Flatiron's Guide to Austrian Wine, Part 2: Willkommen to the Wachau!
The Wachau Valley is the epicenter of Austria’s greatest wines. In fact, to many wine consumers, the wines of the Wachau are the wines of Austria.
While that sentiment sells Austria short, ignoring many diverse and excellent wine regions, it’s not baseless. The Wachau’s vineyards, defined 1,000 years ago by local monks, are still recognized today for producing some of the world’s greatest white wines.
Nowhere else in the world is there such a concentration of talented winemakers capable of communicating their precise site characteristics through specific wines. Even more shocking, it’s hard to imagine any wine region in the world where variations from site to site are more obvious, even to the uninitiated naked eye.
Stand in virtually any spot in the Wachau and look out, and you’ll see shockingly beautiful vineyards, so obviously distinct from one another, that you know the wines will taste unique. The backside of a hill that avoids the sun; an amphitheater that focuses; a bend in the river that changes the lay of the land, a cliff face going up for hundreds of feet--all these elements make for surprisingly striking differences in terroir and, ultimately in the wines they produce. You can see these subtle, but key differences best in topographical maps like the ones on Austrian Wine’s website.
Grüner Veltliner, the Wachau’s dominant grape, continues to take top marks in blind tastings against Burgundy and California Chardonnay with its spicy, opulence. But it’s the region’s structured expressions of Riesling, planted on the highest peaks--in the stoniest soils--which most clearly define the exquisite nature of this place. Other grapes are permitted (including Chardonnay, Neuberger, Muskateller etc.) and can make beautiful wines, but are rare and never get the best terroirs.
If anything about these wines could be considered a drawback, it is their youthful reticence. These wines are built to last and they often demand patience. But great rewards are bestowed upon those who wait. The same intricate phenolic* structure that keeps them locked up when young also slowly allows the nuances to unfold into a fanfare of complex flavors and textures.
Every region in Austria has wines and producers worth seeking out, but the Wachau is a natural place to start our journey.
*Phenolics and polyphenols are a diverse group of solid compounds found in grapes which affect the color, flavor and textures of a wine. A white wine with lots of phenolic structure will feel chewy and have more concentrated flavor than other whites, similar to tannins (a polyphenol) in red wine. They can help wine age and develop more complex flavors. Climatic conditions like sunshine and winemaking choices like skin maceration can increase the amount of phenols in a finished wine.
Wachau’s History, In Brief
Kings, Dukes, Bishops, Abbots, merchants, soldiers and civilians have called the Wachau home for millenia.
Remnants of Roman fortresses are found in Mautern, the crumbling castle where King Richard the lionhearted of England was imprisoned is in Dürnstein, and majestic abbeys from the middle ages are perched along the river valley. All this history is interspersed with the hustle and bustle of 21st century life.
Vineyards along the valley floor existed before the Romans arrived with their skilled and systematic forms of viticulture. 1,000 years later it was the wealthy Bavarian dioceses and abbeys who set to work building the maze of terraces encrusted along the northern banks and delineating the best growing areas.
The winemakers of Wachau faced the same series of threats to their production as their fellow countrymen over the last 150 years. Growers had to stop and restart continuously, whether due to infections like mildew and phylloxera, World Wars and economic depression. Many gave up, abandoning vineyards and allowing terraces to crumble, until eventually the valley was better-known for its apricots than its wines.
But not all was lost. And, thanks to a few reckless producers in Burgenland, the Wachau became the center of the Austrian wine renaissance in 1985.
In 1983, while many producers in Austria were on a race to the bottom--churning out bulk wine and competing on price--a few forward-thinking families came together to protect the reputation of their wines.
They formed a trade organization, focused on supporting quality wines that express the Wachau’s unique terroir and traditions. They established rules and labeling systems to ensure authenticity and quality. To join, a producer must agree to follow the organization’s strictures and must submit tasting samples to make sure the wines are true and good.
What started as a small group of families dedicated to doing the hard work to make great wines, has grown to include more than 200 wineries, controlling about 85% of the Wachau’s vineyards, most of which are small, family-run estates (and one very well run cooperative, Domaine Wachau).
