The third white wine we sampled on April 13th in the tasting group, after the Sancerre and Chablis, was a Grüner Veltliner. This wine has benefitted with some recent popularity amongst wine geeks and sommeliers and the very first review I wrote for this blog was of a 2011 GrünerVeltliner from Hungary. In this review I’ll cover some the basics of Grüner Veltliner and Austrian wine then review the 2011 Domäne Wachau Terrassen Grüner Veltliner Smaragd.
Grüner Veltliner is the natural offspring of two grapes, Traminer and St. Georgen from Austria’s Burgenland. While it is similar in name it is not related to the Roter Veltliner or Frühroter Veltliner. When they are young and of a normal vintage I fair well in blind tests as they have some unique spicy and white pepper characteristics that distinguishes them from other white wines. But when they are made from very ripe grapes or from a warmer vintage their spiciness tends to get dominated by fruit so you really have to hunt for the white pepper notes to identify them.
In the United States and many other countries the Brix scale is used to measure the sugar content of the grapes at harvest. In Germany, Switzerland and Luxembourg they use the Oechsle Scale. In Austria they use the Klosterneuberger Mostwaage (KMW) scale in which where 1°KMW is ~5° Oechsle.
The Codex Wachau
Wachau has its own unique classification system for wines grown and bottled in the region and they are required to have no chaptalization, no concentration of the must (through evaporation of water, reverse osmosis, cryoextraction, etc.), no aroma additives, the use of small oak barrels, wood chips or other enhancers is forbidden and there cannot be any form of artificial restructuring of the wine. The goal is to have the wine be a true reflection of the terroir and vintage and reflect the uniqueness of the Wachau wine region.
There are three different styles of wine which are designated according to their must weight and the level of alcohol in the wines. The first is Steinfeder which is named after Steinfedergras (Stipa pinnata), a grass which grows near the vines in the terraced vineyards. It is light like a feather, and delicately fragrant just like the wine named after it. These wines are light bodied with maximum of 11.5% abv. The second is Federspiel which is named after a falcon and these are medium bodied wines with a minimum must-weight of 17° KMW 12.5% abv. The third is Smaragd which is named after a lizard that suns itself in the vineyard and these are full-bodied wines with minimum of 12.5% abv. They are made from grapes with the highest level of ripeness and concentration of sugars. These classifications can only be used by member wineries of the Codex Wachau and are only used for white wines grown in the region.
The Soil of the Wachau
The Wachau landscape was formed by the Danube River which made its its way through hard, crystalline primary rock to provide the region with a diversity of soils but they consist primarily of rock outcrops with occasional layers of loess (sediment and dust). The geography of the region is characterized by steep, rocky riverbanks, similar to those in the Mosel, that have had vineyards terraced into the hillsides. Higher up on the hills, the soils are rich in iron deposits and contain mixtures of gneiss, granite and slate. Closer to the river and in the flatter plains areas the soil is more alluvial with loess, sand and gravel.
The Wachau Climate
The Wachau has a continental climate as cool winds from the Atlantic Ocean mix with warm continental air currents from the Pannonian basin.The result is hot and dry summers and cold winters. However these fluctuating temperatures are moderated by the influence of the Danube River as the vast surface of the water reflects the sunlight onto the vineyards that are on the surrounding step hills which then aids in ripening of the grapes. The annual amount of rain of less than 500mm usually falls during summer but since the soils cannot retail the water irrigation for the dry vineyards is necessary.
The Winery - Domäne Wachau
The Domäne Wachau is home to 440 hectares (1187 acres) of estate vineyards from which it produces all of their wines as no grapes are sourced from outside. The vineyards are planted on steep terraces reinforced by old dry stonewalls.
It is among largest wineries in Austria and as a member of the Vinea Wachau Nobils Districtus quality association they produce only premium wines in the categories Steinfeder, Federspiel and Smaragd. Roman Horvath (MW) serves as the wine director and the winemaking team consists of Heinz Frischengruber, enologist and winemaker, and Peter Philipp who is co-winemaker.
The 2011 Domäne Wachau Terrassen Grüner Veltliner Smaragd is a clear white wine, straw in color with medium concentration and moderate viscosity. On the nose it has moderate intense aromas of arugula, onion skins, green olives, white pepper, and wet stone. On the palate it has flavors of white peach, red-yellow apples, dried pineapple, ginger, and a minute amount of fresh cut onions, horseradish, a hint of mint with a salty minerality and a lingering note of white pepper with a hint of bitterness. This wine is dry with medium+ acid, medium+ alcohol, and a medium+ finish. This wine retails at about $28 per bottle.