Let me address the last point first. The Wachau lies in Austria, approximately 15 thousand miles away from Australia, which is the land of Kangaroos. Although I doubt nowadays that anyone reasonably believes those cute marsupials inhabit this part of Europe, the Austrians like to tease a bit about that misconception. In many gift shops, you can purchase a t-shirt bearing an image of a “No Kangaroos in Austria!” sign.
In truth the Wachau doesn’t need to identify itself with foreign animals. It is a lovely region on its own accord. It is in fact a UNESCO World Heritage region and habitat to many rare domestic animals. The Danube River (German: Donau) shaped this amazing landscape over millions of years. Although it is only fifty miles up river from the metropolis of Vienna, it feels like a place out of time. The narrow valley, separated by the vast river, allows only small-lot cultivation and the vineyards were wrenched from the steep slopes only with great difficulty. Tiny villages and romantic towns sit along the banks of the river, which is not impeded in this area so the river’s rapid flow carves into the banks in many areas.
Grapes are the region’s most important agricultural product followed by another fruit, the Marille. The Wachau is one of Austria's premium wine regions, with about 3300 acres under vine and its own wine classification system. Whereas all other Austrian regions use the Roman appellation system “Districtus Austriae Controllatus” (DAC), the Wachau created its own system to distinguish quality. Steinfeder, Federspiel and Smaragd are the classes of wine quality in the Wachau. Most common are the white varietals Grüner Veltliner (often referred to as GV), Riesling and Gelber Muskateller. Reds play a minor role, with Zweigelt as the primary local red varietal. Nearly all of the wines are done in a bone-dry style.
Grapes and what else?
So far so good, but what the heck is a Marille? Vines dominate the left bank of the Danube where the slopes are perfectly oriented towards the sun. On the right bank growers cultivate a certain fruit, the Wachauer Marille, which has become a regional trademark. A marille, by the way, is a kind of apricot. The natives of the Wachau insist that it is unique and, incidentally, the best variety of apricot. It is certainly true that they transform the fruit into many local delicacies. As a pure fruit they can only be purchased during harvest season in July and August, but you will find a preserved version in the exquisite local marmalades. Definitely a must-try is the traditional dessert Marillenknödel, which is a sweet dumpling containing a whole Marille. You might also follow up this opulent dish with a Marillenbrand--the distilled version of the fruit.
What makes this area so pleasant is that neither the vines nor the Marillen are cultivated on large estates but rather on small plots which are woven into a patchwork along with other green space. The vines sit on small terraces supported by dry stone walls, which means a great deal of manual labor for the vintners. A great spectacle is the bloom of the Marille trees in April, when the whole area is covered in white and pink blossoms. This typically announces the start of tourist season.
The Wachau does not only have an extraordinary natural and agricultural landscape, the region is dotted with lovely romantic towns like Spitz or Dürnstein, ancient villages like Krems and well preserved historic sites like the monasteries of Melk or Stift Göttweig.
Now, what about the wine?
Well, the wines of course are the mainstay of this region and there are some that are ranked among the best in the world. In 2014, Robert Parker honed in on the region’s outstanding wines and gave one the nearly unprecedented perfect score of 100 points. This particular 1995 Riesling from the Nikolaihof Winery is known as “Vinothek” and was aged 17 years, yes seventeen, in a large wooden barrel. It is easy to think this is just a one-time anomaly but the 1997 vintage was awarded 97 points the following year. That is another outstanding score.
The Nikolaihof is a family owned and operated winery in Mautern on the right bank of the Danube. It is owned by the Saahs family, who produce pure organic wines under the “demeter” regulations, which represent one of the strictest control authorities for organic agriculture. The Nikolaihof also has a lovely wine tavern where you will find gorgeous organic dishes along with estate wines by the glass. Even the 1997 Vinothek can be found (1995 was already sold out when we were there). It is unbelievable how fresh, almost young a 17 year old wine can be. This is Riesling at its best! (www.nikolaihof.at)
Wine from a Swede?
