An hour's drive from Vienna, the Wachau and surrounding areas boast breathtaking scenery and some of Austria's most stunning wines. AMY WISLOCKI explores.
Steep terraced vineyards towering over the Danube, castle ruins, apricot trees in bloom and medieval villages. Come the summer and the road that clings to the river will be busy with wine-loving tourists, but in spring the Wachau is idyllic, the perfect destination for a short break.
Spanning 20 miles along the Danube, east of Vienna, the Wachau is home to some of Austria’s most famous producers and is a patchwork of different plots and terroirs. Like Burgundy, the average holding is tiny – the 1,400ha (hectares) under vine are divided among 1,000 vintners – and the top wines proudly announce their origin down to the vineyard (or ‘ried’, the Austrian equivalent of the cru). Venture further east into the areas of Kremstal and Kamptal and you get an even fuller picture of the many soils and conditions that make these wines great.The soil types found in the region include primary rock – adding an austere, mineral character to the great wines – mica schist, gneiss and loess (a yellow chalky loam, which gives broader, spicier flavours). Wines are produced in three styles: Steinfeder, Federspiel and Smaragd. The first two lighter styles are lower in alcohol than the rich, opulent and renowned Smaragd wines.
The eastern part of the region, Loiben and Durnstein and beyond to Kremstal and Kamptal, enjoys higher temperatures thanks to the summer heat that travels in from the Hungarian plains. Drive west to Spitz and you can feel the cool air from the mountains behind the village.
Days 1 & 2 > The Wachau
You need to set aside at least two days to explore this winemaking heartland. The region is small and the wineries close together, and so any itinerary is flexible. I would start with Prager in Weissenkirchen, though, where Toni Bodenstein will infuse you with his passion for the difference terroir makes to the finished wines. With rocks in his hands to demonstrate various soil types, Bodenstein is devout in his desire to produce wines that are perfect expressions of geological origin. ‘Terroir is our strength and our future,’ he says. ‘Our French friends have shown us the way.’
Tasting the wines is a revelation. The Grüner Veltliner Smaragd Achleiten has a pure, mid-intensity mineral nose, and flavours of flint being struck and green pepper. The 11ha Ried Achleiten dates back to the 12th century, explains Bodenstein, and the mineral character of wines is strongest here, typically rich and powerful. Move to the Riesling Smaragd Durnstein Hollerin, where you find sandy soil over rock, and the wine shows elegant green peach and elderberry flavours, with a fresh, floral dimension. As you leave the winery, Bodenstein may remind you that Smaragd wines should be aged for five to six years before drinking. Drive back through Durnstein now, taking time to admire the medieval walls, fortress ruins and beautiful church. This is picturebook Austria. Just the other side of the village is Freie Weingartner Wachau, a very large cooperative with 750 members and 600ha of land. The tiny baroque château and modern production facilities just next to it reflect the happy marriage here between tradition and modernity. The winemakers and MDs, Rainer Hess and Fritz Miesbaeur, show pride in the quality they have achieved – no mean feat given that most of its growers own just a hectare or so. The aim is for an elegant style. ‘We want finesse in our wines, not upfront opulence,’ says Hess. The impressive range includes an elegant, crisp and mineral-flavoured Grüner Veltliner Smaragd Achleiten, and a Riesling Smaragd from the Kellerberg, a mountain of pure crystalline soil on extremely steep terraces. This displays a floral, peachy, concentrated nose, tightly knit mineral palate and crisp acidity.
Next, for something completely different, make a stop at Oberloiben in the bend of the Danube, at FX Pichler. The family owns just 7.5ha but produces many wines, including the hallmark wine Grüner Veltliner M,for ‘monumental’. It is indeed. Produced from a selection of grapes from the best single-vineyard sites, the wine is made only in the best years. The nose is dense, aromatic and spicy, the palate rich and powerful with tropical notes. The finish goes on and on.Back in the car and a little further on to Unterloiben, a pretty village which is home to the Knoll winery and restaurant. The sense of history is marked, and it comes as no surprise to learn that the winery has stood here for 200 years. The wines are produced from 9ha on some of the best sites in the area.
Emmerich Knoll senior and junior are open-minded traditionalists. The wines age in large wooden barrels, but the pair are open to new techniques. They have introduced longer settling to achieve a cleaner style, and cool the grapes after crushing to enable skin contact without fermentation in warm conditions.Emmerich Knoll the younger is clearly passionate about Austrian Riesling. ‘You get the power, density and alcohol of Alsace, with the fruit and freshness of the Mosel,’ he enthuses, though he believes Grüner Veltliner is better with age: ‘It goes Burgundian, but without the wood.’ The optimum ageing time for a good Grüner is eight to 15 years, he says.The other side of Unterloiben and you can cross the bridge to the southern side of the Danube. Dominated by the imposing Gottweig Abbey is the village of Mautern, and the Nikolaihof winery. Housed in a beautiful former monastery set around a courtyard, this is the oldest wine estate in Austria, with a 2,000-year history and cellars dating back to Roman times.
