Discover much more than just great wines from steep-terraced vineyards. Jason Turner takes the short trip from Vienna to explore this stunning riverside region.
Wachau fact file:
Total planted area: 1,350 hectares
Main grapes: Grüner Veltliner (52%), Riesling (16%), other whites (14%)
Leading viticultural towns: Spitz, Arnsdorf, Wösendorf, Joching, Weissenkirchen, Dürnstein, Loiben, Rossatz, Mautern
Main soil: Gföhl gneiss, a mineral-rich composition of migmatitic granite gneiss, quartz, felspar and mica, and parcels of loess
With a view overlooking the River Danube and a plate of homemade apricot dumplings in front of you, the terrace of the Richard von Löwenherz restaurant is the perfect way to prepare yourself for an exploration of the Wachau.
On a really sunny day, the water reflects a blue colour that might have inspired Johann Strauss to compose his famous waltz. Most of the time, the river is a subtle shade of jade, complementing the ocean of vines that grow on its banks and produce some of Austria’s most famous white wines. High above the terrace lies the imposing ruin of Dürnstein castle, where Richard the Lionheart was imprisoned on his return from the Third Crusade. It is worth the 20-minute hike to its peak, to enjoy the panoramic view and get your bearings.
The Wachau is a UNESCO cultural landscape with a 2,000-year heritage in viticulture. The area is a 33km stretch of the Danube valley, situated about an hour’s drive by car from Vienna. It begins upstream at Melk Abbey, one of the world’s most treasured cultural sites and a beautiful example of Baroque architecture, then meanders past the picturesque viticultural towns of Spitz, Weissenkirchen, Rossatz, Dürnstein, and towards the historic centre of Krems, said to be one of Austria’s oldest wine-producing towns. Beyond the village of Mautern on the southern skyline, you can clearly see the magnificent Göttweig Monastery.
Despite its proximity to Vienna, visitors to the Wachau usually stay at least one night in the city, enchanted by its idyllic charm, rustic Heuriger wine taverns and recreational activities. Those who drive by car travel light, to leave room for cellar-door purchases and apricot produce sold in all forms – from freshly picked fruit, to jams and homedistilled brandy. There can be traffic but, in efficient Austrian style, there is a choice of greener methods of transport, with direct connections from Vienna.
Once you arrive in Krems, take a stroll through the unspoilt pedestrian areas and savour the local delicacies, including the famous mild and sweet Krems mustard. From here you can hire a bike for your tour of the Wachau. Many operators offer bespoke cycling and Segway trips through a number of the 124 documented single vineyards, defined by picturesque hand-built, dry-stone terraces. Even if you are avidly sporty, it is great fun to try out the electric bikes, especially if you want to venture up the steep incline to the famous Kellerberg and Loibenberg vineyards, that produce some of the region’s most renowned Grüner Veltliners. On your way, you might be lucky and catch sight of the bashful emerald-green salamander between cracks in the dry stone walls, that gives the rich style Smaragd wines their name.
Sojourn in Spitz
From Dürnstein, the designated cycle lanes run parallel to the Danube past Joching, Weissenkirchen, Wösendorf to Spitz, which is a wonderful place to recharge your batteries (no pun intended for electric bikers). Its 2km-long riverside promenade is ideal for an after-dinner stroll, especially in summer. However, you might want to pack a pullover in preparation for the cool evening breezes from the northern Waldviertel region that promote the signature aromatic character of the wines.
Accommodation in a winery or family-run B&B comes highly recommended, with a chance to enjoy a hearty breakfast of locally grown produce. A fine example is producer Franz-Josef Gritsch, who rents out rooms in his winery (he was also a triple Gold medallist at the 2012 Decanter World Wine Awards). You are advised to book appointments with more renowned producers, and also check you have contacted the right producer, as each village will have several namesakes. Spitz is also home to Franz Hirtzberger, producer of the Singerriedel Riesling Smaragd which won a Regional Trophy at the 2011 DWWA. Hirtzberger’s father was a founding member of the self-regulating producers’ association, the Vinea Wachau, in the 1980s.
Wachau wines are divided into three categories based on their natural alcohol content by volume. The light-bodied Steinfeder has a maximum 11.5% alcohol and the food-friendly Federspiel has a range of 11.5% to 12.5%. Smaragd (named after that green lizard) refers to the late-harvest, rich and powerful style with a regulated minimum of 12.5%, but in warm vintages, it can exceed 15%.
Grüner Veltliner is Wachau’s leading grape variety, making up more than half the production. Riesling comes in second, producing outstanding results with mineral character from weathered granite rock soils sites on steep terraces. The wine pairs tremendously well with local fish dishes, including the rare huchen or Danube salmon, that has a texture and taste similar to tuna. Indigenous white varieties from Neuburger, Müller Thurgau and Gelber Muskateller in sparkling, dry, off-dry and sweet styles are a treat in the local Heuriger (family-run taverns). Just a few dozen cases per year are made and can only be drunk locally. About 10% of production in the Wachau is red wine, principally from the Zweigelt grape, and the cool hillside sites give the wine its fresh plum character.
