"This can't be the way, there's nothing out here," I hear myself saying as my traveling companion and I dutifully follow the GPS into a landscape so pitch black that our high beams barely make a dent in it. All we can see is a rutted dirt road extending in front of us for as far as the beams can see, with a hill falling steeply off to the right and the edge of an embankment to the left, so close that we'll never be able to pass or turn around if we happen to run into another car.
Of course, the likelihood of running into another car seems quite remote to me, as I'm convinced that we're lost. It's a feeling that began ten minutes ago, when the measured voice of the GPS system calmly suggested that we turn off the well lit highway onto a hairpin turn that quickly left the pavement behind.
The only things resembling civilization that we've passed in 10 minutes have been decrepit, shack-like buildings with no lights, each looming quickly in the headlights and then instantly disappearing in the darkness, only reddened for a moment by our taillights before they vanish.
"I'm sorry, but I just can't imagine a major winery being out here like this with literally nothing around," I say. We've been to plenty of wineries already in Austria, big and small, and none of them have felt this remote, let alone been accessible only by a road that looks like it gets used by horses more than it does by cars.
But then again, I don't normally go searching for wineries after nightfall. When I take wine trips, most of the time the day ends as light falls, often with pleasantries like canapés served on a terrace with a glass of wine. But here in Austria, I've made the ambitious mistake of trying to pack too many wineries into too short a trip, and that has left me all but groping my way through the Kamptal countryside trying to find a guy named Fred Loimer.
As often happens, just moments after I have given up hope and am ready to contemplate throwing the car into reverse and backing up for the 10 minutes it will take to get us to the highway again, a bright spot of light appears around a curve and the road widens. Moments later, against the halo of even more lights we see the looming outline of a rectangular monolith, smooth against the blue-black of the night sky, a stark industrial contrast to the farmland that we can now see peeking into the halos of light splashed by the approaching oasis in the darkness.
"You have arrived at your destination" says the suave GPS, just as we see the curly-haired silhouette of a man waving at us from a splash of gravel next to what is now, clearly, a winery.
Fred Loimer was born and raised in a winegrowing family. His father was a winegrower, as was his father before him, and so on and so forth, back to before anyone was really keeping track. Loimer's father took over the family farm from his grandfather in 1962, and like many of his generation, made the ambitious decision to sell the chickens, cows, and vegetables, and to focus solely on wine.
Loimer grew up knowing he wanted to be a winemaker. After completing school, and working a harvest in Germany and another in California, Loimer returned to the family winery to work with his father starting in 1987.
"For those first ten years, I was responsible first for cellar work, and then later on, for the vineyards" says Loimer. "Eventually I was able to begin bringing in my own ideas to the operation."
When Loimer took over from his father in 1997, he decided to make a shift in the family's winemaking philosophy.
"When I was young, and getting started, everyone was making these concentrated wines, with higher alcohol. But after 1998, a year where we had a lot of botrytis, I decided I didn't like it in my wine. So I started to select the grapes better, to harvest earlier, and get back to an older style of winemaking, with less alcohol, a lot of freshness, fruit, and minerality" says Loimer.
"For that style, you need clean fruit. if you want to find the character of the region and produce a wine that is more enjoyable to drink, this is what you have to do. I always say, the best bottle of wine is an empty bottle. If you can drink a bottle of wine alone and then still want another glass, then that means the wine is good."
Loimer and his father started with about 37 acres and have built up the estate to a total of about 148 acres today. Shortly after taking over from his father, Loimer also had the chance to purchase a massive, labyrinthine cellar complex in the Kamptal countryside that was built in the 19th century by one of the largest wine families in the region. This family served as a combination of feudal overlord and local negociant, renting vineyard land to farmers in exchange for 10% of their harvest, and then buying the rest to make large quantities of wine which they stored deep in the vaulted brick cellars over which Loimer now presides.
Loimer and his family have never used herbicides, pesticides, or fertilizers, but in 2005 Loimer realized that the way he was farming wasn't working.
"We had lots of problems in 2005, and I knew I needed to change something -- that what I was doing wasn't the right way to farm -- so from that day on we changed, and kept changing every day, looking for the right way," says Loimer.
