Stefan Tscheppe, General Manager of the Princely Winery, on the differences between good and great wine and what to look for when investing in fine wines.
Mr. Tscheppe, how do you see the future of viniculture in the face of global warming?
To put it in just a few words: the typical white wine regions will change color. Since the seventies, it has been possible to produce fresh and dry white wines even outside the traditionally strong growing regions such as Germany and northern Italy. This is mainly thanks to new technologies such as controlled, cooled fermentation, which lowers temperatures to slow down fermentation, thus preserving the richness of the wines’ aromas and fostering their general development. White wine is now being produced in places where wine was previously not grown. And in what were previously white wine growing regions, I expect to see more red wine produced in the future.
Why would white wine regions produce more red wine?
Due to global warming, the natural production of acid in the grapes in already very hot and dry regions is more difficult. The high sugar levels lead to high alcohol contents. Even with the permitted addition of citric acid, ripe grapes contain very high alcohol levels. In terms of taste, these are expressed in alcoholic sweetness. This style of wine style does not meet the expectations of the majority of white wine lovers. We can therefore expect more red wines from these regions in the future.
Can white wine production be preserved in these regions?
Yes, there are possibilities for doing so. Some grape varieties such as Viognier incorporate higher alcohol levels very well. In general, winegrowers are well advised to revert to autochthonous, i.e. long-established, local grape varieties in dry and very hot regions. Better known grape varieties such as Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc, which are not ideally suited to such regions, should be replaced.
A trend of viniculture shifting further north can already be observed. Will this continue?
I also expect to see an expansion northward. But finding the right growing regions will take a lot of time. Late frosts, soil structure, precipitation – many factors play a role when we distinguish so-called “great wines” from “good wines”. Good wines can be produced in many places, great wines only in regions where all factors interact perfectly. They are also not developed overnight but are the result of many years in the vineyard.
What kind of impact is climate change having in Wilfersdorf and Vaduz, the domaines of the Princely Winery?
In the past, strong climatic fluctuations, especially irregular precipitation and extreme temperatures, have repeatedly led to premature budding. In other words, temperatures rose earlier than usual, the vines began to grow earlier after their dormancy and the winter buds were already breaking open. But then winter returned again in full force. The snow fell, the earth froze, and the buds died. The harvest decreased by up to one half. This happened in April 2016, for example.
The centuries-long success story of the Liechtenstein Princely House is attributable to diplomatic skill and entrepreneurial successes. Thanks to a consistent diversification strategy, they have been able to weather numerous economic and political crises and to preserve and grow their family wealth over generations. Originally active in agriculture and forestry, the Princes of Liechtenstein have constantly modernized production in their businesses and continuously adapted their business portfolio to the needs of the times. Today, the Princely Family’s business portfolio includes not only agricultural businesses but also the LGT financial group, a company that produces container-grown plants, the American hybrid rice producer RiceTec, foundations such as one of the world’s most important art collections, and the Princely Wine Cellars. The latter includes the vineyards in Wilfersdorf, Austria, and Vaduz, Liechtenstein.
And the hotter summers are probably also a problem.
Exactly. In the vineyards in the northeastern part of Austria, the climate has become much drier in recent years and the maximum summer temperatures have risen by up to three degrees. Last year, precipitation during the summer months was extremely low. As a result, the young plants were subjected to drought stress. This postponed the first harvest by an entire year.
A greater amount of water can, of course, help in such cases. What other measures have you taken?
We do intensive, systematic manual canopy management; the canopy is the part of the vine with the leaves. We do this to ensure sufficient shade for the grapes to protect them against burning of the berry skin, which would change their aroma, as well as less evaporation during droughts and healthy aeration of the leaves and grapes. We also loosen the soil under every second row of vines to regulate the water. In general, however, the water storage capacity of the soils in Vaduz and Wilfersdorf is good – both are first-rate locations.
Another measure is green harvesting. In summer, we remove green grapes before they discolor. As a result, the vine’s strength is concentrated on the remaining fruit – ultimately making the wine more full-bodied, as the vine can now spread all of its resources across fewer grapes. The biggest challenge here is to reconcile the curve of the sugar level with the curve of the physiological ripeness of the grape.
How do you do that?
For a quality wine, the grape must has to contain a minimum amount of sugar. The physiological maturity, or in other words, the grape’s degree of ripeness, can be identified based on the taste and color of the grape seeds – the browner they are, the riper they are. Fresh, structured wines can only be produced when the physiological ripeness and sugar levels have achieved the right balance. If the two curves deviate too much from one another, an excessive sugar content leads to alcohol-rich wines with little structure. It is the winemaker’s job to recognize when acidity, maturity and the sugar level are in optimum balance. That’s when the grapes are harvested.
How has your wine changed over the last few years?
Our wines – but this tends to apply to all wines – have become consistently more mature, structured and qualitatively uniform in recent years than was the case, for example, in the eighties. If we taste our way back to the seventies in our wine library, what is most noticeable are the strong fluctuations in balance and quality caused by the vintage.
What do you attribute this constant improvement in the quality of the wines to?
It’s easier to achieve a consistently high basic quality today than in the past. We do this by cultivating the vineyards using up-to-date tools, for example by taking into account the scientific findings of recent decades, by adjusting the harvesting times to the development of the grapes and by selecting the appropriate yeast strains for fermentation. Compared to the wines produced in the late eighties and nineties, the alcohol content of today’s wines has also increased by an average of about one percent. This allows the aromas to emerge with more strength.
Let’s talk about a different aspect: what should people pay attention to if they want to invest in wine?
Wine is usually a long-term investment. A number of grape varieties are inherently suitable for storage and benefit from bottle aging. These include the classic Bordeaux varieties or their Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petit Verdot and Malbec cuvées, as well as Burgundy varieties such as Chardonnay and Pinot Noir or Riesling and Grüner Veltliner. Barbarescos, made from the Nebbiolo grape, as well as sweet wines in the Trockenbeerenauslese, ice wine and port wine categories also belong to this group. Attention should definitely be paid to a combination of different factors: these include the reserves , because longer storage requires good maturation, as well as freshness, i.e. acidity, and a balanced alcohol level. In general, most higher quality wines mature for a good three to five years. Ideal conditions for even longer aging, however, are offered by wines from wineries that have already proven their experience in producing storable wines with development potential. I therefore recommend also tasting older vintages from a winery before buying them, or informing yourself about the current ratings of more mature vintages.
What is the best way for investors to inform themselves?
There are many renowned critics, for example Robert Parker in the US, Decanter or Jancis Robinson in the UK, Italy’s Gambero Rosso, Falstaff in Austria or Bettane et Desseauve in France. In general, I recommend storing at least three to six bottles of a particular wine. That way you can taste it after some time has passed and, if it hasn’t yet reached the desired taste, let it age some more. Once the ideal time for drinking the wine is reached – in the case of renowned wineries this is mentioned in the tasting notes – you still have several more bottles for sale. Or for personal enjoyment.