It’s been a long road for Austrian wine, as one of the most dynamic, informative and constant marketing campaigns that I have ever witnessed continues to push strong against misinformation and bad reputations of the past. Don’t get me wrong; you shouldn’t feel bad for Austria, as its reputation in the United States and beyond continues to grow by leaps and bounds. However, what’s amazing to me is how often I run into groups of wine lovers who are not so sure what Austrian wine is about, if it’s any good, or what to expect.
I suppose I’ve decided that it’s about time I did my part to make a stand and place onto these pages my affirmation that I am a true lover of Austrian wine and believe that they are world-class in every way. Granted, we are currently talking about an entire nation and its wine production. So in the spirit of keeping my love-rant under 2000 words, let’s focus on just one region within Austria, and that’s my favorite: the Wachau (pronounced Va – cow).
But first, let’s get the history part out of the way, because the fact is that Austria has a deep attachment to the vine, and a few key moments in that history’s development sheds light on a number of strengths and weaknesses within the region–so here it goes.
History tells us that early cultivation of vines for grape production dates back to 700 B.C., yet it was the Romans who brought organized viticulture to the river Danube nearly 700 years later. Wine production flourished and continued even as the Romans withdrew from the region. However, between the 10th and 12th century, the Cistercian order (a group of monks who left Burgundy in search of a simpler life of serving God without profit) began to introduce Burgundian vine-growing and winemaking techniques to the region, along with the Bavarians, who began building the trellis along the river Danube, which makes today’s modern wine industry possible. Austria flourished as a wine-producing nation, with nearly three times the amount of today’s production through the 15th and 16th century. These vast vineyards along the Danube stretched from Vienna to the borders of Germany.
Wine production continued to be a major resource for Austria, yet it suffered severely (as did the rest of Europe) during the outbreak of phylloxera. The industry saw another major setback in the early 20th century, as power changed hands with the coming of the first World War. However, through it all, the industry continued to plow forward. Then in 1985, Austrian wine saw its modern demise, as a group of Austrian winemakers were found to be adding diethylene glycol (an additive you often find in antifreeze) to their large production tank wines.
As horrible as this was for Austrian wine as a whole, the fact is that today’s industry and the level of fine wine produced in the country may not exist if it wasn’t for this one unforgettable moment in history. It is believed that Austria now upholds more stringent rules governing its wine production than any other nation through its DAC system (Districtus Austriae Controllatus).
This brings us back to the Wachau, as we near the end of our history lesson. Before the scandal in 1985 was even uncovered, a group of winemakers within the Wachau region were already hard at work creating their own set of rules and standards by which the region would govern its winemaking, and that is the Codex Wachau. Some of today’s most famous producers had a hand in creating this set of rules, which employs rigorous standards and a focus on each individual varietal and the terroir which works best for it. It’s because of these standards and the producers who created and upheld them that the Wachau is now one of the world’s leading producers of fine wine.
So makes the Wachau so special? The Wachau is something of a perfect storm for the creation of fine wine. Over the course of millennia, the river Danube cut its way through a complex mix of ancient rock to create a winding valley. Through time, this rock was covered with a mixture of Loess, which is a windblown silt made up of clay and sand. Nearer to the river, these deposits formed a mineral rich soil for Austria’s favorite white variety, Gruner Veltliner. On the steep terraced cliffs, the Loess exist in a much thinner layer over hard granite, gneiss, marble and quartz. These locations are ideal for growing Riesling. Yet it’s also the confluence of four major climatic zones that mix within the valley walls. These are cold winds from the north, warm Pannonian influences and from the east, cool Atlantic from the west, and temperate Mediterranean from the south. When you add their harsh winters, hot summers, and the moderating influences of the Danube river, you have one of the most interesting and complex terroir you could ever hope to find.
So why are we still working so hard to introduce the world to Austrian wine?
For one thing, their largest production is in Gruner Veltliner, a grape that isn’t on the average American’s radar, which is a shame. This amazing grape not only impresses the white wine drinker with it’s minerality, balanced acidity and unique peppery bouquet, but it also scores points with red wine lovers for its rich, weighty, yet still perfectly-balanced performance on the palate. What’s more, as you move up the scale from table wine to fine wine, Gruner can be downright tropical and savory all at the same time. It’s a stunning mix. Plus, Gruner Veltliner happens to be one of the most dynamic wines to pair with nearly any kind of cuisine.
