Flatiron's Guide to Austrian Wine, Part 7: Wagram
It may seem ironic but we think of the Wagram as the most quintessentially Austrian wine region. Ironic, since it’s the newest DAC (“Districtus Austriae Controllatus,” Austria’s equivalent of the old French DOC) and far from Austria’s most famous region.
But it’s hard to think of a region that is more uniquely Austrian. The leading grapes, Grüner Veltliner and Roter Veltliner, are only grown in Austria. In fact, today Roter Veltliner is only really grown in the Wagram. The climate is purest continental, with moderating effects from the Danube (what is more Austrian than the Danube?), and northern winds. The soil is almost exclusively Loess. And the top winemakers are devoted to exploring and protecting the region’s – and the country’s – unique viticultural heritage.
Yes, in the Wagram everything comes together in the most purely Austrian way possible: grapes, climate and microclimate, soils, and people. And all of this is reflected in the unique wines themselves, which braid these elements into a natural richness and complexity lifted by freshness and, at their best, scintillating mineral notes.
Where is the Wagram and what is the terroir like?
The Wagram region is just northwest of Vienna. The Danube divides it into north and south sides. The north side of the Wagram is basically one big but gentle hill – called the Wagram – covered in vines. The hill itself was originally carved by the Danube river over eons, and the gravelly subsoils with loamy marine clays reflect that.
The Wagram is best known, however, for what lies on top of that ancient riverine formation: deep Loess soils. Loess is a kind of soft, or “loose” (yes, that’s where the name Loess comes from) sedimentary rock made from ancient dust deposited by glaciers, winds and water.
The magic of Loess is that it can retain water in times of drought, but drains efficiently in heavy rains. This goldilocks drainage ensures that in hot, dry years the grapes grow evenly and the wines end up fresh (you can still enjoy some vibrant 2003s from the Wagram!) but also protects the Grüner, which hates being too wet, from getting waterlogged in rainy years.
Loess has other benefits too. It contains active lime in many places, always a gift to vines providing structure and minerality. What’s more, the vines can dig deep in the crumbly material and really take advantage of all the soil’s minerally goodness, which includes not only deposits from when the Danube ran there, but marine clay, crystalline rock, and glacial gravel.
Historically, the Wagram was too cool for grapes to ripen regularly. But global warming has really changed that; in fact, It’s sort of a perfect region for this age of global warming – and global weirding. Not only do the soils manage water perfectly for Grüner, the slope’s exposition ensures great sunlight for perfect flavor development, aided by warm breezes coming off the continental Pannonian plain.
Best of all though, the slope is isolated enough that cooling northern winds stream down from the north, across the Weinviertel, especially in the evening, preserving the grapes’ freshness and limiting disease pressures. Local growers even claim that the Wagram has this one single trick for keeping their wines fresh and delineated: The Wagram slope is isolated and rounded, so as the wind swings out and around, picking up speed just like wind going over an airplane wing. Aerodynamics and wine – who knew it was such a great pairing!
Klosterneuburg: The Other Wagram
Most of the Wagram wines we see in America come from the part of the region north of the Danube, and our discussion will focus on those wines. But the Wagram extends south of the Danube to the village of Klosterneuburg. This part of the region is barely 25 minutes from central Vienna and even an easy trip by transit.
But the area is known internationally (if it’s known internationally at all) as the home of the world’s first winemaking school. The school has, in classic German language style, the none-too-pithy name of “Höhere Bundeslehranstalt für Wein- und Obstbau” or, in English, the Federal College for Viticulture, Oenology and Fruit Growing. Mouthful of a name aside, the College is a leading center of research into grapes and wine, as well as an important training center.
Why isn’t Wagram more famous?
Partly it’s straight-up marketing. Until 2007 what today is Wagram was just a part of the large and ill-defined “Donauland” region. One by one, Donauland’s most illustrious terroirs peeled off the mothership to become Austria’s most famous appellations, including Wachau, Kremstal and Kamptal. Those regions had years of a head start building their individual reputations, while the Wagram has really only had about 15 years.
