Karl Schnabel is probably one of the most charismatic, driven and intelligent vignerons that I have ever met. His passion for the land that he farms, his knowledge of the soil, the vegetation, the vines - the entire ecosystem that he lives in and maintains - is staggeringly impressive. Karl lives in Gleinstätten, Südstiermark (aka South Styria), with his wife Eva (another powerhouse) and their three sons Armin, Valentin and Marwin. This is a place that has been home to Schnabel's going back generations.
Both of Karl parents died when he was in his late teens, and he inherited the family farm. Karl and Eva met in the late 90’s and both went to university in Vienna, Karl studied Agricultural Economics and Eva Business and Economics. In 2000 they moved back to the estate to begin their new lives as farmers, vignerons and custodians, they see the land that they farm as gift, as something that they wish to hold and improve for generations to come.
Karl’s grandfather had owned and operated a dancehall and inn on the site (Karl still has the original wooden sign), but though farming has been in the family for a long time, and his father had a few vines, wine was never the main business, as such, there was no family history of, or pressure to commence or continue winemaking in a certain manner. Karl and Eva were free to decide their path on their own, to create a style and build on their ethos fuelled solely by their own beliefs, studies and experience, and from their desire for all of their crops and endeavours to fall into the self-sustaining, holistic, closed-circuit farming that is their ideal. They completed trips to study and learn the craft in Burgundy in the late 90’s and then they were ready to embark on their own endeavour back home, it was time to plant vines.
The farm covers 15 hectares in total, including forest, wild meadows, their herd of Celtic cattle (one of their sons drew the image on the wine label which was one of his favourite cows), and then 5 hectares which are under vine. Working with mainly red varietals of zweigelt, blaufrankisch and pinot noir, which were considered to be unpopular in the area when Karl and Eva first planted, they also have some morillon (chardonnay) and rheinriesling, all planted on the quartz, flint and silica rich hill of Sausal.
Standing in the vineyards with Karl, he is able to recount the entire geological history of his region, the hill of Sausal is older than the Alps and was never submerged under the prehistoric oceans, it is mostly free of limestone and other oceanic deposits and Karl believes this mountain of quartz is a perfect antenna to transmit natural energies. The vines are split over three sites, the Hochegg, Koregg and Kreuzegg vineyards. They farm biodynamically (fully certified with Demeter since 2003), and their herd of cows has provided the manure for their preparations since 2007.
When I say they do everything by hand, I mean by hand. Karl uses a scythe to cut the grass under the vines, oft on slopes of up to 70 degrees! To avoid compacting the soil, no tractors are used at all and during harvest a small 4 wheeler is used to move the crates of grapes. When visiting Eva and Karl in 2019 I was struck by the sheer diversity of the vegetation in the vineyard, the grass is never, ever cut down the centre of the rows to allow for maximum growth of the companion plants and herbs, some of which Karl said are hard to find anywhere else in their region. Most of their preparations are made from the plants they grow on their own land, and a wild and active insect and animal life is encouraged, with water, shelter and corridors of planting managed to sustain and build habitats for the myriad of species that call their farm home.
In the cellar Karl is as meticulous and precise as you may imagine from reading the above. All grapes are de-stemmed and undergo maceration, red and white, pigeage is done by hand, fermentation is completed in stainless steel and then the wines are put into old 220 litre Burgundy barrels for elevage. As with the vines, no chemical intervention or manipulation is undertaken at any point, and the wines have been entirely free of added sulphites since 2007.
To visit with Karl and Eva, or to drink their wine is to experience a magnificent force of personality and craftsmanship. A true marriage of nature and nurture, each cuvée vibrates with energy, they can be joyously lively and yet focused and polished with finesse. These are wines of passion and invention, born of the most healthy and harmonious relationship with nature. As they say:
“We have never followed a trend, but the inner programme of being a real farmer and winemaker, and have always produced what the soil has provided in accordance with nature. We are farmers with all our heart and deepest conviction….all of our wines are fermented grape juice, nothing else.”