Then there’s Riesling, the Wachau’s second largest-production grape. Now I’m not quoting any scientific data; yet in my experience, if you poll twenty average American wine drinkers about Riesling, 19 of them will tell you that they don’t drink Riesling because it’s sweet. This one piece of misinformation has done as much harm for Riesling in this country as the movie Sideways did for Merlot. It’s time to get over this misconception. Riesling from Austria (and to a large part Germany as well) is not made in a sweet style. There are off-dry styles of Riesling, but you need not worry about finding one in an Austrian wine selection unless you are specifically looking for it. Instead, you’ll find mineral-laden wines with ripe stone fruits and zesty acidity.
However, the greatest asset that the Wachau has is actually its producers. Names such as Prager, Hirtzberger, F.X. Pichler, Knoll, and Alzinger all stand for a level of quality and consistency that is unreal. The question is not if you’ll find a great wine from this group of producers. The question is, how will you pick from all of the great wines they produce? The simplest explanation I can volunteer is this: F.X. Pichler is an intense, ripe and rich wine that somehow remains remarkably balanced. Knoll is the old world classic; tradition is what matters here, and the wines show it. Hirtzberger walks the traditional path, yet there’s an intense vibrancy that lends these wines a level of verve seldom found in Gruner. Prager is all about intensity, minerality and the ability to age for decades. Alzinger thrives on clarity and precision, sourcing fruit from a number of the most prestigious vineyards and turning out wines that are transparent to terroir.
As I had mentioned with Prager, the wines do age beautifully, and in the case of Pregar, they really do require some time to come together. However, you don’t need to put the majority of these in the cellar to properly enjoy them. In the end, all of these producers are turning out age-worthy wine (another characteristic of Gruner and Riesling); however the majority of them are just as enjoyable young.
For my taste, as a lover of intense wines with the ability to age, I often look to the Smaragd classification, which is a wine made from their best vineyards and selection fruit picked at optimal ripeness. However, there is a lot to like in the classifications of Steinfeder (easy-drinking, great for pairing with food and affordable) and Federspiel (a baby step below their best Smaragd bottling).
In closing, I’ve listed a number of my favorite bottles and tasting experiences below. I sincerely hope that I’ve done my part to show you that Austria is not only worth your attention, but also that the wines deserve a place on your table and in your cellars.
2011 Franz Hirtzberger Grüner Veltliner Smaragd Honivogl – Alzinger Honivogl is firing on all cylinders. Rich, ripe, savory and fresh all at the same time. On the nose, I found green apple contrasting ripe mango with savory herbs and crushed stone minerality. It was unbelievably soft on the palette yet also lively and fresh. Ripe tropical fruits and inner floral tones were offset by a zing of vibrant acidity. On the finish, I found tart stone fruit and minerals. Wow! (94 points) Find it at Morrell
2011 Prager Grüner Veltliner Stockkultur Smaragd Achleiten – The nose was at first floral with undergrowth and limestone, leading to rich peach, which filled the senses with a slight effervescence. On the palate, it was gorgeous with ripe stone fruits saturating the senses and oily textures offset by balanced acidity. The finish was long and seemed to melt from the senses, revealing a beautiful refreshing character. (93 points)
2014 Weingut Knoll Gruner Veltliner Smaragd Ried Schütt – This was classic Knoll to the core. The nose was exuberant and peppery with green apple, minerals, moist soil and fresh floral tones. It caressed the palate and excited the senses while delivering masses of ripe apple, spice and inner floral perfumes. It finished on minerals with a twang of tart acidity and spice. (91 points)
2014 Alzinger Grüner Veltliner Federspiel Loibner Frauenweingarten – The nose was very pretty with notes of apricot, apple, lime and wet stone. On the palate, a bitter citrus note gave way to inner florals and green apple. It finished on crushed stone minerality with a tug of acidity. This was lighter than expected yet very enjoyable all the same. (89 points)
