The Maestro. A Conversation with Winemaker Ernst Triebaumer
Updated: Jul 29, 2020
Ernst Triebaumer put Austrian red wine back on the world map in 1988 when his single vineyard Ried Mariental Blaufränkisch 1986 won first prize in a blind tasting in Vienna against 50 other Austrian red wines. It marked the first time a Blaufränkisch had received a perfect score, outperforming both native and international varieties handily. The event was held by famed Zurich-based VINUM wine magazine who stacked the jury with hard-nosed wine critics from Germany, Switzerland and even Austria. Back in 1988, however, life was far from easy for winemakers in Austria, especially those from Rust. The glycol scandal of 1985 tore a devastating hole right through the wine industry, especially in Burgenland where the majority of red wine was made. More calamitous was the fact that winemakers from Neusiedlersee (just across the lake from Rust) and a few other regions were found guilty of adulterating their wines with diethylene glycol before exporting to Germany. At the time, almost all Austrian red wines were labelled with "Rust-Neusiedlersee" as the place of origin; the town of Rust and its winemakers were dragged down with the guilty even though none of them had been implicated in the practice of thickening their wines with glycol. As Austrian red wine was shunned abroad, there were months and months when Ernst Triebaumer did not sell a single bottle of wine. As the industry reached total collapse, Triebaumer even asked his children to learn new trades - anything other than winemaking - so that they could support themselves in case the winery did not survive. Fast forward three decades and the Triebaumer Ried Marienthal 1986 is a monumental icon. To this day it is still considered to be one of the greatest red wines ever made in Austria. Thirty years after the 1986 Ried Mariental was made, the Triebaumer Ried Mariental 2016 was crowned the wine of the year in 2020 by Gault & Millau. The wine was made by Herbert and Gerhard Triebaumer. Authenticity and integrity define both Ernst Triebaumer and the Triebaumer winery itself - a winery that is now in the remarkably gifted hands of his two sons. This was not destiny, however. Anyone who has tasted success, anyone who has reached the summit of the mountain knows how much you must sacrifice and give to be at the top. Integrity, courage and vision. There can be no compromises. The rest is history, as they say. But this time we have the most beautiful, exquisite expression of Blaufränkisch to keep us company along the way.
When I first met Ernst Triebaumer in 2019, the first thing that appeared in my mind as we shook hands in the cellar was Carlos Kleiber. Carlos was the son of legendary Austrian conductor Erich Kleiber, one of the most influential conductors in Europe before the calamity of WWII engulfed the entire world. He was so infuriated by the Nazi party’s policies that he left Berlin for Argentina in 1935. Carlos Kleiber was the personification of the reclusive genius – shy and withdrawn, he never overtly sought fame, money or the media’s attention (unlike a certain Herbert von Karajan) or even praise. He preferred to immerse himself into his musical scores of Verdi or Schubert, meticulously exploring, questioning, and memorizing every detail, only to then commit himself to countless rehearsals with the orchestra until absolute perfection was attained and audiences could be brought to within a razor’s edge of the music’s most innate, labyrinthine beauty. Anyone who performed under Kleiber soon realised that this was a man of great intellect, passion and integrity. His performances of Beethoven’s 5th and 7th symphonies with the Wiener Philharmoniker are to this day unsurpassed for their sheer beauty and exhilarating tempi. He mesmerized and bewitched audiences the world over; no one was the same after listening to Kleiber conduct. I had the same feeling after drinking Triebaumer’s Ried Mariental 2016 in 2020. Here was something so full of life, bursting with energy and uncompromising confidence that I wasn't sure it was real. Then there was that unforgettable harmony between a dark, almost sultry energy and an unearthly elegance that came from some mysterious place I knew not where. In the Maestro’s hands, we seem to have some of the world’s most beautiful music. I was bewitched. Truth be told, I still am. And I hope I always will be.
The interview was conducted on July 08, 2020 at the Triebaumer winery in Rust. A very special thank you to my wife, Anna, for translating during the interview (no easy task, I can assure you, as we talked about everything under the sun for nearly 4 hours). This would not have been possible without her patience, insight, and wisdom.
Ernst Triebaumer: This was my grandfather’s cellar, on my mother’s side. He migrated to Rust around 1900. On my father’s side, we have been here for much longer, however. Nearly 400 years. The first Triebaumer arrived here as a religious refugee during the Reformation. He was from Wechsel [The Wechsel is a low mountain range in eastern Austria and it forms the easternmost range in the Alps]. My father had to leave and if he did not leave then he would have had to convert to Catholicism. The Habsburgs were very powerful over there. Everyone had to be Catholic. According to an amateur historian I know, most people who had property and land around Wechsel converted to Catholicism. Those who did not have any possessions, those that were independent, decided to emigrate. Many left for Rust because at that time it was Hungary. And the Hungarians - unlike today - took in all the refugees. There were good craftsmen, good farmers. And this is how our first Triebaumer came to Rust. And our grandfather on my mother’s side came to Rust because he wanted to become wealthy and successful. It was well known that people from Rust had earned a lot of money for generations from sales of their sweet wine.
