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Thursday, 17 February 2011

Terroir and Vintage in Austria's Wachau Valley with Domäne Wachau

A panoramic shot of the Wachau, facing north with Dürnstein just visible in the far left.

I have been enthusiastic about Austrian wines for many years, but it was only recently at the Annual Tasting of Austrian Wines that I gained a really thorough insight into the subtle nuances of terroir and vintage fluctuation from Roman Horvath MW, Managing Director of Domäne Wachau (who had organised my invitation to the event).

In very general, perhaps oversimplified terms, Austrian terroir has three main distinct regions for its top white wines - the Wachau and surrounds for minerally Rieslings and Grüner Veltliners, Styria in the south for crisply aromatic Sauvignon cultivated at altitude and Burgenland on the edge of the Pannonian plain near the border with Hungary for rich dessert wines.

I had always thought of the beautiful, meandering, UNESCO-protected Wachau valley as relatively homogeneous with the key differences being aspect (north bank vs south bank) and elevation (from the flat vineyards on the valley floor to the elevated and steep terraces higher up).

However, as Roman explained, the key distinction is actually east-west along the valley. This is due to a combination of climatic and geographic factors - warm air from the south enters the valley at its eastern end, whilst cold northern air enters from the western end. In the middle is a sharp bend creating two quite distinct meso-climates, whilst along the north side cool air flows down from the forested Waldviertel plateau at night, thereby increasing the diurnal temperature variation and extending the growing season.

Whilst the wines from Domaene Wachau's "Terrassen" range are blended from gapes from all along the valley to produce a balanced style, those from a specific vineyard will show characteristics of their terroir, slightly fuller and less perfumed to the east and lighter, fresher with more floral notes and spice from the west.

Whilst Austria generally has a fairly reliable climate, I know from personal experience that it can rain for weeks on end in what is supposed to be summer and this was the case for 2010, making for a tough vintage with yields 30% - 50% down due to early frosts compared to a much easier 2009.

However, whilst this makes life harder at the entry-level point, Roman feels that the top, single-vineyard Smaragd Rieslings from and GVs from 2010 have the potential to be even better than the 2009s.

It was not possible to try these wines as they are still being aged on their lees in the winery with only the lighter Federspiels released so far from 2010.

I sampled the wines Roman had brought to show, mostly 2009s, and you can find links to more detailed reviews of these from earlier tastings below.

Of note was that whilst the 2009 Terrassen wines are showing well now, the single vineyard wines really need another six months or so in bottle to start to open up - or some time in a decanter.

The final wine we tried was a Beerenauslese from 2008 - a lighter fresher style than the Burgenland dessert wines due to the slightly cooler climate. In general, conditions are warm enough to achieve BA in 8 out of ten years, but TBA-level sweetness is only possible in around 3 to 4 years out of 10.

Roman finished off by explaining that international demand for his wines now means that he has no problem in selling them, especially with the low 2010 yields - but there is no opportunity to increase volumes given the size limitations of the Wachau Valley itself where the winery has 440 hectares of land (around 30% of the entire Wachau area).

As a result, the only way up is through quality and pricing - and ever-more specific terroir will surely play a big part in that.

The wines are imported into the UK by Alliance Wine.

The Wines

Grüner Veltliner Federspiel Terrassen 2010, 12% (reviewed here)
Grüner Veltliner Smaragd Terrassen, 2009, 13%
Riesling Smaragd Terrassen, 2009 13% (reviewed here)
Grüner Veltliner Smaragd Achtleiten, 13.5%
Riesling Smaragd Kellerberg, 2009, 13.5%
Cuvée Beerenauslese Terrassen, 2008 9.5% (reviewed here)


Domäne Wachau - http://www.domaene-wachau.at/

Alliance Wine - http://www.alliancewine.co.uk/

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