Austria’s most famous wine region isn’t very large, but what the Wachau Valley lacks in size it makes up for in scenic grandeur and the superlative quality of its products. Reminiscent in some ways of Germany’s Mosel Valley, the Wachau has steep, terraced vineyards tumbling down toward a large river, the Danube, which moderates the climate and reflects light, helping grapes to ripen. And like the Mosel Valley, the rugged and picturesque Wachau is dotted with little wine towns and the occasional castle.
Red grapes, notably Pinot Noir, have made minor inroads in the Wachau, but white wine is king. It is here that Grüner Veltliner reaches its peak, and Wachau Rieslings can stand toe-to-toe with top examples from Germany (or anywhere else in the world). In addition, these wines tend to be excellent values for the money, especially considering the challenge of working the vertiginous slopes. It’s not difficult to find good wine for as little as $10 a bottle, and at $20, the quality starts to become world-class.
In order to keep things interesting, the Wachau has its own classification system, unique to the valley. The region categorizes wines according to the ripeness of the grapes at harvest, a factor that also affects alcohol content. Alas, the names for the categories are hardly intuitive, even to a German speaker: Steinfeder is the lightest and least ripe, followed by Federspiel and then Smaragd. This last style, named after a local emerald-colored lizard, is the richest, most alcoholic and usually the most interesting and complex.
As is often the case in Europe, many wineries in the Wachau Valley require appointments for tastings. Having neglected to make reservations, we visited only those that demand no prior notice.
My favorite stop was Domäne Wachau, a large winery within walking distance of Schloss Dürnstein, surrounded by vineyards sloping down to the Danube. Its contemporary tasting room is a bright, bustling place where we received excellent service despite the many customers. We sat down on a comfortable sofa, joined by a knowledgeable English-speaking winery employee, who conducted a delightful private tasting for us. This eventually encompassed no fewer than 11 wines! I came away with single-vineyard bottlings of Riesling and Grüner Veltliner Smaragd, as well as an unusual amphora-aged Riesling. And I was seduced by a Grüner Veltliner made in the vin doux naturel style, its sweetness balanced by minerality and racy acidity.
On another day, we drove from village to village along the Danube, stopping wherever the mood struck us. The mansionlike Jamek winery drew our attention as we passed through the town of Joching. Inside, we discovered a charming tasting room helmed by a welcoming dirndl-clad woman. At the traditional wooden bar, we tried various Jamek wines, priced at less than $2 per taste. It was especially fascinating to compare two rare Weissburgunder (Pinot Blanc) bottlings: a zippy Federspiel and a refined Smaragd. Beyond the bar is a stylish restaurant with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking a verdant garden.
A few of the bottles we purchased arrived in the United States, but most of them made it only as far as Schloss Dürnstein’s Villa Schönthal. We couldn’t resist uncorking them in our private gazebo, toasting our good fortune as we watched pleasure boats ply the Danube below.