Markus Altenburger: Don’t Jeopardise Deliciousness Because of Dogmatism


Geeking over all things Blaufrankisch with my Burgenland colleague and fellow BF enthusiast who likes to keep things elegant and balanced.

Brace yourselves for some in-depth BF talk: both me and Markus, my dear colleague from Jois, Burgenland, have a long-standing love affair with this grape. Unlike me, who sometimes cheats on dear Frankovka with other red grapes that were historically planted in our vineyard, Markus' devotion to this incredible grape is nearly total and his red range consists of its different expressions. Leithaberg Kalk, chalk, schist, old vines, young plantings, lighter or age-worthy, I love to get lost in the purity and precision of Altenburger Blaufrankisch.

I recently reunited with Markus for one of the Karakterre side events, a pop-up dinner by the hip Alma Prague restaurant happening at his winery and an idea of this geeky talk arose. The only thing that saved you from a Blaufrankisch worship of Proust-like proportions is the fact that both of us are currently nose-deep in spraying – mad props to Markus for finding the time between two treatments to share his experience and ideas at such short notice and busy time.

(Should you wish to engage in a deeper talk with us, both I and Markus, as well as other acolytes of the Blau church, shall be present at a special tasting devoted to this grape, organised by our UK importer Newcomer Wines in London. June 17th. Ask Newcomer for details.)

Words by Milan Nestarec & Lucie Kohoutová / Photos courtesy of Markus Altenburger - Kristina Leidenfrostova

When I was at your place for the Alma dinner – which was thoroughly beautiful and excellent btw, congratulations to both you and your wife Bernadette for pulling it off as I'm sure it wasn't easy to get 80 people comfortably fed at the winery – you kindly gave me a very special bottle of yours, a Blaufrankisch Late Release from the 2008 vintage that spent 15 years in barrel. WOW. Can you please tell me more about it so that I'm even more excited to open the wine on some special day?

This is the second time we bottled wine after long ageing, the first was a sweet wine from 2009 that we bottled and released in 2009. I aged the wines out of curiosity to see the development, without any specific taste expectations, mainly for the fun of learning. The barrels are stored in my uncle's cellar which I used when I started. We preferred small barrels back then because they were easy to get and to move around.

Last winter, I was chatting with my uncle when he reminded me that we still have stuff in his place! I had virtually forgotten about these barrels. I went to taste it right away and was immensely surprised by how fresh the wine still was. So we bottled the 2008 vintage immediately. It was a considerably cold vintage and wines definitely were great for ageing. And yes, there are still a few barrels of other vintages left down there. So let's see how they develop [laughs].

Our conversation will probably revolve around Blaufrankisch, a grape close to both our hearts. Do you remember the best Blaufrankisch you drank in your life? I know it's hard to answer such a question as it usually has to do with some special moment, good company, etc. But still, do you remember such a wine?

I am lucky to say that I've drunk a lot of good wines in my life and naturally I had some really great Blaufränkisch wines, like for example from you, Milan. Taste changes, but there are two wines I would like to mention that were inspirational. I was just starting to build our winery back then and these bottles assured me that focussing on Blaufränkisch was the right path for us: the 1999 Reihburg from Uwe Schiefer, grown on a schist soil in the Eisenberg region, and, a few years later, the 2001 Marienthal from the E.T. Tribaumer family in Rust, coming from limestone. I shared a few magnums of this wine with my late friend Felix Peters, a winemaker with whom I used to work 20 years ago and who later had a huge impact on the German Blaufränkisch scene, in the summer of 2005 and it was a real eye-opener.

I must also mention the 2010 Blaufrankisch that you served at the aforementioned Alma dinner last week – it was so subtle that my friend and fellow diner thought it was Pinot Noir. In your experience, can a colder vintage give Blaufränkisch of such character? It was a great wine from a difficult vintage.

I agree to a certain extent. In my opinion, Blaufränkisch doesn’t need a lot of extraction or high sugar levels and I like wines where you can taste more terroir than alcohol. But Blaufränkisch also needs physiological ripeness, otherwise the tannins might get harsh and take forever to achieve balance. So light and cool vintage yes absolutely but if it's green, it’s a problem for me.

So what is the ideal vintage profile for Blaufränkisch, from your point of view? I personally have found that the cooler vintages with less alcohol and good acidity fare much better over time. I'm not really a fan of BF from hot vintages. But it depends and probably cannot be generalised. A vintage as 2021 can be hard to experience again, the most beautiful Blaufrankisch grapes I've ever seen. What's your take on it?

