The federal state of Niederösterreich (lower Austria), a distinct wine region, accounts for around 60% of this area.
There are eight specific wine growing regions within Niederösterreich.
One of them, The Wachau (The Danube Valley), accounts for 1250ha.
The main varieties grown there are Gruener Veltliner and Riesling.
The former is a natural offspring of Traminer and St. Georgen. The second parent variety was found in St. Georgen in Austria's Burgenland. This variety was named after its discovery location because, following genetic research, it could not be attributed to any known variety.
The latter is a natural crossing of Weißem Heunisch, Vitis sylvestris and Traminer. The variety was probably taken from wild vines on the Oberrhein (the Upper Rhine).
Other white varieties grown in the Wachau include Chardonnay (Feinburgunder), Neuburger, Gelber Muskateller, Pinot Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc.
Red wine varieties include Blauer Zweigelt, St. Laurent and Pinot Noir.
Dry white wines are divided into three categories in the Wachau, based on their natural alcohol content by volume.
Aromatic, light-bodied wines up to 11.5% are called "Steinfeder" (named after the tall, feather-like grass Stipa pennata thst grows in the vineyards).
The most common category is the "Federspiel" with 11.5% to 12.5% alcohol by volume (named after the historic regional sport of falconry).
The late harvest, rich and powerful dry wines carry the term "Smaragd" (named for the green lizard that frequents the vineyards). Alcohol content must be more than 12.5% and is usually between 13 and 14%.
Within those categories the wines produced vary according to the 'terroir' in which the source grapes were grown. 'Terroir' is that mysterious (and largely untranslateable) French word that basically covers the environment in which grapes are cultivated and include meso and micro climates, soil types and topography.
The narrow Wachau Valley is situated between the high plateaus of the Forest District (700-1000m above sea level) and the Dunkelsteiner Forest (500-700m above sea level). The Danube River Gorge is protected here from the north and the west resulting in a microclimate that is found only much further south. This unique climate and landscape combined with weathered primary rock soils is the reason why vine cultivation was established here as the major form of agriculture.
Two major factors greatly influence the unique Wachau climate. Cool Atlantic air flows into the Wachau Valley giving the climate a continental character ie. cold winters and hot, dry summers. Heat 'pooling' is prevented by the temperature being regulated by the water flow of the Danube River.
Warm air masses reach the Danube Valley from the Pannonian Steppe in the east which moderates the climate in the colder half of the year. In favorable years grapes can be left to ripen on the vine until November, providing the precondition for the "Smaragd" wines.
More of a local influence is the cool air from the north which falls down the vineyard slopes and produces the large temperature swings between day and nights ie. diurnal influence.
All this allows sugars and phenolic compounds to build up during the day but acids and aromas being preserved by the cooler nights.
Despite covering a fairly small area, the soils of the Wachau are quite diversified. The Danube River cut its way through hard, crystalline primary rock to form the unique Wachau landscape. The Bohemian Massif, the oldest geological rock formation in Austria, is the remaining foundation of a prehistoric mountain range. Migmatitic granite gneiss and paragneiss were once intrusive igneous rock and sediments that altered under the earth’s crust due to pressure and heat to form the present subsoil of the Wachau. Gneiss is rich in quartz and also contains minerals like feldspar and mica.
The geography of the region is characterized by steep, rocky river banks that have had vineyards terraced into the hillside. On the hills, the soils are rich in iron and contain a mixture of gneiss, granite and slate. Flatter plains areas also dot the region and the soil here is more alluvial with loess, sand and gravel.
So what wines did we taste and what did we like?
When first arriving in Austria we concentrated on Gruener Veltliner but as time went on it was the Riesling that won us over.
According to the pundits, a simple Gruener Veltliner wine can have very pleasant citrus and grapefruit aromas, with a hint of the variety's most distinguishing characteristic, the spicy fragrance of freshly ground white pepper. Better wines, however, from top sites and with lower yields, can be quite complex, full of exotic tropical fruits, white pepper and lentils. They can also show 'vegetable' aromas (green beans or asparagus), to some an engaging smell that is seldom "vegetative", especially when grown in mineral soil.
We found you could easily determine the difference in quality between wines of the same category eg. Federspeil, depending on whether they were grown on the slopes and terraces or the flat country with the minerally nature of the former much more enjoyable than the vegetative (to us, capsicum) finish of the latter. This reminded us a little of New Zealand Savignon Blancs. However we never came to grips with the higher alcohol "Smaragd" which I guess take time to develop and when at the right stage are very expensive.
Certainly the younger examples we tasted (also expensive) showed a combination of high acidity and high alcohol that dominated the fruit.
Aficionados of Australian Riesling know the influence climate has on the quality of that variety and concentrate on product from South Australia's cool Clare and Eden Valleys as well as Victoria's high country regions and, of course, Tasmania.
Australian Rieslings tend to be quite citrusy often showing lemon/lime fruit flavours with floral overtones. They are also normally very dry.
The Wachau Rieslings we tasted had an extremely fragrant nose and were more stone fruit flavored with a fine acid balance and a long minerally finish. They took Riesling to a whole new level for us.
Again we preferred the lower alcohol Federspiel category.
We have been able to source Domaene Wachau wines in Australia so our affair with Austrian wine is not over. Wachau © AWMB