2013 Weingut Knoll Riesling Smaragd Ried Schütt – The nose showed pretty spiced floral perfumes, ripe apple and pear, sweet cream, brie rind and crushed stone. On the palate, I found dense textures contrasted by zesty acidity ushering in flavors of lemon rind, grapefruit, and mango with intense minerality, which seemed to saturate the senses. Caking layers of minerals, kiwi, tart citrus and hints of botrytis lingered long on the finish. This is balanced to the core and quite enjoyable. (93 points) Find it at Morrell
2013 Alzinger Riesling Smaragd Loibenberg – This was a wild ride with a rich bouquet of yellow flowers, apricot, spiced apple, smoke and hints of roasted nut. On the palate, I found medium weight matched by brisk acidity, leading with a note of ripe cheese, yet quickly changing to lime, green apple, and tart citrus. It finished incredibly fresh and mouthwatering with lingering citrus rind and hints of undergrowth—a wild ride indeed. (93 points) Find it at Morrell
2011 Franz Hirtzberger Riesling Smaragd Singerriedel – The nose was racy and intense, showing spicy floral notes, rich lemon curd and a whiff of sweet herbs. On the palate, it was rich and juicy yet muscular in its youthful state, with notes of ripe peach, lemon pith and minerals. Throughout the finish, the palate remained saturated with peach and hint of mineral-tinged tropical fruit. (95 points) Find it at Morrell
2011 F.X. Pichler Riesling Reserve ‘M’ – This was intense and fruity on the nose with ripe tropical fruits, sweet, spicy floral tones, and a contrasting hint of bitter lemon rind. On the palate, it was rich yet balanced, showing ripe peach, grapefruit, wet slate and minerals. Spiced peach and lemon zest lingered on the finish, closing the experience with a fresh and clean note. Very Nice! (94 points) Find it at Morrell
Article and Tasting Notes by: Eric Guido
Produttori del Barbaresco has often been called the greatest value in age-worthy wine. For the longest time, there was no contest to this statement. However, today the wines continue to go up in price and rarity. That said, Produttori Riservas remain great values, but the days of being able to buy deeply and widely are gone. Now the wines of Produttori are highly allocated, more like a rare Burgundy than Barbaresco, and if you’re not paying attention, it’s easy to miss them.
Then there’s the question of vintage, of what is the deciding factor as to why Produttori will make Riservas in one year and not in another. For the longest time, collectors (myself included) thought this was decided by the vintage being one that would benefit from extended aging, yet today we find ourselves tasting the forward 2011s. In reality, the Produttori is more concerned with creating a complete and balanced wine, with the Normale (sometimes called Le Torre) being their priority. Still, in 2011 we are faced with a set of Riservas unlike anything I’ve ever seen before.
Aldo Vacca, the Produttori’s managing director for over 25 years, says that 2011 reminds him of the 1990 vintage, which is an interesting comparison, mainly because most collectors thought the 1990s wouldn’t mature well—but, in fact, they did. That said, it’s hard to ignore that the majority of 2011 Riservas that I’ve tasted are so enjoyable today, and it’s hard to imagine waiting. Their primary fruit is utterly gorgeous and with enough grip and balance to remind you that this is a wine made from Nebbiolo.
For those of you who want to put a wine away in this vintage, my pick would be Montestefano in a heartbeat. This is from one of the Produttoir’s most northerly vineyards, with cold winds coming down from the north. This influence was exactly what was necessary to combat the warmth of the vintage. It may be the most complete wine of the bunch. Having said that, there’s no denying the alluring and dark, yet slightly bitter richness of Rabaja. It may be to best young Rabaja I’ve ever tasted, but the question of how it will age is one that I’m afraid to broach. And then there’s Asili, the elegant beauty. I could go on and on, as there’s something to love about each of these wines.
As for the value of Produttori, I firmly believe they are well worth the hunt. In a classic vintage the Produttori is a sure bet for long-term cellaring and with a track record of great drinking for decades. As for a warm vintage, like 2011, they are so easy to like that it’s almost scary, and if Aldo Vacca is right about his comparison to 1990–then you will want to have these in the cellar. That said, if prices continue to rise, is there really any value in a very good-great Barbaresco, or will Produttori become lost in the shuffle? Only time will tell. And be warned, you have to keep your eyes open for these at retail, as the best wines are usually gone in a heartbeat.
