10 Mar 2012

Gruner pastures (Niederosterreich, Austria - Day One)

Although it’s nowhere near as luxurious as some of the rental cars I’ve been driving on my trip so far, it is so nice to have my own car and not worry about the daily costs involved. The 1995 Volkswagon Golf I bought for €500 was in reasonable condition but through a friend I had someone take a look and replace a few things. Otherwise it wouldn’t have even survived the eight hour drive down to Wachau, let alone all around Europe this year. It is also great being in another new country, far away from the previous place so that the scenery looks very different. I will say that the Niederosterreich region on the banks of the Danube River reminds me a little bit of the Rheingau region of Germany, but the people and most importantly the wines are quite different. About a third of the vineyards are planted on flatter slopes, and the rest is planted on the steeper terraced slopes where you find the better parcels on primary rock with less loam. There are two major varieties; riesling and gruner veltliner, and I am here to find out more about them.

Domaene Wachau in Durnstein
My first appointment in Austria was at Domäne Wachau, the headquarters and main facility based in Dürnstein. The reason I say main facility is because Domäne Wachau is a commune winery where many vineyard owners not only provide fruit to the winery for processing, but actually own a portion of the company and receive proceeds from the sale of the wine. Vineyards are spread throughout the Wachau region and to produce about 2.5 million bottles each year they have three separate pressing facilities in the region. This was they can capture the freshness of the grapes closer to where they are picked. With over 90% of their production dedicated to white wines and another 5% to rosé, gentle pressing is of utmost importance. Often they will crush and de-stem the grapes and leave the must to soak for up to 24 hours before pressing the juice of for racking and fermentation. In the Wachau they have devised their own quality system around ripeness and alcohol levels. The basic wines named steinfeder have less than 11.5% alcohol and rarely leave Austria. The federspiel wines have between 11.5% and 12.5% and are often the heart of the winery, with the smaragd wines at the top being mostly old vine or single vineyard wines with at least 12.5% alcohol.

The chateau at Domaene Wachau
The visit to Domäne Wachau happened to coincide with the visit of Mr. Steven P. Raye and Mr. Alder Yarrow who were both here for Prowein and were invited to Austria by Wines of Austria. Alder Yarrow is better known as the editor of Vinography which he writes based in San Francisco, and who I had previously communicated with on Twitter. Amazingly this was Alders first visit to Austria as well so we got a very detailed tour. The winery itself dates back to the late 17th Century when it was owned by the church, who built extensive cellars at the foothills of the vineyards. To celebrate the completion of the cellars which took a decade, they then built a chateau/castle on top to entertain and enjoy the wines, which can be found on the label of Domäne Wachau wines. Down in the cellars are some very old barrels with some wonderful historic designs on them, including some that were signed by famous Austrian actors of the time. The vineyards here tend to be cane pruned with two canes retained for the next vintage, much like in the Mosel region. Of course because of the steepness of the slopes and terraces, the vineyard work is all completed by hand.

Family tree design on 5,000 litre barrel
The winery produces anywhere up to fifty wines, but thankfully we focused on a selection of gruner veltliner and riesling wines.  In the federspiel category the winery produces both estate and single vineyard wines from gruner veltliner and riesling. This includes the Loibenberg GV 2011 which has very delicate tropical notes and mid-palate depth, and the Kollmitz GV 2011 which has a riper and more floral candied nose with softer and fuller fruit on the palate coupled with a nutty complexity. In the smaragd level the Pichlpoint GV 2011 had a unique earthy ripe orchard fruit character, with some warmth and texture on the palate. The Achleiten GV 2011 had a sweet floral berry character with better balance and integration, but was really showing too much youth. Looking at a few older vintages showed how well GV can age, as the Kellerberg Smaragd GV 2000 had a much richer deeper golden colour, was slightly oxidative and oily on the nose, a smoky and salty complexity on the palate and hints of ginger and spice.

