The story of Austrian wine is the story of its vineyards. With its cold winters and short, hot summers, Austria’s weather is a lot like that of Burgundy. And, like Burgundy, the way Austria’s vineyards are situated has much to do with the quality of its wines. Plant vines too far along the slope, and the exposure is not good enough. Plant them too far up, and it is too cold. Too far down, the grapes are plump and tasteless.
Austria’s top vineyards are situated in the country’s choicest viticultural spots, and produce its top wines. These vineyards are the small parcels of land in which the grape varieties, soil and climatic conditions coexist in perfect harmony.
Again, as is the case in Burgundy, these vineyards are rarely owned by a single person or producer. They may each be owned by 3, 4, or over 20 different entities. But the fact that they’re typically co-owned means that an extra element—the human one—plays a critical role in the quality and character of the wines that come from these vineyards.
Yes, Austria’s most renowned vineyards do produce its greatest wines, though the grapes will express themselves differently in the hands of different producers. But the taste of the land is the constant theme, regardless of the producers’ names on the labels.
Size 54 acres
Grape varieties Grüner Veltliner, Riesling
Top producers Weingut Prager, Rudi Pichler, Freie Weingärtner Wachau, Josef Jamek
The Wachau is a tiny region, less than 15 miles long. Yet its influence within Austria, and its international renown, are huge. Why? Because of its landscape and vineyards.
The Wachau is stunning wine country. Steep mountainsides jut straight up from the Danube. Small, picturesque villages cluster at the base of these mountainsides; up their slopes climb terraced, hand-pruned vines.
Just east of Weissenkirchen, a village in the Wachau, a huge, southeast-facing slope rears up. This is the Achleiten vineyard; it’s shaped like a humpback whale, bursting out of the water. At the top of Achleiten is forest, and at its base is the Danube. Vines enclosed by 12th-century stone walls run from the foot of the steep slope to about two-thirds of the way up. Viewed from the base, this vineyard’s slope is so steep that it seems to lean forward.
Achleiten is an ancient vineyard. Its granite subsoil is mixed with mica, slate and amphibolite, and is topped with thin patches of loess, which is a fine, silty type of unconsolidated deposit. It is this complex soil composition that gives Achleiten’s wines their intense minerality. The slate in the soil also adds a smoky quality to many of the wines.
“This is a late vineyard to harvest,” says Roman Horvath, managing director of Freie Weingärtner Wachau, one of the region’s two cooperatives. Members of the cooperative have 24 acres of the vineyard. “We have almost finished the rest of the harvest before we move on to Achleiten.”
Achleiten’s long growing season only increases the intensity of the wines. Green fruit and prominent acidity dominate the Rieslings when young, while young Grüner Veltliner has exotic flavors of quince, grapefruit and pepper. And both varieties age well; a recent tasting of a 1982 Freie Weingärtner Wachau Achleiten Riesling revealed fruit that was still pure and fresh.
Size 69 acres
Grape varieties Grüner Veltliner, Riesling
Top producers Dinstlgut Loiben Wachau, Emmerich Knoll, Freie Weingärtner Wachau, F.X. Pichler, Leo Alzinger, Rainer Wess
This is the most easterly vineyard of the Wachau—it actually borders vineyards in Krems. Here, the convoluted rock formations that characterize most of the Wachau are gone. So while the slope is still steep, the land is more gentle and rounded. The Danube Valley opens out to the east, and the influence of warm, easterly winds is more keenly felt here than in more westerly areas of the Wachau.
It’s no surprise, then, that Rainer Wess describes this as the warmest vineyard in the Wachau. Wess, who has worked in Bordeaux and with large wine companies in Austria before setting out on his own, is one of the Wachau’s young guns. He produces wines from Loibenberg and the adjacent Pfaffenberg vineyard, which is in Krems. “Despite being next door, on the same slope, they are different,” he says. “Loibenberg is gneiss, Pfaffenberg has more loess. The wines from Pfaffenberg are softer and more open; those from Loibenberg are spicy, more structured. It is the difference between the wines of Wachau and Kremstal expressed in the terroir.”
