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In Search of Excellence in Blaufrankisch: The Moric Project


“Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius – and a lot of courage – to move in the opposite direction.” Albert Einstein

For over a decade, winemaker Roland Velich made an intense study of the red wines from France’s Burgundy region with the explicit goal of finding “that thing”, as he puts it, that a wine must possess in order to achieve greatness.

“I embarked on a quest for excellence in wine, to learn about it and to satisfy my curiosity about the subject in general.”

Roots

Burgenland as a winemaking region is marked not by an Austrian history, but by an Hungarian one. “Less than a hundred years ago” Roland tells us, “wines from this region were seen as imported wines by people in Vienna.”
Moric, the Hungarian spelling of the name Moritz, was chosen as the name for the winery, but also as a tribute to the Hungarian roots of the Burgenland region.

 When Roland Velich talks about the Moric project, it becomes apparent that he is a man of deep running beliefs. His philosophy and his vision are built upon principles which reach back into his earliest childhood spent as the son of the famous Velich winemaking family in the village of Apetlon.

“Austria is a cool climate wine region. Its wines, like those of the Burgundy, are therefore wines of finesse, structure and depth. But what did the Burgenland do?” Roland asks: “They went the other way, very much like most other European cool climates, namely the Piedmont or the Rhone Valley, and tried to produce wines that are opulent, big and easily accessible. In this attempt to satisfy the masses, they denied their own strength, deceived their own beliefs, and ultimately lost their appeal.”

To bring excellence into the bottle Roland needed perfect conditions: a puzzle of varietal, soil, climate and vinification with each piece inextricably interlocked and necessary to complete the picture.

Varietal

Blaufrankisch

In the Burgenland region, the Blaufrankisch grape (known as Lemberger in Washington State and as Kekfrankos in Hungary) is the most prevalent red wine varietal, comprising 80% of the total red vines planted.

“Blaufrankisch” Roland says, “is grown here for a reason. As far as authenticity goes, to use an often abused term, this is the red grape that expresses it for our region, the Burgenland.”

The Blaufrankisch varietal is known for its ability to transport the taste of the soil it grows in particularly well. For this reason it is hard to pin down its characteristics; just as the Burgenland region has many varying micro climates, it brings forth as many different Blaufrankisch characters.

Still, there is a basic character to every varietal and Roland describes Blaufrankisch this way:

“If you have to describe it to someone who has never had Blaufrankisch, you could put it into the middle of the triangle of spicy Syrah of the Northern Rhone, tannic Nebbiolo of the Piedmont, and the soft silky Pinot Noir of the Burgundy. But Blaufrankisch really is very much its own varietal with a very specific character and ancient roots. On a more general level, Blaufrankisch is a finely structured, spicy red wine with good acidity and tannins and loads of character.”

Experience tells us that Blaufrankisch has great aging potential. Its upper limits, however, are uncharted territory, and Roland Velich’s Moric wines are the pioneers. As such, Roland had to make an educated guess when he picked this varietal, and he chose to be led by the centuries of experience the region had to offer:

“To understand a wine region and its wines, it is a good idea to look back in history; to talk to the elders and see why they did what they did.”

Roland stresses that when you think about how our ancestors grew their wines you realize that they were practicing bio-dynamic farming all along. Not as the new marketing fad, but because they had to. Understanding their environment, watching it and reacting with natural means, became a matter of survival. Besides, he adds, the distractions of modern life did not exist and people had time to listen to nature and to work with it.

 Roland Velich makes a good point. To assume that modern winemaking techniques like the Lenz Moser Hochkultur (the most commonly used technique of training the wines in Austria) will create better wines than the techniques used in the preceding centuries is short-sighted at best. These techniques were developed to increase yields, simplify harvest and accommodate tractors, but not with the goal of upping the quality of the final product.

