Dolomitic Dynamo: Weingut Abraham

Winemakers in Eppan, Italy holding their hands in open fermenting vat of red grapes
© Arik Oberrauch

My first, late spring 2018 visit with Marlies and Martin Abraham in their cellar on the edge of Eppan-Appiano proved an inspirational personal discovery. A young couple leaves behind former professions to follow a vinicultural dream of activism in the vineyard and minimalism in the cellar, becoming the first to vinify and bottle wine from the vineyards they have inherited: In itself, that story is nowadays (thankfully) far from unusual. But in Südtirol-Alto Adige, it’s an audacious exception.

Moreover, I was amazed by how distinctly delicious were Abrahams’ interpretations of each among the four grape varieties they chose to champion, especially considering that less than six years had elapsed since the bottling of their first wine. Another unsurprising feature for our times might help explain this couple’s early stylistic self-confidence and success: the extent to which their approach with each grape variety is consciously oriented toward traditions that had gone neglected in the late 20th century. 

In most of the wine world, you’re already an oddball if you even know what Pinot Blanc (aka Weissburgunder, aka Pinot Bianco) really is, much less grow any. But not in Südtirol-Alto Adige, that rare place to have nailed this mutant Pinot to its masthead, which encompasses sponsoring the superbly organized (until Covid’s intervention) biennial Spatium Pinot Blanc that brought me to the environs of Eppan-Appiano. Even against a background of intensive local activity, though, the Abrahams’ interpretations of Pinot Blanc, showcasing two dramatically different terroirs – featuring quartzite-laced porphyry and shell limestone – are loaded with intrigue. They’re also the most strikingly illustrative of the benefits that accrue to this couple’s practice with all their wines of long, leesy élevage. 

No wine chez Abraham excited me more than their Gewürztraminer – and if anyone had suggested to me beforehand that this might be the case, I would have scoffed. Skin fermentation and lees-enrichment harness this grape variety’s abundant phenolics for a rare, invigorating sense of energy and animation that complements the wine’s flattering texture and defies its alcoholic body. In this respect – but even more so for their high-toned yet restrained aromatics and a corresponding flavor diversity that extends from botanical to savory animal-mineral – these wines remind me of why in my youth I gave pride of place to genuinely dry Alsace Gewürztraminers such as characterized the 1970s and earlier (now almost disappeared from my cellar, not to mention from Alsace). 

I have yet to encounter a riot of Vernatsch-typical red berries more alluringly perfumed or infectiously drinkable than that of Marlies and Martin Abraham.  

With its well earned reputation as both an everybody’s darling and a demanding diva, it’s hardly surprising that the Abrahams expend much effort striving after seductive and singular Pinot Noir (which Südtiroler call “Blauburgunder”). Within less than a decade they and their vines have had almost every imaginable extreme in growing season thrown at them, and although Martin’s great grandfather grew Pinot Noir as well as Pinot Blanc, the former is nowadays represented chez Abraham by comparatively young vines, the array of clones and selections that Marlies and Martin themselves have planted only beginning to come into production. How much more amazing, then, to have been knocked out by the perfume, clarity, and animating juiciness of a (heady and 14%-alcohol) 2013 that represented only their third turn on the dance floor with Madame Pinot.

“This being Südtirol, there must be Vernatsch” (aka Schiava).  Well, you might have been right if you’d said that a decade or two ago. But lately, consumers, not to mention serious producers, have been turning their backs on the region’s once-ubiquitous signature grape, whose acreage is consequently in sharp decline. Of course, if you’re an insider, you know that there is also a cadre of growers (extending into neighboring Trentino) determined with varied stylistic inspiration to redeem the sullied reputation and showcase the delightful potential of this badly abused grape. (Actually, as you’ll read, a family of grapes.) However,  I have yet to encounter a riot of Vernatsch-typical red berries more alluringly perfumed or infectiously drinkable than that of Marlies and Martin Abraham.      

With rudimentary German or Italian, you’ll be able to absorb the Abrahams’ own evocative profiles of the sites they farm, and glean abundant technical details about the wines they have bottled, so I felt free to guide our January 2021 discussions into what I hope are deeper and more intriguing waters. The excerpts below liberally interpolate previous conversations in Eppan-Appiano. The translation is mine.  

An oak tree at the top of a grapevine covered slope with snowy mountains in the background
© Weingut Abraham

Remind me how your estate came about.

