Dry, medium or sweet, Riesling is undoubtedly Austria's super-grape, and Austrian growers have become celebrities in their country. SUSAN LOW meets five of the best Riesling wine producers and recommends their finest wines.
Long, lean, glinting with pale brilliance and with all the poise and balance of a tightrope walker, Riesling has to be the super-model of grape varieties. With supermodel fastidiousness, Riesling wine is very particular about where it likes to put down roots. Not one to loll about on valley floors, this variety likes to take the high ground, preferably in view of water, or at least with hills or dramatic slopes in its sights. Despite its seeming delicacy, it’s a tenacious vine, and will cling with unstinting diligence to steep, vertiginous slopes that would try the patience of a mountain goat.
The slopes of the Danube as it wends its way through Austria’s Kremstal and Wachau regions are just the sort of places that Riesling wine likes to strut its stuff. In Wachau, terraces cut into the hillsides rise from the valley floor in uneven steps, as though it’s their first outing in high heels.
Outcroppings of primary rock (granite, gneiss and slate) are interspersed with loess, loam and sand. Soil types and aspect combine to produce some of the most powerful, rich, minerally and complex Rieslings in the world.
These wines are no shrinking violets. Unlike Riesling wine from Germany’s Mosel and Saar-Ruwer regions, which in most years have to fight for every degree of ripeness, in most vintages Austrian Rieslings attain ripeness levels that would make a Mosel-man weep with envy. In a hot year like 2000, wines with more than 14% alcohol were not unusual, although 12–13% is more common. Here in the UK, critics and consumers continue to wait for the ‘Riesling revolution’ to take off, but Riesling wine has never gone out of fashion in Austria. The variety is alive and well, and high-quality wines are being made by an assortment of producers so eclectic that they defy stereotypes.
Names like Prager, Knoll, Pichler and Hirtzberger continue to gain accolades, but the young guns, philosophers, coops and biodynamic producers below are flying the flag high for Austrian Riesling wine, too.
Freie Weingartner Wachau
This coop in Wachau’s impossibly pretty town of Dürnstein has two strikes against it: a tongue-twister of a name and the fact that it’s a coop. Yet to be put off by one or either of these facts would be to miss out on some pretty exciting wines.
Since the departure of Willi Klinger (to Angelo Gaja in Piedmont) the inspiration behind the operation is Fritz Miesbauer, Klinger’s former co-director. My first reaction on meeting this young dynamo is to grimace. It’s not that he doesn’t seem a personable sort of chap – it’s that handshake; half-human, half-Schwarzenegger Robocop. The steely grip shows the sort of determination required to produce wines of this quality, particularly when dealing with over 700 growers working on 550ha of land.
Miesbauer, a curious cross between oenologist, marketing person and head visionary, has been with FWW since 1991. Since then, ‘convincing growers to focus on quality and ripeness’ has been the aim, one that he admits has not always been an easy task. ‘They are Wachau people – they are very individual; it’s interesting to get them motivated,’ he says, searching in vain for the right adjective.
The FWW wines have a particular character – no mean feat for a cooperative. At harvest, grapes with any trace of botrytis are separated from the clean grapes and vinified separately. FWW’s Riesling wine is big and concentrated, the ripest smaragd-style wines in particular having a lush vibrancy layered over steely acidity. Miesbauer admits that they may not be to everyone’s taste. ‘It’s our own character,’ he says. ‘If someone likes it, good; but if not, what can we do?’
When we arrive at Nikolaihof the winery is a-clatter with the noise of a bottling line in full throttle. Co-proprietor Christine Saahs, whose adherence to biodynamic principles fuels the winemaking approach, apologises for the racket. ‘The moon is right,’ she explains. ‘We can only bottle one week a year.’ She thrusts a calendar, like a biodynamic version of the Farmer’s Almanac, into my hands and points out which are good days and which are bad. ‘On these days, we bottle. But these,’ she says, pointing to three days underlined in black, ‘are very bad for wine, and also bad for people. On these days we should just stay in bed,’ she laughs.
Saahs explains how, 30 years ago, she read the writings of Rudolph Steiner. His ideas made so much sense that she convinced winemaker husband Nikolaus to go biodyanamic. ‘These are my ideas, but he’s a good husband – he listens,’ she jokes.
Nikolaihof is one of the few producers on the ‘wrong’ – south – side of the Danube to produce consistently good wines. Saahs is adamant that the terroir here is every bit as good as that on the other side of the river.
‘This is the earliest place in the Wachau to ripen. It’s a special valley – very warm.’ The soils here are primary rock with loess and the Saahs tend the grapes according to biodynamic principles. I’m not sure how – or if – that affects the flavour of the grapes, but such attention lavished on vines can only have a positive effect. The Rieslings at Nikolaihof have a green-apple and lime-juice purity to them, even if they lack the weight of some of the bigger, richer Wachau styles. Yet Christine Saahs is not after blockbuster styles. ‘Biodynamic winemaking produces wines that are very compact. It’s not a bomb. These are wines you have to give time.’
Weingut Dr Unger
To eyes that are weary of glinting stainless steel and huge tank farms, the tiny winery at Dr Unger, on the border between Kremstal and Wachau, comes as a relief. The tiny cellar is set into the side of a mountain and is kitted out with a variety of winemaking equipment from the 1960s, the 1970s, the 1980s and a small handful of new oak barriques.
