It was the second day of the Raw Wine Festival. I had tasted roughly four hundred wines in 48-hours. My gums were swollen, my tongue was sore, my teeth panged, and despite spitting every sip, my head was heavy. The room was packed with every famous sommelier I had ever read about, as well as Action Bronson and Aziz Ansari. We were there to taste the best natural wines on the planet. Sadly, many of them underwhelmed.
I got to the last table, sensing the end was finally near. I forced myself in between a handful of people and raised my glass, asking Franz Strohmeier if I could taste his wines. He poured me a white and I swirled and sniffed. The room went silent.
It was like a was wrenched from my reality, transported to another dimension where soil and air are turned directly into liquid emotions and feelings. The wine bypassed my sense of smell and taste, injecting its information and stories directly into my head. I welled up. Was it delicious? I’m not even sure. Was it enjoyable? It’s hard to say. But it made me feel something; it conveyed.
We allow ourselves to have emotional responses to certain types of art. We inspect paintings, listen to songs, or watch ballet, and we’re allowed to cry or laugh. But when it comes to wine, anyone willing to have the same level of connection is scoffed at. Our senses of smell and taste are much more primal and connected to emotion than our sense of sight or hearing - so why is this concept so farfetched?
I drove south and west towards Styria, my heart in my throat, saturated in nervous anticipation. I wondered whether Franz Strohmeier’s wines would really be as special as I remembered. The rolling green hills were bright and crisp in the spring sunshine, vineyards tucked into dozens of valleys as we drove towards the Slovenian boarder.
Christine, Franz’s wife, greets us at the door with an infectious smile and an affectionate embrace. On their patio we drink wine and eat lunch. Franz and Christine are vegetarians and treat us to an amazing soup and salad comprised of vegetables grown in their garden. We learn that Franz eats and drinks the way he does as much for his health as he does for philosophical reasons. Each wine we’re poured over lunch brings me back to that initial sip - transcendent aromas and beguiling flavours. Franz admits that some of the bottles have been open for weeks, and he prefers to drink them after they’ve had ample oxygen. Despite eschewing sulphur, many of the wines are shockingly stable.
We jumped in Franz’s truck and headed to his vineyards in the nearby towns of Bad Gams and Stainz. Most of the vines he farms are planted on incredibly steep slopes comprised of hard gneiss and schist. Other than a few biodynamic treatments, the only things he sprays are copper and sulphur (in minute quantities). He has experimented with whey from a local dairy as an alternative to sulphur, trying once again to be as positive for the environment as he can be.
Between the rows of 40+ year old vines you’ll find dozens of different wild legumes and grasses that help replenish the soils. Recent studies have proven a correlation between soil health, microbial biodiversity, and wine complexity. It’s no wonder these wines are so multifaceted. In fact, he’s taken this style of agriculture a step further by planting a small vineyard of no-spray varieties; these cultivars are bred to be resistant to odium and botrytis, eliminating the need for sprays all together. At the moment, their potential quality is unknown, but Franz is willing to be patient.
At the top of the vineyard there is a small and ancient cellar. This decrepit building is home to some of Austria’s oldest bottled wines. Historically, wines from this region were sold in cask to local pubs, so older bottles are highly coveted. We followed Franz deep into the cellar, using our flashlights to find something that looked remotely drinkable. He had a manifest describing which variety and vintage could be found in each bottle. We chose a bottle that looked drinkable, dusted it off, brushed away the mold around the cork, and opened it.
Sitting in the vineyard it came from, we sipped the golden wine and raved about how alive it was after all these years. We tried to guess how old it was, and what it was made from. We felt connected to the land, to both its geography and its culture. The sun that gave this wine life warmed our faces, the rocks in which the vines lived (and still live) were under our feet, the breeze ruffled our clothes like leaves. The wine was a dry Gewürztraminer from 1949.
Franz takes the heels of these relics and analyses them for alcohol, extract, acidity, and their free and bound sulphur levels. This information helps him become a better winemaker and stay true to the techniques historically used in the region. Hopefully, his wines will age as majestically. From what I’ve seen from older vintages, they certainly have the potential.
After a short trip to see his cellar (modest, clean, organized), and tasted through the new vintage in barrel, we got back in our car and started driving to Bratislava. I wish everyone could spend a day with Franz and Christine. Their warmth, charm, and humbleness are refreshing and invigorating. They make me want to work harder and continue questioning conventions. We’re proud to represent them here in Alberta.
TLZ ROT Nº7
This wine is a blend of both the 2015 and 2016 vintage. This wine is made from 95% Zweigelt with 5% Blauer Wildbacher, all from the Bad Gams vineyard. This steep site features gneiss soils with lots of iron and silica. After whole-cluster fermentation the wine is pressed off into 550L neutral Austrian oak. After 8-12 months on lees the wine was racked. Eventually the two vintages were blended together. This wine was not fined, filtered, and had no sulphur added. 11.5% ABV
Schilcher is a traditional style of wine made in Styria; they tend to be quaffable, still wines but Franz has decided to make a serious, traditional method sparkling rosé instead. 35-40-year-old Blauer Wildbacher vines are the base for this wine. The juice is fermented on the skins for 12 hours before being gently pressed off into stainless steel. Once it is settled, the wine is bottled with a small amount of sugar and yeast where it ferments to 2.5 bar. The final wine sees 20ppm of sulphur and no dosage. 11% ABV
TLZ WEIß Nº8
This wine is comprised of 70% Pinot Blanc and 30% Chardonnay from three vineyards: Stainz, Bad Gams, and Lestein. Soils are predominantly hard gneiss and iron rich schist. The grapes are pressed into neutral 500L Austrian oak for eleven months with full lees. The wine is bottled without fining, filtration, nor Sulphur.