“I am hardcore,” says Roland Velich, describing his winemaking while lounging in the mid-century modern comfort of his living room, where the decor, the casual angle of his body and the informality of this tasting seem to belie this claim. But putting my nose in the outsized Burgundy glass I hold in front of me, and smelling an intoxicating perfume of crushed juniper, forest berries, and wet loam, I recognize, as I have every time I have had a chance to taste his wines, the fruits of an obsession that can easily bear up to that characterization. Like others trying to capture the sense of what Velich brings to his work, I have used words such as fanatical, single-minded, and even crazy to describe, if not the man, then the intensity with which he plies his craft.
The results of that craft tend to provoke superlatives in equal measure that I am now content to simplify into a simple categorical statement: Roland Velich makes the best Blaufränkisch on the planet. Full stop.
After several years of tasting Velich’s wines either as press samples or at various tastings, I finally made my way to the poorly signposted street in the little market town of Grosshöflein, a stone’s throw from better-known Eisenstadt on the western side of Austria’s shallow Neusiedler See.
I wander for several minutes looking for “#3, Kirchengasse (Church Street)” which distinctly doesn’t sit adjacent to the easily located #4 Kirchengasse before deciding that the only possible door to knock on is the dark forest green gate rimmed by ivy and set off by a fireworks display of roses and lavender. When no one responds to the knock, I try the latch, and step into the compact beauty of this small home’s inner courtyard and garden, spying with relief as I do so a smallish stone tablet resting on one of the stairs that reads simply, MORIC.
Roland Velich comes from a winemaking family, and spent several years working with his brother at the winery that still bears their last name in addition to working as a croupier. But while Velich was engaged intellectually by the winemaking, he did not find it as compelling as drinking wine. Specifically, he began to taste some of the world’s greatest wines of terroir, in particular Burgundies and Barolos, and saw a gulf between the wines he and his brother were making and the potential he tasted in these world class wines.
Velich began an intense study of these wines — where they were grown, how they were grown, and how they were vinified — with the goal of understanding at a deep level what produced greatness in wine. And then, when he had learned enough, he set out to make an Austrian red wine that belonged in the same pantheon as the great Grand Cru Burgundies, the Northern Rhone, and the legendary vineyards of Barolo.
His recipe? Ancient vines in a challenging growing region, meticulous biodynamic viticulture, obsessive sorting, and fairly primitive winemaking techniques that very closely resembled the ways of Burgundy. His medium? A grape known as Blaufränkisch.
Velich’s interest in Blaufränkisch was initially driven by circumstance. He was looking to make a cooler climate red wine in his home country of Austria, and only a few grapes fit that profile. Velich found himself exploring the undulating countryside of the Pannonian Plain in Austria’s Burgenland region, right on the border with Hungary. Like a sculptor who suddenly discovers his ability to “see” the figure in the raw block of marble, Velich’s explorations of Blaufränkisch revealed a profound truth: namely that Blaufränkisch, like Pinot Noir, Nebbiolo and Riesling, could amplify and transmit a true sense of place.
His studies of the grape led to the study of the place it grew, which led him back to the grape, and left him with a clarity of understanding that has motivated his every move since.
“This was once one of the world’s greatest wine growing regions,” says Velich with clear passion. “For three, four, maybe even five centuries, the most expensive, the most famous wines of the world were coming from this region, which belonged to Hungary until 1921.”
“I have a friend,” continues Velich, “that collects old wine lists, and loves to prove this to everyone he meets. He will show you a wine list from one of the greatest restaurants of the time. On it you will see that Chateau Margaux was 1 gold Mark. An Auslese from Saar [as in Mosel Saar Ruwer] was 2 gold Marks, and from the other side of that lake? Ruster Ausbruch was 4 gold Marks.”
“But everything vanished after the wars. The political region changed dramatically, and for a long time we were standing with our backs up against the end of the western world. The iron curtain was just a few minutes away.”
“All the markets were gone, and then suddenly after all we were in the country that tried very hard to not to let the wines from here get across its borders. We are an hour from Vienna, but 150 years ago you would have had to pay customs to bring wine from Burgenland to Vienna.”