With the help of agricultural consultant Andrew Lorand, Loimer began a three year journey into the principles and techniques of biodynamic winegrowing which have led him to the point where he is now confident that he is farming the right way.
"The greatest idea in biodynamics for me is going back to a time when agricultural farming was an holistic system that worked alone" says Loimer. "Steiner [Rudolph Steiner, the godfather of the biodynamic farming movement] didn't create this idea that you can't separate plants, fruits, and animals. The idea of looking to a forest which isn't touched by man, and seeing how that system works alone. You can take something out without harming the whole. You can harvest berries, shoot an animal, or take a tree and the system will stay stable. In such a system you don't usually encounter epidemics of disease."
"I was looking for a way to work in the vineyard that minimized the problems of monoculture. We're happy to have grasses and trees and bushes, but we're really dealing with a monoculture in the vineyard, and we need to think in a more holistic way, and create different possibilities to do that."
Loimer now has sheep in his vineyards, and this year is adding chickens, along with the composting, cover crops, and preparations that are part of the biodynamic farming regimen.
"I can't feel that these preparations are working, but you see that they are working, and now we can measure it. There is now a vineyard in Geisenheim [Germany's most prestigious university for winemaking education] where they have conventional, organic, and biodynamic plots, and the only difference between the organic and the biodynamic plots are the addition of the preparations, and they an measure the differences now. That is enough for me. With wine, there are so many things that are truly intuitive, but it is nice to have some validation."
Curiously, Loimer is not certified biodynamic by Demeter, the main organization responsible for much of the world's biodynamic certification. Instead, he is one of the founding members of a group known as RESPEKT, which has broken with Demeter and set up their own certification body.
"We wanted to be a part of a different group. We're not anthroposophic and we're not devotees of Steiner. We're not members of the scene. It's a bit too much religion sometimes. We want to be more free and to work on the quality of the wine and not so much on the religion."
When I press Loimer for practical differences between the RESPEKT approach to winemaking and Demeter's he struggles a bit to find examples, but eventually says, "There aren't that many differences in daily work. We try to do everything with native yeast, but we want dry wines, and sometimes that doesn't happen, so we occasionally use a strong yeast at the end of fermentation. We are just more pragmatic in some things. We're trying for a rational approach to biodynamics, but some Demeter people are fighting against us."
"Demeter tends to focus on trademarks, but we focus on progress," explains Loimer, who goes on to note several examples of where better natural products exist than those allowed by Demeter, yet the organization refuses to certify them. "Ultimately we begin with pragmatism and then move to philosophy," he says, "not the other way around."
Loimer produces two basic classes of wine, a set of wines that are made in much larger quantities and sometimes include grapes farmed on contract, and then a set of estate wines most of which bear the Erste Lage (literally "great growth") classification set down by the Austrian government.
The first category contains a wine that has a bit of history to it. The "Lois" Grüner Veltliner was one of the first of its variety to be widely available outside of Austria. Launched in the 1999 vintage with a friendly green label, it quickly became the best selling wine of its variety in the world, and now a little more than ten years later, Loimer claims that it remains the best selling Grüner Veltliner in terms of overall sales dollars, rather than volume.
Lois represents something of a symbol for one of the more interesting aspects of Fred Loimer, which I can attempt to express as a dichotomy between tradition and modernity. The man presides over a cavernous 19th century cellar with few modern improvements and farms his vineyards with a horse and hand-guided plow. Yet on top of his cellar he has perched a cement and glass, modern architectural gem that looks right out of the pages of Dwell magazine, as does the packaging and promotional materials for the winery. He has even recently moved to using glass stoppers for his wines instead of screwcaps.
Loimer has managed the balancing act of being both a farmer and a marketer, and clearly excels at both, without managing to take himself too seriously. Case in point? His logo.
"It was a joke, really, about the family crests of all the old noble families in Austria that they used to put on their bottles. After I bought this cellar, I decided I needed a family crest, too. I chose a 2000-year-old symbol of fertility from Indonesia. I figured we wouldn't have any copyright problems" says Loimer with a grin.