To learn more about this groundbreaking organization, look no further: Vineau Wachau’s website is accessible and informative.
They modeled themselves loosely on the German producer-led VDP, which specializes in dry wines from their best vineyards. Their mission is similar: produce only dry wines, all under the most stringent set of rules governing any wine region anywhere in the world. They call those rules the Codex.
It can be hard for a wine lover to know what to expect from a wine based just upon the label. The Vinea Wachau attempts to solve this problem by requiring all wines to be labelled based on its style. These are the Wachau’s three styles:
- Steinfeder - named after a wispy grass growing between the terraces. These wines are light bodied, low in alcohol, and fruity. They’re released young, made for immediate consumption. These are not often imported into the US, but are a favorite of thirsty Austrians.
- Federspiel - the word for falconry, a favorite pastime for Wachau residents in ancient times. These are a step up in quality, body, texture and flavor. They often benefit from 2-5 years of bottle aging and are really where you can start to experience the Wachau’s unique expressions. They pair very well with food and offer great value.
- Smaragd - named for the bright green lizards that sun themselves on the stone terrace walls. These are Austria’s best wines. They come from the best, fully ripened grapes in the best vineyards. Smaragd wines are powerful, dense, energetic, textural, aromatic and long lived. Sometimes they need 7-10 years before they are ready to start drinking, but are worth the wait.
- Wines must taste dry.
This may have been the major turning point for Austria. In 1983 the current fashion for dry wines hadn’t yet taken hold. Before the Vinea Wachau, many Austrian producers made wines following the German pradikat system, which equates ripeness at picking with quality, and holds sweet wines in the highest regard. After this, Austria began to find its voice as a world-beating producer of dry whites.
- No Oaky Flavors.
There was a time when it was the height of fashion for winemakers to age all their top wines in expensive new French or American oak, imparting toasty, oaky, vanilla and spice character to the wines. This trend was spurred along by the tastes of a few popular critics. But this method of winemaking isn’t traditional in the Wachau.
Producers agreed their wines were concentrated enough and when farmed diligently and made with proper care; they didn’t need new wood to enhance their wines' inherent quality.
Wineries are allowed to use any variety of vessels for fermentation and maturation, but new wood must be kept to a minimum and no oaky flavors should be detectable.
More Codex rules:Vinea Wachau is devoted to the idea that there is something unique, special and worthwhile about wines that come from this part of Austria. And in addition to the stylistic rules, the Codex goes to great lengths to preserve and protect the specificity of the origin of Wachau wines, including:
- All wine must be produced with grapes grown within the Wachau’s borders.
- This is true of any high quality wine region, but before the Codex there was a practice of bringing in grapes from lower quality regions to fill out their stocks.
- No producer may own more than 10% of their vineyards outside of the Wachau.
- This is also to deter use of imported grapes, but it also has the side effect (intended or not) of keeping vineyards in the hands of families rather than large, diversified businesses.
- No chaptalization, or addition of sugar
- ...or süß reserves (grape juice) may be added to increase the level of alcohol. Wachau is a cool climate region, which means some years grapes struggle to ripen enough to meet minimum potential alcohol requirements. Many wine regions (including Burgundy) allow winemakers to add sugar to boost final alcohol levels, extending fermentations and increasing body and viscosity. The Codex means growers have to rely on viticultural practices alone to achieve ripeness.
- Growers must harvest by hand.
- Picking is hard work and if you don’t pick carefully you could end up with busted berries, oxidation and MOG (matter other than grapes). So great wine is generally hand-harvested. Most vineyards in the Wachau can’t accommodate machine harvesters, but even those that could were banned from using them.
- Terraces must be maintained.
- The Wachau’s terraces aren’t just a visual delight, they define the wines’ character. But maintaining the terraces is back breaking work, all done by hand, and very expensive. Many growers avoided the labor and expense and simply abandoned their highest quality vineyards for easier-to-work sites.
- Vineyard names are displayed on the label.