“I’ve been thinking about the whole region here, and asking myself, if I’m so convinced about this grape variety, why doesn’t anyone know about it? It’s like the whole historic record has vanished. When you read about the historical grand crus of Austria you never hear anyone mention Burgenland, mostly because Burgenland wasn’t Austria. Nevermind that Blaufränkisch has been grown here for centuries. We have forgotten our tradition of growing one of the world’s great grape varieties.”
The dragon that Roland Velich has set out to slay is made up of lacunae. His bottles are his warriors, slowly growing in numbers, each seeking to write a new history that proves more indelible than the previous age.
Velich farms about 60 acres (25 hectares) spread across several smaller vineyards around Austria’s Burgenland region. The two most impressive, which he vinifies as single vineyard sites, are the Neckenmarkt and Lutzmannsburg vineyards. Neckenmarkt is a hillside vineyard that descends out of the nearby Ödenburger Mountains in a breezy chill, its metamorphic soils and dense planting giving the 45 to 85 year-old vines little comfort in their efforts to ripen fruit. Lutzmannsburg, on the other hand, is a warmer, flatter place about 10 kilometers away, and tends to be easier on its 100+ year-old vines, who are so closely packed together they make their own lives difficult.
Blaufrankisch makes up 95% of Velich’s vineyards, but the remaining 5% are a mix of Grüner Veltliner and Chardonnay which Velich makes into a white blend and a couple of varietal Grüner Veltliners.
Velich farms organically without herbicides, pesticides, fungicides, or chemical fertilizers, but he adamantly refuses to both apply for certification or to put anything about it on his labels.
“In the 25 years I’ve been making wine I have never used commercial yeasts. I use very little sulfur, and never fine anything. I think fining destroys a lot in a wine, especially in white wines.”
His whites ferment partially in steel and partially in new oak, while his reds ferment and age in old oak casks, taking their time to go through their secondary (malolactic) fermentations for sometimes more than a year.
Three years ago a good-looking, bearded young law student named Imre Haláz showed up at Velich’s door asking to help. In the manner of many a storybook’s beginning, Velich saw something in this young man’s bearing, and took him on board to help out at a winery where, as you might imagine, there wasn’t particularly a shortage of volunteer labor.
“Imre is the only one who ever worked with us who immediately knew which vineyard was which, and which vineyard was in each barrel” says Velich. “He is now my most important man in the whole business here. Imre brought in his passion. If you want to go a step beyond, that is always all about passion.”
This duo, looking very much like the professor and his young protege, are now involved in several new endeavors for MORIC. They are rehabilitating what Velich refers to as the “industrial desert” of an old limestone quarry with trees, cows, and of course, some vines. When I ask if there might be another single vineyard in the MORIC portfolio soon, Velich doesn’t commit to anything, but suggests it might be in the works.
For the first five years of his work, Velich referred to his efforts not as a winery but as The MORIC Project. Now his wines are the highest rated red wines in Austrian history by any critic, and he has dropped the “project” designation.
He’s proved his point, even if he has not yet proven to himself that he is on the track of his ultimate goal: to great one of the world’s greatest red wines from one of the world’s greatest grapes, made in one of the world’s historically great wine regions. To do that, he says, he has to make great wines for several decades and then start drinking them after 20, 30, and 40 years in the bottle.
“Wine is not art,” says Velich with a sly smile, “it is much older than arts. It is perfect.”
As the layered, vibrant flavors of some of the most distinctive red wine I have ever tasted wash across my palate, I can only close my eyes and nod my head. I’m in hardcore agreement.
2012 MORIC Blaufränkisch, Burgenland, Austria
Medium to dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of crushed mixed herbs, raspberry and cassis with a hint of incense. In the mouth, bright and juicy cherry, cassis and raspberry fruit has a deep pine duff character and a deep earthy minerality. Cedar and wet chalkboard linger through the finish with raspberries and raspberry leaf. Gorgeous acidity and very fine grained powdery tannins. 13% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $28
click to buy.
2011 MORIC “Reserve” Blaufränkisch, Burgenland, Austria
Medium to dark garnet in the glass, this barrel sample smells of raspberries and wet stones and dried flowers. In the mouth, the wine has a wonderful spiciness with notes of black pepper that underlie flavors of wet stone and rainwater that seem merely scented with fresh raspberries and crushed herbs. Faint, powdery tannins coat the mouth and seem to tighten slightly on the palate as bright airy herbs and wet earth sail through a long finish. 13.5% alcohol. Score: between 9.5 and 10. Cost: $50. click to buy.
