Following in the Footsteps of Romans: Netzl making organic wine in Carnuntum

Carnuntum, where the Netzl winery is located, is one of Austria's smallest wine regions. Where it lies, between Lake Neusiedl and the Danube River, exists a unique microclimate with warm days and cool nights which is perfect for growing Zweigelt.

Carnuntum is most famous for its Roman ruins. The region was home to a Roman Legionary Fortress from 50 AD. It was one of the most important cities in the Roman Empire with over 50,000 people living there. And of course during that time the Romans engaged in grape growing and winemaking.

Grape Collective talks to Christina Netzl about making wine in the shadow of the Romans and why Zweigelt is particularly at home in in Carnuntum.

Christopher Barnes: Christina, how long has the family been making wine?

NetzlChristina Netzl: The family business started around 1860, quite a long time ago. But of course it was a mixed farm, like having some wine, but we had wheat, sugar beets, very important in our region, and we even raised pigs. My parents then decided to focus on wine. They enlarged the wine growing surface, so they bought land for the wine growing. Yeah, so everything else was left and we really got the winery before we were like a farm, doing everything.

Talk a little bit about Carnuntum, it's the smallest wine region in Austria.

It is one of the smallest wine growing regions in Austria. Very unique being located between those two main climates of Austria, the Lake Neusiedlersee, the Pannonian lowland, like Hungary, Burgenland, and the River Danube. So there are lots of wine growing regions next to the river. We are just three kilometers from the river, but we are growing the wines on a chain of hills, like rolling hillside going up and down, facing southeast. So the river is behind the hillside. The main influence coming from the Pannonian lowland from the lake. But during the night you can feel the cool winds coming from the riverside, at the backside of the hills. So we have these much cooler nights compared to the regions next to the lake.

We are focusing on red wines, but they are a little bit fresher, more crispy, peppery, spicy due to the cooler nights and the differences in day and night temperatures.

Talk a little bit about the soils you work with.

So we are just 900 hectares in total in the region. It's a very limited, very small region because of this unique climate and the rolling hillside, which is not bigger than these 900 hectares. It's gravelly soils coming from the ancient flow of the River Danube, so the Danube moved a few years ago and gravel stayed in the region. So the hillside is pure gravel, and in the shadow of the hills there is the loess, blown by the wind coming from the Alps. So we have many gravelly soils on the top of the hillsides and less in the valley sides. They're very chalky, so it's very nice minerality there in the soil, and in between on the soft endings of the hills, we have a mixture. We have the nutritious loess in the lower part and the gravel, which is rolling down from the hillside on the top.

So you have dry climate on the top, which means late ripening in the fall season when the fog is coming, it's getting a little bit more wet. Humidity is getting higher. We can keep the grapes out a little bit longer because on the top you have the gravel, it's dry, but beneath loess that's the good nutrition so you have the full bodied and nice rich style for the red wines.

NetzlAnd what is the philosophy of winemaking in viticulture at Netzl?

We are really focusing on the elegance of the spice given by this great combination of warm days and cool nights. So on the one hand we have the great ripe fruit and ripe tannins. But you will always find nice freshness and spice, white pepper, a very peppery style in the wines. Which we really try to focus on during the winemaking process.

You will find lots of Zweigelt in Austria. But the Zweigelt of Carnuntum is so unique because you have this very typical ripe dark cherry notes but you will always find this very fresh white pepper on the palate. Giving structure and giving more freshness, giving more life to the wine.

What is your approach to farming right now?

So we are working completely organic in the vineyards. We started four years ago to focus on the organic production. Now we are working completely organic. We are now certified so far the production is completely organic.

How difficult was that change to go from conventional to organic?

Of course we were a little bit afraid and it was a very soft change for us. So we weren't changing completely from one year to the other. So we started with the soil treatment eight years ago. So there are no pesticides, herbicides, anything used. It was progress for us. We started with the soil and then going on with other chemicals that have been changed over the years. Now this year, the 17th vintage is completely organic.

And are other wineries in the region completely organic as well, or are you kind of an outlier?

There are some which are already certified, and in general the whole region is working very close to organic. Some changed within the last years too. So we are, all the winemakers in Carnuntum as we are a very small region, and lots of winemakers in the same town, we are working very close together. We are trying to do lots of things together because we think that it is more successful to work together than against each other. So almost all the bigger wineries are working organic now.

And Carnuntum has an interesting history from an archeological perspective. Talk about that.

So Carnuntum the name comes from the ancient Roman city, which was one of the biggest cities in the Roman Empire actually. 70,000 inhabitants, so it was as big as London at that time. Much bigger than Vienna so it was even more important a city than Vienna in Austria. Because it was directly on the border, directly on the River Danube, directly on the border to the Germans so it was very important city to protect the Empire. And the Romans sent people there to live there, to have a safe border.

