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Though a mere eleven minutes apart by car according to Google Maps, two new Austrian wines illustrate the difference terroir makes in such a short distance. The Wachau is known for Austria's most famous and expensive producers. It tends to produce extremely powerful, mineral expressions of Riesling and Gruner Veltliner due to the steep, urgestein terraced vineyards dropping down to the river. The Kamptal, which flattens out from the city of Krems onwards, tends to be the natural home for Gruner due to the abundance of loess soils. However, our two producers are on the "wrong" sides of the Danube for their appellations' typicity. We're going to examine how these two underdogs perform given the circumstances, looking first to the west with Frischenburg on the flatter south side of the Danube. The right bank of the Danube may not be as well-known as its counterpart on the left, but this is precisely what grants some of the vineyards located on that side the status of insider’s tips. Heinz Frischengruber’s winery is one of them.
Frischengruber Ried Steiger
While wine growing in the Wachau dates to the period of Roman settlement, the first golden age of wine was under Carolingian rule. Later, the majestic Benedictine monasteries of Melk and Göttweig housed avid viticulturists, devoted to understanding and developing varieties and methods of cultivation suited to this terroir. By the Middle Ages, Wachau wine was already known far beyond Austria’s borders. The Frischengruber estate dates to about this time – 1563 – when the land now owned by the family was held by Austrian aristocrats.
“If ever there were a region which justified a geographical approach to wine, it would be the Wachau,” writes Hugh Johnson, mapper of the wine world. Citing its “complex meeting point of northern and southern climates and rich mosaic of different soils and rocks,” Johnson argues that the specific intersections of climate and terrain in the various Wachau villages are articulated in their wines. Rossatz where Frischengruber is located, is at the geographical center of the Wachau, nestled on the south bank of a prominent U-bend in the Danube. Here the slopes are gentler and soils more varied — mainly Urgestein subsoil topped by gravel, gneiss, mica-schist, and, crucially for veltliner, loess.
The microclimates of the Wachau are extraordinarily differentiated due to variations in topography. In a span of just 9 miles, harvest times can be as much as two weeks apart. Rossatz is at a climatic crossroads between the Pannonian climate from the east (hot, dry summers and moderate winters) with the cool, wet mountain air that flows down through little, forested stone valleys to the Danube. The Danube moderates temperatures sufficiently to enable record hang times – well into November.
The Frischengrubers work in harmony with nature, paying particular attention to physiological maturity and late harvesting. Georg works in an equally thoughtful manner in the cellar. Most of his wines are fermented spontaneously and subsequently rest for months on the lees. The single vineyard wines stay in their tanks until late summer and thus acquire additional nuances and elegance. The Steiger vineyard calls for dense and complex Veltliner.
All of this is to say that Frischengruber's Gruner executes a delightful tightrope walk of Wachau minerality with the fruitiness one associates with the Kamptal, producing an almost ethereal wine that dances on the tongue.
Stagard Steiner Goldberg
Before the Vinea Wachau was formed in 1983, the city of Krems could be considered the capital of the Wachau. Krems sits next to the town of Stein, which marks the present-day limit between the Wachau and the Kremstal. The vineyards of Krems and Stein on the “left bank” seem to belong to the Wachau with their characteristic steep Urgestein terraces that run in to the Danube; however, they are technically considered part of the Kremstal. Why?! Growers in the Wachau prior to the Vinea Wachau ruling were cautious of the powerful merchant presence in Krems and were aware of the dramatic differences in sun exposure and soil composition on the “right bank” of the river, where the majority of the Kremstal lay. They wanted the Wachau’s focus on these Urgestein terraces so they petitioned Krems, including the geologically similar Pfaffenberg vineyard out of what we now consider the Wachau.
