Welcome To The Wachau
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.
On To The Tasting Notes
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)
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)
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)
2007 F.X. Pichler Grüner Veltliner Smaragd ‘M’ -The nose was intense with a cascade of sweet florals, fresh lemon, herbs and wet stone. On the palate, I found weighty textures, like nectar more than wine, yet contrasted by a saturating wave of tart citrus and minerality. It finished clean and vibrant, with no sign of the almost syrup-like textures that first greeted me on the palate. This is not a wine for the timid. (92 points)
2015 Franz Hirtzberger Riesling Smaragd Hochrain – The nose was gorgeous and intense with rich peach tones up front, followed by sweet herbs, creme brulee, crushed stone minerality, and a hint of kiwi. On the palate, I found creamy, weighty textures offset by a zing of brisk acidity with notes of mango, ripe apple, minty basil, and spice. The finish was long yet fresh with lingering notes of minty herbs, tart tropical tones and savory minerals. This verges on the edge of ripeness and opulence, yet maintains wonderful balance and restraint–Wow! (93 points) M
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)
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)
2012 Franz Hirtzberger Riesling Smaragd Singerriedel – The nose is so intense, yet also finessed and wonderfully fresh with baked apple, pear, sweet cream, and yellow flowers, then turning savory with a mix of chive, ginger and minerals. On the palate, weighty textures were lifted by intense minerality, spice and zesty acidity with green apple, young pineapple and a cascade of inner florals. A coating of minerals and stone fruit concentration lasted long on the senses. This was so dense but with so much energy, like a bomb aching to explode. (95 points)
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)
2011 Franz Hirtzberger Riesling Smaragd Setzberg – The 2011 Setzberg has gained significant richness since my last taste a year ago. Tonight I found a seductive bouquet of ripe peach, mango and hints of lime, followed by smoky minerality and spring florals. On the palate, silky textures with weighty persistence gave way flavors of ripe apple, mango, sweet herbs and a twang of citrus driven acidity. It finished with caking minerality, hints of peach tea and a buzz of green apple acidity. Color me impressed. (93 points)
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)