“Only with time does one gain an appreciation for the fantastic and natural beauty of scraggly vine rows, in which all sorts of bees, butterflies, and beneficial species have reclaimed the upper hand.”
— Markus Altenburger
Markus Altenburger wants nothing more than to stoke the little flame of fascination with blaufränkisch and neuburger — yes, neuburger — in the Leithaberg. His vineyards perch at Austria’s far eastern edge, half an hour from Vienna, but seemingly in another cosmos altogether. Vast, shallow Lake Neusiedl and the low-slung Leitha mountain range wrangle for climatic influence. The wines express this tension, the influences of limestone and schist soils, and something of the wild abundance of nature, as well. Since he took over his family’s estate more than a decade ago, he’s moved from what he calls “well-behaved wines” to those that are much closer to nature and bear a far more personal stamp. Working from 30 small plots (certified organic and in conversion to Demeter biodynamics) scattered around the historic wine village of Jois, he is focused above all on blaufränkisch, neuburger, as well as old-vine grüner veltliner and chardonnay, and a few styles of distinctly Austrian rosé. There’s no doubt Markus’ blaufränkisch embodies what Leithaberg can do best: savory, mineral, complex yet drinkable reds that vibrate with freshness and energy, at moderate alcohol levels, with long aging potential. He thrives on tapping into what he calls “the yin and the yang of Jois” — 800 years of viticultural history counterposed with fairly avant-garde cellar work. We think you’ll find it hugely rewarding to follow where this takes him.
The Altenburger family has farmed land in and around Jois since the 16th century. Like most farmers in the area, they cultivated livestock, crops, and vineyards. “After World War II, my grandparents were able to increase their wine business to be the most important income of their mixed agriculture,” Markus explains. “In 1999, when my parents, Matthias and Walpurga, were running the winery, they decided to rent out the rest of the farm and keep only the vineyards. They made easy-going wines to sell to tourists.” When Markus joined them in 2006, the family had 6.5 hectares and the proportion of red to white grapes was 30 to 70.” Six years later, Markus took full control of the estate. Since then, he has doubled the holdings, flipped that ratio, and converted the estate to organics, and is now pursuing Demeter biodynamic certification. He farms with an eye to soil vitality and rampant biodiversity. In the cellar, he favors native yeasts, minimal added sulphur, long, protective lees contact, and concrete and neutral wood for aging.
“I had a basic interest in my parents’ farming when I was a boy,” explains Markus. “Back then I was fascinated by being self-employed and living and working with nature. My parents always told me to study law or economics to get a good job and salary. I did study, but never had an ordinary job with a good salary! During my studies, I met Alois Kracher, from whom, within a few evenings, I learned that there is a wine world out there beyond Austria, where extraordinary wines are appreciated and that being a winegrower and maker is a worthy job.
That was also the time when Christian Tschida, Gerhard Kracher, Erich Scheiblhofer, Florian Gayer, and I co-founded Club Batonnage. At that time, our family winery was still making well-behaved wines and me and the boys were drinking fat Australian and Californian stuff. After finishing my studies, I started to work for a big winery in Austria, where I made a lot of international contacts and friendships. We were tasting Burgundy, Bordeaux, and German riesling like hell. Nowadays, I am still a fan of Burgundy, not so much of Bordeaux anymore, and I’m far more open-minded in my drinking and tasting habits.”
The Leithaberg region takes its name from range of low mountains that are, in fact, the tapering end of the Alps, crowning the western edge of Lake Neusiedl. It is home to the recently created Leithaberg DAC, which stretches from Jois down to Eisenstadt and the Rust foothills. Soils are a distinctive mix of shell limestone and mica schist. Markus explains that “a couple of million years ago, the area around Jois looked like the Caribbean. The ocean creatures transformed themselves into what we know today as Leithakalk and that’s what gives the wines their minerality and salinity.” Today, Leithaberg’s otherwise hot Pannonian climate is moderated by the lake and cool air funneled in by the mountains. Vineyard microclimates vary depending on their proximity either to the lake or the gentle, forested peaks. The variety of soils and microclimates is the reason this tiny region can produce such a great range of grapes and styles. It may also be why, as Jon Bonné puts it, wines from this area “always contain something below the surface, a contrast of flavors found even in the simplest bottle.”
Vineyards and farming
Markus is both fascinated and convinced by blaufränkisch, believing to be the red grape for Burgenland. He works with massal selections from old vines in his Gritschenberg vineyard, whose loose clusters and small berries are well adapted to the dry Pannonian summers and precisely express the schist, for fruiter wines that are more charming in their youth, and limestone, for length and structure. “The parcel we use for the single-vineyard Gritschenberg was planted by my grandfather in the early ‘70s. At that time, people were taught that blaufränkisch shouldn’t be planted on limestone because it brings low yields, loose-packed bunches, and small berries. Today I have to say ‘Thanks, Grandpa, for ignoring what they told you!’ Because it is absolutely true: That’s exactly how our Gritschenberg plot looks.” Markus points out that Gritschenberg is one of just a few places in Jois where Leithakalk comes to the fore in pure form: “That brings structure, length, and chalkiness to our wines — as important as salt in the soup.”
His other obsession is neuburger, a natural crossing of sylvaner and roter veltliner that has adapted itself superbly to Leithaberg’s terroir. Despite a reputation for being difficult to farm, neuburger was Markus’ grandfather’s favorite grape and he planted it extensively. Most other Austrian growers gave up on it decades ago, but Markus is now blessed with a treasury of old-vine material. He loves it for its ability to give fully ripe, but always low alcohol (sub-12% abv) wines of freshness, minerality, texture, and grip. Building on the local tradition of macerating neuburger simply as a way to soften the naturally firm grapes before pressing, Markus has evolved a practice of four to five days of skin contact that brings depth and dimension, precision and grip to a grape that can otherwise be round or wan in youth.
The Altenburger vineyards are split into more than 30 small plots. Markus notes the drawbacks of this for everyday work but also the advantages in years with frost or hail. “Most of all it’s fun to work with different soils and expositions. The vineyard comes first. I know all winemakers say that, but we really need to do that, because there is no possibility of making corrections in the cellar. We are working to increase the life in the soil by planting herbs and legumes We support beneficial species by planting trees in the vineyards and having grass or herbs between the rows. Nearly half our vines are more than 30 years old, some up to 40. So, yields are very low..”
In the cellar
“We don’t do a lot of winemaking,” Markus underscores, relying on native yeasts, ambient fermentations, and stainless steel only for blending and clarification of the wine, not aging. He has also moved away from added SO2, preferring to leave the wines on their lees as long as possible, with batonnage for some, to increase yeast contact and help the wines “stay as reductive as possible by themselves.” He adds sulphur just before bottling and only filters the everyday wines. “Single-vineyard wines age for two-plus years, so usually they are well clarified and don’t need filtration,” Markus adds. The wines are striking and edgy, but always within the realm of approachability.