“I am not a modern winemaker,” says Rudi Pichler, as we walk through his compact, and yes, very modern winery in the little village of Wosendorf within view of the Wachau river in Austria. What little hair he has left on his head is closely cropped, emphasizing the broad, deeply lined expanse of his forehead that frames a genial, even cherubic face animated with enthusiasm.
“If I were a modern winemaker,” he continues, “I would be whole cluster pressing, and doing all sorts of stuff to make nosy wines. That is not my job. It is much more important that you can feel the grape, and you can feel the soil. This is the most important thing to me.”
Pichler, as one of the most well known and celebrated producers in the Wachau, has, in fact, been labeled a modernist by some, but that faintly derogatory label usually accompanies extremely ripe wines, a style that Pichler eschews.
“I have a purist kind of line,” explains Pichler, “I don’t like sugar, I don’t like botrytis [the “noble rot” that concentrates sugar and flavors in the wine] and I don’t like long lees contact. I don’t like analysis, either. The most important thing is that the grapes have to be in balance. When the wine is in balance, you don’t have to make it. You’re not a winemaker just a caretaker. I just take care of them.”
While his winery may be modern, Pichler takes a simple, and very traditional approach to his winemaking. It’s an approach born of experience and intuition.
Like many Austrian winemakers, Pichler grew up on his family farm in the village of Wosendorf, living in a house that his family has owned since 1884.
“We recently learned some more of the family history,” says Pichler, “we found that my Great, Great, Great, Great Grandfather was living in Weisskirchen, and in 1700 he married, and their son Jacob Pichler came to Wosendorf in 1731, and my family has been living here ever since.”
Pichler was born in 1964, when the family was still farming a mixed set of crops and livestock, in addition to grapes.
“I can still remember as a child that we had chickens,” recalls Pichler, “but I can’t tell you exactly when. I definitely remember being told to go get the milk from the cow in the morning, when I was six years old.”
“I grew up in the cellar, and in the vineyard,” continues Pichler. “We always had to work for dad in the winery. When I was in high school I would come home to work every day after learning French and English and learn from my father in the winery. It was the 80s and it wasn’t clear at all that you could make a living from a small winery and feed a family. My father’s family was always quite poor. My dad got his first pair of shoes at the age of 15. This was not the golden age at that time.”
Like many children of winemakers, Pichler was encouraged to go abroad and see how winemaking was done elsewhere. In 1989, at the age of 25, he took a trip to Napa to work the harvest at Walter Schug winery.
“We worked at night in the cellar, and during the day I visited 45 wineries in the three weeks that I was there. At this point there were a few famous winemakers in the Wachau, but getting to know the winemakers and the winery owners in Napa it was like another world. This younger generation in Austria, they have all been out to other places, but back then it was like seeing a totally different world, with new ideas and new thinking. One of the things we had to learn in the 80s was about community, as winemakers. This was one of the lessons I took from Napa. The other thing I saw was that you had to be enthusiastic and do your job 100%. It is both fun and pragmatic.”
Following that trip, Pichler came home believing it was possible to earn a living with winemaking, and was finally handed the reigns by his father. “That was the first vintage under my rules,” remembers Pichler. “If I do something, I do it 100%. I knew what to do in the vineyard. You don’t need winemaking school, you only need experience. When you live it, you don’t need school. I grew up with this job. This was my philosophy built up over time.”
Pichler likes to say that he didn’t so much change the way his family made wine as much as change his own thinking about it.
“In former times, great wines ‘happened’ if you made decisions in a good way. Now it is much more deliberate. Now there are 2000 decisions per year. It is all planned out, and we plan things that cannot be changed so quickly. I doubled the cost of work for our green harvest, for instance. We are more flexible, and more intense with what we do in the vineyard. In the cellar, nothing is really different. It just has to be clean.”
Over the years Pichler has in fact made some very deliberate changes, from the complete absence in his new cellar of drain channels, a very typical feature in modern operations — (“Ah you noticed?” he says, “We don’t spray things out, we get down and clean them with a toothbrush.”) — to his decision in 2012 to crush only full clusters grapes by foot for all his wines.
Today, instead of the 9 acres that his family owned when he took over the winery, Pichler farms 37 acres of vines mostly in the cooler western end of the 15 kilometer-long Wachau growing region, from the fractured Gneiss of Kollmütz, to the loess dusted compact Gneiss of Hochrain to the highest concentration of limestone in the region found in the vineyard known as Achleithen. He places great value on older vines, holding on to them as long as possible, which means that most of his plants are more than 60 years old. In a good year, he’ll produce 8000 cases of wine, or in a tough year, as few as 4000.
Like most producers in the region, he makes mostly Grüner Veltliner and Riesling, but the grape is less important to him than the site. “In the end,” he says, “the soil expression is so strong, that after the vines have aged for more than 10 years, you can’t tell the difference between Grüner and Riesling.”