Amphoras at Domaene Wachau
As strange as it sounds, there are still wineries in the world that are publicly owned. Once such winery is Weingut Stadt Krems, which literally means "winery of the town of Krems". It is also one of the oldest wineries in Europe with 550 years of history. The people that manage the winery are effectively employed by the city to operate it autonomously as a profit centre. The city owns vineyards, but also purchases a large amount of grapes to produce the one million bottles each year. Since 2003 management of the estate has been conducted by Fritz Miesbauer, who had previously managed the commune of Domaene Wachau. The focus was of course to improve quality across the board, and to gradually increase the average bottle price. The volume of wine has also increased since 2003, quite dramatically.

Weingut Stadt Krems
Fritz was also involved with the recent revival the historic brand of Stift Gottweig, which has origins in the monastery of the same name all the way back to 1083. The association involved with the revival include the group that runs the monastery itself, and the 26 hectares of vineyards are leased to the group for the production of the wine. Wines for both brands are made at the Stadt Krems winery in the centre of the township, which has made expansion difficult due to space restrictions. This has been circumvented by establishing new cellars and building upwards, as well as custom-designed tanks. Significant investment has been made to improve the efficiency and precision of the facilities, and also to renovate a historic part of the cellars from a cave-in after heavy rain. The focus of the range is naturally on white wines.

Creative use of space using custom designed tanks
The Stadt Krems and Stift Gottweig wines are possibly the most undervalued wines I have tried in Europe thus far, with barely any selling for over 20 Euro direct from winery. From the Stadt Krems range there were several highlights, starting with the Kremstal Gruner Veltliner 2011 which had ripe perfumed floral notes with a broad and opulent palate of fresh peach and generous acids. The best wine was the Wachtberg Erste Lage GV 2010 (what a vintage), which had concentrated floral elderberry minerality, delicate and soft yet full-flavoured fruits, and focused yet exhiliratingly subtle acidity on the palate. From the Stift Gottweig rnage the Gottsweiger Berg GV 2011 was very bright but dense and rich, broad and soft on the palate with good drive and ripeness. The Silverbichl Reserve Erste Lage Riesling 2010 was quite bold in its aromatics and texture, and had nicely balanced fruit and savoury elements.

Single vineyard gruner veltliner wines from Stadt Krems
Willi Brundlmayer is arguably one of the most important wine personalities in Austria, and he commands a winery that produces several million bottles of wine (mostly gruner veltliner and riesling) each year. The winery is located in the wine town of Langenlois in the Kamptal region of Niederosterreich. The Kamp Valley is further along the Danube River towards Vienna, and Weingut Brundlmayer sources fruit from some of the best vineyards in the region. In spite of the fact that Kamptal is less than 30 minutes drive from the middle-Wachau, there is quite a difference in the unique terroir here. Fruit is harvested and wine is vinified according to the variety, site and quality. The wines are known for their purity of fruit, subtlety of minerality and in the case of the top wines, their serious ageing potential. I was lucky enough to be invited to join a local wine educator and freelance journalist named Elisabeth Eder in a tasting and dinner with Willi himself in their famous Heuringenhof.

Tasting at Brundlmayer
Most of the wines we tried were from the 2011 vintage and were thus very young and shy. There was great vibrancy and freshness, and often a natural spritz to the gruner veltliner and riesling wines. The older vine wines tended to also have a natural fruit sweetness to them whilst remaining dry, and in some cases a nutty texture and complexity. In tasting through the range of reasons I started to realise that I had been slighlty spoilt by the wines I had tasted in Germany. Whilst the gruner veltliner wines showed the difference between each site, I found there was generally not enough difference between single vineyard rieslings. This was have something to do with their youthfulness and also the vintage, as most of the rieslings I was tasting in Germany were from 2010. The major difference I found was with the age of the vines, as the Alte Reben 2011 Riesling was fuller, denser and had a very complex savoury white meat character. The red wines were generally good but nothing too exciting apart from the Ladner St. Laurent 2008 which was both dense and spicy as well as being supple and mellow.

Nothing like some cheese to finish off the evening
Click here to see more photos from Day One in Niederosterreich

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