Robert Parker Jr., the famous American wine critic, calls the best Rieslings of the Wachau “some of the finest white wines made”. On how they compare to Rieslings from other regions, he goes on to say that “Austrian Rieslings are extremely distinctive from those produced in Alsace or Germany. They have a harmony between acidity and fruit found in French Rieslings, as well as the sharp focus found in the Germans.”
Perhaps just one man’s opinion, but British Riesling “specialist” Stuart Pigott has this to say: “Compared with the majority of Alsace Rieslings, [Austrian Rieslings] taste less alcoholic, crisper, and more forthrightly fruity. Tasted against fine dry German Rieslings, they are fuller-bodied, more aromatic, and generally have a better harmony owing to their softer acidity.”
Winemonger carries a selection of Austrian Rieslings, ranging from bone-dry to sweet. For comparative purposes though, we will focus on those dry Rieslings from the Wachau, which is part of wine growing region called Niederösterreich (Lower Austria).
So what makes these dry Rieslings from the Wachau special? The first thing you will notice is that they will typically carry notes of stone fruit both in the nose and on the palate: peach, apricot and the mysterious “vineyard peach” (a variety of peach which, as the name suggests, grows in the vineyards here. Its distinctive taste is somewhere between a peach and apricot, and yet somehow otherworldly).
An example which expresses the peach note beautifully is the Hogl Terrassen Spitzergraben (and it’s friendly to the pocketbook too).
Alongside this Wachau-peach note you will find those from each specific vineyard where the grapes were grown. Take the winery Gritsch Mauritiushof Riesling from the 1000 Eimerberg vineyards (1000 Bucket Mountain) with its fantastic citrus notes, or the Donabaum Offenberg Riesling with its distinct note of the schist laden soil found on the Offenberg mountain.
But, by literally digging deeper, we find what makes these wines truly shine: that taste of the place these wines come from, the terroir. Especially because these vines grow in a soil that has good things to add: primeval stone that has built up over thousands of years and is collectively called “Urgestein”. This is where the Rieslings of the Wachau grow. To get to the water they will often have to dig their roots as far as 60 feet through weathered, primal crystalline stone, picking up mineral elements as they quench their thirst. Two factors make this effect more pronounced: the depth to which the roots must dig, which translates to longer exposure to the mineral elements, and the fact that Riesling like no other grape has an ability to extract those mineral elements from the soil. The result is a vineyard expression that is hard to beat: Wachau Rieslings gain an elegance and edge which makes the vintners from neighboring regions quite jealous. Understandably so, when you do everything else right.
A noteworthy vineyard in regards to mineral notes is the Bruck vineyard at the northern end of the Wachau. Josef Hogl grows fantastic Riesling there which we will have a few cases of this fall, 2005. The Bruck vineyard (pronounced “brook” and meaning “bridge vineyard”) adds a mineral note so strong that, once experienced, it is a scent you will not soon forget. For the budding wine geek, this might be the first time you’ll not only be able tell a winery and grape when tasting the wine blind, you will also be able to determine the vineyard. Quite impressive indeed.
If you are playing with the idea of becoming a geologist, read the page on local topography on the official website of the Vinea Wachau, the honorable association of Wachau wineries. The composition of the different layers of primeval stone and it’s influence on the wines of the Wachau might interest you.
So why are these Austrian Rieslings created dry, and those from Germany and Alsace (typically) made sweeter? For pure food-pairing utility, the dry Rieslings tend to work better. An off-dry wine can be gorgeous, and with the right pairing, can be truly transcendent. But a dry wine pairs with many foods, while a sweet wine will often get in the way of the foods we like instead of complement them. But the differing styles are not just a preference; it’s a geographical necessity.
Franz Josef Gritsch of the Gritsch Mauritiushof Winery explains further: “Our terraces build the perfect microclimate for Riesling. Sunny during the day [the terraces maximize the exposure to the sun] and cool and windy at night, the Riesling grapes have a chance to go the full vegetative cycle and develop physiological ripeness that German Rieslings will typically not reach due to the cooler northern climate. Because our grapes are riper, we can afford to ferment the wines through, thus creating dry Rieslings. In Germany the acidity in the wines is much higher and the winemakers therefore chose to stop fermentation earlier and create sweet Rieslings with less alcohol to counter the naturally high acidity with sweetness.”
Johann Donabaum of the Donabaum Winery was kind enough to ask esteemed Austrian wine priest Father Denk for a statement on Austrian Riesling. Hans Denk is someone you ought to know about. A priest in the small village of Albrechtsberg in Austria, Hans Denk has acquired an encyclopedic knowledge of wine next to a great nose and palate. Father Denk is not only extremely tall, he also seems to have shoulders wider than a standard doorway and rumor has it that he can drink and will drink anyone under the table who dares to challenge him. Father Denk’s two dogs, Whisky and Vodka, complete the picture.
“Despite the Grüner Veltliner being Austria’s strongest autochthonous varietal, Austrian Riesling can match the World’s best Rieslings” father Denk commends, “Especially the three valleys carved by the rivers Kamp, Krems and Danube lend a special peculiarity to the Riesling, which not only displays the terroir beautifully, but seems to also make these wines extremely age worthy. Austria has a warmer climate than the two comparable Riesling areas of Germany and Alsace and the grapes will reach a higher physiological ripeness which allows Austrian winemakers to vinify their wines without any additives.
Those who had the pleasure to try a Riesling like a 1903 Vom Zöbinger Heiligenstein will be surprised by its freshness and will agree with me that Austrian Rieslings are different and can age extremely well. “
Father Denk goes on to explain the spicy character of the Austrian Riesling. His theory is that spicy air created in the Waldviertel hits the wine making regions as winds which pass through the grape and are absorbed. This “harmonica effect”, as he calls it, is created by the grapes contracting at night and expanding during the day.
Besides sugar, acid, water and alcohol, a wine contains what is referred to as “dry extract”. These minerals, trace elements, proteins and other substances that are being transported into the grape by air and water can easily be detected in a lab. “Dry extract” is what makes a great wine. The longer the vegetative cycle, the more time the grape will have to accumulate these elements in the grape. This is where Riesling shines: as a late ripening grape, Riesling has all the time in the world to accumulate high levels of dry extract in the grape.
A 1903 Austrian Riesling? Well, wouldn’t we all like to taste that? But I guess some pleasures are reserved for those our Lord likes best.
Rieslings mentioned in this article:
- Donabaum Offenberg Riesling Smaragd 2002 – Bottle $36.50
- Gritsch 1000-Eimerberg Riesling Smaragd 2003 – Bottle $24.99
- Hogl Loibner Vision Riesling Smaragd 2003 – Bottle $24.99
- Hogl Terrassen Spitzergraben Riesling Federspiel 200 – Bottle $11.99