Profile: Michael Broger Weinbau (Ottoberg, Thurgau)

When Michael Broger and I strolled through his vineyard garden in late August, it was bursting with life. In one corner was a flock of brown-coated Såne sheep quietly feasting on a selection of grasses and legumes. In another corner, an assortment of winged and jumping insects loitered around their rustic wooden residence. Underfoot were various gourds and pumpkins hidden beneath an umbilical tangle of runners and leaves. And in the distance several old trees strained to support a modest crop of apples destined for cider.

It was an uncommonly beautiful day for a visit, with sunshine so bright it was difficult to tell where the blue sky ended and the green valley began. The only sound was the whirring hum of the universe.

This part of canton Thurgau is known as the Oberes Thurtal, or upper Thur Valley, a wine growing area that dates back to the Romans. It’s dominated by the Ottenberg hillside — a classic roche moutonnée formed during the glacial era. From its higher elevations there is a stunning view of the Alps and the broad valley below. That is, when it’s not blanketed by fog — a common occurrence caused by humidity from nearby Lake Constance. On the best days, one can see for miles and most of that view is taken up by neat fields of mixed crops and orchards. The hillside, where we stood, is reserved for the vine.

Broger’s farm is located in the village of Ottoberg, in the prime middle portion of the slope. It’s a textbook example of the kind of robust ecosystem one expects from biodynamic practice and personal quirkiness. It’s wild, chaotic, and wonderfully natural.

But, as farmers of this stripe know — with natural ways, comes risk.

Ottenberg (courtesy: Broger-weinbau.ch)

Upon closer inspection, there was visible distress among the vines — the very constituency this diverse ecosystem was meant to defend. Defoliation, a characteristic of hail damage, was evident, as was severe scarring on the few remaining leaves, courtesy of downy mildew. The fruit clusters were sparse and disfigured with only a few healthy berries to be found — a triple-whammy of frost, hail and rain. The coup de grâce was the strange disappearance of the usual föhn winds, which would have helped to dry things out. Based on subsequent conversations with other Swiss growers, this was a common theme in 2021, especially for those who practice organic or biodynamic farming and eschew the use of copper.

As in much of northern Europe, Switzerland suffered two late spring frost events, followed by three summer hail storms and near constant rain. Swiss growers did manage to avoid the worst climate tragedies — like the severe flooding in Germany — but not the unprecedented and uncontrollable scourge of mildew. While many vineyards suffered losses of 50% or more, Broger suffered worse. At the time of my visit, the home vineyard, Schnellberg, was on track to lose 90% of its crop.

Although Michael’s farm is uncertified, his biodynamic bona fides are well earned. He was vineyard manager at the pioneering Schlossgut Bachtobel, just a stones throw from his current home and vineyard. In fact, it was the legendary proprietor of Bachtobel, Hans-Ulrich Kesselring, who advised him on the purchase of his own property. Kesselring was an early proponent of biodynamics and was a revered mentor for many in Switzerland. His followers are some of the very best winegrowers in the nation, but even the most astute among them were overmatched in this disastrous year.

When Life Gives You Lemons

You might expect a year like 2021 to defeat a man, but not Michael Broger. When life gives you lemons . . . the saying goes . . . you work with what you’ve got. In Michael’s case, he’s lucky to work with nearby parcels in Ottoberg and Weinfelden that were spared the worst of the season’s hardships. And, because of his overall good standing in the community, he is able to source top-quality grapes and apples from trusted neighbors.

Thankfully, for all of us, there will be some wine from 2021, just less of it.

Michael Broger (photo courtesy: Broger-weinbau.ch)

While some of us think of organic and biodynamic farming as a means to an end — a healthier vineyard or better wine, for instance — Michael sees it as a lifestyle choice and the opportunity to create a holistic, self-sustaining environment in which to live. On his farm, each component dovetails into the next and when one part suffers the others are there to cushion the impact. You actually see this kind of mixed-farming quite a bit in Switzerland, but in those cases where wine is only a sideline, the results can be amateurish and the wines dismal.

For Broger, wine is the mainstay and the principal source of income for the farm — but he has other options. As he likes to say, “Wine is only one of my passions.”

He’s also a professional breeder of pêche de vignes and a celebrated sausage-maker. He’s highly skilled at dry-stone wall construction, and, most recently, made his first commercial cider. For this, he turned to another Bachtobel alumnus, Markus Ruch, for advice.

And just to emphasize his versatility and the farm’s virtuous circle, Broger and his family tend an extensive vegetable garden just outside the kitchen door and source eggs from a flock of chickens. There’s also a well-stocked wine cellar that’s used to track the evolution of his own wines and to keep up with those from the producers he admires most.

A Man of Many Interests

Our stroll through the Schnellberg vineyard yielded some other interesting sights. One of the most unusual was a collection of granite tombstones salvaged from a stonecutter friend. It seems the tombstone business is in decline — most Swiss people are cremated — so Broger is happy to put the granite bonanza to creative use. To a builder of things, like him, they are the perfect size and shape for retaining walls and artfully designed stairways — amenities that are necessary around a hillside farm. Evidence of their successful, and beautiful, repurposing is everywhere in sight (see header photo).

His passion for pêche de vigne genetics, on the other hand, is a work in progress. He currently maintains a collection of 20 varieties, including one he developed himself. He works with the Swiss non-profit, Pro Specie Rara — an organization dedicated to preserving the genetic and cultural diversity of crops and livestock — by sharing information and observations with the organizers and other members. His ”new” variety has been submitted to the organization for possible registration and sale to a growing market.