- To further support the specificity of origin, the Codex requires growers to display vineyard names on the label. We will touch on all of the best vineyards later in this piece.
Of course, not all producers in the Wachau belong to Vinea Wachau, some of our favorite outliers are discussed below.
A producer’s reasons to join or not are as varied as the wines they make. Some feel the labelling terms are too restrictive. Others own vineyards in other parts of the country, barring them from joining. Regardless of their reasons, many non-members make first class wines.
The Wachau’s Land and Terroir
Austria’s Wachau Valley is incredibly beautiful. Staggering cliffs. Verdant forest. Medieval villages.
Ancient terraced vineyards stretch up along the broad, languid Danube river in the far west of Niederösterreich (Lower Austria). While not all picturesque landscapes produce great wine, the Wachau’s aesthetic elements translate directly to its wines’ charms.
Wines from Wachau taste like the place they are from.
150 named sites, or “rieds” are scattered down the 12 mile valley. Each ried imparts its own character into its wines.
The combination of macro- and micro-climate, river, soil, aspect and elevation are like the lines of a thumb print: they make each site -- and the wines each site produces -- totally unique. Some may be more desirable than others, but each has its place and each is worth seeking out.
The Wachau’s Climate
As we discussed in the Introduction to Austria blog post, Austria has a cool continental climate with hot summers and cold winters. The Wachau is Austria’s coldest region where two opposing weather patterns find their fulcrum. Even the wind is all about balance.
As illustrated in the graphic above, cold gusts from the north creep through the forests at the top of the hills and down into the valley, helping the grapes to retain acidity. But then the valley is buffeted with hot blasts from the east across the pannonian plain, which aid in ripening grapes fully.
As you can imagine, the vineyards in the eastern half of the region are much warmer than those in the western half. The steep valley lining the Spitz tributary where it empties into the Danube at the far western edge of the region is called the Spitzer Graben. It is the coldest section of the Wachau and known for racy, acid driven wines.
Summer daytime temperatures average only 79 degrees, although we have seen much hotter temperatures thanks to climate change in recent years. But these are tempered by consistently cold nights, so even in hotter vintages, wines retain their acidity.
The Wachau is dry, especially compared to its more famous river valley neighbor, the Mosel. This lack of rain has had many effects on the region and the styles of wines produced.
- Rarely does enough rainfall each year to allow grapes to grow properly, so most vineyards are irrigated.
- While it is a winegrowing cliche that “grapes don’t like wet feet,” Grüner Veltliner, the region’s hero-grape, needs a lot of water. So, it’s often relegated to the heavier, water retaining soils further down on the slopes. This leaves the stony, cooler, high elevation sites to Riesling, accounting for some of its high quality.
- Lack of water equals thicker grape skins, which is a good thing. The structure of these wines is defined by their phenolic character, rather than the defining acid structure of the Mosel wines. It also helps the wines age longer and imparts complex flavors.
- Terraces retain water and stop erosion of topsoil. In the Mosel, where it rains excessively, vines are not terraced and planted directly into the side of the hill to allow the rain to drain off quickly. In the Wachau the terraces help to capture some of that rain water helping the vines thrive with as little outside help as possible.
A boon for organic and sustainable viticulture. The lack of humidity means spraying for mildew and other diseases can be kept to a minimum.
The Danube River
The second largest river in Europe, the Danube starts in Germany and slowly winds its way east towards Austria.
When it reaches the town of Melk, it turns north suddenly. This is where the Wachau officially starts. Eleven miles upriver, the Spitz tributary runs east through the Spitzer Graben side valley and empties into the Danube, where the vineyards begin. Another few miles north east and the river suddenly turns a bend and heads south and then east again until it reaches Mautern, the southbank border town and the Wachau’s eastern limit.
If you know the river, you know the Wachau.
This river is largely responsible for carving out the geography that affords Austria their greatest wines. Deep valleys cut through ancient volcanoes, depositing alluvium-rich soil along its gently sloping banks.
The unique character of each vineyard is defined by the winding river which provides countless slight variations in how the sunshine affects each plot of land. In this cool climate, the grapes need every ray of sunshine to ripen fully.
