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Since 1647, the Wenzel family has worked the land near the town of Rust, on the western side of Lake Neusiedl, in the Burgenland region of Austria. Rust has had a long, storied history in the wine world, at one time producing wines so renowned that they were able to buy their way into the special standing of "royal free city" in 1681 during the reign of Emperor Leopold I. The wine most synonymous with Rust would be the noble sweet wine, Ausbruch, traditionally made from botrytis-affected Furmint (although other grapes have been and may be used). The Ruster Ausbruch is a legendary wine, and draws parallels with the Tokajis from Hungary, which have maintained a sense of grandeur, elegance, and mystery for centuries. By the 18th and 19th century, Furmint was the most important white grape planted in the vineyards around Rust. This all changed after the decline of the Dual Monarchy and the first World War, due to economic and political influences, not to mention WWII and the residual effects of the Iron Curtain. What used to be the star grape of the region was, for the most part, uprooted, or relegated to occasional vines interplanted with other varieties.
Luckily for us, Furmint was to return to the vineyards of Rust, partly through the efforts of the Wenzel family, who have been pioneers in many aspects of winemaking in the region. The Wenzel's were the first to have a bottling machine, making the radical change of wine for sale in barrels to individual bottles, increasing the wine's value on the market and, in turn, the family's income. In the similar spirit of bringing change, the current winemaker, Michael Wenzel, has made it a goal to bring back Furmint, not only in its noble sweet iteration, but to explore the grape made as a dry wine. His father, Robert, brought Furmint clippings from Hungary back into his family's hectarage in the mid-eighties. Michael continues to plant vines and has been looking for ways to adapt the grape to the current terroir of Rust. Michael has been researching the history, geography, and geology of the region, and has put that knowledge into his vineyard work. I've never seen so many different methods of trellising from a single winemaker, from high-density (8000 vines/ha) Pinot Noir, to Pinot Gris split canopy-trained in a method learned from his time working in New Zealand, to single-post Furmint--to see how sun and wind exposure affect the ripening time and ultimately to find out if this training method can reduce the need to spray copper sulfate against fungal pressures in future years.
Michael's first official harvest at his family's estate was in 1995, and after a few years working in New Zealand, Australia, and California, he returned to take the reins (although his father is still an active part of the process). Michael converted to organic farming in 2008, and over the past decade has noticed the positive effects in the plants and soils, one key trait being that the vines are able to store and draw more water from the soil, which is a boon for an area that doesn't have much rainfall during the growing season. The family's nine hectares lie along the Ruster hill-chain, with a distinct variety of soils, including mica schist, limestone, loess, and grey/pink quartz. Michael has put special focus on the influence of soil on the wines, choosing to bottle single-vineyard Furmint wines from soils boasting different colors of quartz, or seeing how Pinot Noir on limestone will differ from Pinot Noir grown just across the road on schist soils.
The Wenzel wines are some of the most elegant and thought-provoking wines I've had the pleasure to try. We are delighted to have his Blaufränkisch grown on limestone soils, and the dry Furmint from the Vogelsang vineyard (grey quartz). For all of his classic wines, the grapes are hand-harvested and ferment spontaneously, filtration happens only if the wine has residual sugar, and sulfur additions are low. We also have a selection of the Wenzel "Wild & Free" wines, which see around ten days of skin-contact, and the least amount of intervention (unfined, unfiltered, no sulfur additions). We hope you get a chance to try the wines, and keep an eye peeled more availability in the future! Cheers to Michael Wenzel for a job well done! Cari Bernard
Heather from Winemonger will be in the shop next Friday, 4/20 from 5-7 PM pouring the line-up of Wenzel wines, please do drop in!
Vogelsang is one of two single-vineyard parcels that Michael bottles separately. The vineyard is further south along the Ruster hill-chain, here mica schist and gneiss soils are punctuated with grey quartz, which Michael says gives the wine a cooler and tighter minerality. When tasted against the Garden of Eden vineyard (pink quartz), one can't help but concur. As Furmint is a late-ripening grape, bunches in the Vogelsang and Eden vineyards will often stay on the vine until late September, more than three weeks after the other grape varieties are harvested. For the Vogelsang, there is a touch of skin-contact before pressing (less than the Eden), and the wine ages in 500L used French oak barrels. An incredible balance of luxurious density and cool minerality, evoking comparisons with age-worthy Loire Chenin Blanc, concentrated Pouilly-Fuissé, and even characteristics of heady Jura whites. Like Chenin, Furmint lends itself well to a wide variety of wine styles, from dry and linear to the most elegant of dessert wines (Ausbruch). Vogelsang is dry with a concentration of fruity and aromatic quince, yellow apple skin, tangerine oil, white blossom, and honeyed young ginger, with a stony minerality keeping things from getting too lush. Enjoy now paired with seared scallops over creamy polenta, roasted chicken with fennel, potatoes au gratin, or put down for at least 5-8 years. Cari Bernard
The wine that first caught my attention, Michael's 2015 Pinot Gris 'Wild & Free', did so because it was a complex, natural wine that was both fun and sophisticated; food-friendly but stood well on its own. For the 'Wild & Free' line of wines, grapes are hand-harvested, and spend between 10-15 days in contact with the skins before pressing. Wines age in neutral barrels. The 2016 conjures the same delight as the 2015: deep, umami notes of umeboshi plum mingle with sour cherry, blood orange, red apple skin, raspberry, stewed strawberry, and red grapefruit zest, medium-bodied with the lightest tannic tack and bright acidity--elegance and drinkability! Cari Bernard
Michael Wenzel's family has been making wine since the fifteenth century in Burgenland, their home and cellar still in the small town of Rust, on the western side of Lake Neusiedl. Suggested by the name, Aus dem Kalk is Blaufränkisch grown on limestone soils. Grapes are hand-harvested, fermented in stainless steel and the wine ages in large neutral oak casks. Medium-bodied, tart and juicy black raspberries and cherries, plum skin, hibiscus, tarragon, with lightly-grained tannins; a fantastic pairing with pork schnitzel, roasted game birds, grilled mushrooms. Cari Bernard
Whole-cluster fermented with 10 to 15 days of skin contact, Michael's dive into both natural wine and study of Furmint continues. Redolent with notes of ginger, clove, white pepper, spearmint, and Bosc pear skin, the palate is medium-bodied and luxuriously textured with rich spice, orange blossom honey, apple core, and quince. With four days open the fruit fleshes out on the palate into ripe peaches and quince dusted with nutmeg and cinnamon. An exotic and opulent iteration of Furmint. Cari Bernard