Size 452 acres
Grape variety Riesling
Top producers Salomon-Undhof, Winzer Krems, Rainer Wess, Dinstlgut Loiben Wachau
Berthold Salomon, who runs the family-owned Salomon-Undhof winery in Kremstal, stands with a wicker basket full of wines. He is on the edge of the sharp slope in the Pfaffenberg vineyard. Below him—almost directly below— is the Danube, with the city of Krems to the left, and the Wachau to the right.
Salomon opens a bottle of wine. “This was made here,” he says, gesturing around him.
The Pfaffenberg is the most westerly of the five hills (the others are Schreck, Goldberg, Wachtberg and Kögl) that form a line of vineyards around and to the west of Krems. The primary rock is gneiss, granite and schist. On the top is loess. The terraces are at 750 to 810 feet; in some places, the decomposed humus layer is as little as six inches deep before you hit bedrock.
This is Riesling country. The wines express pure, perfumed fruit, and flavors of white currants and crisp green apples. As with all fine Rieslings, they age well—at least 10 to 15 years is typical.
“For me, these are the purest Rieslings in Krems,” says Salomon. “They have all the intensity of flavor, the structure and the richness, but at the same time, a steely heart.”
Size 98 acres
Grape variety Riesling
Top producers Willi Bründlmayer, Weingut Allram, Ludwig Ehn, Schloss Gobelsburg, Jurtschitsch Sonnhof, Weingut Hirsch, Weingut Hiedler
In the Middle Ages, this area used to be called Hellenstein, or “stones of hell,” because it was a place where “the sun burns like hell.” Some religiously correct monk renamed it Heiligenstein, or “holy stones,” at some point during the Reformation.
Facing due south, this fabulous vineyard is one of the glories of Austrian viticulture, but boy, can it get hot. Geologically speaking, the hill can be dated back 250 million years, to when it was a 21,000-foot mountain. This is compressed soil, with soft stones and great drainage, the result of volcanic activity. This is Riesling’s home.
Willi Bründlmayer, who is perhaps Austria’s most famous wine producer, owns one quarter of the Zöbinger Heiligenstein. He drives up the steep slopes in his 4×4, pausing for effect as another rise to a higher terrace is negotiated. It is also so that he can point out the open-lyre canopy, which opens out the center of the vine for greater exposure.
“We have our vines in the Zöbing half of the vineyard,” he says. “It’s the part [with poorer soil], cooler with less soil, more stones.” The other half, in the village of Kammern, doesn’t make such fine wines. “But we do have a problem: We are finding that the sun and the heat are getting stronger, as global warming takes effect. I’m finding the lower slopes are too hot for Riesling, so I’m trying out reds.”
The Riesling benefits from the big swings between daytime and nighttime temperatures, which lengthens the ripening period. “In the day we get the heat of the sun,” says Bründlmayer, “while in the night, cooling winds come down from the Weinviertel.”
Size 110 acres
Grape varieties Grüner Veltliner, Roter Veltliner, Traminer
Top producer Franz Leth
The vineyards of Fels are on the Wagram, which is a long, low slope that runs east-west to the city of Tulln. The Wagram is the last southern outcropping of the Weinviertel. It has its own appellation, the Donauland, and its own great vineyard, the Scheiben.
Franz Leth is one of the most important producers on the Scheiben; he owns 5 of the vineyard’s 45 total hectares. “Scheiben is right in the middle of the Fels slope,” he says. “You need old vines to bring out the best in the deep loess soils of the Scheiben, and we have 50-year-old vines. That allows for great depth of flavor.”
Gudrun Grill, of Weinhof Grill, owns 2 hectares. She echoes Leth’s thoughts about the soils adding, “And luckily this is an easy vineyard to work—the slopes are not too steep.”
The Wagram is one of the many vineyard areas north of the Danube that was formed by glacier activity. The huge earth barriers they created are now slopes that reach heights of 840 feet.
Fruit from these vines produce full-bodied wines that are concentrated and rich in fruit flavors. Grüner Veltliner is the dominant variety here, though Franz Leth grows one curiosity: Roter Veltliner, of which only 540 acres now exist in Austria, and only along the Danube. It makes a wonderful, apricot-flavored wine, but is a difficult grape to cultivate.