A Note on Botrytis
Botrytis, or noble rot, is a magical fungi that can grow on grapes in wet conditions. It’s the key to many of the world’s great sweet wines (Tokaj, Sauternes), where it concentrates sugars and imparts a delectable complexity of saffron, spice or honey.
But it’s controversial in dry wines, especially here. While the Wachau is dry, the Danube river can make for misty mornings with hot afternoons, a perfect recipe for Botrytis to grow. Some winemakers, like Hirtzberger see this as a natural expression of their terroir and allow some infected berries into their wines; others, like Alzinger, do everything in their power to avoid it.
With time and tasting experience some wine lovers come to favor one or the other approach. But to many, us included, the diverse and totally authentic set of expressions of the terroir is one of the Wachau’s true glories.
Hills & Terraces in the Wachau
Terraces are the Wachau’s most recognized physical feature and a big reason the region was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Local monks began building them in the 11th century, and over the centuries, they’ve been maintained, pulled down, and rebuilt, but always as “dry walls” -- meaning, without mortar to bind the stones together. This technique requires incredible amounts of skill, labor and money.
But the walls are well worth the investment when you consider everything they offer:
- Higher density plantings - the flat spaces mean more grapes and more grapes = more money!
- Easier to work - with a flat terrace you are less likely to fall down the mountain (a big plus for our winemaking friends!). Of course, they aren’t that easy to work: it’s still near impossible to mechanize anything on them.
- Humus and soil build up - vines can benefit from healthy soil on top of the bedrock. This also encourages:
- Water retention - Remember: it's dry! Vines need all the water they can get.
- Heat retention - Especially in the shadowy nooks and crannies of the hillsides, grapes need all the help they can get to ripen. The terraces help: the rocks heat up during the day and then keep the vines warmer longer into the night.
- Wildlife habitat - Though not its initial purpose, the walls have become home to more diverse life forms than the vines, helping to mitigate the negative effects of the monoculture that occurs in most vineyards.
The Wachau’s Varied Soil Types
Austria’s most famous soil is Loess, but the Wachau has other other soil types which make for a patchwork of terroir across the tiny region, and give many of the rieds their delightful and unique complexity.
- Rarely outside of Austria.
- A cross section looks like a pale yellow rock, but when you dig into it, it crumbles into a fine sandy powder.
- It is made up of windblown sand and dust from east to west blowing gusts, across the pannonian plane during the last ice age, when there was no vegetation around.
- Found in the nooks and crannies of east facing slopes, from a few inches to several feet thick.
- Mineral rich including quartz, feldspars, micas, clay minerals and calcite = complex wines.
- Water retaining silt, sand and clay = great for Grüner Veltliner.
- Less prevalent here than in neighboring regions Kremstal, Kamptal and Wagram, but still key in Wachau’s winemaking.
- Rare type of metamorphic rock from 2 different types of rocks partially melting together.
- Mineral rich and unique soil of the Achleiten, arguably one of the best vineyards of Wachau.
- Metamorphic rock that was transformed from an igneous granitic parent rock under great temperature and pressure into gneiss.
- Typically consists of abundant feldspar, with quartz, and variable hornblende, biotite, and muscovite.
- Breaks down into stones, sand and silt that contains the minerals from the parent rock, these are what give the minerality of orthogneiss.
- Mainly found through Loibner and Dürnstein on the eastern side of the valley.
- Sedimentary rocks that have been transformed under pressure and high temperatures into gneiss.
- Can contain a wide variety of different minerals depending on the original composition of the sedimentary rocks, like quartz, mica, or calcium or silicate minerals.
- Breaks down into stones, sand, silt that contains the minerals from the original sedimentary rock, largely responsible for distinct minerality.
- Very common throughout the western Wachau like the Singerriedel vineyard.
- Limestone that turns into metamorphic rock from high temperatures and pressures.
- Calcium based, with unique minerality.
- Fairly rare in the region but found in Steinriegel.
