15 Mar 2012

Persons of interest (Niederosterreich, Austria - Day Three)

There is something quite magical about Vienna. Not only is it a beautiful and historic city but it is also a thriving metropolis, home to 2. 4 million people. Walking around the central part of the city there are any number of tourist sites; the cathedral, the Belvedere Palace, the numerous museums and theatres. You would hardly believe there are operating vineyards and wineries within Vienna, which unfortunately I didn’t have a chance to visit. By all accounts they are very traditional, making field blend wines from any number of native varieties. Vienna is a very multicultural city, which is not hard to understand when you consider that it is the gateway to the East. Something I found very interesting was the high concentration of Japanese restaurants in the city centre, even more than in Dusseldorf which has the highest concentration of Japanese people in Europe. Vienna is famous for its music, as celebrated composers like Mozart and Strauss lived here. For as little as €3 you can see one of the daily performances at the historic Opera House. Having been to a number of performances of Opera Australia back in Melbourne, one of the things I wanted to do was to see some opera in Europe, and I was thrilled to enjoy Verdi’s “Simon Boccanegra” over the weekend before returning to Niederosterreich to visit some more wineries.

Ruins above Weingut Nigl in Kremstal
Controlling 15 hectares makes Prager small for an important Austrian producer, but large by Austrian standards (a couple of hectares on average). By far the most important component of Weingut Prager in the Wachau is that they only make single-vineyard wines, committed to the notion of terroir. To say that the former head of the estate Franz Prager was important in the Wachau is an understatement, as he was a co-founder of the Codex Wachau. Since the early 1990s the estate has been run by his son-in-law Toni Bodenstein, who has also been the mayor of the village Weissenkirchen for the last ten years. Prager wines are well known for their depth, integrity, richness and intensity, and having tasted them this reputation is well deserved.

Weingut Prager
Considering how important and busy Mr. Bodenstein is, I was quite honoured to be able to visit Prager if only for a tasting and an opportunity to gain insight from such a fascinating man.  These are definitely some of the best white wines I have ever tasted, filling you with inspiration and whimsy. One problem I have had in Niederosterreich was discerning a big difference between single vineyard rieslings. Perhaps it is the style or the youth, but compared to the gruner veltliners which are quite distinctive between sites, the rieslings have been a little samey. Not so with the Prager wines, as they all speak of their origin in the vineyards. In spite of the instinctive and traditional nature of the winery, I don’t think I’ve ever met someone with such a deep and precise knowledge of wine chemistry, nor have I learnt so much from someone about nutrients, yeast strains, amino acids and more as Toni. An awesome individual to say the least.

Some of the many and varied soil types in Prager vineyards
With all of the 2010 wines sold but the majority of the 2011 wines yet to be bottled we looked at tank samples. Toni shared my impression of Prowein as a poor environment to show very youthful wines, which is why he doesn’t attend. There are two federspiel quality wines - the Hinter der Burg Gruner Veltliner and the Steinriegl Riesling - which are sourced from the two largest single vineyards. The quality of these wines is as good as any smaragd wine I have tasted from other producers, showing depth concentration and personality. There are three particular gruner veltliner wines which are made from specific parcels within the Achleiten vineyard, and amazingly all have their own unique personality. The Achleiten is very bright and floral, full of heady inspiration; the Wachstum Bodenstein is more concentrated in the earthy savoury minerality, showing a slightly salty white meat complexity with quince and grapefruit elements; and the Achleiten Stock Kulture has an intense and rich fruit nose of white berries and interestingly tomato juice. The smaragd riesling wines are all of purity and intensity, with the most developed and yet balanced fruit of all the rieslings I have tasted in Austria. The Klaus in particular was very closed in its smoked meat and earthy texture and viscosity, in an almost Spartan-like stoicism.

Soil composition in the Prager Klaus vineyard
Located in the north-western part of Kremstal is Weingut Nigl. It is here in the small village of Kirchenberg that Martin Nigl crafts his wines with finesse and humility. The winery owns roughly 25 hectares of vineyards, mostly in steeped terraced vineyards, with 80% of the vineyards dedicated to gruner veltliner and riesling. Martin Nigl is a true believer in terroir influenced wines, and there are several ways in which he expresses this. The first is by making very austere and mineralic wines, that express the unique soil composition in such sites as Piri, Hochacker and Goldberg. The second is by using stainless steel tanks to settle, clarify, ferment and store the wines, often on gross lees to add structure and balance. The third is by sealing all of the wines since 2003 under screwcap rather than cork.

Unique way of pouring large-format bottles of wine
The 2011 gruner veltliner wines all exhibit very green spicy fruit aromatics and great purity and freshness on the palate. From the 2010 vintage the Alte Reben Gruner Veltliner had a much more ripe tropical stone fruit nose, with more volume and fruit sweetness on the palate, and the Privat Sentfenberger Pelligren Erste Lage had a bold nutty oily fruit concentration, and was actually closer to a riesling in style. Of the 2011 rieslings the Dornleiten was very delicate with a nice floral and lime sherbert nose, but looking a little green at the moment. The Senftenberger Piri Riesling 2011 actually had a lot in common with the GV from the same site, showing earthy minerality with a sharp berry and quince fruit character. The Privat Riesling 2010 had a very heady and creamy honey aroma, wonderfully rich and ripe but still very fresh and mineralic. The red wines weren't anything special but were still good varietal examples. The Pinot Noir 2009 was very earthy, meaty and mushroomy, with depth and complexity, but it was very difficult to see any fruit and was a little clunky.

The view from the ruins above Kirchenberg
Click here to see more photos from Day Three in Niederosterreich, Austria.

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