Michael is at the forefront of the pêche de vigne revival in Switzerland and his vineyard is the perfect proving ground for one of its traditional uses. Like vinifera vines, pêche de vignes are highly susceptible to mildew, so they can warn of trouble in the vineyard when strategically positioned around its perimeter. Of course, the deliciously evocative late summer fruit is a reward in itself and should never be wasted on pure expediency.

On Michael’s farm, everything is considered and everything has more than one use.

Pêche de vigne seedlings on tombstone stairs

When it comes to sausage worship, Switzerland takes a back seat to no one. Unfortunately, as many sausage lovers know, industrially made products currently dominate the market. Which is why artisan producers like Broger are enjoying a revival and local specialties like the Frauenfelder Salzissen are being rediscovered using traditional methods. The famous Saucisse aux Choux (cabbage sausage) from Vaud, discovered during Michael’s intern days in Lavaux, was his introduction to sausage-making, so he lovingly includes it in his current repertoire.

Because Broger raises his own pigs — oh, did I mention the family keeps a couple of Mangalitsas on hand? — he is able to slaughter humanely and with nose-to-tail efficiency. He makes an assortment of dried, smoked, and fresh sausages that are available for purchase during the holidays. The primal cuts are reserved for the family and fortunate guests. There is even a merguez sausage made from the sheep we encountered earlier. All of this means his winter open house is an event not to be missed — it’s not only an introduction to the previous year’s wine, but to the current year’s sausage, as well.

If Swiss internet chatter is an indication of impending demand, then Michael’s inaugural cider will sell out quickly. Besides being a necessary new revenue stream, cider production fits perfectly within Michael’s no waste philosophy and devotion to terroir products. The roster of apples he sources is impressive — including Hordapfel, Blauacher, and Schneiderapfel — all of which were originally bred in Thurgau more than a century ago.

You can’t get more terroir specific than that.

About the Wine

By the time we got to discussing wine, I began to feel guilty for imposing myself when there was an impending shortage of product. Michael recognized my concern, but pulled a few bottles from the cellar anyway.

Michael’s style of winemaking is low intervention, as his rudimentary cellar and unfussy demeanor suggest. But his Broger-Dynamisch collection is a line of natural wine that goes even further. The clever name pays homage to biodynamics without running afoul of Demeter and their ownership of the term. They include a Müller-Thurgau from Ottoberg (N.B. Ottoberg denotes the village, while Ottenberg denotes the hillside) and two Pinot Noirs from Ottoberg and Weinfelden. These are all made without sulfites and bottled without fining or filtration. They would qualify for the strict Swiss Vin Nature standards except that the vineyards are not certified.

Unfortunately, there was none of the Broger-Dynamisch Pinot Noir to taste, but for those interested, an amazing 10 year vertical was reported on by one of my favorite Swiss bloggers, Adrian van Velsen of vvWine.

The 2019 Broger-Dynamisch Müller-Thurgau, however, was a thing of beauty. It began its fermentation on the skins before being pressed off to finish in old oak barrels. It was more texturally interesting than most MTs I’ve had, because, unlike the others, it finished its malolactic fermentation while on sabbatical in barrel. Its spiced apple aroma and minty pear flavor was unlike anything I’d ever experienced from the variety.

In addition to the Broger-Dynamisch wines there is a Müller-Thurgau from Ottenberg, a Riesling from Ottoberg, a Weissburgunder (Pinot Blanc) from Weinfelden, and five Blauburgunders (Pinot Noir) from Ottenberg, Weinfelden, Ottoberg, Schnellberg, and an Alte Reben (old-vine) cuvée.

A 2020 Müller-Thurgau was steely, simple and refreshing enough to suit the passing hiker in the middle of the Weinfelden Wine Hike. Several of them passed by the house while we tasted in the garden.

The 2020 Weissherbst (saignée rosé) had a lovely pale pink color and a fascinating nose of gingersnaps and sour cherries. Despite being bone dry Michael told me it contained some residual sugar for balance. I didn’t notice.

The 2019 Weissburgunder spent a few days on the skins and was then fermented in barrel. It had the Pinot Blanc tell — a powdery, sawdust aroma. This time with lemon and honey as background notes. I loved it, but then I’m a fan of well-made Pinot Blanc, because it’s a variety that does better when the winemaker is assertive and plays the architect.

The 2019 Blauburgunder Schnellberg offered dark cherries, spice, and walnut skins on the nose, with deeply saturated fruit, a solid structure, and fresh green elements on the palate from whole bunch fermentation. This is an impressive Pinot Noir meant for aging.

Rounding out his catalogue is a Pet-Nat made from Garanoir, a mistelle made from Müller-Thurgau, and several grappas, including a wood-aged example.

A Word About the Labels

Broger’s colorful labels are always a topic of conversation. They were developed by an artist friend to suggest a link between aromas/flavors and colors. Reds and pinks are meant to suggest red and darker fruits, yellows to suggest citrus, green and brown to suggest herbal and spice, white, pale gray, and blue to suggest mineral. Oddly enough, they seem to work, or, at least, are powerfully suggestive. I spent a bit of extra time matching up my own observations with what I found on the labels. At worst, they offer an alternative to the lackluster descriptors found on the back labels of highly marketed wines. At best, they provide a low-tech interactive element in the enjoyment of these special wines. Besides, they’re nice to look at.

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