Many card-carrying wine geeks have a conflicted relationship with the idea of big business – and specifically large wineries. The romantic ideal favours David’s artisanal family grower over Goliath’s corporate might. Small is beautiful, large is to be distrusted and probably just churns out plonk sold in supermarkets.
If only it were always so simple. Gernot & Heike Heinrich have turned the notion on its head. Since they took over the Heinrich family winery in 1990, they’ve expanded its production up to around half a million bottles a year – a significant size for an Austrian winery, even if it would probably qualify as a garagiste in Bordeaux – whilst converting much of the estate to biodynamics, and moving more and more to a minimal-intervention methodology.
As covered in detail by Anne Krebiehl here, the move to biodynamics and more ‘natural’ winemaking coincidentally fostered enthusiasm for orange wines. From being primarily a red wine producer, Heinrich has gradually expanded its range of whites – and notably in the last few years, skin contact whites AKA orange wines.
Graue Freyheit 2016 is the latest bottled vintage of a wine that’s been continuously evolving for the last decade. The fruit comes from a vineyard currently in conversion to biodynamics. Since 2013, it has been made with 2-3 weeks of skin contact during fermentation. Since 2015, no sulphur is added at any stage, and the wine is sold in a clay bottle – which Gernot feels is superior for ageing.
This is natural winemaking with laserlike precision and care, nothing lazy, clumsy or dirty. 40% of the blend is Pinot Grigio, which has lent the wine a telltale pink hue. The rest is Chardonnay and Pinot Blanc. Together, this Burgundian trio wafts out of the glass as peppery strawberries with a subtle hint of balsamic vinegar (note for volatile-haters: it blows off quickly, no glue-sniffing required). The fruit feels juicy and expressive, the tannins are understated but important for their nutty, savoury backbone. For anyone whose idea of orange wine is something brutal, tannic and rustic, this might just be a revelation – it’s seductive, balanced and all too easy to empty the bottle. That’s a notable disadvantage of the clay container – it’s close to impossible to see how much is left!
The Freyheit skin-contact range keeps expanding, and as of 2017 includes a Muscat and a Roter Traminer. Also new from 2017 is the move to amphorae to ferment and age many of the wines. Gernot isn’t one to do things by halves: after initial experiments with five amphorae in 2017, a further 66 were ordered for the 2018 vintage. “I’m really convinced that this is the perfect way to ferment white and red, and to age wines too”, he concludes, adding “I can imagine that we’ll do the majority of our Pinot Noir and Blaufränkisch also in amphora, in the future”.
The winery has also solved the age-old problem of how to clean amphorae efficiently. Unlike Georgian cellars, where qvevris are buried in the ground, Heinrich’s amphorae are mounted in wooden frames, enabling them to be upended with a help of a fork-lift truck and then hosed out with pressurised water. They’re also thicker than qvevris, which often shatter if subjected to the same treatment. It’s a good example of how a large winery can innovate, within the context of high-quality wine produced in a sustainable, ‘hands-off’ fashion.
Hardline naturalistas might protest that wineries like Heinrich are just jumping on the natural/no-sulphur/clay bandwagon or embracing the fashion du jour. Gernot roundly rejects the idea: “It’s not about the hype for us. It’s just a better way to produce wine.”
Heinrich’s Graue Freyheit has good availability in mainland Europe and the US, but isn’t yet available in the UK. Check wine-searcher for more details.