Perhaps he is speaking in terms other than flavor, because his Grüner Veltliners have an incredible quince and Asian pear juiciness layered with deep minerality and herbal overtones, while the Rieslings crackle with citrus and green apple crystalline brightness.
Pichler makes somewhere between 5 and 7 passes through the vineyards to harvest grapes at the peak of ripeness. His many small vineyard sites and sections of vineyard ripen at different times, with north-facing slopes and south-facing slopes varying as much as six to seven weeks between pick dates.
He brings the grapes into his small winery and crushes the whole clusters by foot, letting the grapes have between 3 and 36 hours of maceration on the skins before fermentation.
“I believe the skin is a very important factor in wine,” says Pichler emphatically. “The skin has information about the specific place where it is from. I like to have some positive tannins from the skins.”
Pichler ferments at relatively warmer temperatures than his neighbors, and then ages the wines for only a short time on their fine lees (sediments left over from the fermentation) before bottling.
Pichler’s wines have a purity to them that can take the breath away, a quality that unites many of the best wines made in the Wachau, among which Pichler’s wines must certainly be counted. Despite a significant amount of commercial success and accolades, Pichler has no intention of resting on his laurels.
“I’m very self critical,” says Pichler. “I was very good in Latin in school, and also philosophy. If you’re good in Latin, you’re a good analyst, good with strategy. When I set a goal for me I achieve it. For me the first goal was, I know Wachau wines can be world famous and so I will make those kinds of wine, and then I can feed my family. At one point I thought I was 90% of the way there. I thought maybe I needed two years to get the last 10%, or that’s what I thought at the time.”
“But then I can compare this with a man who is swimming to an island in the sea. This is the first 100% once you’ve swum to the island. There are two kinds of people. The one who lays on the beach of that island and is happy with his life. The second man is standing up and seeing the next island and the next island after that. You always have to swim. If you lay down on the beach you cannot improve.”
2013 Rudi Pichler Grüner Veltliner Federspiel, Wachau, Austria
Palest greenish gold in the glass, this wine smells of green apple and wet stones with a hint of linalool. In the mouth, Asian pears and green apples have a bright crispy juiciness thanks to excellent acidity. Zingy with a lime zest and green apple skin finish that lingers for a long time. Made from a selection of 22 vineyards. 12.5% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $29. click to buy.
2013 Rudi Pichler “Terassen” Grüner Veltliner Smaragd, Wachau, Austria
Palest gold in the glass, this wine smells of white flowers, bright citrus and wet stones. In the mouth the wine has an incredible electric lemon brightness that snaps you to attention and makes your taste buds water. Incredible acidity makes lemon pith, lemon zest, and mandarin juice come alive in the mouth. Made from many small terraced vineyards, across more than 50 different vineyard plots. 13.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $40. click to buy.
2013 Rudi Pichler “Kollmütz” Grüner Veltliner Smaragd, Wachau, Austria
Pale gold in color, this wine smells of quince paste, lemongrass, and warm bread. In the mouth, intense quince and Asian pear skin flavors have a bright zing to them, thanks to excellent acidity. There’s a faint bubblegum note to the wine, which, to put into terms that might be more appealing to a potential taster is a light berrylike quality. A lemongrass and white pepper spiciness lingers through the finish. Deeply mineral. 13.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $75. click to buy.
2013 Rudi Pichler “Hochrain” Grüner Veltliner Smaragd, Wachau, Austria
Pale gold in color, this wine smells of green apple, Fuji apple, and Asian pears. In the mouth bright and juicy apple and pear flavors are tinged with a slight lemongrass spiciness and welded to a deep wet stone minerality. The strong, dominant flavor is green apple. A faint tannic grip accompanies flavors of pear skin and a faint herbal note that lingers into the finish. 14% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $66. click to buy.
2013 Rudi Pichler “Achleithen” Grüner Veltliner Smaragd, Wachau, Austria
Pale gold in color, this wine smells of pear and white flowers. In the mouth cool and stony flavors of Asian pear have a deep crystalline quality to them and a faint white floral top note. Brilliant acidity carries through the wine, and makes for a long and piquant finish, which incorporates notes of citrus pith and bergamot. 14% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $98. click to buy.
2013 Rudi Pichler “Kollmütz” Weissburgunder Smaragd, Wachau, Austria
Pale gold in the glass, this wine smells of fresh pears and Fuji apples. In the mouth, the wine is juicy and bright, with honeysuckle and Asian pear mixing with a faint lemony character. Juicy and incredibly well balanced, this is an irresistible mouthful. Made from 45 to 50 year-old vines. 13.5% alcohol. 100% Pinot Blanc. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $45. click to buy.
As an explanation of the next wine Pichler offers, “Roter Veltliner I got in 1991. It might be the only Red Veltliner in the Wachau. This is the only wine where I allow Botrytis because, well, you have it no matter what you do. But if you make it right, you get a good wine.”