The Wachau’s Vineyards
Although vast in number, the vineyards of the Wachau are somewhat easy to navigate and identify. They were recognized for their differences and then subdivided based on elevation, aspect and soil types that are quite obvious once they are pointed out. While this doesn’t mean we all become experts after first glance, when compared to other wine regions around the world, it’s easy to understand the information here pretty quickly.
We’ve discussed how important the site is to the producers of the Wachau. None of the 150 named rieds (sites) are ranked or classified but many are colloquially acknowledged as grand cru or Grosse Lage vineyards.
The soil types vary all along the river and even up and down the single vineyards themselves. Each formation is made up of its own complex mineral structure, which in turn affects the wines made there.
All of this may seem like a lot of detailed information to take in all at once, so we encourage you to take in what you can and return when you want context for your next glass of wine. Say you’re drinking an Austrian wine with your dinner tonight--while waiting for it to chill, hop back into this blog and read about the vineyard from which your wine hails. That way, the taste and character of the wine will add specificity to the information and the information will uplift your enjoyment of the wine. It’s what we, wine professionals, do every day!
That said, below is a short list of some of the most sought-after rieds and what makes them unique.
Best Riesling Vineyards
Very steep slope, terraced and only partially cultivated in the very far western reach of the Spitzer Graben.
The rocky terrain is difficult to work but produces mineral and racy Riesling.
Peter Veyder Mahlberg & Weingut Martin Muthenthaler make wines here.
Twin vineyards Bruck and Schön are found halfway down the cold Spitzer Graben valley off of the Danube divided by a wall. This far estern end of the Wachau also is home to some of their highest vineyards at 1,600 feet.
Riesling dominates and thrives on the stony Bruck side, full of weathered gneiss, interspersed with a quartz- and feldspar-rich subvolcanic rocks.
Domaine Wachau, Peter Veyder Mahlberg and Martin Muthentaler make some of the most thrilling wines here.
Steep, south-east facing, terraced vineyards up to 1,100 feet above the town of Dürnstein.
The bedrock is orthogneiss with bits of loess scattered about. Dense wines are to be found here with tremendous aging potential.
Producers include Weingut Knoll, Domaine Wachau and FX Pichler.
A famous vineyard in its own right but also a continuation of the famous Achleiten, divided by a fault line. The top of the steep, terraced vineyard also contains the rare migmatite-amphibolite with calcium deposits and the bottom is weathered sand over paragneiss. Both are nutrient and mineral rich.
Weingut Prager makes incredible Riesling here.
A huge hill with super steep and terraced vines, rising 1,300 feet above Unterloiben.
Loibenberg means the hill above Loiben, referring to the twin towns below it Unterloiben and Oberloiben. Varied in soil but mainly orthogneiss with bits of loess.
One of Weingut Alzinger’s top sites, along with Domaine Wachau, Weingut Knoll, Peter Veyder Mahlberg and FX Pichler.
A gently sloping, terraced vineyard with southern exposure between Dürnstein and Weißenkirchen. The top of the hill is dark, stony, amphibolite and the bottom is covered in an array of landslide materials.
Very supple and mineral Riesling can be found here from Weingut Alzinger, FX Pichler, Domaine Wachau and Weingut Prager.
The highest vineyard above the town of Weißenkirchen at 1,500 feet. Aspects span from southwest to east abutting the forest giving it diverse conditions.
Famous for the Wachstum Bodenstein (Growth or Cru) vineyard planted at the very top by Toni Bodenstein of Weingut Prager in the 90’s to serve as a nursery for over 25 biotypes/cuttings of Riesling from around the world.
Wines are clear, mineral, and firm, with the Bodenstein showing a spectacular complexity due to the plant diversity, high elevation and meager soils.
One of the very best and steepest, terraced vineyards with west to south exposure just north of the town of Spitz.
The bottom has been given the proprietary name “Honivogl” by Franz Hirtzberger where he picks his top Grüner Veltliner.
The top is reserved for Riesling, planted on narrow terraces at high density on sandy paragneiss. Besides Franz Hirtzberger you can also find Domaine Wachau among others.
