Food, wine, travel, music
In Austria, households are allowed to make 200 litres of booze a year for their own consumption, as long as it is not offered for sale. It doesn’t matter whether it’s wine brandy, gin or the most popular schnapps. Some make the latter with local Vogelbeeren (rowanberries) sweetened with honey, which is a good idea being the most expensive spirit to buy as the berries are so small and labour intensive. Anyone can apply for a distiller’s license to make moreand sell it, but one has not been issued since Napoleonic times.
Most people leave the winemaking to the experts and can be happy that in the Wachau valley, a UNESCO heritage site west of Vienna, they are close to particularly good value, high end, elegant wines. In the 1970s and 80s Domän Wachau principally made brandy, but now the grapes are considered to be too precious to distill, and top quality wines are made from most of them instead. To keep the burning (distillation) rights, some brandy is still made. It’s good to keep options open.
Domän Wachau has some of the best located vineyards in the valley, producing top quality grapes for excellent wines which are underpriced for their quality. Terrassed on rolling hillsides with a view of the Danube, 70% of the vines look beautiful set into their natural stone supporting walls. They are difficult to cultivate, with no machines or shortcuts to lighten the load. The work is spread amongst the families of the 250 members of the co-op. The remaining 30% on the flat are not quite as back-breaking (the lower vineyards produce a fuller flavoured wine used in the entry level wines of the domaine). But still it takes 1300 hours per hectare per year to produce and harvest the grapes. Compare this to an average 120 hours per hectare per year in the Clare Valley.
Jeroen Erens is the knowledgeable and enthusiastic sales representative of Domän Wachau. A former sommelier in a two star Michelin restaurant and a buyer in an export company, he has found his métier and enjoys talking about the interesting history of the valley and vineyards. He has plenty of tales to tell about debauchery that would leave 50 shades in the shade, in a nearby building constructed by the church. But that is another story. Email me for more…
The winery itself was originally owned by the Catholic church. Established in the 1100s, the church was forced to sell Domän Wachau and in the 1800s it was bought by a noble family who ran it until 1920 when Black Friday sent the family into bankruptcy. The property was auctioned off and 250 families of employees got together and bought it between them, with all members holding stock in the company. The vineyard went through mismanagement in the 80s before settling into its existing structure, and with the wine scandal of the same decade well behind them, the co-op is now efficient and sells all of its production each year. The winemaker Heinz Frischergruber leads the team with winery directotr Roman Horvath MW.
They get better export prices for their wines than locally and they have been adopted by the Netherlands, Germany, Sweden, USA and Dublin top restaurants such as The Greenhouse and L’Ecrivain, as well as Aquavit in NYC and Heston Blummenthal’s Fat Duck in the UK.
“Wine is an emotional product”, says Jeroen Erens. “We find that people who understand and enjoy wine appreciate the value of single terroir wines like these, especially when such care is given to harvesting them. We are also at a big advantage in where the vines are grown. The hillsides are perfectly angled for sun and the soil is well drained. Good terroir!”
And this is the key to success of their 2.2 million bottles of wine which sell out every year. 440 hectares of vineyards deliver the volume of grapes required, but if they don’t, there is simply less wine to sell. The appellation does not permit a financial interest in other vineyards, and they may not buy in grapes or sell their grapes to others. With a mere 250mm rain per year, irrigation is permitted to avoid vine stress and parching in dry seasons. But of course in this high end region, they don’t do that unless absolutely necessary. They have a natural well for drip irrigation which the whole valley uses.
The domaine is mainly organic, though it is not registered as such, needing to be free to respond to problems without strictures. They grow plants to fight bugs and keep weeds down, avoiding pesticides and reducing their ecological footprint to a minimum. The wines, however, are vegan. Instead of clarifying with egg white, gelatine, isinglass, or dairy products, plant-based, clay minerals and synthetic products are used here.