Ernst Triebaumer: At that time (1900) plenty of changes had already happened in the vineyard.Phylloxera arrived in Europe from the US in the 1860s, we know this. Some say that the vines that were taken from America to Europe for research, for experiments, and maybe those vines had phylloxera. Sadly no one knew that the vines had phylloxera. And at first it destroyed the vines in western Europe before coming here. It took 30 to 35 years before it arrived from the west to here in our area. This ignited a carousel of grape varieties. But all vines first had to be destroyed in western Europe. Then they replaced those vines with vines from central and eastern Europe. When the disease arrived in our area, we decided to turn the problem into a solution. In the beginning, one tried to get rid of the disease through chemistry and poison but this is certainly no solution even to this day. I do not believe any pest has ever been eradicated. I am not aware of any such case. We then learned how to graft the vine stock onto American rootstock. So the European vine is placed on the top, just the small tip, and the roots are from American vine stock. This rootstock is one (the American one) that is resistant to phylloxera. With these grafted vines we started over again but people now planted many different grape varieties.
Ernst Triebaumer: Because of the above but also because of other circumstances - mainly political ones – including the First World War – let’s say the last 100 years or so – everything was lost. In the past the people who were buying sweet wines from the Rust were wealthy people, people from the nobility and the court state. These people disappeared or lost much of their wealth during the wars. And for my father, the world looked like a very different place already. Compared to the generation that came before, everything seemed much different. My father was a mature man after the Second World War; he was nearly 40 years old when he returned home from the war. But he returned with the understanding and firm conviction that winemakers will never have nor will they ever find anything better other than Blaufränkisch for our region. Regarding red grape varieties. He saw many places, from northern Germany to North Africa, during the war. And because he was no longer a young man but rather a mature one, he studied what grew where and what worked where. Through this, he came home convinced that no other grape variety other than Blaufränkisch was best for our region.
David Belluz: Was Blaufränkisch common at that time or was there more white wine, Grüner Veltliner, Welschriesling, for instance?
Ernst Triebaumer: No, no. It has always been the most important red grape variety in this wider region. It extended into all of Hungary.
David Belluz: Were different varieties planted together back then or was Blaufränkisch, for example, planted in one vineyard, just Blaufränkisch?
Ernst Triebaumer: There were different theories back then. There were winemakers who deliberately planted varieties together, all mixed together because they thought it would be better for flowering and fertilisation. But my father through his entire working life, he grafted vines, his own vines and he tried to build stronger vines. During the recovery after the devastation from phylloxera, you had to renew and rebuild all the vines. There were classes for further development where mostly young winemakers were learning how to graft and rebuild Vitis vinifera. Not everyone could do it because you had to use very sharp knives and if someone was to cut themselves in the first 15 minutes, well, then they would not dare to use those knives again. But my father was very good at it. To have young vines that are ready and that could be sold. And he also sold these new vines here in our community. That was how he earned an extra income. And you have to think back. Back in those days it was all mixed farming. Everyone had livestock in the barns and also they had their vineyards. Even I had to learn how to milk cows when I was a boy! And I can still do it today.
Anna Belluz: We drank Ried Mariental Blaufränkisch from Feiler-Artinger and MAD last weekend.
Ernst Triebaumer: Those are the competitors when it comes to buying land.
David Belluz: But you have the most land in Ried Mariental, right?
Ernst Triebaumer: I have not yet checked this.
David Belluz: What was your father’s name?
Ernst Triebaumer: Paul.
Ernst Triebaumer: I believe that Blaufränkisch in this region - from Slovakia to Mittelburgenland and even here in Rust - perhaps also including the centre of Neusiedlersee and Mittelburgenland - has always played an important role. Even before phylloxera.
Ernst Triebaumer: Economically-speaking, sweet wines have been the most important wine here in Rust. Sweet wine has never been a big thing in neighbouring areas like Morbisch, Donnerskirchen, or Oggau. Only the people from Rust were specialised in making sweet wine. A little bit in Donnerskirchen ok but mainly in Rust. Ruster people really made a name for themselves with their sweet wine.
Ernst Triebaumer: I have always believed that both wine barrels and wine bottles belong in the wine cellar, underneath, below ground. Nowadays you also see businesses that build new wineries at ground level. Ideally all one level so you can access it all very easily, but this is something we really do not want. We want to use every square metre that we take away from nature, where no more plants can grow to use it in a multi-layered or multi-level way. This way we do not need so many square metres because we would rather use the space in a more concentrated way. And we really do not like everything being made of concrete. It’s the same in every community, I think. Normally you have dozens of international firms coming here, with a big image and lots of money and they want to build here and every mayor obeys them.
David Belluz: Does this also complement your belief that you are making wines that should age and not be drunk immediately, especially your Blaufränkisch? The slow way, the patient way?
Ernst Triebaumer: This is very important to us. We are also specifically known for this in the gastronomy sector here in Austria. For example, in the countryside, restaurants are closed Monday and Tuesday. And on Sunday, only half a bottle will be drunk so it will be closed back up again. I remember there was a time when a hotel manager with his entourage from Tirol came to visit and the chef de rang asked his team, “What comes to mind when you think of Triebaumer?” And a girl said that the wine still goes strongly three days after it was opened. And this is what we are striving for; we do not want something that looks great at the beginning but dies the next day. Or in the most unfortunate case, to fade after two hours of decanting. We have already witnessed this at international tastings with other wines.
