A Wine of Note: Weingut Lenz (Uesslingen-Buch, Thurgau)

Recently, I received a sample box of organic and biodynamic wine from Winemaker.com, a new e-commerce site for Swiss wine, as a way to introduce me to their services. The list of participating wineries is impressive and if the business proves successful, I look for the list to grow. Frankly, there’s no reason it shouldn’t. The cellar door prices they offer give it a distinct advantage over conventional retailers and the ease of receiving wine via Swiss Post is, I’m told, the next big thing.

Included among my samples was a 2019 Gemischter Satz from Weingut Lenz in canton Thurgau. As the name implies, the wine is a riff on the Viennese specialty, Wiener Gemischter Satz, a field blend of several grape varieties harvested and fermented together — in this case, the PiWi varieties Baron, Cabernet Cantor and Divico.

Ordinarily, I’d write a few notes about the wine and be done with it, but as impressive as the wine is, I first want to recognize the efforts of the pioneering winery that produces it.

Walking the Walk

When we analyze the carbon footprint of any undertaking, it’s always with a complex set of calculations in mind. In wine production those calculations attempt to quantify the amount of carbon dioxide generated from typical operations. This might include the most obvious metrics — energy consumption, farming practices, packaging, shipping — and the not so obvious — hospitality and promotional travel, to name two. Thus, the theory goes, a winery that successfully mitigates any of the above diminishes its carbon footprint by some percentage and thereby minimizes its impact on the environment.

The complicating issues of water use, water and air pollution, and the environmental and health impact of pesticide, herbicide and fungicide use, add to the puzzle, but are somewhat easier to measure.

How does all of this factor into the business plan of a model winery? At Lenz, everything is considered and executed with a methodical attention to detail.

Karin and Roland Lenz (all photos courtesy of Weingut Lenz)

The Lenz’s first order of business was to tap one of the cleanest and most abundant sources of energy on the planet: geothermal energy. At Lenz more than 70% of thermal energy needs (heat for buildings and water) are sourced in this way. Another 13% is generated from recaptured waste heat from mechanical operations. The balance, as well as the rest of the winery’s electrical needs, is supplied by a photovoltaic power system tied to a grid-friendly battery. Since the installation of the energy package in 2015, Weingut Lenz has generated a surplus of green energy each year — all of which is stored in the battery and shared with the local grid. Not a single kilowatt is wasted — there is even load management software to regulate energy use in both low and peak demand situations.

The winery itself is built from sustainably-raised and locally-sourced lumber that is milled within the canton. For packaging it uses re-washed lightweight bottles, organic corks, and recycled paper for labels. Visitors with electric cars are invited to use the recharging station located on the premises.

You might expect this kind of monetary investment to support a Grand Cru from Burgundy or a Premier Cru from Bordeaux, but there is none of that at Lenz. Nothing in its portfolio costs more than 48 CHF per bottle and most of it sells for significantly less.

Vineyards of the Future

As impressive as energy self-sufficiency and green practices are, they are only part of the Lenz story. More impressive to me is its commitment to hybrid and PiWi varieties and organic farming. Love them or hate them, hybrid and PiWi varieties make organic farming in this part of the world a sustainable option. Fungus resistant varieties require fewer treatments, which means less wasted energy, and for a winery the size of Lenz, 24 hectares, this represents a significant cost savings and a serious mitigation of its carbon footprint.

Transparency is important, too. The Lenz vineyards are certified by Delinat, BioSuisse and Demeter, and even though they are permitted to use copper and sulfur treatments under each certification, they eschew those, as well. As a result, their vineyards are teeming with energy and chock full of insects, birds, reptiles and larger mammals, as well as dotted with fruit and nut trees and native ground cover. A full 4 hectares are given over to biodiversity zones.

The vineyards consist of 14 discrete parcels located in 5 villages in the cantons of Thurgau, Zürich and Schaffhausen. Each one is a distinct mix of grapes that are either co-planted randomly, or, more commonly, in small blocks of several varieties each.

The oldest vines in the mix are vinifera species, but they constitute only 20% of the total. In the field they are surrounded by more recently planted hybrid and PiWi vines. This configuration reflects the Lenz’s belief that biodiversity benefits can be achieved even within the monoculture of a vineyard. The strategic placement of highly resistant vines among vinifera or less resistant vines confers a sort of “herd immunity” for the entire “organism.”

There are no less the 35 different varieties. The largest commitments are to Cabernet Jura (3.6 hectares), Solaris (1.8) and Souvignier Gris (1.5). The largest vinifera commitments are to Pinot Noir (0.9 hectare), Zweigelt (0.55), Sauvignon Blanc (0.4), and Müller-Thurgau (0.4). Varieties of less than a hectare include Leon Millot, Cabertin, Prior, Cabernet Blanc, Sauvignac, and the Blattner creations Sauvignon Soyhières, Cal 1-28 and Cal 1-36.

One of the family’s goals is demonstrate the viability of PiWi wines in the marketplace. Another is to prove that top-quality wine is not exclusive to vinifera.

Never Rest

If you thought 35 different varieties is more than enough, think again. A new project brings together PiWi royalty, breeder Valentin Blattner and nurseryman Philippe Borioli, with the Lenz family for even more experimentation. A recently dedicated parcel is home to over 100 new — presently unnamed — varieties bred by Blattner and other visionaries and propagated at Borioli’s nursery in Bevaix. Cuttings are taken from the most promising mother vines and planted on the Lenz estate. The Lenz’s will oversee farming and carry out all micro-vinifications to determine which are suitable for fine wine production.

Keep an eye out for this exciting project.

100 new varieties are on the way

The Wine

2019 Gemischter Satz, Thurgau: From the Trottenhof parcel in Thurgau — co-planted Cabernet Cantor, Baron and Divico.

Plum red in color with some bluish highlights. Deep blackberry nose with some beet juice and forest floor earthiness. Substantial weight on the palate and packed with berry and root vegetable flavors. Minimal tannins and a rather loose structure makes for good current drinking. If I didn’t know better, I might have been tempted to think this was a health potion made from fresh fruit and antioxidant-rich vegetables. Quite fascinating, really, for it’s likeabilty, seriousness, excellence with steak, and price: Just 24 CHF.

There are some gatekeepers who will tell you that hybrid and PiWi wines will never equal the best vinifera wines for complexity, but in my view, it’s way too early to make that call. Because of current restrictions I was unable to visit the Lenz vineyards, but I will be digging deeper into the portfolio when circumstances allow. There’s already a lot to like here, but I want to see more of the project and their philosophy for making wine from this incredible fruit.

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