The Danube is not really blue, at least not in the Wachau; it is a burnished jade and, as it surges past Dürnstein at an invigorating 10 kilometres per hour, it is not hard to visualise how it has carved such a steep and dramatic valley from the surrounding granite hills.
In summer this short stretch, not much more than an hour’s journey from Spitz to Loiben, is thronging with tourists, but throughout the year there is a steady stream of wine lovers, gazing longingly upwards at the cluster of Austria’s famous vineyards, and hoping to prise a few bottles away from one or two of its most famous producers.The Wachau is, indeed, considered to be the country’s top wine region, renowned especially for its Rieslings and Grüner Veltliners, and yet until very recently it was virtually unheard of outside Austria. The sweet wines of Rust and Gumpoldskirchen were certainly better known in Great Britain, and it is that style which continues to receive the most attention.
The Wachau was formerly a closely guarded secret, the production of its 1,400 hectares (ha) being so sought after by the home market, and at such firm prices, that there was no reason to spread the allocations even more thinly. It is probably because the market was made up of such a small and informed group that the vineyards have never needed to be classified. Indeed, why should they be – even in France it is only in a handful of regions that a formal structure exists, elsewhere quality is, or should be, reflected in the price.But now the Wachau is entering the international arena and, if marketing Wachau wines to the world’s connoisseurs would be helped by a classification, then I can’t think of many places which lend themselves so well to it. Willi Klinger, until recently the sales director of Freie Weingärtner Wachau, a cooperative controlling 40% of the region’s vineyards, told me that a group of growers from the neighbouring regions of Kremstal and Kamptal tried, seven years ago, to map all the Austrian vineyards in a three-tier system. ‘This would make no sense in the Weinviertel; the vineyards are too heterogeneous and they would be better off with a village system,’ he maintains. But in the Wachau it is already embodied in tradition.
Needless to say, the EU is itching to intervene on the subject, requiring each region to classify its wines by quality under the auspices of a Comité Interprofessionel comprised of representatives from production, trade and administration. The Wachau already has its own system which would not fit in with that of the EU and, in any case, says Willi, ‘rather than legislation, we would like it to be empirical’.A main beneficiary of a classification system would be Freie Weingartner, not only because it has more wine to sell, but also because the system would help it to formulate grape prices with its growers. Another keen supporter is Toni Bodenstein, from the small but highly respected Weingut Prager. He is fascinated by the soil structures in the Wachau, and has made the accurate mapping of it his life’s work. With 1,000 years of wine-growing history behind it, the Wachau, like Burgundy, has a well established hierarchy where the best sites have the most well known names, selling for the highest prices. At a recent Master of Wine seminar on Wachau wines, Toni underlined this point, but also confirmed that Vinea Wachau, the self-regulating body guiding the region, is working on a classification system to be brought in within the next two years or so.
Similarities with Burgundy abound, not least that the Wachau has a climate comparable with the Côte de Nuits, albeit with winter temperatures which can drop to minus 25˚C. The vineyards are ranged along a narrow strip, and although the slope is much steeper, for the most part terraced, the best sites are usually half way down. Exposure and orientation to the sun also vary considerably, and the best sites are divided between many growers. As Franz Hirtzberger, another foremost producer attending the seminar, wryly remarked: ‘classification also depends on the grower.’ And yet the problem barely exits in the Wachau, where there are no ‘négociants’ and the growers form a small, dedicated group producing a uniformly high quality. To be sure, individual styles of wine-making are marked, from the tight, restrained raciness of Hirtzberger to the gentle, understated purity of Emmerich Knoll or the fiery opulence of F X Pichler . After a few years in the bottle, however, the imprint of the vineyard becomes more and more distinct, both the Grüner Veltliner and Rhine Riesling being highly responsive to terroir.
The exact details of the classification have yet finally to be decided. The cosmopolitan Willi Klinger who, during his time with Freie Weingärtner Wachau, championed the promotion of wines from the top sites under the appellation of crus, envisaged eight grands crus, a second tier of crus, also sold under a single vineyard name, and the remaining wines blended and sold under the name of their village. A consideration would certainly be that of grape varieties. Due to the bastion of rock at Dürnstein which impedes the flow of air down the valley, the climate in the Wachau varies considerably. In Loiben and Durnstein, at the eastern end, the summer heat from the Hungarian plains raises the temperature to significantly higher levels than those of Spitz, 10 kilometres to the west, where cool air cascades down from the high mountains behind the village. The aromatic, fresh style of Spitz favours the elegance of Riesling; the rich, fiery character of Loiben fills the Grüner Veltliner with spiciness and complexity. These differentials are enhanced by the change in soil, from slate and quartz in Spitz, to sandstone loess at the eastern end. Although many grape varieties are grown in the Wachau, only two could be considered ‘noble’. Of the eight outstanding sites from which the equivalent of grands crus might be drawn, there is certainly one site in Spitz which does not produce great Grüner Veltliner. The breezy gneiss slopes of Tausendeimerberg permit the Freie Weingärtner to make the most scented and exotic Rieslings of the Wachau, but Grüner Veltliner does not ripen fully enough to lose its pungent, green pepper character. Who would want to plant Grüner Veltliner there in any case, when Riesling commands a far higher price? You might think that the same would apply on the adjacent, quartz-strewn Singerriedel, the apotheosis of Wachau Riesling. As if to prove his point about the grower being part of the classification, Franz Hirtzberger makes one of the Wachau’s most outstanding Veltliners on a part of it!
Along from the village of Weissenkirchen, in the middle section of the valley, lies Achleiten, whose terraces date back to the 12th century. The mineral character of the region’s wines is strongest here, where it is combined with great power and richness in both varieties. Toni Bodenstein is a great exponent of this style, and would be horrified to hear the soil blandly described as gneiss and slate. Suffice it to say that Ried Klaus, a section of Achleiten which produces wines with quite a different, stone fruit character, is a candidate for a separate grand cru. Here the Riesling alone might be classified. At Dürnstein we begin to move into Grüner Veltliner’s home territory, but on the Kellerberg, which is mainly feldspar and quartz, with outcrops of loess, F X Pichler produces great Rieslings. The remaining vineyard which would almost certainly be in the running for classification at the top level is Loibenberg, whose gneiss and loess soil is complemented by the Wachau’s warmest climate giving the fiery, mouthfilling style best suited to Grüner Veltliners for long ageing, epitomised by the wines of Emmerich Knoll.If agreement between growers and with the Government can be reached on classification, it will be a less rocky path than the introduction of grands crus in Alsace. There are many less growers involved, and they are working through their own organisation whose members control almost all the Wachau vineyard. But despite this, there are bound to be some areas of contention.
Written by ANTHONY BARNE