Martin: My great grandfather Johann Magagna, likely originally from the Italian-speaking Val di Non in Trentino, inherited our home property, the Magainhof, from his godparents in 1901. His father had been an agricultural laborer without any property. Johann built a wine cellar, but with the outbreak of the First World War, his plan to produce wine couldn’t be realized. After his early death, my great grandmother, later my grandmother, and then my father ran a self-sufficient mixed agricultural operation, including livestock and vines. The grapes were sold to the Kellereigenossenschaft Eppan. The Magainhof itself is a “geschlossener Hof,” meaning that by law it can only be inherited or sold as a whole. But we farm a lot of small parcels [outside Eppan-Appiano], which is the norm. There are scarcely any consolidated private estates in Südtirol-Alto Adige, which is how it’s been for generations; when we pulled out of the coop in 2011 that was a rare occurrence for the region.  

Marlies: We wanted to pursue our passion for wine and our dream of fulfilling this property’s potential.  Martin took courses at the Polytechnic College for Pom- and Viticulture in Laimburg. But other than that, it was: “Learning by doing.”

Are you still doing nearly all the work yourselves?

Marlies: Just recently, a young, motivated winegrower from Bozen/Bolzano started working with us once a week, mostly in the cellar. In the last couple of years he’s been getting experience in Burgundy and in the Rhône with Stephane Ogier. Friends and relatives help us at harvest, along with one very valuable lady from Romania – and in recent years, interns from southern Italy.   

Among geeks like us, it’s understood that training to Pergola [aka Pergl] by no means has to spell overproduction. And under the sign of climate change, it brings an obvious advantage of judicious shadowing. But what are other benefits or particular challenges of working with this ancient system?

Martin: With respect to climatic warming, it’s been shown that this training method means grapes are scarcely subjected to any sunburn, and what’s more, thanks to shading of the soil, the vine has access to more water and thus less stress.  

Pergola trained vineyards looking onto cloud covered hills in Alto Adige, Italy
© Joachim Schmeisser

The challenge is complicated management due to the unsystematic structure of the vine canopy, [which affects] pruning, canopy work, harvest. For that reason, it takes workers with experience and a feel for Pergl. Already at flowering or shortly after, we free the [embryonic] clusters through cautious leaf removal. To make sure we don’t end up with a complete jungle, the shoots have to be bound forward by hand. Pergl is also especially subject to botrytis, so selective harvest is advisable. And working with machines like tractors or hedgers is either impossible or limited. But we have found how in the same Pinot Blanc vineyard, planted partly to Pergl and partly to Guyot, you find huge differences in the wine. On average, the Pergl brings a gram more, but sometimes up to three grams more of acidity. Added to that [is] less [potential] alcohol, so the wines come off as more lithe [schlanker], fresh and focused. 

Speaking of moderating eventual alcohol, lately, with Pinot Noir, you’ve taken to braiding the shoot tips around the wires [tressage] rather than hedging them. [Research suggests that this results in valuable hormonal suppression.] Have you tried that with any other varieties? 

Marlies: So far, only with Pinot Noir. The results are positive: The clusters remain a bit smaller and less compact; tannins are good. But it’s very labor intensive.

Simply because they tend to be old, most Vernatsch vines are trained to Pergl, but you evidently think that system is valuable for other varieties as well.

Martin: It’s especially suited to varieties with delicate fruit aromas and wines that live less from structure and more from finesse, such as Vernatsch, Pinot Blanc, and Chardonnay. And the system really only works, in our experience, on meager soils; otherwise the canopy just wants to be too dense. There’s no denying the botrytis risk, so Pergl isn’t suited to Pinot Noir or Pinot Gris.

The interpretations of Pinot Blanc, showcasing two dramatically different terroirs – quartzite-laced porphyry and shell limestone – are loaded with intrigue. 

Unfortunately, Vernatsch is getting ripped out on a massive scale lately and replaced with other varieties, so more and more Pergl are disappearing, and new vineyards are being trained exclusively to Guyot. What’s driving this is the low price paid for Vernatsch, combined with the complicated, labor-intensive management [of Pergl].

What percentage of your vines are on Pergl and would you – or are you even legally allowed to – consider constructing a new pergola vineyard? 

Marlies: It’s around 20%. It’s legally possible. We could imagine doing it ourselves in the future, but it would be an expensive investment.

What else are you doing to suppress potential alcohol while promoting ripening?