On to the tasting notes: (In the order they were tasted)
Produttori Del Barbaresco Barbaresco Pora Riserva 2011 – The nose showed remarkably pretty floral tones followed by brilliant cherry fruit, herbs, and hints of minerals. On the palate, intense red fruits flooded the senses with a mix of cherry, strawberry, and cranberry. Soft textures gave way to hints of spice and sweet herbs in a very giving display for young Barbaresco. On the finish, I found red fruits along with pretty inner floral tones. (92 points)
Produttori Del Barbaresco Barbaresco Paje Riserva 2011 – The nose showed dark cherry, spice, hints of cedar and herbs in a deep and inviting display. On the palate, I found silky textures with sappy red fruits on a medium-bodied frame, with notes of savory herbs and bitters. It was center-focused with a dark persona leading to a palate-coating cherry sauce finish with caking minerality, and hints of fine tannin. (93 points) Find it at Morrell
Produttori Del Barbaresco Barbaresco Ovello Riserva 2011 – The nose showed minerals up front with rosy floral tones, and young red fruits. On the palate, I found soft, silky textures in a feminine display with tart red fruits and mounting tannin. The finish was long and quite pretty, showing pretty hard red candies with hints of contrasting tannin. (90 points)
Produttori Del Barbaresco Barbaresco Rio Sordo Riserva 2011 – The nose was wildly expressive with notes of medicinal cherry, cranberry, intense spice, dusty sweet floral tones and hints of undergrowth. On the palate, silky textures were quickly firmed up by youthful tannin in a dark and inward expression, showing bitter cherry and dark exotic spice. It finished on cranberry and palate-saturating tart cherry with lingering tannin. (93 points)
Produttori Del Barbaresco Barbaresco Asili Riserva 2011 – The bouquet on the ’11 Asili was gorgeous and truly elegant with a dark display of ripe black cherry, strawberry, savory herbs, minerals and undergrowth. On the palate, it was full-bodied with smooth textures, yet wonderfully focused in its cherry, minerals and spice. It’s a complete and balanced wine with structure to carry it for upwards of two decades. It finished on inner floral tones, herbs, tart cherry and palate-coating tannin. (94 points)
Produttori del Barbaresco Barbaresco Rabaja Riserva 2011 – The nose was layered, intense and alluring in every way, as a dark mix of crushed black cherry, plum, savory herbs, and floral tones came together with earth and mineral tones to form a gorgeous and classic Rabaja bouquet. On the palate, I found full-bodied, silky textures with ripe red fruits and spice that seemed to coat the senses, as well as the wine’s fine tannin. The long, enveloping finish seemed to go on and on with notes of tart cherry, mint, and minerals. This was a hard glass to put down; it’s a dark beauty of a wine that transcends the vintage. (95 points)
Produttori Del Barbaresco Barbaresco Muncagota Riserva 2011 – The nose was highly expressive with mineral-infused cherry, plum, and hints of undergrowth. On the palate, silky textures were complemented by dark red fruits and spice in a broad and pliant expression of Nebbiolo. Young tannin coated the senses throughout the finish with hints of bitter cherry. (91 points)
Produttori Del Barbaresco Barbaresco Montefico Riserva 2011 – The ’11 Montefico came across as a wine of contrasts, being all at once lifted, yet intense. The nose seemed to draw me in, displaying a deep mix of crushed cherry, dark floral tones, and minerals. On the palate, I found silky textures, lifted by vibrant acidity and refined tannin, with notes of bright red fruit, herbs and inner floral tones. The finish was long, with saturating cherry, inner floral tones and fine tannin that coated the senses. This is a gorgeous Barbaresco for mid-term cellaring. (93 points) Find it at Morrell
Produttori del Barbaresco Barbaresco Montestefano Riserva 2011 – The nose was beautifully layered and intense with deep red fruits, spice, minerals, rosy florals, and savory herbs. On the palate, it displayed silky textures contrasted by fine tannin with smoky spice, cherry, and minerals. There’s a tension here along with an inward feel that made me wonder what may be in store down the road. It finished on dark red fruits, sweet herbs and fine tannin. A classic in the making? I think there’s a good chance, as Montestefano performed more like young Barolo than Barbaresco. (94+ points) Find it at Morrell
Article, Photos, and Tasting Notes by: Eric Guido
The Produttori del Barbaresco selection at Morrell.
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