They left the whole city when the border got too dangerous and then with an earthquake actually so they were really leaving the city. And it doesn't exist anymore. And this is why we have the biggest excavations from Roman findings. Because it was huge with things like theaters, there's a spa ... They rebuilt the spa. They found the original plans to build the spa. They found the school for the gladiators so it is a very interesting place. And of course the Romans loved food and good wine and they enforced the wine production in the region. Which was really important. So they really enforced the wine growing in the region.

NetzlSo it's kind of interesting that you had Romans a long long time ago identifying this as a good place to make wine. And now you are following on many years later. That's interesting.

It is yes.

And Christina, were you always going to be part of the family business? When you were younger were you like, "I'm gonna be an astronaut," and then you changed your mind? I mean, how was it being part of a wine growing family?

I always wanted to be a wine farmer. Actually, yes, even as a kid. Of course, in between it changed a little bit. At age 14/15 I wasn't sure, but afterwards, yes, it was completely clear for me.

I grew up with the winery growing actually. So my parents started when I was born, they started with just three hectares of vineyards. Now we are doing 28 hectares, so they really focused on the wine production. Everything was enlarged to rebuild. The vinification process in the region was developed in that time and for me it's always been really interesting and for me it's a passion to produce wine starting in the vineyards, having the nature of the vineyards, going to the cellar, being able to impact the product to think about and having an idea, being like an artist with the grapes. You know, you have an idea of what you want to show or what you want to produce with your grapes. And then being able to sell it yourself, which is not completely common in the farming scene, let's say.

So as a wine grower you can do everything from starting in the vineyards for the farming, to the wine production, to the sales. And this is what is really interesting me. So many different parts.

And then you have to sell it too, which isn't easy, right?

Of course it's not easy but you can tell the people, you can tell the story, you can tell everything from the region. And that is so interesting for me. That is what I want to transfer to the people.

NetzlHow much vintage variation do you see, Christina, in your wines from year to year?

There is a big variation. And for me it's very important to let the vintage speak. I don't want to produce the same wine every year. That's not the goal, because we are producing a product given by nature. And I think that's one of the most interesting or spectacular parts of wine producing, because you have to work differently with each vintage.

There are different styles, there are different situations in the grapes and that's the most interesting part. So you have every year a new game - you can work with the wine completely differently every vintage.

Of course you have your style and your idea behind the wine in general but for me, it's really important to have the differences in the vintages, and to see the differences in the vintages.

And give me a couple of examples of how one year would be very different from another year, and how that is reflected in the wines.

So we have '14 and '15, which is quite close actually, so the wines are still available. 2014 has been one of the coolest years ever, and very rainy and wet in the fall season. So we had to decide whether to harvest earlier, having these little bit more unripe aromas, or lose the grapes. And of course you always try and find something in the middle. You have much more freshness, much more elegance in the wine. So for me the cooler vintages are even more interesting because they are finer, more elegant. Sometimes they are even deeper. You can really find more different layers and aromas in the cooler vintages, and even when they are riper because the acidity is higher. Which is really giving them background in a ripening process.

Then we had '15 right after. Which was one of the warmest vintages. But a great combination of ripeness and even high acidity and great structure in the wine. So it is completely different. You have this very, very structured full-bodied wine in '15, and this very elegant, fine, delicate wine in '14.

And both are interesting for me. I cannot say which is the better one for me because there are things I like in both vintages and I think this is the most important part to transfer to people. To give every vintage a chance. It's not even, you know, the press is always telling you something about the vintage, "This one is the best ever," and everybody is trying to get this special vintage and they are not even trying sometimes the cooler ones. Which I think is a shame. Of course there's not the big production, but they are worth trying. They are sometimes picking a more interesting story than the warmer, great vintages.

NetzlSo talk about the Rubin Carnuntum.

The Rubin Carnuntum is the brand of around 40 wine growers in Carnuntum, Zweigelt is our main grape, so we are really focusing on the red wine production. Zweigelt is the main grape grown in Carnuntum. 30 years ago nobody knew about the wine growing region, as it is one of the smallest and youngest regions in Austria.

The wine growers just thought about how to get the region in the minds of the people. And they formed the brand Rubin Carnuntum., Rubin means ruby, the stone, and Carnuntum the name of the region. Showing the most typical style of the region. So it's Zweigelt, it's pure Zweigelt, 100% Zweigelt. And every member of the association of the Rubin Carnuntum wineries is allowed to show the wine at the tasting. And then the tasters are deciding if the wine is typical enough and the quality is good enough to be named, or sold under the label Rubin Carnuntum.

So our customers can rely on the brand like DOC now in Austria, but we started much earlier. Knowing, okay this is Zweigelt coming from Carnuntum, very typical style. It's medium range so it always lots of fruit, just a little bit of oak, so very slight oak impact and the spiced pepper on the palate, which is so important for us.