On my way out of the Burgenland, I stop by the winery and vineyards of Umathum, one of Austria’s best all-around red wine producers. Josef “Pepe” Umathum is articulate and friendly. Like many other producers, he is going biodynamic, which is rooted deeply in Austria given that Rudolf Steiner, the father of biodynamics, was an Austrian.
We visit a vineyard on a bluff rising above the village of Jois, where I made my first stop in the region at Hillinger. Umathum has restored a series of terraces, and he says the first records of vineyards at the site date to 1214. Umathum calls the vineyard “kirschgarten” after the cherry trees of the village and is planting Furmint in its soil, which is composed of slate, schist and chalk. Another Furmint revivalist, like Heidi Schröck; I think I see the beginning of a trend.
On the way to the Wachau, I speed back through Carnuntum, bypass Vienna and head west along the Danube. I have long imagined the Wachau in my mind since I first started tasting its wines more than three years ago. While you can analyze the structure or character of a given wine, and certainly appreciate its flavors, you have to visit the region of its origin to really begin to know that you’re talking about. You look at the soil, meet the people, breathe the air and investigate the geology. And, of course, begin to understand the culture. Because wine is culture, and should not be reduced to merely a series of tasting notes and scores.
The Danube flows muddy and swift after the recent rains, and terraced vineyards rise steeply from its backs. It’s quite a contrast after the relatively flat terrain of the Burgenland. The countryside is green and lush. I arrive at the cellars of Josef Jamek in Weissenkirchen and I am met by the strong handshake of Hans Altmann, who oversees the winery. We taste through his range of wines and I am impressed by the 2006 Grüner Veltliner Ried Klaus Smaragd, which was also the source of my highest rated Austrian table wine in 2005. It is very rich and filled with intensely lush flavors of apricot, spice and hints of citrus and is easily the best wine of the trip so far. It also shows that the ’06 vintage is living up to its advance billing. Altmann also pours the 1999 from Ried Klaus to show the aging potential of Grüner. With beautiful mineral aromas and flavors, it is a wine full of finesse and richness and could easily age another decade or longer.
Hans drives me up to the Ried Klaus and it strikes me how small and concentrated the vineyards of the Wachau really are. Altmann relates a story of when Robert Mondavi visited once at this very spot. Altmann says Mondavi asked him how large the Wachau vineyards were, and Altmann said 1,400 hectares (1 hectare is equivalent 2.47 acres). Mondavi then looked at him with a smile and said he owned 1,800 hectares. “Of course, that is all different today,” Altmann says in reference to the sale of the Mondavi winery.
My next stop is at the Prager winery, which is overseen by the busy Toni Bodenstein. He is also the town’s mayor and an officer in a local bank. Bodenstein explains that from 1302 to 1715 the building the winery now occupies was a monastery. We taste a range of Smaragd Rieslings from the Wachstum Bodenstein vineyard, beginning with the 2006. It is very rich and shows plenty of pineapple, apricot and mineral components with very precise clarity.
The site is one of the highest in the Wachau, at 420 to 460 meters, and borders the forest that grows at the valley’s rim, explains Bodenstein. “The soil is very poor, based on gneiss and is friable with no clay. It cannot hold water or nutrients, but holds heat,” Bodenstein says, and makes light of the fact that his name would literally translate to "soil-stone" in English. The site was first planted in 1991.
Like nearly all the vineyards in the Wachau, it is irrigated, which was approved for use in the late 1970s. Indeed, I am amazed at how little rain the Wachau receives in a year, with some sites registering as low as 14 inches, with most below 20 inches. The modern revival and growth of winegrowing in the Wachau is thus partly based on the constant flow of water to the vineyards which, while normal in California, is not the norm in most of the finer European wine regions.
Bodenstein decides to present a vertical of wines from Wachstum Bodenstein, and we taste back to the 1999 vintage. My favorites are from the drought vintage of 2003, which is very rich and shows intense vanilla and peach flavors, and the 2000, very ripe, with lush peach, apricot and spice flavors. “Riesling likes the poor soil,” Bodenstein says. After this tasting, I’m convinced.
Next: More adventures in the Wachau.