To say that Toni Bodenstein of Weingut Prager in Austria's Wachau district is passionate about viticulture would be an understatement. He's possessed—and one of his nation's most inspired winemakers.
"J'accuse against genetic erosion. We have only one rootstock and one clone, and this is dangerous for the next generation. We have no science of rootstocks, so I fight for different selections," Bodenstein told me on my recent visit to Austria. His warning on future genetic perils is based on what he sees as industry norms in Austria that value productivity and consistency in vine sources over diversity. And it definitely rings true to me. Grapevines and roots are essentially overbred to the hilt in the pursuit of perfection. They are prone to diseases and infestations that routinely wreak havoc, and sometimes catastrophe.
We shared lunch at Restaurant Heinzle along the banks of the Danube River in the village of Weissenkirchen, where Bodenstein also serves as mayor. He knows the river well: In June 2013, he rallied its citizens to help construct a floodwall to control the rampaging waters of the river.
The waters flow by gently now, and we followed lunch with a tasting of his wines in his cellar across the street. We talked about 2013, which he terms as one of the hardest and longest vintages in recent memory, one that was made problematic by untimely harvesttime rains that came after the spring floods. Five passes were needed through the vineyard to harvest ripe fruit; the normal is two or three. Yields were down 50 percent for Riesling and 30 percent for Grüner Veltliner.
The extra work paid off: Prager's wines from 2013 provide uniformly high quality. The Grüner Achleiten, from one of his best vineyards, is rich and spicy, with alluring mineral and pepper notes. A tick up in quality is the 2013 Riesling Achleiten, direct and cutting, filled with black currant and slate flavors. But for Prager, the grapes are secondary to site. "One hundred years ago, people drank Achleiten. They didn't drink Riesling or Grüner. And that is what I seek today."
Prager's baby is the Wachstum Bodenstein, the winery's highest vineyard. It rests at 1,500 feet of altitude on terraces that provide a panorama of the achingly gorgeous and well-tended Wachau. First planted in 1998, Bodenstein grows both Grüner and Riesling here. For Riesling, he draws on 25 selections from three sources: two from Alsace, four from the Wachau and the rest from Germany. These are not clones—replicants of successful mother vines bred for specific attributes. These are cuttings that have been propagated directly, and Bodenstein views them as a genetic reservoir of quality and diversity.
It's definitely a worthy pursuit.