One of the first vineyards visible on the northside of the Danube. The name comes from the words for “stony trench” because of its rocky soil and amphitheatre shape.
Steep terraced vineyards perfectly south facing at about 900 feet catch all the day's sunlight. The orthogneiss is very weathered, with almost no topsoil and vines dig deep into bedrock giving wines a very mineral underpinning to hold the ripe fruit.
Weingut Alzinger and FX Pichler make excellent examples.
Best Grüner Vineyards
Agreed by everyone to be one of the very best vineyards. Just north of the town of Weißenkirchen, the vines start along the river and go right up the side of the mountain to the forest line at 1,200 ft. Varied both in aspect (west to south-east) and in soil types. The lower vineyards quickly form very steep terraces full migmatite-amphibolite, the top full of orthogneiss covered in sandy top soil.
Very complex Grüner Veltliner and Riesling are made here.
Producers include Weingut Prager and Domaine Wachau.
Just to the north of the town of Spitz, and below the vineyards of Singerriedel and Pluris and Rotes Tor. Partially terraced and moderately steep with a full southern exposure.
Home to good Grüner Veltliner.
Wineries with vineyards include Domaine Wachau and Weingut Franz Hirtzberger.
A 1,200 foot high moderately steep terraced slope below Wösendorf with perfect southeastern exposure.
Thick layers of Loess built up here with lots of humus on top making this a prime spot for Grüner Veltliner.
Rudi Pichler and Peter Veyder Mahlberg produce beautiful wines here.
4. Im Weingebirge
On the southern bank of the Danube in the barely sloping village of Mautern.
Contrasting layers of soil give this vineyard its complexity with black 350 million year old amphibolite just below, young, white, calcium rich, loess and glacial deposits.
Nikolaihof makes a great Grüner Veltliner here, which they always hold back a few years till it's ready to drink.
Low lying vineyards along the river in the Unterloiben in Dürnstein.
Loess and sandy soils make a rich Grüner Veltliner.
Weingut Knoll and Peter Veyder Mahlberg produce wine here.
Midway down the cold Spitzer Graben valley off of the Danube at the Wachau’s far western end. Very steep terraces soar to 1,400 feet with southeast and southwest exposure.
Planted almost exclusively to Grüner Veltliner which gets enough water, even at this high elevation due to a thick layer of loamy humus above the parageniss bedrock.
Some of the most mineral and fresh expressions of Grüner are found here especially by Martin Muthentaler.
Not an official name, but a proprietary one given to the bottom half of the slope of the Singelriedel by Franz Hirtzberger.
This is home to his very best, long lived Grüner Veltliner.
Best for Early Drinking
In the town of Weißenkirchen, just below the Sieberberg, first mentioned in 1506!
A plateau with deep soils, perfect for Grüner Veltliner.
Weingut Prager has vines here.
A small lower elevation ridge, moderately steep and terraced between the Kellerbegr and the Loibenberg.
Well draining, poor sandy soils above orthogenesis make this a great place for Riesling especially from Weingut Alzinger.
A long skinny, flat strip of vineyards south of the town of Wosendorf.
Mostly Loess with some stony paragneiss. Known for a good Grüner Veltliner, but the stonier northern end makes good Riesling as well.
Producers are Weingut Rudi Pichler and Weingut Franz Hirtzberger.
Partially terraced vineyards in the Unterloiben below the Steinertal vineyards.
Varied soils make for good early drinking wines from Weingut Alzinger.
A large medium-steep, terraced vineyard that really should be thought of as two separate vineyards divided by grasslands. The larger piece is warmer with eastern exposure with more carbonate and loess in the soil, favoring Grüner Veltliner.
The west side is colder and closer towards the Spitzer Graben with southwest exposure, very acidic soils with lots of quartz and favor Riesling.
Domaine Wachau, Weingut Franz Hirtzberger and Weingut Donabaum all make wine here.
6. Vom Stein
A thin strip of vineyards on the southern side of the Danube in Mautern.