Of course, that begs the question: Why did it take so long for Wagram to strike out on its own? It could be the fact that pre-global warming was too cool to make fully ripe wines in some vintages. It couldn’t have helped that the terroir there hasn’t proven perfect to make really top flight Riesling, which clearly has historically been the Austrian grape with the greatest international following (if also the most international competition).
To make matters worse, the generally challenging economic circumstances didn’t incentivize growers to focus on small crops of the most intense and expressive fruit they could produce. Before the 1950’ this meant Roter Veltliner, a thick skinned, indigenous grape, finicky to grow, but capable of expressive, long-lived wines when treated right. Instead when Lenz Moser came along with Grüner Veltliner and a new, easier to manage vine-training system, Roter was quickly forgotten. The financial situation forced many growers to crop higher, yielding more – but less interesting – wine.
Finally, Wagram’s proximity to Vienna meant that it had ready markets for its wines. Day-trippers from the capital have visited the region’s small growers for generations. They would stop in the local heurigen or picnic in the fields and go home loaded up with wine for their dinner tables. And the local vineyards are said to have kept the carafes full in Viennese wine bars and taverns for over 100 years. In this context there was never any need to try to compete on the international market.
Wagram hits the big time!
All of these trends have now reversed. Warming temperatures have given us many years of perfectly ripe fruit and rich wines with full and complex flavor development. At the same time, the moderating influences, especially that northern wind and the big drop from daytime to nighttime temperatures, keep the wines fresh and full of cut and detail. Never flabby!
Changing international trends helped to change the situation in Wagram, too. Grüner first became a trendy grape among US Somms 10 or 15 years ago. They loved Grüners as wines that were different from the most common restaurant wines of the day (mostly Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc), but that were good substitutes for those wines. Top Grüners had a flamboyance that made them fun to show off at the table, and the complexity to highlight and even elevate many creative cuisines.
Grüner’s newfound international reputation changed the economics for Wagram as well. All of a sudden there was a significant incentive for cropping lower and making ever-better Grüners: the international somm-set would pay top dollar for your wine and serve it in top restaurants around the world! Grüner growers responded and we’ve seen many more Grüner Veltliners of truly top quality in the years since. This, naturally enough, changed mentalities, to the point that one of our very favorite growers in the whole world, Bernhard Ott, eventually took the decision to focus exclusively on Grüner Veltliner.
The situation around the still internationally obscure Roter Veltliner may go in a similar direction, although it hasn’t taken off in the same way, yet. A darling of the “adventerous-drinker” set, Roter Veltliner is barely known outside of Austria (really, outside of Wagram!) today. But, until the 1950s, when new techniques in farming made Grüner more profitable, Roter was the Wagram’s leading grape. It’s got so much to offer we’re sure it will make a comeback.
Roter Veltliner is often described as a “wild” variety – hard to tame both in the fields and in the cellar, full of surprising and delicious angles and subtexts. It’s a native Austrian grape that isn’t really grown anywhere besides the Wagram. But that’s just the sort of thing we, many of our customers, and growing legions of wine-lovers around the world live to discover! And now that many growers are treating it with tremendous respect, we are beginning to see lovely expressions of Wagram terroir through the lens of this wild child.
Wagram: A Land of Great Growers
Austria has many great domaines and world-beating growers. But in our opinion, none of them is more exciting or talented than Bernhard Ott.
Bernhard took over his family’s domain when he was just 21. He set out right away to make the purest expressions of his terroir possible and began stripping everything out that he didn’t think was essential to his project. First, he got rid of all the wood, moving exclusively to stainless steel. Then, after a marathon tasting at the DRC with his friend, Hans Riestbauer, he decided to go biodynamic. Chemicals and other interventions: jettisoned.
