When the wines of an exciting, new European producer hit our shores here in New York, we all tend to go a little crazy.
Bat shit crazy, you might even say.
When Michael Völker and Melanie Drese moved to Franconia, Germany, where Michael grew up, to try their hand at making completely natural wine, they heard stories that bat guano had once been a very popular fertilizer. Bat shit, apparently, is in fact very high in nitrogen—about 10 percent. Of course, today most growers tend to use chemical fertilizer, having accepted modern ideas about farming.
But Michael and Melanie were determined to make wine with nothing added, and nothing taken away—starting with the vineyards.
It takes courage to give up a nice, stable salaried job in a fantastic city like London, and move back to the fairly unknown (as in, not famous like Burgundy) wine region you hail from. The family winery that Michael grew up around was almost entirely conventional with respect to agriculture and vinification. His father had converted a vineyard just over 2ha in size to organic, but the effort wasn’t ongoing.
But Michael and Melanie had fallen in love with natural wine, starting in 2012, when their local London retailed turned them onto sulfur-free, organic juice. So, when they decided to leave their publishing jobs in London and return to Franconia, a region in the southern state of Bavaria where Sylvaner and Muller-Thurgau grow predominantly, they were determined to attempt pure, non-interventionist winemaking. This wasn’t really so easy— the area didn’t have a large support base for natural wine as some regions do (with the exception of Stefan Vetter), so there were no mentors to show Michael and Melanie the way.
“How to fix a problem without sulfur or chemicals, nobody can teach you,” said Michael as he poured the 2NaturKinder (Zwei NaturKinder) wines for me at La Dive Bouteille a few weeks back. The winemaker employed by Michael’s father could sometimes lend a hand with certain things—like plowing the vineyards with a tractor, which he does—but in terms of natural winemaking, Michael and Melanie are self-taught. They were lucky—their first vintage, in 2013 turned out fairly well, and their wines are now served at international hotspots like Noma, Septime, and Breda. (And they are set to arrive in the U.S. soon.)
In 2015, Michael and Melanie launched another line, Vather & Sohn, which in part pays homage to the clientele that already existed for the winery—meaning, people who prefer sulfited, more stable, unfunky wines—but is also a really smart business strategy. These wines, essentially, have small amounts of sulfite additions, and Natural wine enthusiasts will be most excited about the 2NaturKinder wines, but the Vater & Son line helps Michael and Melanie run their business, and provides them with the freedom to do what they want with 2NaturKinder.
As to the aforementioned bats: Michael has been using nitrogen-rich bat guano as fertilizer, and he installed bird boxes in his vineyards to encourage their presence. “Bats need orientation points to find their way around, like houses, walls,” he explained to me—which means that in large, monoculture vineyards, they are rarely seen. One of Michael’s vineyards is basically in the middle of town, so bats can navigate quite well there. A small percentage of revenue from this vineyard’s wine (a wine called “Fledermaus”—see here for details) goes toward an organization focused on supporting the rare (and quite adorable) gray big-eared bat species.
The 2NaturKinder wines receive zero sulfite additions, and they are all very dry—those are the two constants, but everything else is variable per each wine. The most well-known here in New York is the “Bat-Nat” pét-nat, made from Schwarzriesling (aka Meunier) grapes grown in the guano-fertilized vineyard. It’s a light red color, fresh with medium acidity and a satisfying red grapefruit note.
Michael and Melanie make two other pét-nats; there’s one they made for the first time in 2016 from the grape Bacchus, a cross between Sylvaner and Riesling. The wine is fruit and fizzy, full of white peaches. I would call it a guzzler, meant for enjoying on a warm afternoon or with snacks as aperitif.
Then there’s a Sylvaner pét-nat that sees 24 hours of skin contact; it’s full of mouth-watering acidity, and very fresh and drinkable.
The 2NaturKinder pét-nats are not disgorged; this is partly to keep the winemaking simple—but it also allows Michael and Melanie to avoid Germany’s sparkling wine tax. They are all completely dry, as well.
Michael and Melanie make a lot of wine and each one is very particular; I’ll direct you to their very useful website for further details. Of the still wines, I found the “Heimat” Sylvaner, which had about two weeks on the skins, to be really interesting—it was salty, citric, with rich mouthfeel. The 2NaturKinder wines (including the Vater & Sohn line, which is worth checking out) are imported into the U.S. via Jenny & Francois, with whom I had the pleasure of galavanting around the Loire during all these natural wine fairs. I found the Bat-Nat at Natural Wine Co in Williamsburg. Go get some!