By Elizabeth Kratz
The cool morning in August was thick with a rising mist when I arrived at the Hafner Estate Winery in Mönchhof, Austria; about 40 minutes southeast of Vienna and just a few minutes from the Hungarian border. The unique, cool continental microclimate around Lake Neusiedl, with approximately 300 sunny days a year, results in a very beneficial high-humidity wine growing environment, which is particularly suited for late harvest production. Fresh scents of fruit trees, pomegranate, peaches and blossoms combined with barnyard sights and smells as I looked to my left to see a free-range chicken run; fowl of every color and shape were milling around pecking at the earth.
A well appointed tasting room, with wall-to-wall temperature controlled glass cabinets built as a pandemic DIY project, shows the Hafner wines off to the best advantage. This 800-year-old, multiple gold-medal winning winery is certainly looking young and vibrant, considering the House of Hafner was founded in 1217, during the early Habsburg era of the Austria-Hungarian empire. Mönchhof was originally part of Hungary; only for the past 102 years has it been considered part of Austria, in the state of Burgenland. The Hafner family has worked this land continuously during this time, with pauses only in wartime.
A Historic Region
The region where Hafner Winery is located is Neusiedl am See, a famous global wine region which makes wines typical of Austria’s climate. Neusiedl is Austria’s oldest wine region and is well known for its indigenous grape varieties like zweigelt and blaufränkisch that make fruity, elegant and velvety dry red wines; as well as ripe, sweet whites made with cool climate white grapes similar to Alsatian varieties, such as welschriesling (also known as Riesling Italianico) and pinot blanc, made with traditional methods like late harvest and ice wine. Hafner was actually the first producer of ice wine in all of Austria, in 1971 with the first bottled version, using a combination of gewürztraminer and pinot blanc.
Hafner also bottles the popular “Otto” sparkling muscat, which is recognizable by a cartoon-drawn mus-“cat” on the blue bottle. Julius Hafner told my children, who were visiting the winery with me, that Otto was a family pet who was the winery’s mascot (or a mus-“cat”) for many years. Neusiedl’s own regional grape is zweigelt, a cross of St. Laurent and blaufränkisch, and is the named grape for the Austrian Qualitätswein certification since 2002: DAC (Districtus Austriae Controllatus). Hafner makes a red wine called “DAC,” pronounced “duck,” with a hand-drawn duck on the label, very similar to the beautiful animals seen around the vast shallow Lake Neusiedl. Its aromatic nose of sour cherries, red fruit and blossom, with velvety tannins and food-friendly balance, abound.
The current owner, Julius Hafner—who comes from a long line of people named Julius Hafner—now grows 35 varieties of wine on 35 hectares of vineyards. The winery bottles 220,000 liters annually. He runs a fully organic and kosher operation. And when one visits the Hafner tasting room, which is adorned with mezuzot, a hamsa, multiple chanukiot and even a washing station in the corner of the room, it becomes clear that the next generation of the Hafner family is Jewish, as well. Hafner explained that his wife, Daniela (a descendant of the Zuckerman family of Romanian-speaking Brasov, in today’s Moldova), is Jewish, and their children, including their namesake Julius Daniel, are Jewish as well.
Less Is More
As a vintner, Hafner’s approach is generally “to add nothing.” “I’m a vintner, not a winemaker. I work with vintages, with grapes. And I work with physics, not chemicals,” he added. Hafner’s philosophy is generally to run his winery using the natural forces of time and the sun to ripen the grapes fully, to use only temperature controls to cool and heat wines to the appropriate fermentation and pasteurization temperatures, and generally to interfere with the grapes as little as possible. The wines are considered vegan, gluten-free, and histamine response-free. Hafner’s father (the elder Julius Hafner) also ran a vine nursery and had trial vineyards, testing how grape varieties grew in the region. He also sold his rootstocks. When he died in an accident, the younger Hafner did not continue with this process but instead focused on attaining organic certifications and increased the types of wines he makes. Today, Hafner makes trendy wines for a clientele that requests low-alcohol wines, particularly for Pesach and smachot. His wines with 5% alcohol are often semi-sweet and a solid choice for Pesach Seders, particularly the welschriesling.
Hafner prefers that the entire winery remains kosher so that its processes are streamlined, and the kosher certification now is possibly of similar or even greater value to his customers in Asia than his kosher-keeping customers in America and Europe, because the kosher standard is considered “cleaner” and thus even more preferable than organic in the Chinese market, he said. “It’s very simple just to have a kosher winery. It would take more time than the production itself to kasher the whole winery from non-kosher. So we just keep it kosher.” The natural process means that Hafner strongly believes that grapes should stay on the vine until fully ripened, which can be as late as November or December in a given year. With ice wine, the grapes freeze on the vine and are picked on a dry, clear night. “When most vintners here are finished with their harvest, we start. If you do that you have fully ripe grapes, you don’t need sugar to get more alcohol, you don’t need to get rid of the high acidity, because it’s simply not there.
“Sweeter grapes don’t necessarily result in a sweeter taste in wine, but you have more volume, more extract, and if you want it, you can have more alcohol. And you have no green acidity, no need to get rid of acidity.
“Here, we don’t need chemicals at all. What we need is physics.” Hafner uses native yeast, meaning he generally adds no packaged yeast and relies on bringing the macerated grapes to the correct temperatures to promote fermentation as necessary. His grape juices, for example, bottled as the “Wow!” white and red grape juices by De La Rosa 613, are bottled within two days of harvest. “We press and filter the same day, cool it to negative 3 degrees Celsius to get rid of wine crystals, and then bottle it at 98 or 99 degrees right after pasteurization. Pasteurization and mevushal is the same process,” he explained.
Hafner products available in the U.S. are the “Wow!” grape juices, sweet kiddush wines made with late harvest grapes, as well as pinot noir, chardonnay, shiraz, cabernet sauvignon, riesling, welschriesling, gewürztraminer, St. Laurent, grüner veltliner and muscat. Specific Austrian methods such as trocken beeren auslese (late harvest) and ice wine are also available in a greater variety than any other kosher winery worldwide. Apart from the primarily white ice wines, what Hafner does best, however, is its regional blends combined with French grape varieties: sort of a “Super Tuscan” concept for Austria. The Kashmir blend, a blaufränkisch blended varietal wine with cabernet sauvignon and rathay, results in a nose of red fruits, velvety, round tannins and a beautiful, lingering mouthfeel. The DAC single varietal blaufränkisch, as the area’s specialty, is particularly good at Hafner. Many of these regional-specific bottles are currently only available at the winery, but hopefully more will make it to these shores in the coming years.
Hafner’s wines can be ordered from delarosa613.com and are available in select wine stores on the Eastern Seaboard. Special thanks to Dr. Dieter Genser of the University of Vienna for his assistance in the German editing of this article.