Meet This Austrian Winery’s “Family of Wines”

One small producer in Austria is building a family tree out of its wines, assigning each a name, a portrait and a lineage—and striving to change how we think about a wine's identity in the process. Megan Krigbaum on the Gut Oggau family of wines.

Last December, between all the mugs of glühwein and roasted chestnuts, I inadvertently crashed a cookbook release party in Vienna. It was a dinner, actually, but I didn’t have a seat, and neither did the acquaintance that had brought my husband and me there. But we stayed right through the cocktail hour, giving me plenty of time to stumble across the wines of Gut Oggau—each of the labels bearing a line-drawn personification of the bottles’ contents.

There was Theodora, obviously a Euro club kid with a slanted, blunt bob (light, angular white wine); Timotheous, who reminded me of a middle-aged graphic designer I once knew who wore skate shoes well into his late 40s (a broader, weightier white); and, finally, just as everyone was finding their way to their seats, there was Josephine, who looked like a woman I commute with in Brooklyn—a worldly, creative professional (a purple, peppery red with a sneaky tannic grip) with tousled, shoulder-length hair.

The wines are the work of Stephanie Tscheppe-Eselböck and Eduard Tscheppe, a husband-and-wife team based out of Austria’s Burgenland, an area that borders Hungary and is largely known for red wines made with blaufränkisch and zweigelt. When they bottled their first vintage, in 2007, the couple created ten wines representing three generations, with two grandparents, five parents and three members of the young generation.

In an effort to do away with any preconceived notions relating to grape variety or region, the Tscheppes commissioned an artist in Germany to draw the image of each wine from a set of written descriptions detailing the personality of each bottling. The front label of each bottle offers nothing beyond a black and white portrait, the person’s name and a vintage date.

“We were searching for a way to describe the wines that everybody could follow, regardless of their ability to smell and taste and name the aromas and the mouthfeel properly,” says Stephanie.

The relationship between each “family member”—sometimes loving, other times disruptive—is relayed in soap opera-esque detail on the wines’ back labels. Wiltrude (a sweet wine made only in certain vintages) had an affair with her husband’s brother, Emmeram, who now suspects that his niece—Theodora—may actually be his daughter, and so on.

“The prankster at the vineyard Oggau, she is nonetheless most reliable and steady,” reads Theodora’s back label. “She has a particularly close relationship with with her beloved grandmother Mechtild and her favourite uncle Emmeram.”

Anthropomorphizing wine is nothing new. In fact, it’s a common practice that marketers and wine writers often fall back on when communicating about the contents of a bottle. But for the Stephanie and Eduard, this is clearly a creative effort meant to not only aid the consumer, but one that is part of a developing narrative—and unique intimacy—the two have with the wines they make. For them, ascertaining the personality of a wine is as much an emotional response to the vineyards and the fruit they produce as it is a geological one.

The couple make their wines in a centuries-old winery complete with a 200-year-old, functioning wooden press in the center of Oggau—a tiny, hilly village on the shores of Lake Neusiedl that’s said to be the first place red grapes were ever grown in Austria—from about 35 acres of old vines. When they purchased the property, they immediately began converting the vineyards, which had barely been touched in 20 years, to biodynamics.

The younger generation wines are grown in gravel, with a small percentage on limestone, producing what the Tscheppes describe as “youthful, energetic, self-confident, open-minded wine,” while the parents and grandparents come mainly from limestone and schist and receive more direct sunlight, which translates to greater maturity and ripeness in the grapes. From the outset, Stephanie and Eduard felt certain vineyards were uniquely complementary to others and have continued to blend the same sites every year for each bottling.

In the cellar, the wines are largely all made in the same way (fermented with native yeast and aged in large, old oak barrels), except for Mechtild and Bertholdi—the grandparents—which are pressed, fittingly, in the aforementioned ancient press. The distinctions between generations are largely driven by soil, structure and aging potential.

“Each one is related to one another because they breathe the same air, they are born in the same region, they are raised in the same house,” says Stephanie. “Only nature makes a difference in their personality regarding experience, character and so on.”

The Tscheppes believe strongly in the permanence of the identity of each of these bottlings, made absolute by the land they come from. “The vineyards are always the same. That’s the constant,” says Eduard. Of course, these folks don’t always behave the way they’re supposed to. With the 2015 vintage, for example, Theodora proved slightly more rebellious than usual. When it came time for bottling, two of the barrels still had some residual sugar. Fearing re-fermentation in the bottle, Stephanie and Eduard decided she belonged in a sparkling wine bottle this year, just to be safe. “She’s a still wine with a hint of fizziness,” says Eduard.

When I tasted the wines again back in New York, I searched for the through lines, both from one generation to the next as well as horizontally. The younger generation certainly had a more lifted, lively edge; the parents were broader, with firmer tannins in the case of the reds. I wondered why the faces I was most drawn to (based on nothing other than simple human affinity) weren’t necessarily the wines that I liked best.

But I also found that my perceptions of the people weren’t the same as everyone else’s. One taster saw Anna Wintour in Theodora and a San Francisco yogi in Josephine. Did it matter in the context of what Stephanie and Eduard are working towards that we each instinctually create stories about these people purely based on their appearances? I suppose the same would be true had the labels said “grüner veltliner” or “pinot blanc” or even “Burgenland.” We each inevitably bring our own frames of reference, past experiences—even prejudices—to the table.

What understanding these generations through the wines afforded was a unique reminder of the belief that the best winemakers subscribe to: That a distinct vineyard, when allowed to, will transmit a discernible, consistent character. And no matter what tumult arises—hail, frost, re-fermentation, abandonment, bad haircuts—that internal core remains.