Ernst Triebaumer: We have an individual here in Rust who is very wealthy and so he became very interested in wine. And he bought a very super expensive wine. Apparently, there were only 6 bottles of this wine here in Austria. Even with all the money in the world you would be hard pressed to say that you could afford this wine. This is just a story. He then invited wine makers and wine lovers to a tasting. And the expensive wine was the central theme of the gathering. We did not know this, however. The guests had no prior knowledge of this. The whole package was from 15 to 18 wines. And after the 13th bottle, the host became very nervous, shifting in his chair because he was of the opinion that his wine must have already been presented. The super star. And it had already been presented. But it had reached its peak already. All the wines were decanted at the same time. And a few were still firm and angular. But his wine – the super star – had nose-dived; it was the first to fade. And when they presented the wines, the host was terribly disappointed because he really did spend a fortune on it.
Anna Belluz: Which vintage was it?
Ernst Triebaumer: I don’t remember. It was many years ago.
David Belluz: When you started making Blaufränkisch, what did it taste like, let’s say in the 50s or 60s? And when did you first become a winemaker, by the way?
Ernst Triebaumer: The first time I helped out in the cellar was in 1963. Alongside my father. Blaufränkisch back then was slenderer because we had larger harvests. The 60s were generally cooler vintages so more acidity. And the Blaufränkisch was no bestseller because people that wanted to drink red wine wanted to have something more robust. But we always sold it young and fresh because we were a small business with so many difficulties. In the beginning, my wife and I started with just two and a half hectares. That was in 1970. And when our children were getting older, the pressure came to stop selling wines so young and fresh. And for the better wines, to keep at least 60 to 100 bottles in the cellar. This way we could present the wines in a more mature state to someone later on.
David Belluz: Did you try to make wines to celebrate your children’s births?
Ernst Triebaumer: We have a birth wine for our children, yes.
David Belluz: I think it is tradition here in Rust.
Ernst Triebaumer: Sweet wine is certainly the most lasting if you say you want to keep something for centuries. In that case, you go for sweet wine. But as we grew in confidence over the years - after we did malolactic fermentation deliberately and gave the wine time to mature, we could also make dry wines for these special occasions. In cellar management, there are different approaches. The German teachings - where there was no language barrier – these were the first techniques we took on board and adapted or accepted. And this meant everything was to be done very quickly, very cleanly and totally free of contamination. The wines were very young and filtered. Naked. And only later - and Austria was certainly a special case, we were almost as isolated as an island, because there were no contacts with the Mediterranean countries, so the oenological schools or the technical schools and the universities, they only established such contacts in the 1980s and they intensified those contacts, seeking them out deliberately. That is why Austria initially oriented itself towards the German model, but their red wine was virtually unknown.
David Belluz: So no malolactic fermentation back then?
Ernst Triebaumer: It was known before WWII. People said, including my father, when the vines are exploding with growth, then the wine will also be agile in the barrel. This was malolactic fermentation which only happened when the cellar was warm enough, however. Once we became aware of the process, we tried to make sure that new red wines would not get too cold, and then with the accurate temperature, would undergo malolactic fermentation. But first we had to understand this.
David Belluz: So they would just press the grapes, then fermentation, filter, sulphur, bottle?
Ernst Triebaumer: There was the alcoholic fermentation, yes. We had this in open barrels. And we had punch-downs. We had a long stick and in front there was a plate, longer than a metre, and we punched down in intervals of two hours. This took longer at night when we were asleep, to push down the mash to moisten the cap again. But this was the alcoholic fermentation. And after that, when the alcoholic fermentation was finished, then we pressed, and the new wine went into the barrels. And during that time, once we finally understood, we deliberately tried to stop the cellar from getting too cold. Not below 16 degrees Celsius so that by itself, the malolactic fermentation could happen if the temperature was correct.
David Belluz: Very Interesting.
Ernst Triebaumer: This was how things were done back then. But it was only after WWII that people started thinking about how they could re-invent everything. And with the economic boom, many things changed.
David Belluz: When did you start to make Blaufränkisch differently? And why?
Ernst Triebaumer: This is an interesting story that I have told many times before. The person responsible is still alive. I hope he will not curse me for this. He was actually a news journalist, and then he wrote a book about wine, in 1977, or 1979, around that time. Honestly, I don’t even know the exact title of the book anymore. It was a comprehensive piece of work, and he researched everything himself. And he was also here, at my winery, and I let him taste my dry white wine, an array of sweet wines, and then I said to him, from my father’s time red wine is an important topic in our winery. At that time, we even had three red wines. This was unbelievably much for Rust. But my father was so convinced by Blaufränkisch. The journalist then said to me, I am not interested in Austrian red wines. And with that the tasting was over. And afterwards this had an impact on me. Someone writes a wine book, himself an Austrian, and gives me such an answer. And then I tried to understand why Austrian red wine had such a poor image. And it was partially because we were just learning about malolactic fermentation. At that time, it was perhaps the first time we even heard about it, and obviously with all the technical changes brought by the booming economy - for example, an electric press, nutrient-rich fertiliser, wider rows that could accommodate a tractor - all of a sudden we had a very different culture. So I tried to understand why this was not good for red wine.
Ernst Triebaumer: Even more helpful was a remark made by an older colleague of mine from Morbisch where winemakers had even smaller plots of land for growing vines. And over there they were fertilising even more. To get a bigger yield. And he said with all the nitrogen-rich fertiliser they no longer had good Muscat; the red wine was also nothing special. It was thin and sour. I heard him but at this point in the conversation I just moved on. And only later did I think about it. When I returned home from winemaking school I also started using fertilisers. And everything grew, happily. And of course, the quality went down.
Anna Belluz: When was the interview with the wine journalist?