The Stagard estate stretches as far back as 1424 when it was first mentioned as “the Lesehof Tegernseer.” Originally it was the property of the local diocese. According to Stagard winemaker Urban: "Our estate is almost as old as the city of Krems. For nearly 1000 years, our house exists and there are some documents showing that Bendictine monks grew apricots and cultivated grapes. In 1786 the vineyard estate was taken over by my family and since then we produce wine without interruptions. I got started in 2006 when I took over from my father who actually put his Swedish name behind the estate. 10 generations of winemakers are in between the beginnings and the present , a lot of tradition and also the duty to continue. Since 2006 we became bigger but much more important, we - my wife Dominique and me - decided to convert to organic winemaking."
The Stagards concentrate on single vineyard rieslings from these steep terraced vineyards on the Wachau/Kremstal border. Cellar work is with wild yeasts, often in stainless tank, although some recent projects have been in steinzeug, or stone tank/crock. Long lees aging and minimal skin contact depending on the vintage/site helps stabilize and "harmonize" the wines.
For a full description of the Goldberg wine, please see the item description below. What we discovered, quite by accident, after forgetting the half drunk bottle in the back of the fridge, was how much better the wine tasted on the 4th day! I called the wine rep who brought the bottle for me to taste; he confirmed that the Stagard's single vineyard holdings match the long lived powerhouses of Nikolaihof and greatly benefit from time open. This is the kind of wine you should open and drink a glass of over a couple of days!
While both Frischengruber and Stagard might technically qualify as Lightweight or Welterweight like Manny Pacquiao or Sugar Ray Leonard due to their location, they deliver more of a Heavyweight knock out punch like Muhammad Ali or Mike Tyson. However, due to their Lightweight status, they offer great value compared to their Heavyweight counterparts, both weighing in at under $30 for single vineyard expressions.
From Rossatz – directly across the Danube from Dürnstein –- where the mighty river tapers to its narrowest span as it makes an ancient bend. Vineyards here slope gently upwards from the riverbank to meet the undulating edge of the Dunkelstein forest. The microclimate combines some of the world’s starkest diurnal shifts with a growing season that can stretch well into November. These are ideal conditions for grüner veltliner, on loess, to pick up tension and finesse, with an unmistakably piquant and vivid Wachau profile. Georg’s Smaragd veltliners reach a salty, sappy, spring-loaded ideal. This foot-slope vineyard faces the Danube to the north and is a classical river-bed soil of gravel with deposits of paragneiss and a rich topsoil of humus and loess. This brings out a fruitiness in grüner veltliner that is especially suited to the expressive, mid-weight Federspiel style Georg makes from this site. Very nice minerality with balanced acidity, notes of green apples and pears, lime, white pepper and white flowers. Lively and refreshing, perfect with Wiener Schnitzel, Vietnamese dishes , sushi, salads and green vegetables, cheese and charcuteries, white sausages with potato/cucmber salad. An all around winner! Giselle Hamburg
From the northern shore of the Danube above the village Stein next to the Wachau border. At 400 meters above sea level, Goldberg is the highest site in the Stein area with a clear view across the river to Nikolaihof in the Wachau. Stagård’s vines there are 40+ years old. The soil consists of Glimmerschiefer, loam, and loess, and it is the site that is picked last every harvest. Pure loess soils a meter deep and direct southern exposure contribute to the signature expression of apple and citrus, herbs and sea salt. The '17 vintage shimmers gold, with notes of almond, apple strudel and wet rocks. Opulent, yet with bracing acidity, the palate offers notes of juicy sorrento lemons, intense minerality and a hint of toffee. Serve with some fowl like goose or pheasant. GH
From the northern shore of the Danube above the village Stein next to the Wachau border. At 400 meters above sea level, Goldberg is the highest site in the Stein area with a clear view across the river to Nikolaihof in the Wachau. Stagård’s vines there are 40+ years old. The soil consists of Glimmerschiefer, loam, and loess, and it is the site that is picked last every harvest. Pure loess soils a meter deep and direct southern exposure contribute to the signature expression of apple and citrus, herbs and sea salt. The '17 vintage shimmers gold, with notes of almond, apple strudel and wet rocks. Opulent, yet with bracing acidity, the palate offers notes of juicy sorrento lemons, intense minerality and a hint of toffee. Serve with some fowl like goose or pheasant.