Wachau, Kremstal, and Kamptal
My first visit to Austria was an enlightening one, with a few surprises. It’s bigger and more geographically varied than I expected, and it shares more history with neighbouring central and eastern Europe than western. Less to my surprise, the quality of living is very high and that’s reflected in the wine which is much more consistent in quality than most other countries I’ve visited.
Austria has a huge diversity of wines – red, white, sweet, and sparkling – which means there’s no problem finding a style to fit any occasion. I was particularly impressed by the Sekt, usually made from Chardonnay and sometimes Pinot Blanc, as a fruitier and much cheaper alternative to Champagne. The reds can be simple and fruity, and the best need some time to open up and develop a tannic structure to balance the fruitiness of Blaufränkisch or St-Laurent (pronounced Sankt-Laurent, it’s not a French grape). Pinot Noir is also emerging as an exciting wine style. And the whites are not just Riesling and Grüner Veltliner: I had some very good Pinot Blanc, or Weissburgunder, which had a pleasing richness to them as well as the acidity to age. But for the truly great wines, Riesling and Grüner Veltliner are the varieties which best express that balance between warm fruitiness, cool acidity, and the structure to age.
Of all the wine-producing areas I tasted the most impressive were the regions along the Danube (Donau in German) – Wachau, Kremstal, and Kamptal, premium regions for white wines in which both Grüner Veltliner and Riesling excel. There’s surprisingly not much Riesling grown in Austria, but it is very high quality. In contrast, Grüner is the most planted grape variety in Austria, grown all around the country. It comes in a huge array of styles, from inexpensive, simple, but very drinkable to austere, edgy, and extremely ageworthy.
Countries around the world often emphasise the differences between regions in order to make clear the variety of wines made. Thus, it is tempting to try to delineate clear differences between Wachau, Kremstal, and Kamptal. Visiting them, however, made me realise that it is very difficult to tell the regions apart, either through tasting the wines or even working out which region you’re standing in. Wachau is the best known, with its vineyards located on steep slopes overlooking the Danube – reminiscent of the great regions of Germany. But the borders, established in the 1960s, are more political than topographical or geographical. Vineyards have borders running within them, meaning that one half of a vineyard may be in Wachau and the other half in Kremstal. This means that talking about regional differences is superfluous, especially in such a small area. More relevant are vineyard differences, as well as the stylistic choices producers make.
Wachau lies on both sides of the Danube, though the highest quality vineyards are on the north side on steep, south-facing slopes. To the east is the town of Krems, around which the region of Kremstal lies, again on both sides of the river. The land here is much flatter, though not uniformily so. The vineyards gently undulate at elevations of around 200-300m, and this is important for the plantings of Riesling and Grüner Veltliner. The latter is planted on lower, more fertile soils as the grape is much more demanding of water and nutrients than Riesling; consequently, yields are higher and need to be managed. Riesling is planted higher up – even if it’s only a few metres – on rockier soils as the variety likes conditions to be as difficult as possible for a long ripening season to gain intense, concentrated aromas. These variations in soil and slight elevation make it possible to grow the two grape varieties near each other despite their different needs.
To the south of Kremstal is Kamptal, on the banks of the small Kamp river which provides the region’s irrigation needs. Irrigation is a moot topic in the three regions. Some producers do not irrigate, believing it makes life too easy for the vines while others prefer a small amount so as not to overstress then. Climate change, however, is forcing all producers to think hard about the use of irrigation. The lack of rain – and Austria has had some warm, dry vintages recently – is making it difficult to farm without irrigation, particularly for younger vines on rocky soils. At the same time, the lack of rain can mean there is not enough water in the rivers – particularly from the small Kamp river. Climate change also brings other challenges: earlier budding means spring frost becomes a problem, while harvests are getting earlier too - the warm 2018 vintage came in three weeks earlier than usual.
In all three regions, producers emphasise the different character of individual vineyards rather the regions. Although they make introductory, multi-vineyard wines, it’s the single-vineyard wines which really express a producer’s style as well as allowing the particular qualities of each grape variety to shine. The best vineyards are called Erste Lage, or Premier Cru (a Grosse Lage, or Grand Cru, classification is to follow), and the grapes must be either Grüner Veltliner or Riesling. The subtle differences between vineyards is demonstrated in Kremstal by Gottschelle and Silberbichl which lie close to each other, yet the former, rich in loess soils, is solely to Grüner Veltliner and the latter, on a steeper slope with gravel soils, to Riesling.
All producers are emphatic about the terroir of the three regions, but Michael Malat was perhaps the most passionate. He ferments all his wines in small tanks so that all the different lots can express their individual character. On top of that, he doesn’t use irrigation, doesn’t buy any grapes, picks them when they are healthy with no botrytis, uses no cultured yeast (the cellar dates back to 1722), and only filters once - instead leaving the grapes overnight before fermentation for natural clarification and then tartrate crystals which form on the sides of the old oak barrels also clarify the wines during maturation.
The consistency in quality across the three regions is extremely impressive. There’s a marked linear elegance to the wines, whether from Grüner Veltliner or Riesling. With no use of new oak or malolactic fermentation, there is a purity to the wines which is all about site, fruit, and careful vineyard management and winemaking. The climate is relatively cool but the warm days mean that acidity is not too high – the wines are fresh and crisp but not enamel-scraping. Grüner is a little fruitier and weightier, with the white pepper aromas it’s known for. I managed to taste an older wine from 2007, which maintained its freshness while developing a Burgundy-style richness. Riesling is smokier and more intense with extra acidity. The wines are dry, with more fruitiness and slightly less acidity than their German or Alsace counterparts. Again, the structure of the wines makes them extremely ageworthy.
It’s unusual to visit a region so dominated by white wine - two producers I visited, Jäger and Barbara Öhlzelt, don’t make any red wine at all. The absence of overt winemaking techniques or tannins means that the character of the fruit and nature of the site are strongly apparent. As Austria becomes more confident in projecting its wines across the world, these small regions should become a by-word in how white wine can express variations in terroir so evocatively and powerfully.