Ernst Triebaumer: Around 1980. Maybe before, because the book was already published by 1979. Or 1977.
David Belluz: Why did you produce a single vineyard Ried Mariental in 1985?
Ernst Triebaumer: Well we also started with Ried Oberer Wald at this time.
Anna Belluz: Why did you not start earlier with Ried Mariental?
Ernst Triebaumer: We bought our first land in Ried Mariental in 1976. We never had anything in Mariental before then. And therefore it was impossible before 1985. The first piece of land that we bought there, in the upper third of the site, had old Blaufränkisch vines but the lower two thirds towards the lake, near the village, had been planted with other varieties.
Anna Belluz: Were there white varieties planted there?
Ernst Triebaumer: He [the individual who sold the land to Triebaumer] was not a full-time, professional winemaker; more a part-time winemaker. He was a schoolteacher and basically, he wanted to make four different wines. He came from a family of farmers, so he was inclined to plant many varieties including Blaufränkisch because it was a big plot of land. Coincidentally, this soil is mostly limestone, so this was a good decision. Further down towards the valley there was Ottonel, Welschriesling, Grüner Veltliner. No Traminer.
David Belluz: Did you already have the idea in mind that Ried Marienthal was the perfect soil for Blaufränkisch? You just needed to buy more land and plant more vines?
Ernst Triebaumer: This was not my initial thought. My first thought was that in order to manage the business economically we had to expand our sites, and the size of our sites. In terms of hectares, we used to be a very small business. And we were never taken into consideration by people who wanted to sell their land. No one thought we would have sufficient potential. We were always overlooked. If you had a line-up of people, for example, 170cm to 190cm tall, you will notice the tallest ones first. And I am only 170cm tall and therefore I was always overlooked. When land was for sale it was normally not offered to someone from Eisenstadt or Donnerskirchen but instead to the people, to the farmers in that community. But fortunately, there were others who thought differently. And with us, they believed in us at least. And therefore, we expanded into neighbouring communities. I became active and I bought land in St. Margarethen and Oggau where the biggest share of Mariental is located.
David Belluz: Do you remember the Vinum tasting in Vienna, and what was your reaction to the wine journalist who said that your Mariental was a great wine.
Ernst Triebaumer: if I understand the question correctly, this was about the wine tasting in the Altwienerhof restaurant in Vienna. The journalist was there, and he organised the tasting. Austrian red wine. And the wine tasting went on and then ended. In the panel, there was one person who said that this is all very well and nice what we have tasted but I know something better. And then the host who was a very spontaneous man called us at 9.30pm and said we have a wine tasting here in Vienna- Austrian red wines - and one person said your wine is supposed to be better than what we just tasted. I don’t remember if it was me or my wife on the phone. And we said yes, of course, very good. He said then jump into your car and get here and I will hold the panellists here. So my wife did precisely that. She drove there, with the bottle of wine. The panellists had already sorted out 50 wines and short-listed the 16 best wines. Roughly this is how I remember it. This is how it is done normally. And our wine was added blind. In the final round. And it won the tasting.
David Belluz: So you must have been very happy.
Ernst Triebaumer: Of course. No one likes to lose. And when you win, you are even happier.
David Belluz: Do you see a difference in how winemakers make wine in Rust, their philosophy of wine making, and let’s say winemakers in Leithaberg, or Mittelburgenland?
Ernst Triebaumer: It’s difficult to answer because everyone has their own mind. Not every winemaker in Rust is the same, not every winemaker in Deutschkreutz or Neckenmarkt is the same. But basically, one can say that the people of Rust, in general, are not very ambitious. There are exceptions, of course, but by and large there is hardly anyone here who really wants to push things.
David Belluz: I ask because in 1995 winemakers started the RWB [Renommierte Weingüter Burgenland] with Anton Kollwentz. So they must have had something or seen something in common. And they wanted to achieve something with their winemaking.
Ernst Triebaumer: Yes but change – this is not something that the people from Rust are known for; here the clocks turn very slowly. We are not the great inventors, or innovators, who take new ideas on board very quickly and implement them. Here in Rust, we are more traditionally minded. Up until recently, and this is the way I see it, everyone was content with what they had and they did not necessarily want to be two steps ahead.
David Belluz: But were there any winemakers in the 90s or even in the 80s like Igler, Gesellman, Pepe Umathum that you talked to and exchanged ideas with or talked to about new ideas? People you admired, and said, hey we can change things together?
Ernst Triebaumer: Truthfully, this is not my greatest strength. My daughter once described me, and I don’t dispute this, as a hermit. I don’t really have the desire to approach people, to exchange ideas with them.
David Belluz: Independent.
Ernst Triebaumer: There was once an aspiration to look outside a bit, to be more worldly. Take the RWB group, for example. John Nittnaus initiated it and he said he got to know a Frenchman and that he could work with us as an advisor or consultant, for our region. He was here, he introduced himself in a restaurant in Eisenstadt, and then we had to make a decision: to tell this individual if we wanted to start collaborating or not. At that time, we had 11 members in the RWG, and 10 people voted in favour of cooperation. And I did not. The word patriot is viewed rather negatively today, but I became a patriot because my parents had to attend school in Hungarian. This area was German-West Hungary back then. My parents were born in 1906 and 1910, respectively. At that time, it was still German-West Hungary, before WWI, and the Hungarians had a very strong, strict educational regime. They said we have to make the German-West Hungarians into good, proper Hungarians. Therefore, they did not employ German-speaking teachers, no native German-speakers either; as a result, my parents could not speak German with their children. And my father - for his whole life - when he counted anything he counted very quietly in Hungarian. And he never mastered German spelling, either. He never learned it. He taught himself a little. He only learned Hungarian in school. However, the advantage was that he always understood the weather forecast on the Hungarian radio broadcast because this was more accurate compared to whatever the Austrians would tell us!
