A Walk in the Wachau
A visit to one of Austria’s largest wineries, and the Wachau’s only cooperative wine producer
You never quite know when you have definitively entered the hallowed vineyards of the Wachau. There is no fanfare, no arches or flags, just a thoroughly miss-able sign on the road hinting at a change in the postal code.
But you sense it: The landscape seems to cajole with each bend of the road, the terraced vineyards within arm’s reach intensifying the anticipation. But with a who’s who of the wine royalty of these villages, I headed for one of Austria’s largest wineries, and the Wachau’s only cooperative wine producer: Domäne Wachau.
Representing hundreds of generational family growers that cover all the best-known vineyard sights along the Wachau corridor between Melk and Krems, Domäne Wachau produces some 30% of the region’s total production.
And the landscape is simply stunning! A UNESCO World Heritage Site, here the Danube has carved its way through the mineral rich gneiss of striped granite, quartz, felspar, and mica, resulting in a construction of walled terraces, angular and proud, like a regiment of weathered soldiers watching over the villages and the comings and goings of the river.
Standing in one of the signature vineyards, the Kellerberg, the village of Dürnstein lies below, with the facilities of Domäne Wachau, and the beautifully restored Baroque Cellar Palace. Here the question of terroir is answered emphatically along the curving vine rows, with changes of soil and exposed rock on every turn of the terrace, a statement of intent, style, and structure.
My tasting involved tutelage by Winery Director Roman Horvath MW, and Technical Director Heinz Frischengruber, two men with very broad shoulders and patience to burn. They focused on the two main varieties of the region, both in acreage and profile, with Grüner Veltliner accounting for 55% of their production, and Riesling, 18%.
Understanding wine from the Wachau starts with the self imposed commandments of the Vinea Wachau, where dry white wines are divided into three categories based on their natural alcohol content by volume. Aromatic, light-bodied wines up to 11.5% are called "Steinfeder" (named after the tall, feather-like grass stipa pennata). The most common category is the "Federspiel", with 11.5% to 12.5% alcohol by volume, and the late-harvest, rich and powerful dry wines are termed "Smaragd", or emerald.
Grüner Veltliner (GV):
Domäne Wachau have an enviable list of 20 GV’s. The entry level 2011 Steinfeder Katzensprung (€6.50), from the non-terraced vineyards around Dürnstein, is a refreshingly zippy wine, full of white peach & pear and a hint of spring white flowers. Moving into the heart of the classification system, the 2011 Federspiel Terrassen (€7.60) is the Domäne’s classic regional wine. The many terraced vineyards make the blend consistent, with a refined, elegant character, and a smattering of spice, orange peel, and red apples. Finally, the all-encompassing 2011 Smaragd Achleiten (€20.40) from a single vineyard near Weissenkirchen, is Ferrari-like in its form and function. The full ripeness of GV is shown with exotic spices, anise, sesame, and the underbelly of rich limestone and schist minerals.
I tasted two single-vineyard 2011 Federspiel wines side by side, one from the Löibenberg vineyard (€10.90), a warm sight giving it kiwi fruits, anise, and apples with slate minerality, and the Bruck vineyard (€10.90), full of flower blossom, mandarin, and a refreshing sea shell minerality. But it was the revered 2011 Smaragd Singerriedel (€20.40) that stole the show. This vineyard, hovering above Spitz in the far west of the Wachau, is cool and uncompromising. These are long-lived and complex wines, and this example, mouth-filling and robust with lemon curd and lime, apricots and nectarines with integrity to savor and save for!
In the Wachau, character is firmly rooted in the ground. Producers, like their vines, cling to the rocky soils with gnarled fingers, which can be intimidating for the wine enthusiast. But Domäne Wachau offers a quality exposé, a journey once begun that may never truly end.
Lower Austria kicks off Europe’s largest wine festival, the Weinherbst Niederösterreich, on 17 Sept. For more information see here.
For more on Lower Austrian wines, see "Uncorking the Inner Critic" in TVR March 2012.