Discovering the source of Austria’s finest white wines, Raymond Blake looks at the importance of wine-mapping in the Wachau region
When wine lovers think of dramatically terraced vineyards, their thoughts drift to Portugal’s Douro, and when they imagine ankle-jarring, steep slopes they think of Germany’s Mosel. Which is a little unfair on Austria’s Wachau, the region on the Danube west of Vienna that does vertiginous slopes and laboriously crafted terraces as well as the best of them.
The ‘usual suspect’ clichés apply to the Wachau: ‘breath-taking’, ‘jaw-dropping’ and so forth, though they all come up short. Photographs struggle too; they capture the beauty but not the sense of enchantment that comes only with a visit to the region – and anyone who has visited will not have been surprised when the Wachau was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2000. UNESCO’s dry but accurate prose runs thus: “The architecture, the human settlements, and the agricultural use of the land in the Wachau vividly illustrate a basically medieval landscape which has evolved organically and harmoniously over time.”
Austria’s finest white wines come from the Wachau: Grüner Veltliners of compelling intensity, blessed with the ability to age over decades into complex, multi-layered wines that banish any doubts about this grape’s pedigree; and Rieslings of structure and body that are rich, though not heavy, thanks to the signature zip of acidity that lies at their core. Nearly all of the best wines come from vineyards on the north bank of the river, some of which are little more than tiny parcels of vines perched on scraps of hillside high above the river. Many hundreds of them, called Rieden, have been mapped and named in an exercise in pixelation that rivals Burgundy’s Côte d’Or for minute division and distinction between one plot and another.
It’s a cartographer’s delight – or nightmare – but the precision of mapping yields tangible results in the wines, whose flavours are equally precise. Both grapes echo the site and soil or, in some cases, the lack of soil, on which they were grown and if one word could be applied to just about every wine produced in the Wachau it is ‘purity’. The flavours are clean-crafted, there’s nothing imprecise or sloppy about them and it is the sense of purity that gives them their distinction and which makes them supremely good wines for matching with food. These are serious wines that deserve a place at the dinner table, especially when drunk with Austria’s generally hearty cuisine, where they can leaven the weight of flavour admirably. For me, the best match of all, of which I can never get enough, is a good Wiener Schnitzel paired with an equally flavoursome Grüner Veltliner. Should you ever manage to visit, be sure to try it.
STEINFEDER – FEDERSPIEL – SMARAGD
These three quality designations are unique to the Wachau and do not apply to other Austrian wine regions. Steinfeder are light wines with a maximum 11.5% abv; Federspiel is the name of a falcon found in the region and the wines are fuller, with an abv in the range 11.5-12.5%; Smaragd is the name of an emerald-green lizard also found in the region and must have a minimum 12.5% abv. These are the richest, most prestigious wines, but the fresher Federspiels often challenge them for quality and should not be overlooked.
THREE TO TRY
Domäne Wachau, Riesling Terrassen Federspiel 2015
Co-operative wineries don’t have a good reputation, being commonly seen as repositories of lowest-common-denominator winemaking that is safe and dependable but seldom exciting or individual. Not Domäne Wachau, which ranks as one of the world’s best wine co-ops. This wine is a delight: fresh, ‘lifted’ aromas of green apple are followed on the palate by mouthwatering sherbet fruit, supported by a flinty core of acidity. It’s clean. It’s long. It’s splendid stuff.
Whelehans, Loughlinstown; 64 Wine, Glasthule; Grapevine, Dalkey; Deveneys, Rathmines; Terroirs, Donnybrook. (Cassidy Wines)
FX Pichler, Grüner Veltliner Urgestein Terrassen Smaragd 2015
Pichler sits at the top of the Austrian wine hierarchy, a byword for quality and dependability. The house style is for intense and concentrated wines that live long in the bottle and linger long on the palate too. This one is no exception, a ripe and rich evocation of Austria’s signature white grape that majors on succulent fruit leavened by Grüner’s characteristic spiciness. Too much of one or the other would throw the wine out of kilter, which is not the case here.
64 Wine, Glasthule; Corkscrew, Chatham St; Redmonds, Ranelagh. (Wine Mason)
Johann Donabaum, Grüner Veltliner Federspiel Point 2013
Donabaum is one of many younger winemakers driving the already high reputation of the Wachau ever higher. His vineyards are located in the far west of the region in the valley of Spitzer Graben and the winery is housed in a building that dates back over 400 years. Grüner is his speciality and this one shows a sure touch, courtesy of abundant fruit counterpoised by a clean mineral zip on the finish. Not sure what to drink with currently fashionable mackerel? Try this.
Wines on the Green, Dawson St; McCabes, Blackrock; Galvins, Cork. (Celtic Whiskey)