David Belluz: Just to go back a little to 1986, just two questions: How did you make the 1986 Marienthal, and what was the vintage like, the conditions? Sorry, I mean 1985.
Ernst Triebaumer: It was a good vintage. Small harvest which is good for red wine. Not too many clusters on the vine. I was still inspired by the story I told you earlier, about Austrian red wine, and how to improve it. With all the new cultural technology. I then changed the leaf wall management system: I trained it up higher, so you start lower and end higher, as high as you can reach. I did this because Blaufränkisch has quite large gaps between individual leaves. For this you need a long and high foliage so you are not getting too worn out when you are working. At some point, there will be strong winds, and the vine will be broken over the last wire rather than training up. That’s why you need a high wire frame. And I thought about these things, many different things, all the time. I did not want to relive that experience for a second time – the experience of someone else from Austria coming here and telling me he does not want to drink my red wine. This also led to us abandoning the use of nutrient-rich fertilisers, to thinking twice before using our tractor, to being more aware of what the tractor does to the soil, to thinking before doing, and not treating the soil as you would your garden. We were thinking differently because we wanted to improve the quality of the wine and the grapes.
David Belluz: So, a little bit more wild, more natural in the vineyard?
Ernst Triebaumer: Yes, yes. You can put it like that. I coined a term for this, to learn and understand it faster: Gelenkte Verunkrautung or directed weed control. In nature, there is always something that wants to grow. And it is no longer like the times of your grandfather when the grapes were literally hanging at the bottom near the earth, and you could not allow - with those narrow rows, sometimes less than a metre between the rows - weeds to grow very high.
Once one started with the tractors, one always wanted to have the most pristine seedbed, something no one really needed. And this to me no longer seemed reasonable. In the first years when I was sitting in the tractor, I also did it that way. But then I recognised, hello! this is not good for the soil. Because you separate the lower and the upper parts of the soil too much. If there is lots of rain, the looser upper soil will be washed away by the rain. There must be a connection between the upper and lower part of the soil.
Ernst Triebaumer: I am a good listener. I have always tried to understand the motives and reasoning behind my colleagues’ actions, the why. What is the reason behind it? Is there something long-term in it, or is it just for the optics, for the sake of image? Or is there something more. And I just observed what my other colleagues were doing, and drew my own conclusions. I didn’t want to copy them. But to think whether or not this was smart. Do I want to do it this way or do I want something completely different?
In my first few years at school, I believed everything the wine engineer taught us at the school, and of course they also believed everything back then. But they had been infiltrated by the Austrian fertiliser industry. One no longer needed gun powder, in the 1960s, so these companies produced fertiliser instead. If I had not realised this about the fertiliser, and what my older colleagues were saying about their fertiliser and the poor results 55 years ago, then perhaps our Muscat would be gone, and the red wine too.
David Belluz: Just circling back. Was the 1986 vintage much different than the 1985, in Rust?
Ernst Triebaumer: 1986 was a very warm vintage and this worked very well for Blaufränkisch. Excellent ripening. And we gave the 1986 more time in the barrel. The 1985 we bottled very quickly. It was 8 months after the harvest and we were already selling the 1985. But this is much too early for red wine. With the 1986 we took our time; we had more time. We left it in the barrel for 2 years. And that worked better.
David Belluz: Were you using barriques?
Ernst Triebaumer: Barrique is 225 litres. We don’t have that. We never had that. Because I am a patriot. I always go to Franz Stockinger for my barrels. Four generations now and they are still making our barrels. His father did it for my father and his son is making the barrels for my sons. I phoned Franz Stockinger and asked him if he can make a 300-litre barrel. We started with 300-litre barrels when all the other colleagues were so proud to be using barriques, including used barriques, from Chateau XYZ. They were so proud. I could not bring myself to do such a thing.
David Belluz: How many barrels did you start with?
Ernst Triebaumer: Just 2 or 3. One is nothing as the saying goes.
David Belluz: Everything was new?
Ernst Triebaumer: At that time, they were all new.
David Belluz: And do you think – I put it in this context – in Vinaria, the wine magazine Vinaria, they think the ‘86 Mariental was very special because maybe it underwent malolactic fermentation. Do you think this is true?
Ernst Triebaumer: Yes, we did that deliberately. If we succeeded 100%, we don’t know. The wine was not tested, examined. But we created the conditions for it to happen, and it happened, you could hear it, after the alcoholic fermentation, inside the barrel, at around room temperature (17 degrees Celsius), it developed and underwent malolactic. You can hear it. You can put your ear near the barrel, and you can hear it crackling very quietly. The bubbles from the carbon dioxide are moving up, and breaking at the surface.
David Belluz: So, no temperature control back then?
