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. Read his Wachau travel guide here.
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