The Wachau is a UNESCO world heritage site and a region of great natural beauty, situated in the Danube River valley between the towns of Melk and Krems. Grape varieties Grüner Veltliner and Riesling predominate here on 1,344 hectares, partly planted in terraces arrayed on steeply inclined hillsides terraces. Top vineyard sites here produce some of the best white wines in the world, with decades of aging potential.
Since the mid-1980s, the dry white wines of the Wachau have been grouped into three categories by the conservation-minded winegrower’s association »Vinea Wachau«, based on their natural alcohol content: fragrant light wines up to 11.5% alcohol are designated »Steinfeder« (named for the local grass stipa pennata), the classic category (11.5–12.5% alcohol) is known as »Federspiel« (a term borrowed from falconry), while powerful reserve wines are called »Smaragd« (min. 12.5% alcohol). The namesake emerald-coloured lizards like to frolic in the Wachau vineyards on sunny days.
The story of how the Wachau – one of Austria’s most exciting and fascinating wineproducing regions – came to be is a captivating tale. Over millions of years, the Danube has dug its winding watercourse through the consolidated gneiss and amphibolite. The crystalline rock soils on the steep hillsides’ ancient terraces produce outstanding Rieslings. During the most recent Ice Age, vegetation cover was scant, and prevailing winds carried drifting sand that settled in the lee of the east-facing crystalline hillsides, forming layers of loess. This is where great, opulent and expressive Grüner Veltliner is cultivated. The extremely diverse geology of the region, coupled with the construction of terraces in the best steep hillsides and the cultivation of vines on these terraces by the Bavarian monasteries during the Middle Ages, created the spectacular and unique landscape of the Wachau.
Climate also plays a vital role, whereby two major systems – Atlantic from the west and Pannonian from the east – interface with one another. Furthermore, each single vineyard has its own microclimate, depending upon degree of incline, exposure to the sun and type of soil, as well as factors such as the dry stone walls and rocky hills that absorb the sun’s heat during the day and redistribute warmth well into the evening. The effects of the hot, dry summer and the harsh winter are evened out by the moderating influence of the Danube River, and cool evening breezes from the more northerly Waldviertel region widen the temperature variation between day and night during the important months immediately prior to the harvest. This subtle factor helps the clusters develop their enticing, multifacetted aromaticity, be in the cooler vineyards of Spitz or the warmer sites in Loibenberg. This character often gives the wine a cool fruit flavour with subtle tropical notes, ranging from the lean and light-bodied Steinfeder to the firmly structured Federspiel and the rich style of the Smaragd.
And when one goes to visit the historic Wachau Valley, it is truly rewarding to seek out critically acclaimed producers and recommended restaurants – quite often within walking distance of one another, like in Spitz, Weissenkirchen, Joching, Dürnstein and Loiben. The southern bank of the Danube is also well worth a visit. Alongside the sovereign varieties Riesling and Grüner Veltliner with their exceptional cellaring potential, the indigenous Neuburger, Gelber Muskateller and Sauvignon Blanc guarantee excellent experiences in the matter of flavour.