A full winery tour takes just a few minutes and is refreshingly low-tech. The winery got its official start in 1987, when Wolfgang Unger rented the monastic vineyards of a Benedictine monastery. He joined the monastery’s vineyards to those of the family and set about modernising the winery. Since his death, daughter Petra Unger and her partner Konrad Hackl have capably kept the original vision alive.
The pair are the quintessential young guns of the region: ambitious, driven, but in tune with the region’s history. ‘The most important thing is that the wines are clean and typical of the variety; the second step is to get finesse,’ says Hackl. To that end, Riesling’s are made only with stainless steel, without a hint of oak. ‘Every winery has its own style. The potential for this area is freshness and fruit, and that comes out more when you use stainless steel,’ Hackl explains.
The best of their Riesling wine has a pure, elegant crystalline quality; they’re not flashy wines, but they’ve got style. This will be a pair to watch in future.
Tall and softly spoken, the gentle manner of Willi Bründlmayer belies the man’s uncompromising approach to winemaking. The son of farmers who made a fortuitous decision back in the 1950s to buy hillside land while it was cheap, Bründlmayer is truly a winemaker’s winemaker. He examines every step of the process, looking at where and how the vines are grown, how they’re tended and harvested and then what happens to the wines during fermentation and ageing.
He explains – as we drive in his 4WD to the slopes where the vines for his top Riesling, Zöbinger Heiligenstein, are grown – that he’s not interested in jumping on the organic bandwagon, even though his wines are grown with as little chemical intervention as possible. ‘I prefer people who enjoy life, who are not 100% health-conscious,’ he says. ‘But on the other hand, I don’t like to spray poisons.’ The grapes are grown on steep terraces, within view of the River Kamp, a tributary to the Danube. He does an initial green harvest, and at vintage time there is a partial picking for his (very good) Sekt wines. ‘The rest stays on the vines, getting very concentrated,’ he says.
Bründlmayer shuns proprietary yeasts for his own ambient-yeast culture. This total-control approach extends to oak barrels, too. Bründlmayer says: ‘I don’t want a technology factor in the wine. So I ask the cooper not to use a clock when they’re toasting the barrels. Each is slightly different and it’s better for the wine.’ Riesling, however, is put into large, old oak casks for a short time after fermentation in stainless steel. ‘Just to say hello to a cask gives it some help,’ he explains. Not surprisingly, Bründlmayer’s wines don’t follow the herd. Long ‘hang time’ gives the wines a certain weightiness, though there’s a lively citrus quality running through them. They’re also long-lived, as a lively 1985 Heiligenstein, with wafts of diesel and lime, proves beautifully.
Schloss Gobelsburg shows how brilliantly old and new can combine. This wonderful baroque castle is the sort of place that Mad King Ludwig or Walt Disney would lust after (although it has far too much taste for either). The castle belongs to a monastery and this property used to be its winery. The property had been in decline for decades until 1996 when Michael Moosbrugger, in partnership with Willi Brundlmayer, leased the vineyards and embarked on a mission to produce wines that would live up to the potential of the vineyards. They’ve reconstructed the cellars, bought new presses and machinery, though Moosbrugger, in typical understated style, insists that it ‘was no big deal’.
Before he caught the wine bug, Moosbrugger was a student of music and philosophy. The philosophy shows in his wines. There is no set way of making wine here. Instead, Moosbrugger listens to the vines; he gauges the potential of each vineyard site in each vintage and adjusts the winemaking accordingly. ‘I do all kinds of vinification,’ he says. ‘Some I ferment in stainless steel and then move to wood casks with the lees, and some I ferment on wood casks. If I’m going for fruit, I work with stainless steel; if I want terroir, I work with oak because it reduces the fruit character and brings out the terroir.’
The signature note of the modern Schloss Gobelsburg wines is complexity. All have a racy acidity that underscores a variety of other elements, ranging from toffee, crême brûlée, lemon meringue, quince paste, brioche, and citrus flavours. Moosbrugger, though, insists that nature makes the wines, not him.
‘Basically, it’s the soil that is working on the wine. I’m only trying to keep it as good as possible.’ He’s doing a good job.
Freie Weingärtner Wachau, Riesling Smaragd Achleiten 2001
A delicate stony, flinty, floral nose gives way to a lush palate that combines crisp grapefruit flavours with rounder, peachy, melon-fruit depths, with piercing citrus acidity running throughout. £15.95; Els
Willi Bründlmayer, Riesling Zöbinger Heiligenstein Alte Reben 2001
With its crystalline structure and ultra-crisp freshness, this is a wine that’s all about structure. Lively citrus flavours of lime, lemon and mandarin/orange pith dominate now, but this one promises a long future. £20 (for 2000 vintage. 2001 not released yet); RdW
Nikolaihof Smaragd, Riesling Vom Stein 2000
The warmth of the 2000 vintage is evident on the rich, ripe palate of this wine. Round and slightly creamy, it nonetheless shows a pristine, lime-juice inflected crispness and steely structure. £21.50; Unc, WSo
Dr Unger Silberbügl, Riesling Reserve 1999
The mouthwatering nose of lime and orange peel shows good varietal character. Elegant, well structured and long on the palate, with exuberant lime juice and candied peel flavours. £14; M&V
Schloss Gobelsburg, Alte Reben 2001
Golden-hued and scented with exotic fruit and lemon zest. Rich, weighty and intense with layers of citrus and cream flavours, and a textured mouthfeel. £15.95–16.95; Els, Har