Austria - Neusiedler See - Illmitz
In the Austrian town of Illmitz, on the eastern side of the huge, shallow and sun-reflecting Lake Neusiedl, lies an inconspicuous white house. At first glance, its high curvaceous gable, typical for the area, doesn’t strike you as much different from the other buildings in the street row; but, take a closer look and you’ll realize that there is something deliberately minimalist, elegant and actually slightly uncommon about the whole structure. Enter through the simple white door with a laconic initial on it, and a carefully curated, thought-through-to-a-T singular space full of works of art starts to unfurl before your very eyes. Yep, Christian Tschida’s house is a perfect metaphor for his wines: the seemingly minimalist facade shelters an intriguing, thoughtfully structured personal universe that offers little details to indulge in and marvel at every turn.
This almost obsessive level of attention to detail, aimed at achieving the desired (=best possible) result, manifests itself in all parts of Christian’s work. No expense is spared in his vineyards if it makes sense–during one of our visits, he was just about to spread huge stacks of straw over the surface of the vineyards in order to protect them from summer drought, so that the wine doesn’t develop “stressed” aromas; vine shoots are tucked in rather than cut, as “each cut is only an impulse for more growth”; the plants are protected and nurtured with natural tisanes or his own compost mix. All this hand-work, performed by Christian himself, his father Fritz, and their small crew, has a simple aim–to keep the vineyards in balance so that they yield little grapes but with maximum energy and potential.
“It’s important not to be afraid to go the extra mile,” he shrugs as we walk through his vineyards. “My wine tastes the way it does because I care about every detail. Like here at the Edelgraben vineyard, the vines are planted in rows in alternating distances from each other, in a special way I invented to get more shade for the grapes. I don’t want my wine to taste like alcohol, and the sun is becoming more and more of a problem.” Another of Tschida’s close-to-heart plots, the more than 60-year-old Eisner, is planted in the traditional doppelstock system with two vines planted right next to each other, thus pushing them to compete for nutrition deeper than usual. “It gives the wine extra cojones,” Tschida grins with satisfaction; his “Himmel auf Erden” red gets extra sap from these old vines, otherwise used for higher-end bottles or special cuvées, like Engel auf Erden.
After several years of efforts, Christian managed to secure ownership of all the new plots he wanted to work with–he now farms 14 hectares in total with the land that’s been in the family since the 19th century–a huge accomplishment on his journey as a winemaker, he says. “I didn’t want to have any more stupid discussions with people who didn’t understand my approach,” his expression darkens, “Imagine doing all this work just to hear that the owners want the vineyard back because, to them, it’s a wild mess, not the paradise I see. I wasn’t having any of that, and now I don’t have to,” he continues, explaining how important the cover crop is for the mycorrhiza, an essential roots-funghi communications system living in the healthy soil and showing in the wine.
Given his uncompromising nature, you won’t be surprised that Tschida has used the same vintage crew for ages, allowing for no interns. “It’s the everything-or-nothing moment in the grower’s year, so I take harvest extremely seriously. You see, a lot of the guys that would like to work with me are friends, and maybe they wouldn’t be anymore after this,” he self-reflectively admits in a Pipette interview, referring to his impatience. “So I prefer my harvest crew. And to keep my friends as my friends.”
Once the precious little grapes arrive at the cellar, the thoughtful treatment continues–Tschida describes himself as a “transformer”, not a maker of the wine, and he indeed does very little in the minimalist winery adjacent to his house. He prides himself in extremely gentle pressing, using a top-notch Bucher-Vaslin basket press (“the Rolls Royce of presses”), and a pneumatic press that was tailor-made for him in Germany, both exerting the “pressure of a handshake” and yielding only the best juice. (The must and remaining juice then return to the vines in a special mixture he makes to strengthen the vineyard’s health.) The wines spontaneously ferment and then rest undisturbed in big vats custom-made by Stockinger, a renowned and highly coveted Austrian cooper whose big vats can be found in the cellars of natural growers around Central Europe (e.g. Gut Oggau or Nestarec). No racking is performed, as Christian believes that every pump-over takes energy and freshness out of the wine.
“I want to make wine that says ‘Please drink me, I love you, hug me’,” he explains while proudly showing us the new vintage of Engel auf Erden (“Angels on Earth”) on his stylish patio. This vivacious, gourmand Cabernet Franc is indeed a perfect example of “huggable” wine: it’s made with “pink maceration”, a gentle extraction method that Christian has invented just to get maximum fruitiness from the skins while keeping the tannins tame. Experiments like this are an important part of Tschida’s practice, and about 10% of each harvest is dedicated to playing with new methods and approaches in the cellar so he can keep on discovering new paths.
Since 2013, the wines have been made completely without any sulfur, although Christian considers this topic to be way less important than it used to be. As he explains in Pipette: “If you have good grapes, they taste nice and have the same performance with or without sulfur; what comes out is just a different style. […] It’s the same with barrels–if you use a new oak barrel on wine, it will heavily influence it. The purity is on a different level than grapes that haven’t been in touch with new oak.”
Purity is indeed the cornerstone of Tschida’s efforts. And probably also one of the reasons for his now cultish status, which is well-deserved for his hard work and visionary approach against the odds. (When Christian took the winery over in 2003, he recalls having “below zero customers”, alienating his father’s previous clients with his then-unheard-of vision of fruit-driven reds with low alcohol.) Whether he likes it or not (being too starstruck in his presence is rather advised-against), Tschida now firmly sits in the natural wine pantheon along with people like his “Brutal” fellows and best mates Tom Lubbe of Matassa or Joan Ramon Escoda. Given he’s only in his early forties, enjoys this enormous vineyard and cellar potential, and has all the experience and dedication to go the extra mile, this status is likely to be re-confirmed with every new vintage and every new savvily minimalist Tschida bottle full of intriguing twists and turns.