For over a year, we’ve been living with a pandemic that has shut down more than just our senses of taste and smell. It has forced us to rely on at-home experiences like a glass of wine to satisfy our longing for travel. But what do the places of our terroir dreams taste like? What exactly constitutes the origins of a wine? To use a loaded German word, how much Heimat (loosely, homeland) is in terroir?
Flash back to harvest 2012. Max von Kunow of Weingut von Hövel in Germany’s Saar visits the Jurtschitsch family in Austria’s Kamptal for a vacation before his own harvest. Together they criss-cross Jurtschitsch’s Heiligenstein vineyard, tasting Riesling grapes.
“Now I’d like to know how your grapes taste,” Jurtschitsch tells von Kunow. “When you get home and harvest the Scharzhofberg, please pick me a few grapes, vacuum pack them, throw in an ice-pack, and send them express to Kamptal.” Von Kunow thinks bigger: “I’ll send you a case and then you can make a little barrel out of them,” he tells Jurtschitsch.
The idea of having a cask of wine from the iconic Saar vineyard in his own cellar excites Jurtschitsch. His wife, Stefanie, takes things a step further. “Stef is very connected to her Heimat of Rheinhessen. She gets her brother, Johannes Hasselbach of Weingut Gunderloch, to send a case of grapes from their family’s Rothenberg vineyard,” Jurtschitsch explains. In turn, they send Hasselbach and von Kunow each a case of Heiligenstein fruit.
Alwin Jurtschitsch, along with Theresa Breuer of Weingut Breuer in Rheingau, von Kunow, Hasselbach, and the Jurtschitsches, brought the project — Wurzelwerk — to life. They were five young growers who had come back home to their parents’ estates. “As such,” Jurtschitsch recalls, “we questioned everything in a process of probing which things still have their validity.”
If the grapes of these growers’ terroirs are vinified elsewhere, how brightly does origin shine through?
A single question animated Wurzelwerk: If the grapes of these growers’ terroirs are vinified elsewhere, how brightly does origin shine through? At the start of the project, all of the growers thought it obvious that the vineyard would be the dominant element in their wines. By the end, it had become clear that there is much more to letting a vineyard speak than they had believed.
Essential to Wurzelwerk was an effort to get to the root of some of Austria and Germany’s most iconic terroirs — the places these thoughtful, ambitious growers called home — which were not, however, places where terroir was given the same hallowed importance as in its spiritual homeland, France.
For Jurtschitsch, digging into “the t-words” — tradition and terroir — required working a harvest in France. “It’s a totally different world there,” he notes. “If you ask a German grower why his wine tastes the way it does, the answers are pH, acidity, pick date, residual sugar: very analytical. If you ask a French grower the same question, you get one word and a laugh: ‘Terroir.’ If you then ask, ‘How did you do that?,’ the answer is, ‘As we always have!’ And if you ask why, they laugh again: ‘Tradition!’”
LEARNING BY TASTING
During the group’s student days at Geisenheim University, they found time in the cellar was often more instructive than time in the lecture hall. “We watched Egon Müller and how he tasted, we helped Matthias Knebel in his vineyards in the Mosel,” explains Jurtschitsch. Back home in Austria, Jurtschitsch devoted himself to the vineyards. But as soon as he finished his own harvest, he made straight for Germany – the Pfalz, the Mosel, Rheinhessen – to taste.
For Hasselbach, the project introduced an element to his work not found in books or lectures: a way of answering the question of what makes a good vintner. “You have to come to grips with your piece of land and your own winery, as well as its history,” he says. “Out of that, you get the corresponding questions for your own path. Wurzelwerk made me realize that there is so much more to this.”
Jurtschitsch’s path had been as winding and tenacious as his vines. He remembers the profound impact of a visit to Japan. There he witnessed an extraordinary culinary cult, in which generations of families gathered one specific mushroom in a very particular valley. “It’s such a focused way of thinking about terroir,” he recalls reverentially.
He also reflects on a winemaker dinner in Osaka, where a single piece of tuna was served sashimi style. Each vintner presented his best wine to accompany it. “The tuna was indescribably tender, more about values and textures, finesse and authenticity than flavor intensity. But every wine ruined the precious fish, no one had respected it.” These observations and experiences marked Jurtschitsch as both grower and vintner.
WHEN HEIMAT IS SCORCHED EARTH
For decades, the German word Heimat was untouchable. National Socialists had appropriated and twisted it to their insidious purposes. But Heimat is by definition the land where one is born or where one feels at home. A place that is close to the heart, that gives connection and identity. “While I was traveling the world, Heimat was just the address where I sent my postcards, says Jurtschitsch. “I had to leave it to learn how to love it.”
Theresa Breuer, on the other hand, has a very clear reference for Heimat: “Our village Riesling is, for me, the taste of home,” she says. “It’s a flavor I’ve learned is always there; a flavor I feel at home in.” For Hasselbach, Heimat is the Rothenberg. But he found that in giving the fruit of that terroir to friends and family and letting them work with it, “suddenly you learn a whole different side of home.”
It’s no surprise which grape the group chose as the object for its trials. “Aside from Pinot Noir, I’d struggle to come up with a grape other than Riesling that can convey soil characteristics as clearly,” says Breuer. “Riesling has this transparency that offers so much room for origin to be expressed through flavor. The quality, the sovereignty of the wines is rooted in knowing from the outset the parcels of land that make them.”
“The quality, the sovereignty of the wines is rooted in knowing from the outset the parcels of land that make them.”
