang: 2008 | Alkohol: 13.0 %vol. | Gesamtsäure: 6.2 g/l | Restzucker: 1.7 g/l, trocken, zertifiziert: Austria Bio Garantie | Demeter

Blaufränkisch Jahrgang: 2009 | Alkohol: 13.0 %vol. | Gesamtsäure: 6.1 g/l | Restzucker: 1.3 g/l, trocken, zertifiziert: Austria Bio Garantie | Demeter

Blauburgunder Jahrgang: 2009 | Alkohol: 13.0 %vol. | Gesamtsäure: 6.0 g/l | Restzucker: 1.6 g/l, trocken, zertifiziert: Austria Bio Garantie | Demeter

SOMLO WEINE (Wines from Somlo)

Juhfark (German: Lämmerschweif) Jahrgang: 2009 | Alkohol: 13.0 %vol. | Gesamtsäure: 5.2 g/l | Restzucker: 6.8 g/l, trocken, zertifiziert: Austria Bio Garantie und Hungaro Öko Garantie, in Umstellung auf Demeter

Hárslevelü (German: Die Lindenblättrige) Jahrgang: 2009 | Alkohol: 12.5 %vol. | Gesamtsäure: 5.1 g/l | Restzucker: 4.7 g/l, trocken, zertifiziert: Austria Bio Garantie und Hungaro Öko Garantie, in Umstellung auf Demeter

SÜSSWEINE (Sweet Wines)

Ausbruch Rösler Jahrgang: 2005 | Alkohol: 12.5 %vol. | Gesamtsäure: 8.6 g/l | Restzucker: 84 g/l, süß, zertifiziert: Austria Bio Garantie | Demeter

Eiswein Weißburgunder Jahrgang: 2008 | Alkohol: 8.5 %vol. | Gesamtsäure: 6.4 g/l | Restzucker: 145 g/l, süß, zertifiziert: Austria Bio Garantie | Demeter

Auslese Grauburgunder Jahrgang: 2007 | Alkohol: 8.5 %vol. | Gesamtsäure: 6.4 g/l | Restzucker: 145 g/l, süß, zertifiziert: Austria Bio Garantie | Demeter

PERLWEIN (Sparkling Wine)

Prosa Blauburgunder Rosé Jahrgang: 2009 | Alkohol: 10.5 %vol. | Gesamtsäure: 6.4 g/l | Restzucker: 16 g/l, süß, zertifiziert: Austria Bio Garantie | Demeter

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