Terroir Is Boring, And Other Gems From Austrian Winemaker Christian Tschida

In a hypercommercialized world where even natural wine, once culty, is now fetishized to death on social media (guilty!), people like Austrian winemaker Christian Tschida are refreshing. Christian doesn’t take in harvest interns; doesn’t use Instagram; doesn’t put cute cartoons on (most of) his labels; with few exceptions doesn’t particularly like to attend natural wine fairs; and somehow is maybe the only producer in the “Brutal” collective who is allowed to put his name on the front label. He’s somehow both gruff and nice at the same time, giving the impression that, while he’s actually a very considerate person, he’s not out to impress anyone with politeness.

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This past summer, a small group of us who are fans of Christian’s wines, and wanted to better understand them, visited Christian at his home in Austria’s Burgenland region. I was accompanied by Valentina and Misiska of the natural wine salon Humbuk Bratislava, and Ed, aka the Winestache. It was a gorgeous, warm day. We didn’t go into the cellar or vineyards, just hung out in the backyard, with the stark white walls of the house lending an oddly Mediterranean atmosphere, and drank wine and talked.

“I want to make wines the way I want to drink, but also wines that age, and that I can think about,” is how Christian speaks of his winemaking. He wants to achieve a lot with his wines; they should be drinkable, but also age-worthy and meditative. Christian’s father was a third-generation winemaker in Burgenland, and founded an association that promoted organic wine growing. Ten years ago, Christian started making wines under his own label, working to assert a unique style. He has always done skin contact with the whites, he told us, and since 2010 he has bottled his “experimental” wines separately. Echoing what many winemakers working with skin contact whites have told me, Christian explained that maceration can be tricky and has to be closely watched in terms of picking at the right time and leaving skins on for just long enough, especially since Christian uses no sulfites.

The estate is around 10 hectares, all organic, and vines are trellised in a “double planting” system, with two rows of vines alongside each other, which Christian says improves the acidity and lets the roots go deeper. (Christian’s UK importer, Newcomer Wines, has some helpful information about his work in the vineyards.) Christian picks grapes for acidity, especially the Muscats, of which he has a few different kinds (“You have to avoid the stupid Muscat taste, you know what I mean?”). 

Wines are fermented in tanks and then aged in barrels with no racking. Christian bottles directly from barrel, trying to get as much CO2 as possible into the bottle, to preserve freshness.

Christian and his wines are enigmatic and non-conformist. My favorite quote from the visit was this: “Everyone is talking about terroir and all this, but that’s boring.” (I did not tell Christian that I am launching a magazine about terroir, ha!) There’s always a bit of humor in what Christian says, even when he delivers it deadpan; my interpretation of that statement is that wine doesn’t need to be so deeply scrutinized in order to be worth drinking. It can be enjoyable, exciting, and singular without any hype about the soil composition or the slope gradient.

We tasted several wines from the “Himmel auf Erden” series. Himmel auf Erden means, “Heaven on earth,” an homage to an Alfred Hrdlicka painting that appears on the label (Christian used to paint and studied the artform himself).

  • 2016 Hummel auf Erden: Muscat, Pinot Blanc and a local white grape called Scheurebe; one week on skins; acid, tension, white flowers and grapefruits.
  • 2016 Himmul auf Erden II: Muscat, Pinot Blanc, Scheurebe; 4 months on skins; smoother and richer than the previous one; lemon essence, dandelion, beeswax; acid on the back palate and lasting finish.
  • 2015 “Red”; a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Zweigelt; I loved this one so much; it was intense in texture and flavor, but also had mouthwatering acidity and lots of tart cherry notes. Steak wine.
  • 2016 Rosé: Cabernet Franc; this wine can vary greatly in color, depending on where in the barrel the particular bottle comes from; this bottle was really good, with lush fruit notes alongside high acid.

The 2016 wines were bottled about two months prior to our visit in August. In that vintage, Christian noted, there was frost and hail in his vineyards. Regarding Cabernet Franc, there are several hectares on the estate, and a fun fact is that some of them were planted by accident by a farmer who thought he had Merlot cuttings.

The “NonTradition” wine is a deliberate jab at Austrian culture in general, which Christian feels is overwhelmingly regimented, and at the idea that wines should conform to a certain regional style. It features Grüner Veltliner, the signature grape of Austria, but is a far cry from the plethora of crisp-green-apple Grüners the country is known for.

  • 2015 “NonTradition” Grüner Veltliner; with two years of barrel aging, the wine is richly textured, mineral, saline, and moderately acidic. It has a slight tangerine hue from a short period of skin contact. Seems like it would age for years.

Christian opened his “Brutal” wine for us, and we quizzed him about what exactly makes a wine fit into the Brutal criteria. If you aren’t familiar, the “Brutal” label started amongst nine producers around Europe who work organically and without sulfite additions. They each choose one barrel, which could be their most interesting or weird or something else, for the “Brutal” selection; the “headquarters” of the network is in Catalunya. Typically, the front label of a “Brutal” bottle doesn’t say the producer’s name, but Christian’s does for some reason.

  • 2016 Tschida “Brutal” is a mixed field blend, topped up with Syrah. It’s awesome. Tastes like red fruits, raspberries, underripe cherries; medium acid.

We also tasted the “Sonja,” a Cabernet Franc made especially for a Vienna restaurant, which was very juicy, and balanced by some herbal components; as well as the the 2015 “Kapitel I,” made of Cabernet Franc and Zweigelt from different vineyards; it was a bit flabby and big, with hints of pyrazines, and I had trouble finding its charm.

I find Christian’s wines to be unpredictable and unapologetic (which for me is a positive thing) and when they are delicious, they are extremely tasty and memorable. Drink them with your most adventurous friends, people who don’t mind being surprised–perhaps blown away, or in some instances slightly underwhelmed–by a wine. If you get the chance to meet or taste with Christian, I do recommend it; he speaks perfect English and has the air of an intellectual, even when he denounces concepts like “terroir” as boring (actually, that’s probably a classically intellectual thing to do, isn’t it?). On the same day, we also visited Claus Preisigner in the Burgenland, which needs to be the subject of future writings, as there is much to say about him and his stunning winery. As always, there is more . . . to . . . come . . .

 

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