2011 MORIC “Neckenmarkt” Blaufränkisch, Burgenland, Austria
Dark garnet in color, this wine smells of forest floor, raspberries and wet earth. In the mouth deep raspberry and wet earth flavors are scented with dried flowers and a bright mixed citrus zest aroma. Fantastic acidity and athletic tannins drive redcurrant tanginess through a long, earthy finish. 13.5% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $115. click to buy.
2011 MORIC “Lutzmannsburg Alte Reben” Blaufränkisch, Burgenland, Austria
Dark garnet in color, this wine smells of juniper berries, and raspberries and loamy soil. In the mouth the wine has an incredible salty mineral tang to it as redcurrant, raspberry and cherry flavors vibrate with electric acidity. Powdery muscular tannins don’t exert their power fully on the palate, seeming instead to sit coiled at the ready while the wine’s redcurrant and rosehip tanginess belts a soprano aria through a long finish. Utterly,fantastically outstanding. 13.5% alcohol. Score: pretty much a perfect 10. Cost: $130.
2013 MORIC “Barrel Sample – Hausmarke” White Blend, Leithaberg, Burgenland, Austria
Light yellow gold in the glass, this barrel sample smells of lemon oil, bee pollen, and wet stones with a hint of struck match. In the mouth, lovely lemon and golden apples mix with exotic citrus and wet stones. A blend of 80% Grüner Veltliner and 20% Chardonnay. Score: between 9 and 9.5.
2013 MORIC “Barrel Sample – Müllendorf” Grüner Veltliner, Burgenland, Austria
Light yellow gold in color, this barrel sample smells intensely mineral with high notes of lemon oil, chamomile, and white flowers. In the mouth, the wine has an incredible precision with long bright lemon oil, white peach, and meyer lemon neon brightness. Silky, with incredible acidity and deep minerality, this wine has a remarkably long finish. Score: around 9.5.
2013 MORIC “Barrel Sample – Sankt Gyorg” Grüner Veltliner, Burgenland, Austria
Light yellow-gold in the glass, this barrel sample smells of chamomile and wet stones, fennel pollen, and lemon oil. In the mouth, electric neon lemon oil shimmers and crackles on the palate with fantastic minerality and great length. Lemon pith, wet stones, and chamomile linger in the finish. Score: around 9.5.
2012 MORIC “Barrel Sample – Reserve” Blaufränkisch, Burgenland, Austria
Medium to dark garnet in color, this barrel sample smells of crushed juniper boughs and berries layered over red berries and wet earth. In the mouth the wine has an incredible weightlessness to it that takes the breath away. Gorgeous ethereal flavors of raspberries, cherries, and dried flowers seem embedded in a crystalline minerality that shimmers with the crispness of a morning after a snowfall. Incredible acidity and amazing length. Powdery tannins dust the mouth. Likely 13.5% alcohol. Score: between 9.5 and 10.
2012 MORIC “Barrel Sample – Neckenmarkt” Blaufränkisch, Burgenland, Austria
Medium to dark garnet in color, this barrel sample smells of wet stones and the sawdust of exotic wood layered over redcurrant, raspberry and cherry. In the mouth cherry, raspberry and a hint of cassis is shot through with chalky minerality and scents of dried flowers and wet earth. Gorgeous supple tannins drape the palate and flex athletically to support the brilliant fruit of the wine, which is driven to great heights by fantastic acidity. No matter what the heights of the fruit, however, it is anchored to the earth with wet soil and black tea that linger in the finish. Outstanding. Likely 13.5% alcohol. Score: around 9.5.
2012 MORIC “Barrel Sample – Lutzmannsburg Alte Reben” Blaufränkisch, Burgenland, Austria
Medium to dark garnet in the glass, this barrel sample smells of raspberry and redcurrant mixed with garrigue and wet stones. In the mouth the wine has a vibrant intensity that thrums with bright raspberries and dried flowers. Fantastic acidity brings with it a citrus zest or citrus oil. Deep stony minerality lingers with deep earthy resonance. Fantastic depth and breadth and an incredibly long finish scented with cedar and thyme. These are 80 to 110 year old vines. The tannins have a fleecy quality. Score: between 9.5 and 10.