Austria’s greatest white wines?
by Julian Hitner
Conversing with colleague — and my former instructor — John Szabo MS several months back, I was shocked to learn that riesling accounts for less than 5 per cent of total plantings in Austria. 4.1 per cent, to be precise. How can this be? Would someone explain why Austria, home to the wondrous Wachau, one of the greatest and most beautiful winegrowing regions in the world, produces such minuscule quantities of this magnificent grape?
As a partial explanation, it is only relatively recently that the potential for riesling in the Wachau and nearby regions has been meaningfully set to purpose by more than just a handful of producers. Unfortunately, this means that overall plantings have had to play an unwinnable game of catch-up with grüner veltliner, Austria’s most famous grape, red or white, for popular recognition. Not that this has discouraged producers from expanding their holdings throughout this glorious 20-km stretch of the river. Based mainly on extremely steep terraces overlooking the water, the best riesling parcels are usually found on the upper slopes, where soils consist mainly of granite, gneiss, and mica-schist.
For the most part, great Wachau riesling is often low-keyed in youth, routinely consisting of steely green fruits intermixed with lemon citrus, herbs, and an abundance of minerals. Yet with just a smidgen of bottle age (depending on the wine), more honeyed, kerosene, and nut-driven impressions seem to take over. Cellaring capability is extremely high, the best examples potentially lasting for at least a few decades. The richest and longest lived are those labeled ‘Smaragd’ (named after a local lizard), with alcohol levels at 12.5 per cent or higher. Wines labeled ‘Federspiel’ (11.5 – 12.5 per cent) are usually drier and less pronounced, while those labeled ‘Steinfeder’ (up to 11.5 per cent) are the lightest.
At this year’s VieVinum in Vienna, I discovered a great deal about the Wachau’s greatest vineyards. Out of 900-odd Rieden (or sites), about a dozen stand above the rest for riesling. Furthest west, along the Spitzer Graben tributary, Bruck is situated on an extremely high hillside, with terraced rows so narrow that tractors cannot even pass through — a common theme throughout many of the best sites. These are extremely minerally, citrus-laden wines. Further east, the Offenberg and Setzberg vineyards are also of similar configuration and quality, though perhaps more fruit-driven in youth. In these cooler parts of the Wachau, soils are mainly derived from mica schists, resulting in wines of considerable elegance and vitality.
East of the village of Spitz, the Danube plays an even greater role in most of the top riesling vineyards, particularly in terms of temperature moderation. Singerriedel is just such a Ried, well-protected from wind and privy to the warm autumn sun late in the evening. Wines of excellent concentration and class are produced here, along with those of Hochrain to the south. Much more famous, however, is the Ried of Achleiten, situated just to the north of the village of Weissenkirchen. Composed of slate and gneiss, it produces riesling of unmistakable minerality and finesse. Those of neighbouring Klaus are also of significant regard.
In what might be considered the heart of the Wachau, the villages of Dürnstein and the Loibens (Unter- and Ober-) possess some of the most renowned riesling vineyards in Austria. Of these, Kellerberg is traditionally ranked at the top, though grüner veltliner also comprises a large minority of plantings here. Mixed vineyards are very common in the Wachau. Enjoying ample sunlight, broad day-/night-time temperatures, and complex soils consisting mostly of granitic gneiss, Kellerberg riesling is both marvellously fulsome and long-lived. Other nearby vineyards of great repute are Loibenberg, Schütt, and Höhereck, each with their own distinctive personality and eminence. Last but not least, great riesling is produced south of the river around the village of Mautern. The top producer here is indisputably Nikolaihof, a boutique winery whose greatest offerings from Steiner Hund (located across the border in Kremstal), Vom Stein, and Im Weingebirge are widely in demand.
Indeed, small producers throughout the Wachau are routinely among the finest riesling cultivators. Unfortunately, availability in VINTAGES is profoundly lacking, with only one or two wines currently in the system. As something of a small mercy, however, some of the top producers possess agency representation in Ontario, several of which presently carry Wachau rieslings on consignment (immediate delivery) or are able to handle orders directly from the winery. As usual, such wines must be ordered in twelve- or six-bottle cases, though delivery usually takes several months.
Granted, ordering such wines from private agencies might be a nuisance—not because of poor service but because of the necessity of buying by the case—but the rewards are truly beyond measure. When it comes to top-notch Wachau riesling and the best sites from which they are sourced, all one has to do is be in the know.
Top estates in the Wachau
F.X. Pichler – The wines of F.X. Pichler are generally regarded as the most stunning in the Wachau, at times equalled by several other estates, yet never surpassed. With parcels in some of the greatest vineyards around the village of Dürnstein and the Loibens (Unter- and Ober-), every bottling is a testament to the originality and quality of each individual terroir. Ontario Representative: Le Sommelier
F.X. Picher 2013 Dürnsteiner Kellerberg Riesling Smaragd is perhaps the most sensational, most in-depth dry white I have ever tasted (at least to date) from the Wachau. From what is widely considered the most prized vineyard in the region, this sensational offering will keep for up to two decades in the right conditions.
Franz Hirtzberger – Based out of the village of Spitz in a more westerly sector of the Wachau, few wines are as singularly delicious as those of Franz Hirtzberger. Much of the region’s modern-day successes may be traced to Franz’s tireless efforts in spearheading the Vinea Wachau (an association of winegrowers) and promoting perfectionist winegrowing techniques. Not represented in Canada
Franz Hirtzberger 2013 Hochrain Riesling Smaragd is both remarkably intense and stylish. Located just below the famed Singerriedel vineyard, Hochrain routinely yields wines of this design, oftentimes with astonishing aging potential. This particular example may be kept for up to fifteen years or more.
Emmerich Knoll – With 15 ha of vineyards, Emmerich and Monika Knoll (along with their son) are among the most committed, most dynamic winegrowers in the Wachau. Based out of the village of Unterloiben, the style here is one of luminosity and breed. Normally tight in youth, these are wines of phenomenal elegance and ageability. Québec representative: Les Vins Alain Bélanger
Emmerich Knoll 2013 Ried Loibenberg Riesling Smaragd is one of several spellbinding wines produced at this estate. Possessing incredible sophistication and character, it will probably require a vigorous decanting if consumed young, and will likely keep for nearly two decades if cellared correctly.
Nikolaihof: – Perhaps the most celebrated Biodynamic producer in the Wachau, the Saah family’s approach to winemaking is unique. From a mindboggling number of bottlings to an innate understanding of individuality, the wines of Nikolaihof are as mouth-watering as they are unique. Based out of Mautern, to taste from here is a special experience. Ontario representative: The Living Vine
Nikolaihof 2013 Vom Stein Riesling Federspiel is only barely alluding to its potential at such a young age, though it should open up if given a coaxing. Invigorating and balanced (to mention resoundingly dry), this will likely benefit from a thorough decanting if enjoyed young. Drink now or hold for up to eight years or more.
Alzinger – One of the most up-and-coming estates in the Wachau, the wines of Leo Alzinger (now produced with his son) merit profuse exploration. Based out of Unterloiben, this gifted family of winegrowers possess parcels in some of the best vineyards of the region, each with their own personality and charm. Québec Representative: Vinealis
Alzinger 2013 Höhereck Riesling Smaragd is a wine of remarkable purity and harmony. Situated just under the famed Kellerberg vineyard, Höhereck is an especially brilliant site, resulting in wines of incredible vitality and elegance. Drink now or enjoy over the next dozen years or more.
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