Sunday, January 23, 2011

Austro-Hungarian Tasting and the Wines of Wachau

At the recent Austro-Hungarian wine tasting, held in London at the residence of the Austrian Ambassador, three wines from the Austrian specific wine growing area of Wachau were featured: Domäne Wachau Grüner Veltliner Federspiel Weissenkirchen 2009; Weingut Knoll Grüner Veltliner Smaragd Loibenberg 2007; and Domäne Wachau Riesling Smaragd Singerriedl 2002.  In this post I will examine both the region and the wines presented at the tasting.

The Wachau specific wine growing area falls within the broader wine growing area of Niederösterreich (Lower Austria) and, at 1350 hectares, is the third smallest of the eight specific wine growing areas that comprise this region.  Wachau is a narrow valley which runs along the Danube River for 20.5 miles from Krems in the north to Melk in the South.  The spectacular views of its steep hillside terraces running away from the banks of the river have earned it designation as a World Heritage site.

The Wachau climate is continental (hot, dry summers and cold winters), moderated somewhat by the Danube, warm Pannonian winds from the east, and cool winds from the Weinviertel (an area located in the northeast of Lower Austria).  The climatic conditions result in a diurnal shift which aids ripening during the daytime hours while allowing for acidity- and flavor-retention during the cooler nighttime hours.

The characteristic Wachau vineyard sits on one of the steep terraced slopes which line the Danube as it wends its way through the valley.  The soil on the slopes are loess (an Aeolian sediment formed by the accumulation of wind-blown silt and sand and clay that are loosely cemented by calcium carbonate) and gneiss (a banded metamorphic rock with the same composition as granite) while the flatlands are comprised of sand, gravel, and loess.

The primary grape varieties in the region are Riesling and Grüner Veltliner.  While the remainder of Austria hews to a German-like quality wine classification scheme, Wachau retains its traditional scheme which is based on grape ripeness and alcohol levels: Steinfelder -- 11% abv (consumed locally); Federspiel -- 11-12.5% abv (exported); and Smaragd -- 12.5% abv (made from the ripest, highest quality grapes).

Domäne Wachau Grüner Veltliner Federspiel Weissenkircher 2009

According to information provided at the tasting, Domäne Wachau is the largest cooperative in the valley with its 600 members farming slightly less than 500 of the region's 1300 hectares.  The focus in the cooperative is on quality with members being paid against that benchmark rather than on quantity.  The wine presented at the tasting was 100% Grüner Veltliner sourced from a number of villages in the Weissenkirchen parish.  Weissenkirchen wines are generally deep in structure and exhibit both marked minerality and exceptional balance.  This wine has a floral note to accompany its fresh crispness and medium plus acidity.  It is 12.5% abv and has 2.3g/l of residual sugar.

Weingut Knoll Grüner Veltliner Smaragd Loibenberg 2007

The Knoll estate is located in the village of Unterloiben but its vineyards are spread over a number of famous sites to include Loibenberg, the source of the grapes for this wine.  The grapes for this wine were picked later than were the grapes for the preceding wine and that fact is reflected in its designation (Smaragd) and alcohol level (13.5%). Residual sugar is 2.5 g/l.  This wine exhibited a floral note, vegetality, crisp acidity, and a metallic minerality.  This wine will age well.

Domäne Wachau Riesling Smaragd 2002

This was the second of two Domäne Wachau offerings at the tasting.  The grapes for this wine were sourced from Singerriedel, a sheltered vineyard east of the town of Spitz.  The wines from this vineyard are usually concentrated due to the enhanced ripening afforded by heat retained by the rocky terraces.  This wine had 13% abv and 2.1 g/l of residual sugar.  On the nose it had notes of petrol and tropical fruits.  It was very dry on the palate in relation to the promise of the nose.  Medium plus acidity and minerality.  Long, green finish.

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