Ernst Triebaumer: Temperature control is a good keyword. Because you had to first realise that it was necessary. Before we didn’t need it because we didn’t have such large quantities. Below 2000 litres, not so important that the critical temperature would exceed 34 degrees Celsius. When the temperature would be dangerous for the yeast. But when you have containers with 5000 or 8000 litres or I don’t know how many thousands of litres, it’s a huge bloc and it can’t get rid of the heat, can’t push it outside the tank. And then it would get too hot and the fermentation stops. But you had to realise and understand all of this first.
David Belluz: And you knew this at that time?
Ernst Triebaumer: Yes, but I didn’t come up with all of this by myself. I read technical magazines, and I spoke with my colleagues.
David Belluz: What temperature do you like to ferment the Blaufränkisch?
Ernst Triebaumer: In a cooler vintage, it should be around 30 degrees Celsius. And in a warmer vintage, 33 degrees Celsius.
Ernst Triebaumer: Red wine develops best if you let it sit in a barrel for some time. That’s why we have those big wooden barrels. If we have a large yield, and we want to store it for longer, having these large barrels is ideal for storage. With a small barrel, you always have oxygen, coming in from the outside, and if you leave wine in the small barrel for 18 months or even 24 months, it will go past its peak.
David Belluz: You have a Blaufränkisch called Maulwurf….
Ernst Triebaumer: My nickname is Maulwurf (mole).
David Belluz: Really? I think we know why! For you as a winemaker, how do you want your Blaufränkisch to taste?
Ernst Triebaumer: So, Blaufränkisch should be lively, so it needs acidity. And my father had already said, before the time of malolactic fermentation, that Blaufränkisch naturally has higher acidity, much more than Zweigelt. In the ‘60s, there were the young cellar masters, from the Klosterneuburg School and other schools who made their wines to be rounder. To correct the acid levels. To make the wines more palate friendly. And my father said, yes, I know, the people like to drink that more, but we cannot do this, and we do not want to do this because it no longer tastes like a Blaufränkisch but instead it tastes like a caricature of Blaufränkisch.
Ernst Triebaumer: So, for someone who drinks Coca Cola six days a week, for this same person Blaufränkisch will always be too acidic.
Ernst Triebaumer: What you can taste as spiciness on the palate, this will become rounder the longer you store it. But if you change it before bottling, for the Coca Cola spoiled palate, let's say, you will reduce the wine’s life expectancy. And that is the wine that after only one hour in the decanter fades, can no longer hold itself.
David Belluz: How long does Blaufränkisch age? 20 years, 30 years
Ernst Triebaumer: Yes, 30, 40 years provided you have good storage conditions. Between 8 and 18 degrees Celsius, I tell the customers that buy wine directly from me and want to store it, to store it in those temperatures.
Anna Belluz: What vintages do we have now for the tasting?
Ernst Triebaumer: I will have to try and read what Gerhard prepared for us. It is a 1997, Mariental.
David Belluz: A good vintage?
Ernst Triebaumer: Yes, yes. Because Rust has three colours (sweet, white and red), when you judge a vintage, you look at the sweet wines, white wines and red wines. And 1993 and 1997 I remember were vintages where all three wines were ideal. If you take 1986, for example, it was too warm for the dry white wines. It was much too warm for Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and so on. At a very early stage, the grapes were already over-ripe. In warm vintages, it can be that the white wines have a lot of tannin. So, they are not very elegant. The mouthfeel is heavy, very substantial, but it is not dancing, floating. It is anything but an elegant ballet.
Ernst Triebaumer: On the other hand, 1995 was a big year for sweet wine. 1996 for sweet wine I cannot recall. I have a memory gap here. ‘97 as I said before was a vintage that was ideal for all three wines. But I think 96 was a cool, wet autumn. Not good for the red wine.
David Belluz: I’m curious to know, your father sounds really very interesting. What was your father like?
Ernst Triebaumer: Yes, he was. We had a good relationship. We had a good relationship because my father was 40 years older than me. When I was in my wild years, he was already gifted with mature wisdom.
David Belluz: But I think he was a very nice man, intelligent, honest.
Ernst Triebaumer: He was a thoughtful, pensive man. He was not a great innovator. But in principle exactly what you would expect from a Ruster. Slow and thoughtful.
David Belluz: And your mother?
Ernst Triebaumer: My mother was very ambitious. Because her father was the one who came to Rust to become rich. Her brothers were very successful, economically. And that of course also always spurred her onwards. She was naturally ambitious. She was not very tall, however. Perhaps a bit taller than 160cm. But she always had a big presence. And from these two extremes you have me!
David Belluz: Do you have a brother?
Ernst Triebaumer: My brother is no longer alive. He was three years older than me. He was diagnosed with cancer twice, operated on, but then he ended the whole thing himself. We take this into account, even in our life planning. That you can have bad harvests. That with every harvest, there can be a wine that is not the way you thought it would be. Maybe it is weaker or not as good as you’d like. And that is to be accepted. For example, we are not afraid to say we have a bad vintage, or some wines are not as good as we would like them to be. Once we had an RWB tasting – and I am telling you this now openly – it was the vintage of 2010. In 2010 there was a cool autumn, and grape ripening was unsatisfactory. And then it was said that our colleagues wanted to taste the wines from the 2010 vintage. This was in 2012 or 2013. Except for me, no one dared to bring their 2010s to the tasting. But we know we live in this region, and we can also have weather phenomena where there can be a cooler autumn, where we don’t have a sun-filled October or September, let’s say from 15 September until the end of October; only sunshine and dry conditions. We rarely have these conditions. We are not living in the Australian desert. So, I was not afraid to show the 2010 vintage, not just within my circle of colleagues but also among wine journalists. I presented it. I stood by it. And yes it only has 12% alcohol. The harvest didn’t give us more. But I didn’t change this. And 2014 was even worse! And for this vintage I am also not afraid to show it. To stand by it. Only the cowardly will not dare to show you a poor vintage. Only because it has 12% alcohol. In my youth, there were wines with 11% abv.