2013 Rudi Pichler Roter Veltliner Smaragd, Wachau, Austria
Pale gold in the glass, this wine smells of linalool and white flowers. In the mouth, white floral flavors mix with exotic citrus and pink grapefruit pith. Quite juicy and bright with fantastic acidity and a stony character that is totally delicious. There’s a faint floral sweetness that lingers in the finish along with a salty lemon zest sourness. Crushed by foot without destemming, and incredibly with 50% of the berries affected by botrytis, which you can’t really taste in the wine at all (that’s the incredible part). The best Roter Veltliner I’ve ever had. 14% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $??.
2013 Rudi Pichler Riesling Federspiel, Wachau, Austria
Palest gold in color, this wine smells of linalool and Asian pears. In the mouth, lemon and Asian pear flavors have a bright juiciness to them and a cool silkiness. 12% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $29. click to buy.
2013 Rudi Pichler “Terassen” Riesling Smaragd, Wachau, Austria
Palest gold in the glass, this wine smells of slightly flinty bergamot and other exotic citrus mixed with pear and wet stones. In the mouth, gorgeous exotic citrus flavors retain a bit of the smokiness of the nose with a deep stony minerality. Juicy pink grapefruit lingers in the finish. 12.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $38. click to buy.
2013 Rudi Pichler “Steinriegl” Riesling Smaragd, Wachau, Austria
Pale gold in color, this wine smells of crisp wet chalkboard and the barest scent of lemon and grapefruit pith. In the mouth, the wine is all mineral. Wet stones and wet chalkboard mix with citrus pith and lemon oil for an incredibly bright and crushed-rock-driven body. The fruit really only shows up in the finish, where pink grapefruit reigns supreme. Grown in a vineyard near Weissenkirchen on the highest percentage of limestone in the Wachau. 12.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $??.
2013 Rudi Pichler “Kirchweg” Riesling Smaragd, Wachau, Austria
Pale gold in the glass, this wine smells of slightly flinty wet stones, citrus, and the faintest hint of white flowers. In the mouth the wine is powerfully stony, with clear, crystalline flavors of white flowers and unripe pear. Clean and crisp, with a long airy finish, this wine has a liquid stone quality that is quite remarkable. Good saline notes as well. Phenomenal acidity. 12.5% alcohol Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $62. click to buy.
2013 Rudi Pichler “Hochrain” Riesling Smaragd, Wachau, Austria
Pale gold in color this wine smells of linalool and Asian pear. On the palate, a very saline pink grapefruit and citrus pith core makes the mouth water. Deep stony minerality and fantastic acidity make this a very delicious mouthful. 13% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $67. click to buy.
2013 Rudi Pichler “Achliethen” Riesling Smaragd, Wachau, Austria
Pale greenish gold in color, this wine smells of slightly flinty green apple and white flowers. In the mouth, apple and pear mix with lime and a nice kelpy saline quality that makes for a mouthwatering package of fruit and crushed stone. There’s a light spiciness of white pepper on the finish along with that saline note that lingers for a long time. 13% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $105. click to buy.
2008 Rudi Pichler “Kollmütz” Grüner Veltliner Smaragd, Wachau, Austria
Light gold in the glass, this wine smells of intense baked apples and roasted nuts. In the mouth the wine tastes nothing like you’d expect it to from the richness of its aroma. On the tongue a deep stony quality pervades, with flavors of roasted cashews and other nuts faintly scenting a wet stone and citrus zest backbone. Not austere, but certainly stark and very mineral driven. Unusually so for an older wine, but this was a very, very cold year in which 80% of the grapes were still on the vines in early November. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $76. click to buy.
1997 Rudi Pichler “Hochrain” Grüner Veltliner Smaragd, Wachau, Austria
Light gold in the glass, this wine smells of wintersweet blossoms and a hint of paraffin and chamomile. In the mouth incredible wintersweet florality mixes with a crystalline minerality that is jaw-dropping. Gorgeous acidity and balance, with a faint savory bee pollen quality lingering for ages through the finish. Utterly compelling, deep and resonant, like the gong in a mountain monastery reverberating through the entire silent winter valley. Score: between 9.5 and 10. Cost: n/a.
About the next wine, Pichler explains, “1996 was the most difficult vintage I ever had. It was a late harvest, and I did this wine because my twins were born and I saw that it would be difficult year and so I cut off about 70% of the grapes. I left only two or three bunches per vine to have special wine for my children. Sophie graduated two days ago from high school, so we opened one bottle of her wine. I am happy to have you taste it.”
1996 Rudi Pichler “Kollmütz” Grüner Veltliner Auslese, Wachau, Austria
Medium yellow-gold in the glass, this wine smells of roasted nuts and marmalade, but distinctly savory, rather than sweet. In the mouth, the wine has a remarkable brightness, an incredible sour lemon and chamomile explosion on the palate. Gorgeously silky, this wine also offers a savory mineral and wet chalkboard character that lingers through the finish with a light tannic grip. Unusual and remarkable. 14% alcohol, 12 grams residual sugar, and 10 grams of acidity. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: n/a