Christina Wess (Weingut Rainer Wess) takes some time out from making world-class riesling and grüner veltliner to tell us about sexism in the wine industry, climate change and where she stands on the natural wine debate.
You work very closely with your father– how does the process work and do you think this relationship gives you an edge over other wineries?
Yes, it definitely gives us an edge– we can throw out any ideas we have without worrying what each other will think, which motivates us to try new things. Some of my other young winemaking friends say 'if I talked to my father about that he'd think I was crazy! '. Well, my father does call me crazy, but in a way that's more like 'this sounds crazy and ridiculous – but it could work! Let's try it.' It's such a special and unique relationship and it really feels like working with my best friend rather than fighting back against an older generation. I couldn't imagine anything better.
Austrian riesling and grüner veltliner in particular are really popular right now – what makes them so special?
Grüner and riesling are both perfect for the cool Austrian climate – they have very fragile aromas which could get lost if grown at warm temperatures, and they really reflect the Austrian terroir beautifully. Grüner veltliner especially can make wines that are very complex as well as easy-drinking wines. That's what makes these grapes really exciting to work with – you can create unique, high-quality wines or something much more simple.
The Austrian wine industry is undergoing quite a revolution, with lots of interest in natural wine, cutting-edge techniques and growing demand from global markets. Where would you like to see Austrian wine go next?
Winemaking shouldn't be seen as just a trend or something that needs to be made more modern; it should be something that lasts. I would love to see Austrian winemakers focus on terroir and the rich winemaking tradition of our country (although, we do also apply more 'modern' techniques, such as making no-added sulphur and unfiltered wines ). Most of all, it's very important that we focus on producing the best wine possible, which reflects where it comes from, rather than aiming to be the most cutting edge natural winemaker in Austria. Austrian wine should be the equivalent of a classic black dress – not a trendy t-shirt!
You use natural yeasts in your winemaking. Why?
I have to destroy your romantic thoughts about that! If the vintage is right with healthy grapes and the fermentation starts naturally then we just let it be. If not, we add specially-selected yeasts. We really believe that nature knows best, so if the fermentation starts naturally I see no reason to interrupt.
On your site you say that 'we are constantly adhering to working principles from organic viticulture, yet are not really striving to gain certification. Our purpose is to perform sustainable grape production with consideration and respect.' Do you think there are issues with the way the certification process works and how does your sustainable philosophy work in practice?
The process of the certification isn't the problem – it's that we love being in the vineyard and we want to focus on that, not spending more time in the office filling in forms; doing that won't provide us with healthier grapes or better wines. Also we think that organic winemaking isn't always the best for our environment and not the most sustainable way. For example we think that it is better to use a 'chemical' once at the right time(a process that isn't allowed for organic certified wines), instead of loading on tons of copper (which is bad for our soil yet allowed under certified organic practices) into the vineyards every second day during the spraying period. Today everything is categorised as good or bad/black or white, but we think it really that decisions in the vineyard run across every shade of grey.
The Austrian wine industry seems to be quite male-dominated. Has being a woman presented any particular challenges?
Of course! Some things are quite small but there are some issues that make me angry all of the time. You'll often hear stuff like 'it's so nice that you're now working with your father at your winery! I guess you work in the office?' Or customers saying 'it's lovely that you are going the take over the winery one day. I guess you don't have a brother?' None of these comments are meant horribly but it shows the way many people think about women in the wine business. But also, many people realize that ultimately it is a person that makes the wine, not the gender.
Many producers say they are seeing the effects of climate change already – how will you deal with the challenges that this raises, and are you seeing changes already?
Yes you can see it already and it gets more extreme every year. The flowering and harvest is so early and the weather issues such as hailstorms or drought seem nearly normal. You can try to be prepared but if you are working with nature you are a silent watcher most of the time.
Finally, what's your dream wine and what would you serve it with?
My dream wine would be whatever wine I drink on my wedding day, on a special birthday or the day we are judged 'Best Winemaker of the Year'! It's all about the occasion. I would enjoy it with all the people I love the most. I'd choose an aged Austrian riesling from a cool vintage or a pinot noir from Burgundy.
> Discover Christina's wines here