Taste the wines, and you'll find it easy to identify with the portly little dancing figure, even if you don't exactly relate to his little dangling manhood. The little guy is a joyous symbol of what pretty much every bottle of Loimer wine offers: pure pleasure. I highly recommend these wines, especially the 2010 vintage, which I believe to be some of the finest wines I've ever tasted from this estate.
It was dark when we arrived, and dark when we left, so I've had to rely on Mr. Loimer for a few photos of his facilities.
2011 Fred Loimer Lois Grüner Veltliner, Neiderosterreich
Light gold in the glass, this wine smells of green apple and wet stones. In the mouth the wine offers bright green apple flavors and hints of floral character and minerals. Notes of lemon zest linger in the finish. Straightforward and friendly. Score: between 8 and 8.5. Cost: $12 click to buy.
2011 Fred Loimer Grüner Veltliner, Kamptal
Light gold in the glass this wine smells of golden delicious apples, mixed herbs, and wet stones. In the mouth the wine has a delicate lemon and wet stone quality, with juicy acidity that makes the mouth water, and lingers with lemon and floral notes in a long finish. 12.5% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $19 click to buy.
2011 Fred Loimer "Reserve - Barrel Sample" Grüner Veltliner, Kamptal
Light gold in the glass, this barrel sample smells of honey, golden delicious apples and cold cream. In the mouth, nice lemon curd flavors that have a creamy texture meld with wet stones and golden delicious apples for a very harmonious completion. Soft, delicate acidity, moderate finish. Score: around 9.
2011 Fred Loimer "Estate" Riesling, Kamptal
Pale gold in the glass, this wine smells of lemon juice and wet stones. In the mouth the wine is quite bright and juicy with flavors of wet stone, lemon juice and lemon pith. Electric acidity makes the flavors explosive in the mouth, and a wet chalkboard finish brings in floral notes. Juicy. Dry. 12.5% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $21 click to buy.
2011 Fred Loimer "Terassen - Barrel Sample" Riesling, Kamptal
Light gold in the glass, this barrel sample smells of honey and white flowers. In the mouth flavors of green apple and lemon juice have a lime kicker at the end. The finish adds cold cream and white flowers. Mouthwatering, with delicate acidity. Dry. Score: around 9. Cost: $30 click to buy.
2010 Fred Loimer "Käferberg Erste Lage Reserve" Grüner Veltliner, Langenlois, Kamptal
Light gold in the glass, this wine smells of honey and white flowers. In the mouth flavors of wet chalkboard and floral notes have a haunting lemon juiciness and an effortless weight on the palate. The wine smells sweet and can almost, but not quite convince your tongue that it is. But, dry as a bone, it lingers very long and honeyed in the glass. 13% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $55 click to buy.
2010 Fred Loimer "Spiegel Erste Lage Reserve" Grüner Veltliner, Langenlois, Kamptal
Light gold in the glass, this wine smells of crushed stones and the faint but distinct smell of marijuana smoke. In the mouth the wine has a wonderful texture and a beautiful stony quality with bright acidity and floral notes that float high above the wine, bringing into the finish that pot smoke again. Very distinct and unusual, and very tasty. Dry. 13.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $65 click to buy.
2010 Fred Loimer "Steinmassl Erste Lage Reserve" Riesling, Langenlois, Kamptal
Light gold in the glass, this wine smells of honey, pears, lychees, and a hint of paraffin. In the mouth the wine is electrically bright with raring acidity of lemon juice and lemon zest and wet stones. Incredibly mouthwatering and quite bright. Dry as a bone and beautifully textured. Phenomenal. 13% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $66 click to buy.
2010 Fred Loimer "Seeberg Erste Lage Reserve" Riesling, Langenlois, Kamptal
Light gold in the glass, this wine smells of honeysuckle, wet stones and cold cream. In the mouth, flinty/stony flavors mix with what can only be described as an electric-kool-aid-lemon explosion, as racy acidity takes the wine on a jet boat ride through the mouth. Stony undercurrents can't stop the neon quality of the acidity and the lemon flavor that lingers for minutes in the mouth. Average vine age is about 60 years. Utterly kick-ass. Dry. 13% alcohol. Score: between 9.5 and 10. Cost: $68 click to buy.