The Wachau is most beautiful from the first apricot tree blossom around Easter, until the main grape harvest at end of October. It gets busy when Austrian tourists visit the region in May for spring weekends, and then again in September. Mid-July is quiet, when the Viennese travel south for their summer holidays, yet this will coincide with the apricot harvest. As well as being a great way to see the region, stick to the cycle routes: with 150,000 apricot trees planted in the Wachau, the harvest means that roads are congested with tractors.
How to get there:
By plane to Vienna: From all London airports (2 hour flight), and then by car or train (one hour) to Krems.
Rail and riverboat packages: oebb.at
Interactive MyWachau App: mywachau.at
Tourist information: wachau.at
Written by Decanter
Wachau: Six of the best wineries to visit
☆ Domäne Wachau, Dürnstein
The co-op accounts for a third of the Wachau’s total wine production and is managed by Roman Horvath MW and Heinz Frischengruber. The Baroque Kellerschlössl, the full programme of events and modern shop offer an experience for every discerning wine tourist.
☆ FX Pichler, Dürnstein
Franz-Xavier Pichler was a driving force behind the recognition of Wachau Grüner Veltliner and Riesling across the world. His son Lucas is now in charge of winemaking. Visit their ultra-modern winery, built beneath the legendary Kellerberg vineyard.
☆ Emmerich Knoll, Dürnstein
Knoll’s wine label depicts St-Urban, the patron saint of wine-growing. The 15ha estate is famous for its mineral-rich Rieslings, yet also produces specialities from Gelber Traminer and Muskateller. Enjoy its wines in the Loibnerhof restaurant, just off the cycle route.
☆ Franz Hirtzberger, Spitz
Franz Hirtzberger produces worldclass wines and is renowned for handpicking his Honivogl Grüner Veltliner and Singerriedel Riesling Smaragd wines as late as possible, often in December, when all the leaves have dropped. hirtzberger.at
☆ Peter Veyder-Malberg, Spitz
Veyder-Malberg founded his winery in Spitz in 2008, and has already been acclaimed for his organic Rieslings and Grüner Veltliners. His 30- to 50-yearold vines are grown according to old, labour-intensive Wachau traditions. Highly drinkable, ageworthy wines.
☆ Salomon-Undhof, Stein
Strictly speaking, this winery lies in neighbouring Kremstal, but was once part of the Wachau. Bertold and Gertrud Salomon offer a bespoke wine cellar tour. Try their old-vine Riesling Reserve from the Steiner Pfaffenberg, said to be one of Austria’s best sites.
Wachau: Where to stay, shop, eat and relax
Hotel Rathaus Wein & Design, Vienna
The place for wine lovers who want to stay in Vienna year round. Each of the hotel rooms is dedicated to a famous Austrian producer, including from the Wachau – ask to stay in the exclusive Hirtzberger or FX Pichler double rooms. hotel-rathaus-wien.at
Hotel-Restaurant Richard von Löwenherz, Dürnstein
This four-star hotel offers spacious rooms set within an old convent. An early-morning swim in the outdoor pool might be refreshing, but the breakfast spread is worth taking your time over.
Schloss Hotel Dürnstein
This five-star Relais & Châteaux property offers luxury for the most discerning traveller and has been in the Thiery family since 1937, welcoming many prominent guests over the years. The helicopter pad is just a short walk away. schloss.at
Lagler’s Buschenschank, Spitz
A Buschenschank may only serve cold food and beverages made by the household. Karl Lagler’s family uphold this Austrian tradition, under the watchful eye of Bono the border collie. Homemade cakes and black puddings come highly recommended.
Landhaus Bacher, Mautern
Lisl Wagner-Bacher is the grand dame of Austrian cuisine. Her son-in law Thomas Dorfer now reigns in the kitchen, but she is always nearby. A fine example of a perfect family-run restaurant.
Restaurant Kirchenwirt, Weissenkirchen
The Köck family have served hearty, down-to-earth food here since the 1980s. Weissenkirchen offers a wide selection of places to dine, but this should be on your list. Come hungry!
Vinothek Fohringer, Spitz
There is probably no other comprehensive supplier of Wachau wines worldwide. If a producer has run out of a particular wine, then the chance is high that they will send you here.
Wieser Café & Shop, Dürnstein
Markus Wieser is the apricot specialist, exporting his delicacies throughout the world. In Dürnstein, his modern cafés offer visitors the perfect opportunity to taste and buy everything from apricot marmalade, chocolate, bitters, liqueur and schnapps.
Vienna Explorer offers excellent, bespoke cycling, e-biking, Segway and private luxury van tours of the Wachau. There are also direct transfers from Vienna.
Walking the 44km or 12-hour Jakobsweg (St James’s Way) between Göttweig Monastery and Melk Abbey in the Wachau is good for self-reflection.
Wachau’s 100-year-old train line
was restored in 2012 and now offers visitors a unique journey through the vineyards that flank the Danube. There is also a travel pass available from April to October.
A riverboat tour offer visitors a great experience of the Wachau, either as part of a package tour or private boat hire. A round trip from Krems to Dürnstein gives ample time to finish a bottle of wine served on board.
www.ddsg-bluedanube.at and www.brandner.at