My next stop is in the neighboring village of Unterloiben, at the Alzinger winery. Greeting me is another member of the younger generation, Leo Alzinger (and another junior). His grandparents founded the winery in 1925 and sent most of their fruit to local cooperatives until 1985, when they began bottling on their own. Overall, the winery covers 9.5 hectares, 60 percent of which is Grüner Veltliner and the remainder Riesling. The production is split evenly between the federspiel and smaragd styles.
Like his peers, Alzinger is extremely pleased by the quality of 2006. “We had a beautiful autumn after a cold and rainy August. For two months after we only had sunshine. We could decide when we wanted to pick and there was not botrytis,” he says.
My favorite wine he pours is the Loibenberg Grüner Smaragd from 2006, very creamy and rich with glorious spicy notes. It is planted in a patch of the Loibenberg that features the loess substrate, a fine, yellowish chalky soil that is the product of the ice age. It is the fine material ground from the earth by glaciers and in this case blown down the valley of the Danube. Today, it is mostly found on eastern exposures. I’m not sure of its influence on the wines overall, but its yellowish patches are in striking contrast to the grayish schist-, gneiss- and granite-based soils of much of the region.
The highpoint of the day comes with a visit to the wineries and vineyards of Franz Hirtzberger. Guiding me is the younger Franz (Dad is being interviewed by a pair of Danish radio journalists when I arrive). The winery is located in the beautiful village of Spitz, one of the most western in the Wachau. Spitz is dominated by the cleft of the Spitzer graben, or small valley, which is filled with a clear, fast-flowing stream.
After some brief hellos, we go straight to the Singerriedel vineyard, which forms a half-bowl rising directly from the rear of the winery. It’s a steep climb, but it feels good to stretch my legs after so much tasting and spitting. The vineyard covers 20 hectares and is planted 95 percent to Riesling. Franz recounts how his father began to rehabilitate its terraces in 1983 after a long period of neglect. Before, few wanted to work its soil because of its spotty production: Only in the wettest years would it produce a reliable crop.
The advent of irrigation made its revival possible, says Franz. Today, it is still a labor-intensive enterprise; the cultivation of the vineyards and the stone works of the terraces need constant attention. “Here we work everything by hand, a kind of hard but beautiful job,” Franz says. From a high point in the vineyard we look out on the lovely, lush valley that rises to the north of Spitz, home to other vineyards in the Hirtzberger portfolio, including Rotes Tor, Axpoint and Hochrain. “We normally plant Riesling in the hills and Grüner on the flats because it needs more water, nutrition and soil,” Lucas says.
Before we leave Singerriedel, I spy a group of abandoned terraces on an opposite slope. Lucas says that the costs of reviving such a vineyard today would be enormous if not prohibitive, mostly due to the labor involved in rebuilding the rockworks and installing an irrigation system. Still, I think to myself, someday someone will take it on, based on the rising quality curve of the Wachau.
Descending to the winery, I’m careful to watch my footing in the muddy soil. Lucas taps his boots hard on the concrete to remove the mud, and I follow suit, though not quite as forcefully. We pass through the cellar, which features plenty of large oak casks for aging, and enter a small central courtyard. Not a bad life, I think, as long as you get along with your parents.
Joining us tasting is Lucas’ mother, Irmgard. She is a commanding presence, precise and detail-oriented, though friendly and plainspoken. I like her style. We taste through a series of smaragd wines. One of the best is the Honinvogel Grüner 2006, which comes from a very small portion of the Singerriedel, next to the winery. It is just a taste of things to come.
We go on to one of the best Austrian white wines I have ever tasted: the Singerriedel Riesling 2006, enormously rich, spicy and powerful, featuring loads of ripe peach, mineral and spice flavors. “The grapes were clean with no bad botrytis. We picked all the ripest grapes and then waited and picked again,” says Irmgard.
Finally, there’s a ’99 Singerriedel Riesling. It is mature-tasting, though still fresh, with rich mineral, smoke and spice notes that are the indelible marks of fine Riesling. I estimate it has at least another decade of life ahead of it, if not more. “For us it is important that smaragd wines age very well, but we know that people drink the wines very young,” Irmgard says. A pity, since wines like the Singerriedel 2006 should have decades of life and maturation ahead of them and really turn into something special.
Michael Culley — May 18, 2007 10:00am ET
F N Fontana — October 19, 2007 7:40am ET
Lawrence Anderson — February 8, 2009 2:44pm ET
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