“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 is stoking a building fascination with Leithaberg wines. His vineyards perch at Austria’s far eastern edge, where vast, shallow Lake Neusiedl and the low Leitha mountain range wrangle for influence. His wines express the distinctive climate, limestone and slate soils, and the handful of native and traditional Austrian varieties he has chosen to work with. In the few years since Markus took over his family’s estate, he’s moved from what he calls “well-behaved wines” to wines that are much closer to nature and bear a far more personal stamp. Working from 30 small plots (all now in the third year of organic conversion) scattered around the historic wine village of Jois, he is focused on blaufränkisch and a narrow range of now-rare native white varieties and old-vine chardonnay. In addition, he and his wife Bernadette makes a few styles of distinctly Austrian rosé. He thrives on tapping into what he calls “the yin and the yang of Jois” — 800 years of winegrowing counterposed with thoughtful, innovative winemaking.
Markus’ involvement in a winemaking alliance with Christian Tschida, Gerhard Kracher, and a few other Austrian young guns brought him early attention. Recent breakout vintages have pushed him to a new level. In its 2018 edition, the Falstaff guide awarded Altenburger a coveted fourth star, citing his “unmistakable” style. There’s no doubt Markus’ blaufränkisch embodies what Leithaberg can do best: savory, mineral, brambly reds that vibrate with acid and energy, at moderate alcohol levels and with long aging potential. In all that he does, Markus lets the vineyard be his muse. We think you’ll find it hugely rewarding to follow where this takes him.
The Altenburgers have farmed land here since “somewhere in the 16th century,” according to Markus. Like most farmers in the area, his family cultivated livestock, crops, and vineyards. “After World War II, my grandparents, Michael and Maria Altenburger, 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. I started with 6.5 hectares in 2006; the proportion of red to white grapes was 30:70.” In 2012, Markus took full control of the estate. Since then, he has doubled the family holdings and flipped the ratio. He and Bernadette farm with an eye to soil health and biodiversity and prefer to work with native yeasts, minimal added sulphur, and long, protective lees contact, favoring concrete and neutral wood for aging.
“I had a basic interest in my parents’ farming when I was a boy,” explains Markus. “Back than I was fascinated by being self-employed and living/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/winemaker 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, German Riesling, and Bordeaux like hell. Nowadays, I am still a fan of Burgundy, not so much of Bordeaux anymore, and far more open minded in my drinking/tasting habits.”
At the time Markus took over the family estate, he found his parents “had a different way of winemaking and a quite easygoing approach to the whole production.” The estate was half the size it is now, “but with nearly the same yield and mainly producing fruity, early drinking white wines.” Markus and Bernadette have redirected the focus to align with their tastes and nature’s offerings. Bernadette is now in charge of “keeping things together” as well as “the creative part for design, labels, etc.,” says Markus. ”Her specialty is rosé. I do the winemaking, vineyards, customers, develop the organic growing, and experiment a lot.”
Burgenland sits in the Pannonian Basin. The sub-region of Neusiedlersee-Hügelland is on the hilly, western edge of Lake Neusiedl (not to be confused with the lake itself or the Neusiedlersee area, which is on the opposite shore, and flatter), tucked between the lake and low Leitha mountain range. It is home to the relatively recently created Leithaberg DAC, which stretches from Jois, tucked in the northeastern-most reaches of the Alps, down to Eisenstadt and the Rust foothills. The Leitha range is surrounded by a unique mix of limestone and mica schist soils. As Markus explains, “A couple of million years ago, the area around Jois looked like the Carribean. The ocean creatures transformed themselves into what we know today as Leithakalk and it’s that that gives the wines their minerality and salinity.”
Today, the climate of Leithaberg is marked by the lake, which moderates temperatures and generates significant humidity, and the Leitha range, which funnels in cool mountain air. Vineyard microclimates vary depending on their proximity either to the lake or the gentle, forested peaks, none of which rises much higher than 500 meters (1500 feet) above sea level. 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 Bonne 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
“Our vineyards are split into more than 30 small plots surrounding the village of Jois,” Markus notes. “On the one hand, that has disadvantages for everyday work. On the other hand, it’s an advantage in years with partial frost or hail, and most of all it’s fun to work with different soils and expositions. My parents planted Merlot, Cabernet, and Chardonnay. Their selling point was the grape written on the label. But we are making Markus Altenburger wines. So we only plant blaufränkisch, which I personally like a lot. Apart from that, we took over some plots of old grüner veltliner, traminer, neuburger – all white grapes. My father always tried to use ‘modern methods’ to make ‘clean’ wines in the cellar,” says Markus. “We don’t.”
“The vineyard comes first,” Markus believes. “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 prefer to work with old vines and nearly half our vines are more than 30 years old, some up to 40. So, yields are very low. We farm organically. We know intelligent canopy management is fundamental. We support beneficial species by planting trees in the vineyards and having grass or herbs between the rows.”
“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. All the vines planted in recent years originate from this vineyard because we use Gritschenberg cuttings.” 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.” Markus has been able to add three more plots of blaufränkisch on Gritschenberg to the family holdings.
Hackelsberg is another special parcel, this one a western slope of pure mica schist. “Although the exposition doesn’t sound great, it’s one of my favorite spots,” Markus says, explaining, “It was the first vineyard I planted, in 2007, from the Gritschenberg clone. So it’s really a young vineyard. But it gets the longest afternoon sun of all our vineyards.”
In the cellar
“We don’t do a lot of winemaking,” Markus underscores. He uses native yeasts, eschews temperature-controlled fermentations, and relies on 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.
It’s tempting to call the more radical Altenburger bottlings post-modern. A perfect example is the concrete-aged skin-contact white Betont. The name translates as “emphasis,” but it is also a play on the German word for concrete, Beton, in which the wine is aged. Neuberger is a roter veltliner-sylvaner crossing whose vineyard presence is in precipitous decline. Markus is commited to preserving it by demonstrating its striking suitability to the chalky Leithaberg soils.