The Wachau corresponds to the stretch of the Danube valley between Melk and Krems. This wonderfully scenic part of the Austrian landscape has been declared a World Cultural Heritage site. Extraordinarily distinctive wines are produced here, some of which grow on steeply terraced hillsides. From the 2020 vintage onwards, wines produced here are able to use the designation Wachau DAC. The best vineyards here produce some of the world’s finest white wines with decades of ageing potential, especially those produced from Grüner Veltliner and Riesling grapes.
The story of how one of Austria’s most fascinating wine-growing regions came into being is quite exciting. Over the course of millions of years, the Danube carved a winding path through solid gneiss and amphibolite. The crystalline rocks of the river terraces developed into soils that offer outstanding conditions for Riesling. During the ice ages, at a time when vegetation was sparse, rock dust blew in and settled in the lee of the mountains, the hard rocks of the eastern slopes becoming covered in layers of loess. Some of the greatest, most robust Grüner Veltliners are grown on this very soil. Wachau’s striking viticultural landscape is shaped by its geological terrain and its stone terrace walls, which were constructed in the Middle Ages under the governance of Bavarian monasteries to enable the most favourable hillsides to be exploited for wine.The climate is also dynamic here, where two powerful climate zones – the western Atlantic and the eastern Pannonian – become tightly interwoven. Microclimates also come into play, depending on the slope, exposure and terrain of individual vineyards, as well as the presence of heat-retaining walls and rocks. The hot, dry summers and severe winters are balanced out by the expanse of the Danube’s waters. Cool winds from the Waldviertel in the north bring about sizeable temperature fluctuations between day and night, especially in the months leading up to the harvest. The contrast between the cooler Spitzer Graben valley in the west and the warmer Loibenberg in the east is what lends the grapes their multi-faceted aromatics, which are expressed in the wines as cool fruit with occasional exotic appeal.
This unique combination of soil, climate and wine-growing skill is recognised with the protected designation of origin Wachau DAC. Since the 2020 vintage, wines with regional typicity have been produced in three categories: Gebietswein (regional wine) and Ortswein (“villages” wine), which reflect the diversity of the Wachau and express the typicity of their origin. Besides Riesling and Grüner Veltliner, these are represented by Neuburger, Pinot Blanc and Muskateller, amongst others. The Riedenwein designation, however, is reserved for Grüner Veltliner and Riesling wines, which are renowned for their exceptional storage potential. One special feature of all levels of Wachau DAC wine is that the grapes used must be harvested by hand. Since the mid-1980s, the Wachau winegrowers’ association “Vinea Wachau” has classified the dry white – and on rare occasions also rosé – wines of the Wachau into three categories according to their natural alcohol content. Fragrant light wines up to 11.5% abv are called “Steinfeder” (named after the feathery grass Stipa pennata). The classic category (11.5–12.5% abv) has been christened “Federspiel” (a term used in falconry). Powerful Reserve wines (minimum 12.5% abv) bear the name “Smaragd”, referring to the emerald-coloured lizards that are particularly fond of frolicking in Wachau vineyards on sunny days.
Another exciting pastime here is seeking out good addresses serving local food and wine in the historic wine-growing villages. Leading winegrowers and top restaurateurs can be found scattered throughout the Wachau, in Spitz, Weißenkirchen, Joching, Dürnstein and Loiben – to name but a few. A trip across the Danube to the right bank is also well worthwhile.
Quality levels/grape varieties
- 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!
The steep slopes of the Danube valley are formed from ancient, hard crystalline rocks, such as different forms of gneiss, amphibolite, marble and quartzite. Finely pleated Gföhl gneiss is prevalent, as well as paragneiss (which varies greatly here in terms of its mineral content and fabric), and consolidated granodiorite gneiss around Spitz. Dark amphibolite, which forms basic layers that alternate frequently with paragneiss, can be traced back to lava from underwater volcanoes. Marble with characteristic grey and white stratification can be found in the western parts of Wachau.
An old slide mass can be found between Wösendorf and Weißenkirchen, on the lower flanks of the valley. It is composed of weathered, chaotically bedded rocks and boulders, and the former sliding surfaces are smeared with kaolin and red loam. Small remains of gravels, sands, silts and clays, such as those on the Spitzer Burgberg and around Weißenkirchen, are testimony of this area having developed from the Molasse zone, which was crossed by rivers and flooded by seas between 30 and 15 million years ago.
Loess is also present in the Wachau, often as a veneer or blanket on top of the older rock. Coarse river gravel covered with a layer of fine sediment from floods 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!