Martin: We tend to hedge very late [early to mid-July] and then only once. That way we achieve similar effects as with braiding [including] less growth of lateral shoots and an early cessation of tip growth. Other ways we control must weight include not striving for excessively low yields, not halving the clusters, and not treating the vines with potassium phosphite [a widely-used anti-fungal treatment], which retards ripening. A little peronospora at the vine tips is okay. Then, of course, not picking too late; and in the cellar we ferment spontaneously, at relatively high temperatures, with Vernatsch and Pinot Noir in open-top [wooden] vats [which allows for the escape of some alcohol]. 

Winemaker rinsing open fermenting vat in barrel cellar
© Alex Filz

Your wines are amazingly animating and refreshing even when they reach 14% alcohol. How do you preserve freshness?

Martin: We prefer a light reduction. For the whites, we direct-press, but do it slowly – up to eight hours [per load] – so that we get phenolic extraction with better [i.e. comparatively lower] pH levels. Then there’s the long time on the lees. And with the reds, depending on vintage, we employ up to 30% whole clusters with stems.  

You place understandable importance on clonal and phenotypical differences. Can you relate that specifically to Pinot Blanc and Pinot Noir?

Martin: The family vineyard “In der Låmm” was planted by my grandfather Johann Abraham between 1958 and 1962. Back then, there were no clones. Instead, selections reflected the growers’ observations of the individual vines and the propagation of the most stable. Unfortunately, very few such vineyards are left. Beginning in the ‘70s, only the clones Laimburg 18 and 16 [of Pinot Blanc] were planted, which led to a certain uniformity [of taste] and loss of genetic vigor. For several years now, we’ve been marking the best vines and working with a nursery to achieve our own sélection massale. Thanks to recent national and international attention given to Pinot Blanc, movement in a positive direction is detectable. The public institutions have also started to do vine selections. But unfortunately, 90% of the [once available] genetic material has been lost in the last 20 years.

Marlies: The ideal for Weissburgunder is clusters that are loosely packed, not too large, not early ripening and, if possible, mixed-berried, [i.e. with millerandage] for acidity. Our old Weissburgunder vineyard is [also] one of the steepest in the Eppan-Appiano area.

Ripe weissburgunder grapes from In der Lamm vineyard in Eppan, Italy
© Weingut Abraham

Martin: “In der Låmm” is on an unusual rootstock, Goethe N° 9 [one of the earliest-ever clones of American rootstock, named for its developer, legendary ampelographer and viticulturalist Hermann Goethe], which is otherwise mostly found just in Styria, and which may have contributed to our vines’ longevity. In this vineyard, we have relatively few problems with esca or viruses.

Our oldest Pinot Noir, planted in 1993, was compact and early ripening Burgundy clones 777 and 667. We soon had the sobering realization that it took enormous work to get these to ripeness [in healthy condition]. And what with climatic warming, early ripening clones are far from ideal. Since then, we’ve planted clones 115, 114, 828, 165, and 943 as well as some local clones, a German clone, and a massale selection given us by [the late Baden Pinot star] Bernhard Huber. Clone 943 seems especially suited to our climate and sites: very mixed berry size, loose [clustered], later to ripen [or at least, to sugar-up], with adequate acidity and decent yields.

Marlies: We think there is real potential for Pinot Noir in Südtirol-Alto Adige, but only above a certain altitude – at least 450 meters. There it can really reflect each individual terroir. There is an opportunity for Alpine Pinot Noirs that won’t have to shy away from international comparison.

In the case of Vernatsch, I imagine the role of genetics is especially dramatic.

Martin: Originally Vernatsch was really only in Gemischte Sätze [field blends], meaning one employed three variants that harmonized well with one another: Grauvernatsch – a millerandage-prone sort with higher acidity; Mittervernatsch, with smaller clusters and ripening earlier; and Grossvernatsch, for yield stability. Other varieties were interplanted as well, like Edelschwarze, Geschlafene, and Gesalzene. In most vineyards today, only Grossvernatsch remains.

Ripe weissburgunder grapes from In der Lamm vineyard in Eppan, Italy
© Weingut Abraham

Marlies: We think that our Vernatsch vineyard, which we purchased in 2008, is 90% Grossvernatsch, and the rest Mittervernatsch, which ripens a bit earlier. If it ripens in really meager soil the way it does here, the Grossvernatsch gives relatively small and very aromatic grapes. As an experiment, we’ve [inter-]planted a bit of Syrah.

You add some Pinot Noir to your Vernatsch each year? Could one speak of an ameliorant, or would that be misleading?

