Austria's Smart Buys
- Friday 25 February 2005
West of Vienna, just after the Danube has coursed through Austria’s most renowned white wine region, the Wachau, you come to Krems. This historic town is known for its colleges, its high-security prison – and its wines. The unfortunate consequence is that many wine tourists drive right past and head for the prestigious estates of the Wachau.
That’s a shame, because Krems and its hinterland (the Kremstal) produce superb white wines, and some more than decent reds. So does the Kamptal, which adjoins Krems and lies to its north, with its vineyards forming a horseshoe of slopes around the pretty town of Langenlois.
The differences in microclimate between the Kremstal and Kamptal are only slight. Some growers maintain the Kamptal is slightly warmer; others say there is no perceptible difference. Both regions are dominated by loess soils, but they also have vineyards on primary rock soils that deliver superb Rieslings.
The best estates in Wachau’s neighbouring regions can rival it in quality. Given that prices for wines from the Kremstal and Kamptal are significantly lower than those for the Wachau, the canny white wine fancier is well advised to turn his attention to these lesser-known regions.
The grape varieties are the same: Grüner Veltliner and Riesling, with a small production of Gelber Muskateller and Sauvignon Blanc. Mantlerhof in the Kremstal is renowned for its Roter Veltliner, which derives its name from its rose-tinged skins. It produces rich, slightly blowsy wines that somehow lack the finesse of the other varieties.
Grüner Veltliner is the traditional grape of the area, and it thrives on the deep loess soils, though it is also planted on primary rock soils (urgestein) that give it an additional minerality. Riesling, when planted on urgestein, as it usually is, produces wines very similar in style to those from the Wachau.
Traditional growers insist Veltliner ages better than Riesling, since the latter often develops petrolly tones that are not to everyone’s taste. Veltliner often, but not always, retains its freshness, even though its acidity tends to be lower than that of Riesling. To prove the point, Wolfgang Aigner in Krems rummages through his cellar for a bottle of 1964.
‘It wasn’t a great vintage, as yields were very high, and the wine would have been chaptalised. Let’s see what it’s like.’ He pulls an alarmingly short cork, and we sip the wine. There is a trace of oxidation and we agree it isn’t fabulous, but 40 years on it is still alive and pleasurable. I have drunk a few Veltliners from the early 1970s which showed remarkably few signs of evolution, retaining a bright youthful colour and zest on the palate.
Admittedly, the exercise is rather academic, since most of these wines are drunk young. Yet they benefit from age, developing greater aromatic complexity at 5–10 years. Thereafter it’s a lottery and a question of personal taste.
King of Kamptal
The best-known estate in the Kamptal is that of Willi Bründlmayer. A willowy man with permament stubble, Bründlmayer presides over 70ha (hectares), mostly located in outstanding vineyards. His best Rieslings come from Zöbinger Heiligenstein, and his best Veltliners from a number of sites, though my favourite bottling is often the Alte Reben (old vines). He also produces an elegant if oaky Pinot Noir, and a good Chardonnay. One peculiarity of the estate is that Bründlmayer only uses Austrian wood, acacia as well as oak, though small barrels are only used for the international varieties.
Bründlmayer scores again and again for sheer consistency. There was a phase in the mid to late 1990s when some wines seemed too ripe and alcoholic, but this tendency has now been curbed.
In 1996 Bründlmayer and Michael Moosbrugger took over the management of the 30ha monastic estate of Schloss Gobelsburg. With a 60-year contract, Moosbrugger can do as he likes. Gobelsburg releases a number of single-vineyard bottlings, of which the best are often the Riesling from Heiligenstein and the Veltiner from Lamm. These are wines of great power and intensity but, as at Bründlmayer, the tendency to go for high alcohol has been restrained.
Moosbrugger’s pet project is the Veltliner Tradition, which he makes in exactly the same way it would have been made 150 years ago: fermentation without temperature control, and ageing in old casks with regular rackings. The wine is rich and peachy, a touch more oxidative in style than his other Veltliners, but the vinification can result, as in 2001, in a worrying dose of residual sugar.
The other large estate is the barely pronounceable Jurtschitsch, run by the eponymous family since 1868. The crop from its 60ha is supplemented by purchases from 40 more. About one third of production is red: juicy Zweigelt and a Pinot/Zweigelt blend called Rotspon. However, the most characteristic wines are the limey Rieslings (Alte Reben and Heiligenstein), and spicy, concentrated Veltliners from top sites such as Schenkenbichl and Spiegel. Jurtschitsch has always been a commercially astute estate – its marketing director Karl Jurtschitsch is always buzzing with ideas – and in Austria the property is perhaps best known for its simple but snazzily packaged Veltliner called GrüVe – a painful pun on ‘groovy’, which rather dates the concept. Despite GrüVe, the top Jurtschitsch wines are first-rate.
Also in the Kamptal are the up-and-coming Summerer estate (delicious whites of clarity and purity) and the Hirsch estate, run by young Johannes Hirsch. Since 2002 the entire range has been screwcapped. Both the Lamm Veltliner and the Heiligenstein Riesling are graceful, vibrant and balanced.
Fred Loimer’s first solo vintage after taking over from his father was 1998, and in 2000, to highlight the changes, he built new offices and cellars in the form of a black box, causing much tut-tutting in Langenlois. Loimer’s top wines are aged partly in steel tanks and partly in newish medium-sized casks. Loimer believes strongly that Kamptal should offer lively drinkable wines at all quality levels, and that is what he delivers. Overall, I find his Rieslings more successful than his Veltliners, but all his wines are impeccably made.