Ernst Triebaumer: In 2014, we lost all of our Merlot grapes. Because we were always hoping that the weather would change, the wind would come, the clouds would be blown away, and it would be sunny and windy. And it would dry out, and we would get a good drying of the grapes. But it didn’t happen. Or it happened too late. And in the meantime, our Merlot grapes were dead. We couldn’t harvest them. But if you can’t take this, can’t endure this, you can’t be in this profession. You must do something else because we are never safe.
David Belluz: And no Mariental I think?
Ernst Triebaumer: We had no Mariental in 2014 as far as I remember. But a wine from Oberer Wald and Mariental combined. Because we could only take the most beautiful grapes, and it was a modest quantity, and based on the cellar work and sales, it was ridiculous to put the two wines separately on the market. We also did that in earlier vintages. I think 1996 was similar. Mariental doesn’t have to be available every year. And a sweet wine is also not possible every year. If nature allows, we have it, and we take it happily. But it’s not always the case.
David Belluz: Which vintages are most liked? 2001, 2008?
Ernst Triebaumer: 2001 was a slimmer vintage. Cooler vintage. Two thousand and two was a dry vintage. And we had the advantage with our older sites where the roots were already very deep. And those vines don’t react so quickly with such a dry summer heat, but they are more resilient. But you also have that advantage with a rain filled autumn. Because when you have younger vines, with their active roots only in the shallower ground, those roots absorb the water very quickly – if it had been dry the weeks before and the grapes are already ripened – those young roots very quickly absorb the water. And the roots send the water upwards, into the grapes. Then you end up with thinner wines, this is how nature works. Then either you wait with the harvest, you prolong it for at least one week, or you have the botrytis weather starting, then you have to pick the red wine grapes.
David Belluz: What’s your favourite Ried Mariental? Do you have a favourite Ried Mariental? What year, vintage?
Ernst Triebaumer: 1997.
David Belluz: Another question, how many years after the vintage is released do you wait before you drink?
Ernst Triebaumer: It depends on how rushed you are. If you still want to live for another 30 years, then I wait for 7 years minimum. At my age, I have to count like this already. How much longer will I still live? But if I calculate more realistically that I will live for another 10 years, then I drink it earlier. Then I only wait for 3 years before drinking it.
David Belluz: And was there a wine that you left for 3 or 5 years in the bottle before releasing because it needed much more time?
Ernst Triebaumer: No. We never had large volume to store. Because you need space, which we have now, but back then in those days, we didn’t have the space. And we didn’t have the long financial lifeline, either. At that time, when I was still the boss of the business, it was high interest rates with the bank. Since then, the interest rates are much lower. But 30 years ago, the picture looked very different. And when you financed anything on credit, then at that time, it was a factor you had to take into account.
Ernst Triebaumer: What we can tell about Mariental, the first land we bought there, after some time, after a few years, not immediately, we decided to get rid of the white varieties because from the point of view of the former owner, the world looked very different – but the world looked very different for us from where we were standing. We also had rows in the western section of Mariental where there is limestone and crystal-free soil but on the soil type it was more ideal for Blaufränkisch rather than for white varieties. That’s why we removed the white varieties, then let the soil rest and replenish itself, to get healthier for a few years. We let sunflowers grow and other plants, as well and after 4 or 5 years, we planted young Blaufränkisch vines. The older, upper part always stayed the same though. And I always believed that the older the Blaufränkisch vines were, the more precious and valuable were the grapes; there is more taste, more flavour. And we only invented the Maulwurf wine because we bought other land in Ried Mariental where it was not so suited for vines or where there were no vines planted before. And then we planted it with Blaufränkisch, but this particular site doesn’t produce the best Blaufränkisch, and that’s how Maulwurf came into being. Because Blaufränkisch in its youth grows a lot, very vital. Vigourous.
David Belluz: Is there a difference in the vinification and maturation between Oberer Wald and Mariental.
Ernst Triebaumer: Not that I am aware of. Not deliberately, in any case. The only difference that we always have is 6 months more of barrel maturation. Oberer Wald is bottled after 18 months, and Marienthal is bottled after 24 months. That is fixed. The bottling time is always like that.
David Belluz: For 1997 Mariental, new oak barrels?
Ernst Triebaumer: We never really use new barrels, only in the first two vintages. Because at that time, we didn’t have enough used barrels yet. For this wine, only 30% to 40% was new oak. The contribution of the new barrels is always 30-40%. After 1986, we never used 100% new barrels.
David Belluz: Why?
Ernst Triebaumer: For us it is important that the dominant characteristics of the wine from the grape variety are primary and the aroma that the wine gets from the barrels is secondary. The latter should only be in the background. The characteristics of the fruit always at the forefront.
David Belluz: This wine is amazing. So much energy and power. And the fruit is still very much present. I think this can age for another decade. How many bottles did you make of the 1997 Mariental?
Ernst Triebaumer: I can never remember numbers. I could say any number now.
David Belluz: How many bottles would you normally make of Mariental, on average?