Martin: Well, as we said, the Vernatsch was traditionally never planted as a monocépage. And different wines were added, depending on region, to lend a bit more color and structure. Around Eppan, the blending partner was always Pinot Noir. We find that it heightens the [native] flavors of the Vernatsch and rounds-out the wine.

Can you and your fellow growers win back respect for this grape if its name isn’t put on the label? [Right now, the Abrahams’ Vernatsch is labeled “Upupa Rot,” an allusion to the brilliantly plumed Hoopoe bird that is their estate emblem.]

Marlies: That needs to be our long-term goal. But for now, it’s difficult to market Vernatsch. It’s up to our generation to rediscover the virtues of this more than 500-year-old variety and render valuable, autonomous wines from it. 

From the beginning, you vinified Gewürztraminer on its skins, which back in 2011 wasn’t quite as fashionable as it is today. What prompted you to take that approach?

Martin: In our region, Gewürztraminer was traditionally left on its skins. So we wanted to pursue a traditional approach. We’ve determined that not just this grape variety but also high-pH soil from gneiss, mica-schist, porphyry, and granite is especially suited to skin fermentation. Lately, we’ve backed-off a bit on the length of maceration [now two to three weeks] and found that blending with a bit of Pinot Blanc – maximum 10-15% – gives the wine more complexity and freshness.  

“It’s up to our generation to rediscover the virtues of this more than 500-year-old variety and render valuable, autonomous wines from it.”

You’ve written about your appreciation in wine growing for the Spannungsfeld between taking action and letting be. [“Tension field” evokes the charge passing between two poles of a battery.] Do you find yourselves over the years tending more toward letting be?

Marlies: The question itself is spannend [exciting]! The tendency definitely goes in the direction of letting be, as our sense of security in growing and vinifying has increased with experience. 

Martin: From the beginning, we sought through careful observation [in the vineyards] a balance between [vine] growth and yield, a natural equilibrium. But there is no formula. Every year brings new challenges, which is what makes our work so spannend

In vinification, we’ve learned that our wines develop the greatest complexity when we do or take away the least from them. That means: minimal must clarification, no enzymes or stabilizers, minimal racking, as little filtration as possible, and no fining. We achieve stability by relying on long, slow pressing, with a bit of oxidation, minimal mechanical movement, long stays in cask on the full lees, with just the necessary bit of SO2. From the beginning, we set no fixed bottling schedule, instead bottling each wine when we think it’s ready.

Wine law can be such a drag to discuss … not to mention a drag on growers’ energy and creativity. But I want to make sure that I understand your wines’ labeling.

Marlies: To preserve the maximum Spielraum for interpreting our wines, we decided from the beginning to classify all of them as IGT. In the final analysis, our freedom is more important to us than is having “DOC” on our labels. We wanted to employ exclusively the IGT designation “Weinberg Dolomiten,” because we find that it nicely captures the Alpine character of our wines and is helpful for marketing. But for the Gewürztraminer, we have to employ “IGT Mitterberg” because that’s the one grape variety we grow that is allotted solely that IGT designation.  

“In der Låmm” on the label of your Pinot Blanc is actually the name of its vineyard – though evidently it gets a pass from the authorities as a “fantasy name.” Do you think that some narrower geographical designations would be useful for selling your wines?

Autumn vineyards, pergola trained, in Eppan, Italy from Weingut Abraham
© Weingut Abraham

Martin: The last several years there’s been a lot of discussion and considerable pressure exerted to divide Südtirol-Alto Adige into smaller units and Einzellagen. For instance, our home wine community of Eppan-Appiano is going to have various vineyards with DOC status. The discussions are very complicated, because the interests of the various producers are so diverse, and the soils can change fundamentally across very small distances. 

Marlies: To communicate [the significance of] these smaller units would be difficult in our opinion, and internationally maybe impossible. In principle we think that vineyard delimitation [Lagenpolitik] could be useful, especially for small growers, but only if it is honest and authentic. The proposed vineyard designations that have been sent to the Ministry [of Agriculture] in Rome aren’t always ones with historical precedent, but they could represent a beginning for officially employing and promoting vineyard designation.

Where and to whom are your wines being sold now?

Marlies: We sell 60% within Italy, 40% elsewhere in Europe, primarily in German-speaking areas. Of this, 40% gets sold directly to restaurants and hotels, 30% directly to private customers, and 30% to the trade, namely small wine merchants and enoteca.

Well, I’m definitely going to keep pestering U.S. importers about your wines! 

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