Back in Krems, the leading estate is Salomon, in the family since 1792 and run since the early 1970s by brothers Erich and Bertold. Most of their 20ha are on volcanic gneiss soil identical to that of the neighbouring Wachau. Their best wines come from two steep sites behind their winery: Steiner Hund and Steiner Pfaffenberg. The Riesling from Kremser Kögl is at the same level. Their top range, Reserve, can have some overripeness and residual sugar. A house speciality is the Gelber Traminer, a flowery yet often remarkably powerful wine.
The town of Krems itself owns 30ha of vineyards, presented to it by a nobleman in 1452. Until recently the wines were unremarkable, but in 2003 a new director arrived in the shape of Fritz Miesbauer. Over the previous 13 years he had built the Wachau’s cooperative, the Freie Weingärtner, into a major player, renowned for the quality and value of its wines. But a spectacular falling-out with the coop’s board led to Miesbauer’s departure. The Weingut Stadt Krems was quick to pounce, offering him investment funds and a free hand. Thus far he has only had one vintage to work with, the atypical 2003, but the wines, especially the Riesling from Kögl and the Veltliners from Wachtberg and Weinzielberg, are impressive.
It’s hard to single out one estate as the best in Krems but, if pushed, I would opt for Martin Nigl. His vineyards are dispersed, and there are a number of single-vineyard bottlings, but his top site is the 10ha Piri in the village of Senftenberg, a few miles inland from the Danube. Both the Riesling and the Grüner Veltiner are outstanding in their purity, minerality and intensity. In top years, Nigl vinifies a parcel of 35-year-old vines separately, and the wines are labelled as Piri, Privat. These are among Austria’s greatest white wines.
A greatly improved estate is that of Sepp Moser’s Rohrendorf, now run by Nikolaus Moser.
Most of the top white wines are aged in 500-litre casks. The 2002s are outstanding for both Riesling and Veltliner, but the 2003s are a touch too plump and juicy for my taste.
The largest Kremstal producer is the Winzer Krems coop, whose members cultivate 900ha, here and in the Kamptal. The cheaper bottlings are clean but unexciting, but the best wines, the Kellermeister Privat and Hauerrinung ranges, offer very good value.
Very few top estates are located across from Krems on the southern bank of the Danube, where the land is flatter. One exception is Malat, which cultivates 40ha here and in the Wachau village of Mautern. Gerald Malat is a tall imposing figure, extremely proud of his reputation for red wines, and it’s true that he was a pioneer of Bordeaux varieties in Austria. I was impressed some years ago by his 1998 whites, and his 2002s show he hasn’t lost his touch. The Dreigärten Veltliner is spicy and lively, and the Beste von Riesling, his top Riesling, is concentrated and peachy with a long mineral finish. Power here is never achieved at the expense of elegance.
On the eastern fringes of the Kremstal in Hollenburg is the estate of Meinhard Forstreiter, which produces honest, well-priced Veltiners. The curiosity is Tabor, a wine from a vineyard perched high above the Danube, with old vines planted on their own roots. The Forstreiters bought the vineyard in 1999, and believe it may be the oldest in Austria. It’s very small, so production is tiny, but the wine is remarkable, earthy on the nose, yet deep, powerful, and very long on the palate.
The Kamptal and the Kremstal offer a wide range of first-rate whites for those who value purity, minerality and intensity at an affordable price.
Nigl, Riesling Piri 2003
Powerful nose, apricot kernels; rich, full bodied, tight, powerful, spicy finish. £15.35; Gau
Malat, Beste von Riesling 2002
Rich peachy nose; rich, concentrated, powerful, peachy. Mineral finish. N/A UK; +43 273 282 934
Bründlmayer, Grüner Veltliner, Alte Reben 2002
Vigorous spicy nose; rich, tight, concentrated, spicy, invigorating. £16–20; Aph, Bib, You
Jurtschitsch, Grüner Veltliner Spiegel 2002
Vigorous citric aromas; good attack, zesty, powerful finish of very ripe pears. £14.99; Odd
Loimer, Riesling Steinmassl 2002
Complex mineral nose, lemon pie and herbs; full-bodied, long peppery finish. £21.95; Lib
Nigl, Grüner Veltliner Privat 2002
Rich spicy nose; concentrated and zesty, peppery, perfectly balanced and long. £16.25 (2003); Gau
Salomon, Riesling Kremser Kögl 2002
Delicate flowery nose; rich, concentrated, good acidic backbone, lean and youthful. £10.95; L&S
Schloss Gobelsburg, Riesling Zöbinger Heiligenstein 2002
Lean elegant nutty nose; fresh, zesty, quite concentrated, has finesse and length.
£15 (2003); FWW, Hsl, P&S, PdT
Salomon, Gelber Traminer Reserve 2000
Rich, flowery nose, roses; medium bodied but powerful, off-dry, rich and forceful. £14.95; L&S
Sepp Moser, Grüner Veltliner Gebling 2002
Spicy elegant nose; fairly rich, broad, juicy, with reasonable acidity and length. £8.99 (2003); M&S
Stadt Krems, Grüner Veltliner Weinzielberg 2003
Rich nose of grapefruit and white peach; juicy, concentrated with good acidity. £8; FWW