Right across the Danube River, in Krems-Stein, there is a vintner who works very intensely to create the perfect Riesling. His name is Urban T. Stagård. This funny curl in his name is no typo but an indication of his roots, which are half Swedish and sets him apart from the crowd of Austrian winemakers. This may be one reason for his meteoric rise in the wine world, but such recognition would not last if he could not reinforce his reputation with each vintage.
Some refer to Urban as a “young savage” due to his personal 1978 ‘vintage.’ Others see him as a wine maniac. In any case, he is definitely enthusiastic about his wines. He and his wife Doninique also produce pure organic wines and break new ground by reviving traditional methods of winemaking. In their cellar you will find stoneware vessels in which the best grapes are left to uniformly mature. Two of those vessels are devoted to their newborn twins. They contain Riesling must together with intact grapes still sitting on their stems. Urban told us that he will not bottle this wine before the twins are able to pronounce the word Riesling. I am quite certain he wasn’t kidding.
Stoneware translates into Steinzeug in German. The Stagård wine that has received the highest Parker rating of 94 points was the 2013 Riesling Steinzeug. This refers to both the origin of the grapes – from Stein an der Donau – and the stoneware vessels in which the wines matured. Although Riesling is Urban's passion he also creates great wines from the most common grape in this region, the Grüner Veltliner.
Welcome to the Heurigen!
You might assume that the Stagårds are too busy producing their wines to possibly do anything else, but they also participate in the local tradition of the Austrian vintners and turn their estate into a wine tavern for several weeks each year. This is called “Heurigen,” which in English translates to something like “of this year.” What this means is that traditionally the new wines "of this year” are served there along with regional culinary specialities. The Stagårds do deviate a bit from the tradition, however, by serving Swedish influenced dishes. Of course, you can look up the dates of the Heurigen from their website (www.stagard.at). Alternately, when walking through one of the wine villages, you can easily identify a winemaker’s opened Heurigen. An open Heurigen is indicated by a garland (or wreath) of twigs hanging outside on the streets in front of the establishment. So just look for the garland to find the wine.
Which side do you prefer?
The Danube is not only the key terrain feature of the Wachau, it is also a vast separator of both banks and not easy to cross. Of course there are bridges, three in total, but twenty miles separate the one in Melk at the westernmost edge of the Wachau and the next one in Mautern. So you should decide carefully on which side you want to stay. The good news is that there are quite a few ferries crossing the river. Some of those only carrying pedestrians or cyclists, which are recommended methods of transportation anyway, particularly if you want to taste the wines. There are bikeways on both banks and rental bikes available in many public places (www.nextbike.at).
As I mentioned, both banks of the Danube are different, but both have their own charm. The left bank, where vines are predominant, is definitely more crowded. Most tourists end up there and of course the towns of Spitz, Dürnstein or Krems on this side of the river are really lovely locations. Therefore, the right bank, where the Marillen dominate, is much quieter. You can take long walks with amazing views, and of course you do not need to forgo the wine and great food.
How to get there?
The Vienna International Airport (VIE) is a one-hour drive from the Wachau. There are some direct connections from many countries in North America and Europe.
A car will be very helpful here, especially if you want to discover the wider area outside the cities and towns. Public transport is also an option. There are bus lines along the river as well as the historic railway – the Wachaubahn – which will take you directly past the vineyards. Public transport is quite reliable, but it needs a bit more planning.
A River Cruise offers another interesting option and they usually disembark in Wachau. Particularly in Dürnstein, in the center of the the region, many cruise liners stay for a day or a night.
When to visit?
In general the travel season corresponds with the vegetation period of the vines. It begins around the end of April with a nice event called “Wachauer Frühling” (Wachau spring). During this event many vintners open their estates and their cellars for guests and you can taste most of their wines.
Where to stay?
There are many lodging possibilities especially in the larger municipalities like Melk, Spitz, Dürnstein or Krems. A very helpful resource is the “Best-of-Wachau” guide (www.bestof-wachau.at). This contains a nice collection of hotels or guest houses in all price ranges which meet certain quality criteria.