But don’t think that he’s dogmatic or set in his ways. He is always watching and measuring, experimenting and learning. Every vintage his fruit quality improves and he garners a greater understanding of it. This has meant he’s also had to add back steps that he decides are essential. For instance, he reintroduced whole clusters during pressing because “the stem is part of the grape.” He even reversed course when he decided he’d gone as far as he could with stainless steel, and reintroduced stockinger, the prized large, neutral wood barrels made in Austria.
Most surprisingly for a leading Austrian grower, he has all but walked away from Riesling. Grüner, he says, is the best way to show Wagram’s terroir. So that’s what he focuses his land and attention on.
Bernhard’s Grüner Veltliner transcends the varietal. This is wine in its purest form. Where place is expressed by minerality, riding high above the delicate fruit, with the sublime structure holding it all in place. These aren’t just among Wagram’s greatest wines, they are some of Austria’s greatest and deserve a place in any serious collectors cellar.
There are plenty of other impressive growers in Wagram. Wimmer-Czerny is an institution with the Wimmer vineyards existing since the 18th century. In the 60’s the Czerny was added and the first labels were released to the public. Today the estate is known for their devotion to biodynamics and much-deserved recognition of the Roter Veltliner grape. Hans Czerny is making succulent, textural, acid-driven wines with real substance.
Leth, another darling of the region, is a real up-and-comer. Only 3 generations in, they’ve always been farmers first, prizing the symbiotic relationship between people, plants and animals with the land. They are Grüner Veltliner specialists, but prize their Roter Veltliner and Riesling plantings, along with a slew of other varieties. The wines are fruit focused, but always with a forceful line of acidity to keep them refreshing and delicious.
The Wagram’s Quality Levels
Like many fine wine regions, the Wagram has organized their wines into different “quality levels.” The most famous of these is probably Burgundy’s with its division into many different tranches, including regional wines (like Bourgogne Blanc and Bourgogne Rouge), Village Wines (like Gevrey Chambertin), Premier Cru (like Gevrey Chambertin, Clos St. Jacques) and Grand Cru (Le Chambertin).
The Wagram only has three quality levels, making the system much simpler. To qualify for any of these designations, the wine must be dry and not show any overt wood notes. It must also pass a laboratory test and a tasting panel.
The three quality levels, with their specific requirements, are:
- Single Vineyard Wines (“Riedenwein”)
- All fruit must come from a single vineyard or “Ried” that has been legally recognized as one of the regions great crus
- The only grapes permitted are Grüner Veltliner, Roter Veltliner and Riesling
- Blends are not permitted; wines must be mono-varietal
- Village Wines (“Ortswein”)
- All fruit must come from a single, legally recognized village
- A longer list of grapes is permitted: Grüner Veltliner, Roter Veltliner, Chardonnay, Weißburgunder, Riesling, Blauburgunder and Zweigelt
- But Ortswein must be monovarietal (no blends permitted) and either red or white (no rosés are permitted)
- Regional Wines (“Gebietswein”)
- The fruit for these wines can come from anywhere in the region.
- Blends are permitted, including field blends (“Gemischter Satz”)
- 13 grapes are permitted (Grüner Veltliner, Roter Veltliner, Riesling, Chardonnay, Frühroter Veltliner, Grauer Burgunder, Gelber Muskateller, Sauvignon Blanc, Traminer, Weißburgunder, Blauburgunder, St. Laurent and Zweigelt)
The Wagram’s Future
There’s no doubt that the Wagram is going places. New investments, devoted growers, and the rising profile of its unique grapes will see to that. The Grüners keep getting better and better. And in a food and wine world that has begun to privilege the unique and autochthonous, Roter Veltliner is a sure bet make a splash.
That’s a blessing for wine lovers, as, ultimately, the best wines of the Wagram are an example of something we love most about great wines: the ability of the super-specific to express the universal. They take a relatively small and obscure terroir and, through some rare grapes, make wines that could only come from Austria – but that remind us why we love wine in the first place.