When visiting the Burgundy region, Roland was fascinated by the winemaking traditions of the region. “You see vineyards with up to 12,000 vines per hectare. Every inch of the region is planted with wine. It’s fantastic.”

Terroir

Roland found the conditions he was looking for in Neckenmarkt and Lutzmannsburg, about an hour and a half from his former home in Apetlon. Here, in a lesser known subregion of the Burgenland, where old vines were preserved from the clearing that occurred with modernization, Roland secured Blaufrankisch vineyards that are a picture of the past: up to 8000 vines per hectare (as compared to today’s standard of roughly 3000), trained on only a wooden stake or not at all, stand in close proximity of one another with just a foot and a half of distance between them. Their ages range from 40 to 85 in Neckenmarkt and from 55 to 110 in Lutzmannsburg. Tiny berries, loosely stuck to one of just a few grape clusters per vine, allow for hyper concentration.

With a yield of just 200 to 1500 liters per hectare it is apparent that Roland Velich’s quest for quality is without mercy.

“Lenz Moser Hochkultur is bad for Blaufrankisch. This varietal requires close and tight vines, resulting in lower yields per vine but higher overall yield per hectar. This is crucial if you want to work this way.”

 Neckenmarkt, with its vineyards descending from the Ă–denburger Mountains, profits from fresh forest air flowing down upon the old vines at night, cooling them from the heat of the day and adding the spice that characterizes wines from this village. The soil is a mixture of schist, loam and maritime sediments in form of chalk from shells that were left here by an ocean thousands of years ago. The result is a very spicy, almost crunchy wine that features cool fruit aromas and incredible depth that is beautifully balanced while clearly hinting at an even greater future with some age in the bottle.

Lutzmannsburg, on the other hand, with its even older vines of up to 110 years of age, sits on a warm plateau that hardly ever finds a moment of cooling. The soil a mix of loam and loess on top of a volcanic layer beneath that retains heat as well as the water, creating a wine that is almost contrary to the style of the Neckenmarkter in that it is smoother, silkier, riper and warmer in its character, with a spicy terroir note.

In 2003 the entire harvest of Alte Reben (“old vine”) Lutzmannsburg was lost to rot after fog had moved in for just 48 hours. “I took one look at it and knew it was over. I would not want to work with grapes that are compromised like that. I would rather not have any wine for that year. You have to roll with the punches when you work with mother nature.”

Vinification

 For Roland Velich, vinification means leaving the wine to itself and keeping interference to an absolute minimum. It begins with relying on the natural yeasts of the grape to start and finish fermentation. This process, known as spontaneous fermentation, requires meticulous work in the vineyard and avoidance of pesticides and herbicides so as to preserve the natural yeast stems in the grapes. “The grape carries all the information it needs to become a great wine. It is my job not to destroy that.”
Next the Moric sits in large neutral oak on its leese for at least one year, going through malolactic fermentation when it is ready to do so. “While I was in Burgundy I would visit wineries in May and see wines that where done with malolactic, while at the next winery malolactic fermentation was just starting. That’s how it has to be: a natural process that the wine starts, not the vintner.”

Roland Velich’s use of oak is consequently also reduced to a minimum, which he sees as beneficial. In the 2003 vintage most of wine aged in large neutral oak while a few Slovanian and French barrique barrels were added. In subsequent vintages Roland wants to further reduce the use of oak and bring the fruit even more into the foreground.

The resulting wines are a testament to Roland Velich’s relentless pursuit of quality, and only time in the cellar will tell where his efforts have taken him. “It takes a really good palate to recognize the potential of my wines.” he adds. “I noticed that after the first few reviews. You need someone who has a lot of experience with great wines, ideally with younger Burgundies. I think David Schildknecht will recognize my wines potential.”

That was in 2005. In 2006 Schildknecht first tasted Roland Velich’s wine for the Wine Advocate and rewarded it with the top score ever achieved.

EXTERNAL LINKS:

Vinography’s review of Moric wines.

 

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