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Tasting Great 2006 Grüners and Rieslings in the Wachau

Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: May 15, 2007 12:09pm ET

The next morning I am picked up by a young student named Matthias Maschebauer, who will take me to the wineries on my itinerary in the Wachau. He’s a helpful guide because in many instances the wineries have only small signs pointing to their entrances and more than one winery in a small village may carry the same family name. Don’t want to get my Fritzs and Franzs confused, especially with only a few words of German under my belt. I’m appreciative of Mathias’ easygoing and professional manner.

The first stop is at the estate of F.X. Pichler in the village of Oberloiben, just a short hop from my hotel in Dürnstein. Greeting me is Lucas Pichler. It is becoming apparent throughout my trip that much of the old guard that brought the Austrian wine industry to new heights of quality in the last 20 years is retreating to the background to let their sons and daughters take the reins. Lucas is young, bright and well-spoken, knowledgeable of both his family’s wines and terroirs.

We sample a few of the estate’s wines before heading out to the vineyards. We start with a lighter-bodied 2006 Federspiel Riesling, a blend of fruit from the terraced vineyards surrounding the winery. It features deliciously fresh peach and grapefruit flavors, with hints of spice. While light compared to smaragds, I have come to enjoy federspiels for their elegance and delicacy. Lucas explains the differences in winemaking in the Pichler cellars: Federspiels are fermented and aged totally in stainless steel while the smaragds receive greater skin contact and are aged in large, oak casks for four to seven months.

We next taste through a range of 2006 Smaragd Grüner Veltliners, including Loibenberg, the reserve style “M,” Kellerberg and Kellerberg Reserve. The range of Rieslings includes Loibenberg, Steinerthal, Dürnstein Hollerin and Kellerberg. All showed impressive quality, with the edge, just slightly, going to the Grüners, which were a bit more open and accessible overall. But I expect the Rieslings to come on strong in the years ahead as they gain intensity and power with some bottle age.

My favorite of the flight is the “M,” which is a blend of 70 percent fruit from Loibenberg and 30 percent from Kellerberg. Lucas explains that its grapes are harvested as late as possible and it is normally the winery’s biggest-bodied wine. I wouldn’t disagree. The ’06 “M” features intense dried apricot, peach and the peppery, spicy flavors that are one of the true markers for me of Grüner Veltliner. I’ve read about the long aging potential of Grüner, but still have little experience. It is something I hope to change in the years ahead. “I think this wine can age for 10 or 15 years,” Lucas says. “We think the perfect time is three to five years after the vintage, and they are the perfect wines for storing.”

I ask him if there is anything new in the offing. “I have a small project. I want to plant Pinot Noir,” he says with a bit of a mischievous smile. This Pinot bug has bitten the Austrians hard, even in the heartland of Riesling and Grüner.

There’s a light rain and a cool breeze as we drive up the narrow winding vineyard lane to visit Loibenberg. Those wispy, small banks of clouds clinging to the treetops and ridge tops seem to be growing in number. Lucas apologizes for the rain and the less-than-ideal weather, but he is relieved to have the moisture after an extremely dry and warm spring. The vines, he says, are already three weeks in advance of their normal growing pattern. I assure him I don’t mind, especially since it’s raining so lightly.

As we walk among the vigorous green growth and rocky soil of the Loibenberg, Lucas explains that at 70 hectares it is one of the largest tracts in the Wachau. Forty to 50 producers harvest fruit from it to make wine. Indeed, the Austrian wine industry is impressive for the concentration of producers within a relatively small vineyard realm: More than 6,000 bottling wineries draw their fruit from just 48,000 hectares of vineyards currently in production.

Next Up: Visits to Alzinger and Hirtzberger

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