Low elevation with no terraces these vineyards are full of loess and paragneiss stones that were crushed by the last glaciers to roll through here.
Nikolaihof makes some very tasty Riesling from these vines even if they are also suited to Grüner Veltliner.
Gently sloping, terraced vineyards that reach 1,300 feet near Weißenkirchen.
The top is poor paragneiss and the bottom has rare marble deposits full of calcium rich soils.
Domaine Wachau and Weingut Prager make early drinking, but complex Riesling here.
The Wachau’s Star Producers
No question about it: 150 vineyards in the hands of 200 winemakers, from 2 grapes (not to mention the myriad of other varieties sprinkled around), equals a staggering number of wines to choose from.
Only 3% of Austria’s wine is made here in the Wachau and all at very high standards. The cream rises quickly to the top. Highlighted below are a few winemakers whose dedication to the region and rigorous skills have set them apart from the pack and who make truly memorable wines.
- Village: Unterloiben, on the eastern end.
- Vineyards: Steinertal, Loibenberg, Höherck, Liebenberg, Mühlpoint.
- Style: Lean, phenolic, mineral, needs time.
Leo Alzinger Jr’s wines are not to be missed. All of them taste magically like rocks, rather than fruit: you'll find yourself transported to the steep, stony terraces where these grapes are harvested.
Top wines can take years to unwind before they show their true colors, but luckily he makes mineral-laden, crunchy Federspiels that open up immediately, for early enjoyment.
The family lives in Unterloiben, next door to Knoll and owns parcels in the two greatest vineyards of the region. They grow mostly Riesling and Grüner Veltliner and they do it with exemplary skill. Precise and elegant as a prima ballerina, sanguine, food ready and age worthy.
- Village: Spitz, on the western end.
- Vineyards: Kirchweg, Axpoint, Honivogl, Setzberg, Hochrain, Singerriedel.
- Style: Mineral, luxurious but not garish, opulent but not showy, sometimes with botrytis.
Franz Hirtzberger is as meticulous in the vineyards as the cellar.
He doesn't control the environment around him as much as coax its potential into being. Most wines include some botrytis berries (those affected by Noble Rot), adding layers of complexity and velvety texture.
Hirtzbergers wines are the paradigm of crisp mineral purity. Their vineyards climb the steep hill that leads down to the Danube like stairs, allowing for optimal sun exposure. Both Grüner Veltliner and Riesling flourish as well as a smattering of Neuberger, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, and Pinot Blanc plantings.
- Village: Unterloiben, on the eastern end.
- Vineyards: Kellerberg, Kreutles, Loibenberg.
- Style: Clear, precise, mineral-rich and structured. Smaragd needs time to show itself.
Often celebrated as the greatest estate in Austria, Emmerich Knoll’s entire range sets the standard for excellence in a region full of incredible producers.
Knoll is also known for crafting wines that need time, a lot of time, to unwind and display their distinct terroir and electric minerality.The Grüner Veltliners are whirlwinds of fruit and spice and rocks; the Rieslings are poised and edgy. Each wine presents clear varietal character but also showcases the inimitable terroir of the Wachau's top sites.
- Village: Elsarn, in the far west Spitzer Graben valley.
- Vineyards: Bruck, Schön, Brandstatt.
- Style: High acid, mineral, forward drinking, but capable of aging.
Martin spent 20 years working at Domaine Wachau before taking over his grandparents' old vineyards. He doesn’t belong to Vinea Wachau because he finds the labelling terms too limiting. Instead he picks each site on its own merit, when he feels it's ready for that vintage and doesn’t want to be constrained by predetermined ideas of what the wine should be.
His vineyards in the Spitzer Graben lack the notoriety of those along the Danube. Until the era of climate change it was too cold most years to make the powerful wines synonymous with the Wachau. Now it’s the final frontier for high acid, fresh wines as the eastern end of the valley struggles to keep alcohol levels under control.Encouraged by his friend, Peter Veyder-Mahlberg, he converted his vineyards to organics. Together they are reviving the nearly abandoned Brandstatt vineyard, to the delight of Riesling drinkers everywhere.