Ernst Triebaumer: In the first few vintages, we numbered the bottles. But I can’t say if the 1997 was numbered. After a while we stopped this because people were counting how much money we were making based on how many bottles we had. They were saying, for one bottle he is asking for this much so he must have piles of money.
David Belluz: I see what you mean about the fruit and oak. I think maybe you taught Herbert, or Herbert learned from you, the oak perfectly integrated into the fruit. So never too much oak. Even now the wines are very fruit-forward but elegant.
Ernst Triebaumer: Yes, yes, we don’t want that. We are working with a complicated grape so if it tastes like oak, you have made it uncomplicated.
David Belluz: When will you retire because you still work in the vineyard with the tractor, correct?
Ernst Triebaumer: Not any time soon. I drink an herbal tea – homemade – every morning and exercise every day, so I see myself working in the vineyard for still some time. It’s important for me. My well-being is only ok when I can move around outside. If I had an office job, it would be bad luck for me. I couldn’t do it.
David Belluz: And we are in Rust, so I must mention Ruster Ausbruch…..
Ernst Triebaumer: It was a very long and difficult rebirth for Ruster Ausbruch. With the establishment of the Austrian wine laws and the classification system in 1962, it was devalued to an in-between category. Everyone in Austria said follow the German model. At that time everything was oriented towards the German model because the Germans were important customers for Austrian winemakers. And the Germans did not know the term Ausbruch. And then a decision was made in the Ministry of Agriculture, that if the Germans did not know the word Ausbruch, then we should cut the term from the classification system. And no one really cared about how this would affect us here in Rust. I’m not talking about me personally, of course. This was in 1962 when I was still a young fool. But for our parents, this was a punch in the face. Because for our parents, and grandparents, Ausbruch was their identity, and that identity was taken away from them. And then it took 50 years for the term Ausbruch to return and to be acknowledged as the highest category of sweet wine. To come back legally. In practice, it was always used by us in Rust. But in the law, it was so poorly defined, that we were really very unhappy about this.
David Belluz: And what do you think of the new DAC Ruster Ausbruch? Is it good, or helpful?
Ernst Triebaumer: It’s still too early for me to make up my mind or pass judgment. I will look at how this will work in practice, how the whole process is organised, how it is communicated externally, and how the Ruster community will deal with it.
David Belluz: I have a question, some Ruster Ausbruch is either yellow, or brown. The colour. People give me very different answers all the time….
Ernst Triebaumer: It comes with age or with élevage. If it stays in the barrel for a long time it has already undergone some maturation. With maturation, the colour goes darker. And if you bottle it earlier, the wine will be lighter. But it is also that the description “Ausbruch” has no upper limit. It can be an Ausbruch with 30 KMW sugar, or it can be an Ausbruch with over 40 KMW of sugar in the grape, and this one is naturally much darker. It’s viscous, the grape must. And as a young wine, it already has a slightly orange shimmer. It depends on the harvest, also. If there are over-ripe grapes on the vine already, and the wine-maker is convinced that the KMW could still increase, and if he has good nerves, and is counting on even higher sugar concentration, he could pick the grapes already. But if he still dares to wait longer before picking, then even just based on the grape and sugars at this point in time, it will be much more concentrated, and also darker.
Ernst Triebaumer: There is also a competition – especially here in Rust – amongst colleagues, to see who can get the highest sugar concentration. Just because. Since I was a child. An unofficial competition. It’s not based on reason. It’s just about showing off. Like a motorbike race.
David Belluz: How old are you, by the way?
Ernst Triebaumer: I was born in 1947 so I am now 73. But it’s all relative.
David Belluz: So, you have seen many things? Rust changing, Rust after WWII….
Ernst Triebaumer: Yes, and I still see many things even today. And you don’t always agree with everything. Obviously. And in the world today this means that whatever is changing, you have very little influence over it. Even today Rust is still a free city. And in the past, the people from Rust, as a community, had more self-confidence. And nowadays they accept more external influences – be it political or commercial – a lot more, and much more is influencing us and this changes the social fabric. I can summarise it very simply: I am anti-globalisation. I cannot see how this can bring us anything positive. It doesn’t matter if you can process data within a few days or within 5 minutes. The world is not getting better as a result. More than 350 years ago, the people of Rust cooperated and decided together to be a free city. We wanted to govern ourselves so we could be independent from whatever the Habsburg or Esterhazy families decided. We wanted to be independent. And Rust developed well. For a small town. At that time, there were 1400 people. And they gathered up the money, put it on the table, and became a free city. The emperor needed a lot of money because at that time there was the Turkish occupation, and the people of Rust knew it, so they took the money out of their own pockets, put it on the table, and became a free city. And we are still free even today.
On the other hand, every mayor of Rust is the same: if they see a new building, they want to anchor themselves to history, and it doesn’t matter if that building was built under mayor Artinger, Conrad, Weiss, Stagl or whomever. It is all the same: there is a brass plate with their name engraved on it.
David Belluz: This calls to mind Ried Greiner and the fact that some of it will be ploughed under for new apartments.
Ernst Triebaumer: There was a big development project proposed. Some psycho-health centre. It was one business – a big property inherited from his grandfather – and he sold it, to pay out his two sisters, also. And it is always being so nicely presented – social well-being… good for the local people and so on. But the truth is that it’s just commercial, purely commercial. Those are the things that no one is resisting. We are very dissatisfied with how the world has developed, but we have to swallow it.