There are three areas of classification of Domän Wachau: Steinfeder, Federspiel and Smaragd which deliver subtle differences.The principal grape varietal is Grüner Veltliner, a dry white wine common to Austria (some in Germany and some of it is grown in Ireland too).
The other principal grape type is Riesling, and in the 2015 Riesling Federspiel Terrassen (available from Cassidy Wine importers) full fruitiness and the lack of petrol tones and oiliness, may be a gentle introduction to Riesling for the wary.
For the less wary, the 2015 Riesling Smaragd Achleiten has no petrol either, but a more rounded style, with some tropical fruits, with hints of the volcanic soil in the depth of flavors balanced with terrific acidity. Perfect for scallops, creamy cheeses, rich Asian food, substantial salads, watch for it in upmarket restaurants.
The greatest production is of Grüner Veltliner and very convincing it is too. Grüner Veltliner Federspiel Terrassen 2015 is a very good wine. Deliciously fresh, no tastable oak is allowed in the Federspiel wines and no other tastable aromas allowed, which is an interesting concept that some new world winemakers might take note of. Stainless steel and some time in large oak barrels keeps the subtlety. This is a blend from terrassed vineyards resulting in warm, white peach aromas, deliciously fruity with a crisp finish with hints of white pepper. Good with fish, even with cheese and spicy food, and as an aperitif.
Untreated, untoasted oak large barrels can be used in some of their wines to allow for some flavour development, but it is always subtle. Stainless steel is mostly used, and the flavour development is further achieved by keeping it in bottle before release for at east six months. Another contributor of the unique flavour of all of the range is yeasts cultivated from their own wild yeasts. Domän Wachau the only vineyard in Austria doing this.
The Grüner Veltliner Smaragd Kellerberg has some of that subtle oak and this one has amazing ageing potential. The 1997 was a good vintage (as was the 1999), and its longevity is extraordinary, especially made from this grape, and may last quite a few years more. No recorking is done and obviously does not need it, it really is quite perfect, whatever they have done. This is a white wine suited to beef, and a terrific pairing with the complexity of Christmas dinner. Great balance, elegant, full. Expect to pay a lot in a restaurant for this wine (about €300/bottle in the Fat Duck). All bottles are numbered, so whoever stocks it will not have a lot of it.
The Grüner Veltliner Smaragd Kellerberg 2015 is more accessible and is another superb wine. Hints of papaya, peaches, herbaceous (especially thyme) makes this a complex, interesting wine which improves in the glass.
Steinfeder is the lightest category of wines for drinking as fresh as possible. I did not get a chance to taste any of these, but I did try an unexpectedly delicious Pinot Noir Rosé Reserva. This will surprise dedicated red wine drinkers as it has quite a lot of pint noir notes and buckets of flavours with 85% of it aged for 2/3 years in old barriques previously used for red wine.
The Blauer Zweigelt Terrassen 2015 is the only red wine tasted and is a hybrid called, not after someone who only had two pieces of money to rub together, but after Mr Zweigelt from Neuberg. Pinot Noir and Blaufränkisch are the grape types; Blauer added to the name denotes that it is a red only of this Wachau appelation. This is a light, fine wine with just enough fruit to be flavoursome without overpowering meaty summer salads and pasta dishes. Try chilling it. Due in Ireland in a few months through Cassidy wines.
Bottles of wine designed to age have cork closures (Smaragd singe vineyard), while others designed to be drunk fresh have screwcaps – Federspiel, Terrassen Smaragd and Village Smaragd which are wines which should be be drunk within 3-5 years.
Domane Wachau is a beautiful vineyard to visit with terrific tasting facilities. A little tip: Ask for the field blend when visiting. Www.domaene-wachau.at.
Watch for these wines and use the opportunity to enjoy a new experience. In Ireland the wines are not widely available in shops, but try Cassidy Wines to find out who has it, or they may even part with a case. Tell them I sent you!