With vintage 2016, von Kunow stepped away from Wurzelwerk. The Scharzhofberg was swapped out for Breuer’s Nonnenberg monopole in the Rheingau. Breuer says she was hooked from the start: She had never tasted Nonnenberg fruit raised in another cellar and was fascinated by the transformation of the Rothenberg fruit she was charged with vinifying. “When the grapes arrived, they felt and smelled completely foreign,” Breuer remembers. “But the young wines very much became ours. One always looks for similarities and thinks these come from site, but I frequently called Rothenberg wines raised in the same cellar as our Nonnenberg as ‘Nonnenberg’ because I thought, ‘I know that wine.’”
“I frequently called Rothenberg wines raised in the same cellar as our Nonnenberg as ‘Nonnenberg’ because I thought, ‘I know that wine.'”
Breuer reports that this phenomenon carried through to all stages of vinification. But at some point, a transformation took place: “The time factor! After a year and a half to two years, the wines began to sort themselves out. All of us have old cellars, but the cellar temperatures are completely different and even the exact place the wines are aged in the cellar makes a difference. Aside from cellar flora, fermentation and elevage temperature are defining features.”
“It was intense to taste the acid structure of the Rheingau-fermented Rothenberg,” Hasselbach recalls. “It was the same grape material but all of a sudden a typical Rheingau acidity emerged. Meanwhile, the cellar in Langenlois brought a certain warmth, a roundness. In our cellar, the young wines always have an intense fruitiness. As the wines mature in bottle, that integrates itself and ‘Rothenberg’ becomes evident.”
Jurtschitsch recalls wanting to better understand specific elements of cellar impact. “We believed that there were certain forces and vibrations in historic cellars that affect the wines,” he reports. “And that proved true. It showed us that when we speak of an estate, part of this is what comes from the vineyards, the way they are farmed. But the old cellar contributes substantially, too.”
Breuer especially valued the project for the way it “took us deep into the DNA of the Nonnenberg.”
Breuer especially valued the project for the way it “took us deep into the DNA of the Nonnenberg” and “gave the site of fermentation a greater focus and confirmed that our particular configuration of components — soil, variety, climate, cellar, and vessel — is fascinating.”
Deep Roots and Heimat
Understanding the importance of the place of fermentation has profoundly changed the way Hasselbach works at Weingut Gunderloch. He cites his current process for harvesting native vineyard yeasts as one example: “A few days before harvest, we preselect into small boxes and leave the grapes overnight outside in the vineyard. We press the grapes there and put them in glass demißjohns that stay in the vineyard. Fermentation happens right there. At some point, the cellar yeasts take over, but that first spark comes from the vineyard. You taste that in the end.”
The differences between the wines that spontaneously fermented in the cellar and those that kicked off in the vineyard “are perceptible even when tasted blind,” Hasselbach claims. It’s another tool for him to develop what he calls “maximal typicity of site” and it is now standard practice at the estate.
The experiment also influenced the modernization and expansion of the cellar itself. When renovations were required, instead of relocating, Hasselbach realized he didn’t want to move things a meter farther from the vineyards than he had to. Although it required considerably more effort, he made sure the old cellar was preserved and expanded.
Breuer had a similar experience. In reshaping her particular piece of Heimat, she decided not to transplant her cellar, but only to move a few of her casks a hundred meters, where she had acquired an additional old cellar. “After all, home is where the cellar is,” she says.
Wurzelwerk has left a lasting mark on Jurtschitsch’s work and thinking, too. He recalls a moment during the project when “suddenly the wines went through malolactic conversion — but only in our cellar. Our first reaction was ‘How did that happen? Should we rack it off the lees? Add sulfur?’ But for Wurzelwerk we had said no interventions.”
Meanwhile, all his single-vineyard wines go through malo. “Without Wurzelwerk the issue wouldn’t have presented itself, we wouldn’t have dealt with it so intensively,” Jurtschitsch explains. “Now we understand it just belongs to our cellar terroir. And in the end, we noticed that the malo aromas are reabsorbed by the lees after nine months.”
The increasing frequency of malo, incidentally, is a trend Hasselbach sees riding the coattails of climate change. Now it’s something that happens in the Gunderloch cellar, too. Hasselbach has noticed that working with fewer interventions before and during fermentation means potentially sacrificing a little acidity, which can result in malolactic conversion. “We have lost a little fear about this process,” he says. “The wines come out lower in total acidity, but not as much as maybe in earlier times, as there is not that much malic acid around anymore. A change through climate change.”
Jurtschitsch says “Working with the same parcels my grandfather did, everything is more or less constant. What has definitely changed, though, is the climate — one of the most important elements of terroir.” Farming in response to this also results in change, he says: “If you farm with compost” — to build biomass and humus, add nutrients and retain water — “you change the soil structure.”
Jurtschitsch understands terroir as something you interpret, not inherit.
In this context, Jurtschitsch understands terroir as something you interpret, not inherit. “That only comes from discovery and reception, in the way you can learn to taste: at first you look for flavors and try to categorize them. At some point the puzzle pieces all come together. You sniff, you taste, and you know exactly how to categorize. The same goes for vineyards.”
In 2019, after seven vintages, Wurzelwerk was put on hold. “It has to make sense, to be done with understanding and sensitivity,” explains Breuer. “The idea behind it isn’t something we can just work on in our free time and right now we are all so busy. Maybe we’ll do it again and bring new parameters into play.”
One day, the journey will continue. For all of us.
Translated by Valerie Kathawala
Editors note: This text was modified on May 25, 2021 to reflect new information brought to the editors’ attention by David Schildknecht and Johannes Hasselbach.