Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Steeply terraced vineyards producing excellent Gruners and Rieslings at Domane Wachau

On the steep slopes of Austria's picturesque Wachau Valley where the Danube River flows past terraced vineyards, wine grapes have been cultivated for hundreds of years.  And it's here that an award-winning winery (recently chosen as one of the top 50 vineyards) is creating great Austrian white wines.  I had the opportunity to meet with Heinz Frischengruber, oenologist and winemaker of Domane Wachau in New York this week. At a special media dinner, he conveyed the philosophy of making wines with clarity that reflect the diversity of soils as well as the elevation and exposure of more than 100 single vineyards of this UNESCO heritage area.

I have been a fan of Austrian wines since visiting the vineyards in 2010, and the wines that Heinz brought offered fantastic quality at a modest price.  Dining at midtown Manhattan's Aureole restaurant, we had a variety of well-prepared dishes to keep these food-friendly wines in good company.

Our dinner wines included:

Domane Wachau Gruner Veltliner Federspiel Terrassen 2018 - The wine had a fresh herbs and white stones on the nose.  The wine had crisp acidity and flavors of chamomile and lemon with good length.  A wonderful, food friendly wine at $18.  The Federspiel category refers to the weight/alcohol content of the wines - they will be 12.5% alcohol, medium-bodied wines.

Domane Wachau Riesling Federspiel Terrassen 2018  - Nosing the wine, I found lush aromatics of honeysuckle and orange blossom.  It had a round mouthfeel, while also offering mouthwatering acidity.  The palate was pleasant with tangerine.  Such a good wine for only $20.

Domane Wachau Gruner Veltliner Federspiel Ried Liebenberg 2018 - This single vineyard wine from the Liebenberg (in German, "love mountain") vineyard showed the true spicy character of the Gruner Veltliner grape. Heinz explained that he only uses stainless steel to ferment Gruner and then ages it in very large barrels - not the small barriques that would impart oak flavor - thereby allowing the grapes to express themselves.  According to Heinz, this allows the wine to "keep the clearness, the straightness."  On the nose and palate, I found celery seed, chamomile, and stones, with spice and lemon at the finish.  $25

Domane Wachau Riesling Federspiel Ried Bruck 2018 - Heinz told us that the Bruck vineyard is in a cold part of the sloped terraces.  This wine was lush, with gorgeous honeyed apricots on the nose and palate as well as a spritz of lemon.  I found it to have mouthwatering acidity and a long finish. $25

Domane Wachau Gruner Veltliner Smaragd Achleiten 2016 - Heinz told us the Achleiten vineyard is the best in the country.  It has a stunning slope, with the Danube at its feet and a forest that grows above the terraces. The mix of soil types including slate, mica, loess, help create a wine of great complexity. The wine had mineral aromas as well as herbal aromas like fresh cut palm.  On the palate there was lemon, celery, minerals, and huge length.  The acidity was racy and made it a great match for my plate of diver scallops.  Smaragd wines are more full bodied than Federspiel, as they are picked later in the season but before boytritis can set in. $46

Domane Wachau Riesling Smaragd Achleiten 1996 - In this comparison, we had another wine from the famous Achleiten vineyard, but this time a Riesling and 20 years older.  Heinz said that with age, the soil actually comes through more in the wine. This, he explained, made it harder to distinguish between the Gruner Veltliners and the Rieslings as they aged.  What a treat to taste this 20-year-old Riesling.  There were honeycakes on the nose, apricot jam and refreshing grapefruit on the palate, as well as a smokiness.  The wine was still very lively and it had huge length.  Heinz assured us this was a white wine we could eat with grilled steak - perhaps the focus of another wine dinner?  This gorgeous wine is only available in limited quantities.

Wine tourism is popular in Austria, and Heinz told us the winery offers a number of experiences to visitors.  To help them with planning, there is a new app called "My Wachau."  The app shows aerial views of vineyards, maps, and details about arranging visits.

While Domane Wachau is a relatively modest producer, their wines are thankfully available in the states. I recommend trying them with a wide range of foods - from pork, to chicken, to fish.  And yes, try the rich Smaragd wines with steak.