The 20ha estate is run by Nikolaus and Christine Saahs, who use organic methods and lead the way in biodynamic production in Austria. Nikolaus Saahs takes pride in the fact that the wines are produced ‘without chemicals or modern techniques’. An old wooden press is displayed in the winery, and the wine is fermented in large oak barrels. Saahs prefers lower levels of alcohol. ‘Wine is for drinking, not degustation,’ he says. Their appreciation of natural and simple flavours is apparent in the jams, mustards and vinegars they make as a sideline – these are on sale alongside the wines. Try the 2000 vintage wines – ‘it ranks alongside 1971, 1973, 1977 and 1990 as one of the greats,’ says Saahs. The Riesling Smaragd 2000 from the gravelly Vom Stein ried has an austere, juicy peach and apricot flavours with a pronounced mineral streak.
Day 3> Kremstal & Kamptal
The well-preserved medieval town of Krems marks the border between the Wachau and Kremstal regions. Worth exploring, the town has a mix of Gothic, Baroque and Renaissance architecture, a wine museum and vinotheque.
Dr Unger is a large and well-known producer with vineyards in the Wachau and Kremstal. Run by Petra Unger and her husband, Konrad Hackl, the winery uses modern techniques – no wood, just stainless steel – and favours temperature-controlled fermentation until it finishes naturally. ‘It’s not our style to make wines with residual sugar,’ says Hackl. As we taste the Grüner Veltliner Alte Reben (‘old vines’) 2000, he explains that the grape has a more opulent, fruit-driven expression in Kremstal due to the predominantly loess soil. The wine has spicy almond and peach aromas; the palate is fresh, with marked fruit and pepper notes. ‘Kamptal has been overlooked by the wine world,’ pronounces Hannes Hirsch, a young, intense and brooding winemaker who crafts fine wines from 20ha of land in the region to the east of Kremstal. ‘Juicy, fresh wines are the strength of the region, similar to Kremstal in style, but maybe less broad on the palate.’Hirsch’s philosophy differs to that at Dr Unger. ‘I don’t want bone-dry wines, and usually leave around 3–6g of residual sugar. The wines shouldn’t taste sweet, just rounded and soft.’ Hirsch is a fan of riper flavours and believes that physiological ripeness is more important than the right numbers: ‘I haven’t taken a refractometer into the vineyard for two years.’ The wines are very good, especially the Zobinger Heiligenstein 2000 Riesling Smaragd, which still needs a few years to open up.
A grand finish to the tour is Schloss Gobbelsburg, a magnificent baroque castle, surrounded by 40ha of vineyards. Since 1996 the wines have been produced in partnership by Michael Moosbrugger and the skilled, gentle and respected winemaker Willi Bründlmeyer, who also owns 60ha around the nearby village of Langenlois. Bründlmeyer believes that Lower Austria is the only area perfect for Grüner Veltliner. ‘Further north and it’s too cold, further south and it’s too warm and the wine becomes flat. Without the noticeable drop in night time temperatures, the fruit disappears.’ Taste through the vast and excellent range, and you will soon agree with Bründlmeyer that there is as much variation in Kamptal as in the Wachau to the west. It’s tempting to generalise when talking about the great Austrian whites: Grüner Veltliner is fresh and green peppery, while Riesling is elegant and peachy. Tour the winemaking regions here, however, and it soon becomes clear just how chameleon-like these grapes can be in different hands, and on different terroirs. A land – and a concept – well worth exploring.
For more information on Austrian wine and contact details of the wineries in the region, visit www.austrian.wine.co.at, or read Philipp Blom’s The Wines of Austria (Faber).
Where to eat
For suggestions of where to eat in Vienna, read next month’s City Guide. A visit to Steirereck in Vienna is highly recommended – this opulent Relais & Chateaux restaurant has a fantastic wine list to accompany the Styrian cuisine (tel: +43 1 713 3168). The goulash is fiery and hearty.
In winemaking country, the Knoll and Nikolaihof wineries both have restaurants attached. Florianhof in Weissenkirchen sits opposite the river and offers a traditional, pretty setting (tel: +43 2 715 2212). Landhaus Bacher is one of the best-known stopping places among wine lovers. The country inn is run by a well-known Austrian chef, Elisabeth Wagner-Bacher, and her husband (tel: +43 2 7328 2937).
UK Austrian wine specialists
Fine wine accounts for just 2% of Austrian production. Thankfully, some does find its way over here, and a good selection can be found at several merchants, including:
Austrian Wines Direct.
Tel: +44 1923 210 424
Ben Ellis Wines. Tel: +44 1737 842 160
Richards Walford. Tel: +44 1780 460 451
Morris & Verdin. Tel: +44 20 7921 5000
Noel Young. Tel: +44 1223 844 744