World Cultural Heritage coupled with a landscape that is nothing short of inspirational – welcome to the Wachau, the narrow Danube River valley running from Melk to Krems. Extraordinarily distinctive wines grow here on 1,291 hectares, a great many of them on steeply terraced hillsides, wines which may be declared as “Wachau DAC” as of the 2020 vintage. Some of the world’s greatest white wines, with decades of potential for development, are produced from the best vineyard sites, especially from Grüner Veltliner and Riesling.
REGION & WINE
The story of how one of Austria’s most fascinating winegrowing regions came into being is quite an engaging tale: over millions of years, the Danube carved its serpentine path through solid gneisses and amphibolites, and today the soils from the crystalline rocks of the terraces provide great sites for growing Riesling. During the glacial period, when there was little vegetation, blown-in rock dust settled onto the lee side of the mountains, forming loess layers on the eastern face of the crystalline slopes. Many of the greatest, most powerful Grüner Veltliners are grown here. The geologic circumstances and the stone terrace walls – laid out under the aegis of Bavarian monasteries during the Middle Ages to tame the best steep slopes – outline the striking picture of the Wachau’s viticultural landscape.
The climate is also quite remarkable here, because two powerful systems – the western Atlantic and the eastern Pannonian – meet in the Wachau – not head-on, but closely interwoven and with considerable tension. Microclimatic zones also come into play, depending upon the individual incline, exposition and terrain, as well as heat-retentive walls and rocks. The hot, dry summers and the severe winters are balanced out by the large water surface of the Danube River. Cool downdrafts from the Waldviertel to the north bring about sizable fluctuations between daytime and nighttime temperatures, especially in the months just before the harvest. From the cooler Spitzer Graben in the west to the warmer Loibenberg in the east, this interplay makes the grapes develop multifoliate aromaticity, perceived in the wines as cool fruit with occasional exotic details.
This unique combination of soil, climate and winegrowers’ craft is recognised with the protected designation of origin “Wachau DAC”. As of the 2020 vintage, there are regionally typical wines offered on three levels: at the Gebietswein and Ortswein levels the diversity of the Wachau is vividly reflected, because in addition to the royal couple Riesling and Grüner Veltliner, the Neuburger, Weissburgunder and Muskateller – among others – also faithfully express their origins in the glass. However, designation of an individual vineyard site (Riedenwein) is reserved for Grüner Veltliner and Riesling only – world-renowned for their exceptional cellaring potential. One special feature at all levels: Wachau DAC may only be harvested by hand.
Since the mid-1980s, the dry white wines – and on rare occasions also rosé wines – of the Wachau have been organised into three categories according to their natural alcohol content by the regional protection association “Vinea Wachau”. Fragrant light wines up to 11.5% vol. alcohol are called “Steinfeder” (named for the feathery grass Stipa pennata). The classic category (11.5–12.5% vol.) has been christened “Federspiel” (an ancient term from falconry). Authoritative reserve wines with a minimum of 12.5% vol. alcohol bear the name “Smaragd”, referring to the frisky emerald-coloured lizards that are particularly fond of frolicking in Wachau vineyards on sunny days.
And it is another, further matter of interest to seek out the best addresses for the interplay of vinous and culinary matters in the historic ambience of the wine villages. Elite winegrowers and top restaurateurs can be found at every turn in the Wachau, from Spitz to Weissenkirchen, Joching to Dürnstein and Loiben – and a side-trip to the right bank of the Danube is not to be missed.
- Gebietswein: Grüner Veltliner, Riesling, Weissburgunder, Grauburgunder, Chardonnay, Neuburger, Muskateller, Sauvignon Blanc, Traminer, Frühroter Veltliner, Müller-Thurgau, Muskat Ottonel, Roter Veltliner, Gemischter Satz, Pinot Noir, Sankt Laurent, Zweigelt or cuvées made from them
- Ortswein: Grüner Veltliner, Riesling, Weissburgunder, Grauburgunder, Chardonnay, Neuburger, Muskateller, Sauvignon Blanc or Traminer
- Riedenwein: Grüner Veltliner, Riesling
- Riedenwein: Any form of enrichment is forbidden.
- Ortswein, Riedenwein: barely perceptible use of wood or none at all
Origins for Ortswein:
Loiben, Dürnstein, Weissenkirchen, Joching, Wösendorf, St. Michael, Spitz, Gut am Steg, Viessling, Elsarn, Mühldorf, Spitzer Graben, Schwallenbach, Willendorf, Groisbach, Aggsbach, Arnsdorf, Rührsdorf, Rossatz, Unterbergern, Mauternbach, Mautern, Baumgarten
Obligatory hand harvest!
Old, crystalline hard rock such as the various gneisses, amphibolites, marbles and quartzites form the steep slopes of the Danube River valley – above all, the finely folded Gföhler gneiss, widely varied (in terms of material and structure) paragneisses and the solid granodiorite gneiss of Spitz. Dark amphibolites, which alternate frequently as basic strata with paragneiss, trace their origins back to lava from underwater volcanoes. Marble with characteristic grey and white stratification appears in the western Wachau.
In the lower part of the valley flank, an old slide-mass composed of weathered, chaotically compiled rock and blockwork and movement areas smeared with kaolin clay and red clay occurs between Wösendorf and Weissenkirchen. Small remains of gravel, sand, silt and clay – for example on the Spitzer Burgberg and at Weissenkirchen, document the development belonging to the Molasse Zone with alluvial and marine inundations from some 15–30 million years ago.
Loess is also encountered in the Wachau, often as a veil or blanket upon the older rock. Coarse river gravel with a covering layer of fine flooded sediments form the floor of the Danube valley today.
The grape varieties and wine styles of the Wachau offer excellent and varied options for culinary combinations, whether with native Austrian or international cuisine. Light to medium-bodied Grüner Veltliner, for example, is a seasonal dream-pairing with many asparagus dishes, but also shines alongside baked spring rolls, dim sum or spaghetti al frutti di mare. Riesling can accompany wonderfully fine vegetable or fish dishes ranging from truite meunière to exotic curries. Smaragd-level Veltliners and Rieslings put the finishing touch on powerfully flavoured dishes (fish, white meat, shellfish). A special treat featuring the culinary queen of the Wachau: apricot dumplings are perfectly complemented by a full-bodied Wachau Riesling!