- Village: Mautern, on the eastern edge.
- Vineyards: Im Weingebirge, Vom Stein
- Styles: Ageworthy, lively, mineral, elegant.
Nikolaihof is a trailblazing traditionalist: Biodynamic since 1971, its written winemaking history goes all the way back to the monks who farmed there in the 5th Century (no, there’s no missing digit there).
And today the family still practices integrated farming, like the monks did, farms without herbicides, pesticides or artificial sprays, and makes the wine with natural fermentations and ancient Austrian oak in their 700 year old cellar.
Even as members of the Vinea Wachau, their wines tend to be stylistically unique. They hold back vintages, sometimes for 20 years, until they feel the wine is showing its best. They also specialize in many of the obscure varieties often ignored by the mainstream.
Neuberger, an ancient and rare grape, makes full bodied, nutty wines with plenty of character and is utterly delicious. Their Gelber Muskateller is the pinnacle dry expression of Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains with few wines more refreshing on a hot summer day.
- Village: Spitz, in the far western end.
- Vineyards: Hochrain, Loibner, Bruck, Brandstatt.
- Style: precise, mineral, high acid, long lived.
There are generally two types of winemakers in the world: Those who are born into it, and those who seek it out. Peter is of the second camp. He didn't have generations of tradition weighing him down, no fathers to argue with, or legacy to live up to. So he has created his own.
Above all things, Peter loves his vineyards. He talks to his vine roots and sings to his mushrooms. He sought out his tiny 4 hectares but surprisingly it was not difficult to buy vineyards in the Wachau. Like the ancient Douro Valley in Portugal, many of the great sites have been abandoned.
Crumbling terraces and back breaking labor don't make for an enticing career to this current generation. Peter has painstakingly rebuilt the terraces, by hand, which he swears you can taste in the wine. Like his friend Martin Muthenthaler, he has rejected the confines of the Vinea Wachau, but is unceasing in his commitment to the traditions of the valley.
- Village: Dürnstein, on the estern side.
- Vineyards: Kellerberg, Loibenberg, Steinertal.
- Style: Rich, powerful, long lived.
F.X. Pichler has often been called the greatest winemaker in Austria and is certainly an icon.
His son Lucas Pichler has taken over the estate and continues the tradition of producing mouth-filling, complex wines from their ancient holdings in the Kellerberg and Loibenberg.
The wines can tend towards opulent and exotic but with time open up to new layers. The layers deepen and complicate more, the longer you can keep yourself from drinking it.
- Village: Weißenkirchen, north west corner, by the bend in the river.
- Vineyards: Hinter der Burg, Steinriegel, Liebenberg, Achleiten, Klaus.
- Style: pure, intense, needs time.
Today, you will find Weingut Prager on any short list of Austria's best growers. Prager, founded in 1717, would have made that list in the 1950's, thanks to Franz Prager's innovations. But it is his son-in-law, Toni Bodenstein, who has elevated the domain to rock-star status.
Toni, a biologist, geologist and historian, has gone to great lengths to study, document and preserve the Wachau. He was lucky enough to inherit a wealth of old vines in prime vineyards. But he has also purchased, revived and replanted some of the region's highest and most difficult to cultivate sites. He focuses on biodiversity, and has built a "living museum" of Grüner Veltliner and Riesling bio-types. That wealth of genetic material isn't just of academic interest. It makes for some of the world's most delicious Riesling and Grüner.
While Toni would say the wines are made in the vineyard, it's also true that he is a talented winemaker of a purist bent: "controlled" spontaneous fermentation, short aging on the lees (in stainless steel only), allow each plot's terroir to shine through. While fairly reductive when young, they are built to age in the bottle.
Wachau’s Best Vintages
Flatiron's Guide to Austrian Wine
Austria is a beautiful country, ancient, yet modern and accessible with wines to match. The people are welcoming and generous, jovial, and wine is an integral part of their lives. The key to Austrian wine is quality and consistency, rather than quantity. No other country can boast such high standards across the price spectrum and throughout all of their regions.
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