As said, elegant but ripe is the best for me. And yes, make every year 2021 please [laughs]. My favorite years were 2017, 2019, 2021, 2013 and 2016.

I'm a huge fan of Blaufrankisch trained on cordon, I've even recently shared a geeky post about this method on Instagram. It's not typical for the variety, but I like the plant architecture, the distribution of the grapes, the stock wood, etc. In Blaufrankisch, the fertility of the first two buds is of course questionable. It works well for us though. What do you prefer, classic guyot training or cordon?

For several years now, we've worked with double rootstocks in combination with cordon training. All our new BF vineyards are planted like this. This works perfectly for Blaufränkisch and the yield is good enough. I think nobody wants gigantic bunches with berries inflated like balloons.

Since you mentioned it, I have to tell you something – I visited your vineyards a few years ago without telling you. Sorry for not asking you first! It was before we met, but I already knew you were using double planting and was curious about it. So I found your vineyards in Jois, it took me a while but managed, and went to see them. It helped me, I have planted 3 hectares in this double system since. So thank you! How does it work for you?

Ok, first of all – if you come to Jois again next time, please do let me know [laughs]. Who knows if you saw the right vineyards [laugs again]. Anyway, I am happy that it helped! And I totally agree on enjoying the architecture of the canopy – it's very aesthetic and it's steady even in dry vintages. As I said, a cordon-trained BF combined with double planting looks very good to me now. But let's keep this our secret, wink wink.

My other hobby is to look around for old Blaufrankisch plots, with old “unproductive” clones whose grapes are very sparse, and use them for selection massale for new plantings. Is there a place in Jois or Burgenland that's a good source for that?

We graft from our own Gritschenberg vineyard planted in the late 1960s. Very loose and light bunches, low sugar and high aromatics. All the vineyards we planted in the last 10 years were planted from this one. So we kind of do the contrary of you, we don’t experiment with clones anymore but stick to ours. But it’s not for sale, mind you [laughs]. On some plots, we used a clone selection which is so similar to ours that I think it might have the same origin. It’s the Selection Iby clone from my friend Harald Iby who runs his vine nursery in Mittelburgenland.

Do you have experience with grafting in your vineyards? Are you a fan of doing that?

I am not a big fan, but it is the most economical and efficient method if you made a mistake like choosing the wrong grape back in the day, or when you're taking over a vineyard from somebody else and the vines are healthy but are the “wrong” grape. It is expensive and a lot of manual work to make it correctly but I also like the sustainability of it – you can keep on using the wires, trellises etc. that are already there.

Do you work with your Blaufrankisch vines differently because of climate change?

Yes. We now get unusually dry and hot summer periods which can slow down physiological ripening. So soil health is an issue. And the hardest part is the canopy management. I don’t want sunburnt grapes but Oidium is even worse.

Vinification-wise, I am a fan of the classic and relatively long fermentation of Blaufrankisch. Nowadays, we see a lot of whole-bunch Blaufrankisch wines but I personally prefer destemming, although you need to be careful with the green parts of the stem. However, in the long run, the classic vinification wins for me. What's your winner?

We do both and sometimes the best is a blend. Destemming mainly on the Blaufränkisch vom Kalk to keep the juicy character and mostly whole bunch for the single vineyards although it is very risky and can reinforce green aromas if the stems don’t have a certain ripeness. I had great wines from both vinifications and I think it's ok to adapt a little to the vintage as well. Most importantly, don’t risk losing deliciousness because of dogmatism. Don't stick to one method just for the sake of it.

"Don’t risk losing deliciousness because of dogmatism."

I usually ask my conversation partners what is the future of wine, but with you, I obviously have to modify the question – what is the future of Blaufrankisch?

I don’t know about the future of nature or climate but I am optimistic. We have invested a lot in new vineyards that will carry grapes in years to come and therefore we are planning on the future. We are looking at the long run, that the vineyards will deliver delicious wine for us and for the next generation. But I also see BF's extraordinary present: it has the potential to be important as a fine wine as well as natural wine. In any setting where elegance and freshness are welcome. Let's see.

My classic final question: is wine art?

Wine has many aspects of Art but for me, it’s more. So many things. Craft, Art, Farming, Friendship, People, Nature.

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