about [wabi-sabi] : wine

Why “Wabi-Sabi”?
The aesthetic concept of Wabi-Sabi originates from the Japanese Zen and describes a world where beauty is defined by imperfection. Nature is not perfect – only human beings feel they can create perfection by manipulating nature. Something can be beautiful even though it is incomplete, not perfect. In our modern, technically driven world, most products are often merely “designed” products. This is how we feel in order to transfer this idea and approach into wine:
The cellar master aims to prevent every possible flaw in order to obtain a wine that is “perfectly” clear, sound and understandable by the customer. We see wine differently. For us, low-intervention wines cannot be perfect following a mass interpretation of fruit-driven, sterile, round wines. A Wabi-Sabi kind of wine expresses its quality as a living being with all its peculiarities and imperfections. Character and individuality are much more authentic than designed wines made in a wine laboratory.

How did the project start?
I work with winegrowers who have, obviously, inspired me a lot and they still do. We could not have started Wabi-Sabi without their support and I’m very grateful for that! I learned a lot from their experiences, from how they tackle issues. Nonetheless, I wanted to find out for myself, make my own experiences, get behind things. I wanted to know whether and how it is possible to make real, drinkable, low-intervention wines. In order to really find out, you have to do it yourself, that was my conviction. For sure, it’s a process and also a question of procedures, of techniques.  

Why techniques? Is low-intervention not about “doing as little as possible”?
I believe that this “doing nothing” approach is a misleading concept. For sure, we do not use additives other than sulfur. But we do a lot and every action requires knowledge and purpose. How do I prune, work the soils, the canopy, how do I apply plant protection? How quickly should I process the grapes after picking, what about the time of maceration, the method of pressing? I don’t mind considering Wabi-Sabi as a “testing laboratory” in this regard even though this might contradict what the public understands as “low-intervention” or “natural” (a term I don’t like too much). Speaking of techniques, it’s crucial to understand that there are in fact “technical” limits to real low-intervention wines. You cannot have rather bold, high-alcohol, some residual sugar wines and leave them unfiltered and with low SO₂, the wine would not be stable. If you want to limit SO₂, you’ll need ripeness at an early stage or at the edge of it, swift fermentations, and the fruitiness will inevitably be lower than with more ripe grapes, just to give some examples…The choice of the “right” variety is therefore another factor to keep in mind.

In the course of time, the way of getting behind these processes has become clearer and clearer as I was gaining experience. It was not only about knowing what you do but also about knowing what not to do, that was very important to me and my team.

Another aspect, which is super exciting for me, is that the project has given me more structure in the yearly cycle. Before, I didn’t really care about seasons, summer was hot, winter was cold, that was it. I had never observed plants, looked at where they grow, how they change. Now, I confront myself much more with these natural processes, I think about the weather – but it never worries me, I accept it. At first, I was out in the vineyards more often, but now, I only go there when I (or my people) take action, when there’s something to do.

How do you translate “Wabi-Sabi” into viticulture and winemaking?
We like to consider it this way: the antithesis to orthodox medicine is homeopathy. Compared to the vine, this means that I do not use substances which enter the plant system but such which work as contact substances. We also believe that homeopathy has a lot to do with our attitude and with respect. It’s about allowing the other to be free – and this goes for nature as well. In doing so, we cannot rule out certain dynamics to develop which we may like or not. What’s a con for me, can be a pro for the other. We see this often in children: they often take opposite views but those can help them build their personality. This philosophy also applies to the consumers – they are free to choose whether they like this style of wine or not.

Self-healing forces are a key element at Wabi-Sabi. It’s like with humans: when my knee hurts, one thing I can do is go to see the doctor and he will prescribe a pill. This will easy my pain but does not solve the problem. I’ll have to take more pills, stronger pills, this takes more and more time and investment, and in the end, I won’t have a solution for my problem. It’s no different in farming: conventional growers who use artificial fertilizers have to do that more and more frequently and in ever bigger amounts to keep the yield up.

The health factor is part of our philosophy. This is why we have tried to protect our vineyards without using copper and sulfur – which in fact, is a beautiful idea! We have sprayed the vines with protective microorganisms for a couple of years. We could have even drunk these substances! Unfortunately, the pressure was too high, and we have had too much mildew. We had to hold back our ego’s and concede that this was not enough – especially in more “difficult” vineyards.
We also think a lot about human health. Yes, alcohol per se is not healthy, we all know that, so we always recommend drinking consciously. However, when drinking wine, it should be really bone-dry and have a certain amount of tannins – phenolic compounds indeed are beneficial.

If I want a really pure product (without judging the term “pure”), a genuine low-intervention wine, the grapes need to be as healthy as possible. That’s why the time of harvest and quick processing are so essential. I don’t want to fine the wines in the cellar, for instance to get rid of the mildew or use substances which enhance fermentation. If the result is a wine that does not suit everyone, so be it! 

Why are there black and white labels?
First of all, as for the artwork, I sat down with my graphics guys, David and we talked about how we could translate the idea into visuals. I wanted something that related to all elements of the pure juice of wine or grapes, something that inspires everybody to come up with their own interpretation. All logos are hand-made onto real photographic paper. These images are not reproducible, they are unique. It was exactly what I wanted for the Wabi-Sabi artwork.

As for the black labels, they stem exclusively from our own cellar, we “made” those wines: from harvesting them up until the cellar work and maturing. We select and pick the grapes ourselves in various little slots, mainly in the Wachau valley or alongside the Danube River (“Riverside”), so we can control the ripeness level and the grape quality as we need them. They are aged in mostly large wooden barrels of different sizes (from 225 up to 700 liters) and come as they are: unfined, unfiltered, with lively acidity and low SO₂ levels (max 50 mg/l total SO₂). Most of them certainly need some time to open up but we’re pretty sure they will develop nicely over the years. The volumes are limited as is our small cellar.

The white labels are wines we conceive in cooperation with our partners. The grape material also comes mainly from the Danube region as we like to present the cool climate characteristics Austria is famous for. The white labels are often blends of 2-3 local grape varieties, be it white or red – and also blends of 2-3 vintages. The idea behind this is to combine the freshness of the most current vintage with the depth and mature profile of older vintages. Harmony and drinkability are key words here. We taste and blend the wines together with our partners so everyone can have a say in the project. We trust the experience of our partners and they believe in our idea of Wabi-Sabi wine.

Last but not least, I‘d like to give you a beautiful example for Wabi-Sabi from the world of music. Years ago, I attended a Placebo concert. At a certain point, the singer took out an old guitar, it had been used a lot, had a bunch of dents and scratches. He said that it was his “composer” guitar. Every time he grabs and plays it, a thousand of ideas come to his mind, he claimed. It’s a really fucked-up instrument and he has to take good care of it but in terms of energy, this guitar is second to none. It might be imperfect in the eyes of the spectator, but for the singer, its spiritual value and the sound are just the right thing!