2010 Fred Loimer "Zöbing Heiligenstein Erste Lage Reserve" Riesling, Kamptal
Light yellow gold in the glass, this wine smells of beeswax and white flowers. In the mouth, apple and pear flavors dance with lemon blossoms across the palate, which is a baseboard of wet stone. The finish is minutes long and has an interesting vanilla note to it. Beautiful and long, juicy and pure. Dry. 13% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $??
2002 Fred Loimer "Steinmassl Erste Lage" Riesling, Langenlois, Kamptal
Medium yellow gold in the glass, this wine smells of paraffin, mandarin oranges, and wet stones. In the mouth the wine has that utterly crystalline quality that very fine Rieslings can have when they are well made and/or well aged. Smooth texture and gorgeous acidity deliver incredibly balanced flavors of lemon curd, mandarin oranges, rainwater, and white flowers. Stunning purity and length. Tastes dry but apparently has some residual sugar. 13% alcohol. Score: around 9.5.
1997 Fred Loimer "Steinmassl Erste Lage Halbtrocken" Riesling, Langenlois, Kamptal
Gorgeously yellow gold in the glass, this wine smells of honey and white flowers with a hint of orange peel and candle wax. In the mouth the wine has great purity with a slightly sweet integration of lemon juice, wet stones, and wet chalkboard. The finish lasts for a long time with flavors of lemon pith and pink grapefruit. Off-dry. 12% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5.
1997 Fred Loimer "Spiegel Alte Reben Erste Lage" Grüner Veltliner, Langenlois, Kamptal
Light gold in the glass, this wine smells of toasted marshmallows, sarsaparilla, and a bunch of exotic caramelized scents that are very hard to pin down. Strawberry yogurt? Maybe. In the mouth the wine has a wonderful smoothness to it, with flavors of pink grapefruit, tangerine, and honey. The finish is long and just a tiny bit spicy, but really beautiful. Very interesting. Tastes dry, but has a little residual sugar. Score: between 9 and 9.5.
1992 Fred Loimer "Saxkeller Langenloiser Spiegel Erste Lage" Grüner Veltliner, Langenlois, Kamptal
Light gold in the glass, this wine smells of parchment, a hint of paraffin, lemon zest with wet stones and vanilla caramel. In the mouth, the wine is sleek and bright still, with excellent acidity and flavors of lemon pith, wet chalkboard, and white flowers. Flinty, too, as it finishes long. Has lasted quite extraordinarily. Completely dry. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $n/a
2007 Fred Loimer "Schellman Alte Reben Gumpoldskirchen" Traminer, Thermenregion
Light to medium gold in the glass, this wine smells of candied orange peels and berries. In the mouth the wine has wonderful acidity and bright, juicy candied orange and rose petal flavors borne as if on a sweet breeze. Wonderful minerality comes through under the fruit and flowers. Lightly sweet, the wine has a long finish. A blend of red and yellow Traminer, planted in 1936. 13.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $??
2007 Fred Loimer "Ruländer Beerenauslese" Pinot Gris, Kamptal
Medium gold in the glass, this wine smells of honey and sweet mascarpone and flowers. in the mouth, the wine offers moderate to very sweet flavors of candied orange peel, mandarins, vanilla and floral notes. Beautifully textured with silky silky goodness that lingers with great acidity through the finish. 12% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $??
2009 Fred Loimer "Beerenauslese" Chardonnay, Kamptal
Dark yellow gold in the glass, this wine smells of coffee with milk and burnt orange peel. In the mouth, gorgeous bitter orange flavors mix with incredible acidity and mouthwatering floral notes. Dark honey and orange zest linger in the finish with a nice minerality. Long, gorgeous. 12.5% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $??
2009 Fred Loimer "Trockenbeerenauslese" Riesling, Kamptal
Light amber in color this wine smells of wet stones, bitter orange, and a hint of maple syrup. In the mouth the wine has real weight on the palate, gorgeously silky and slippery, with flavors of honey, orange blossom water, bright lemon and tangerine that linger for a long time in the finish. Very sweet, and headed a little towards syrupy for me, but the acidity makes it a pleasure to drink. 9.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $??
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