Thursday, July 10, 2008

Austria Part V: From the Kremstal to the Wachau


So to continue on with my trip in the Austrian wine country, our third day in the countryside was spent starting out at Nigl in the Kremstal, where owner and winemaker Martin Nigl reigns supreme.

The winery Nigl is nestled in the very lush green mountains, the specific region called the Krems valley. This is located somewhat north of the Danube. The winery was in the past a farmhouse at the base of a hill where a stone castle is located. The stone castle is now a ruin, but is owned by the same family who owned it when it was a functional castle. The vineyards run all the way up the hill toward the ruin. It is a beautiful sight indeed.

The winery has been remodeled beautifully, and includes a restaurant, in which we did our tasting. The wines from Nigl are fantastic, and a notch up from others in the region. They have an elegance and grace that makes other Gruner Veltliner and Riesling seem clunky and rustic. There's something in the palate that makes them wonderful.

We have currently the Nigl Kremser Freiheit 2007, which is a blend of 3 vineyards. Technically, on this label, it does not say Kremser Freiheit, but just Freiheit (which means "freedom"), because in 2007, there was some hail damage and Martin did harvest a block that was not technically in the Kremstal region. But typically, this entry level bottling is called Kremser Freiheit, so you will see it called that.


As far as I could tell, the 2 regions Kamptal and Kremstal are adjacent to one another and share the same soil type and climate, so it is difficult to tell the difference between the wines from these two regions. Maybe Kamptal has a slight bit more acidity from being slightly cooler than the Kremstal region, but only slightly. Both of these regions seem to have Gruners and Rieslings with crisp and appealing acidity. One can differentiate these wines from the wines of the Wachau, however, which has a completely different terroir.


And after leaving Nigl, the bus took the 28 of us over to the Danube river, where we drove along and saw some of the most beautiful views. We were heading to Jamek, where we would taste the wines of Alzinger and Jamek. This picturesque winery is located right on the Danube, and of course, has its own restaurant, of which it is very proud.
That's where we would have lunch, first! Apparently, the restaurant even predates the winery - the original owner first had a hotel and restaurant, and the wine came later - so the wines are always meant for the food. In fact, our lunch turned out to be almost like a wine dinner, with wine pairings for each course. The food was beautiful and tasted delicious. For example, this simple salad was one of the best things I had ever tasted. The vegetables and tiny strawberries were so fresh and flavorful, and the cheese was mouthwatering, as though a homemade local cheese. And the presentation was outstanding.


The wines of Alzinger and Jamek were bold and powerful, with great minerality, and more of a tropical fruit character than we had experienced in the Kamptal and Kremstal. This is typical for Wachau since the region is warmer. The region is warmer due to being right on the Danube river, a large body of water which retains heat and gives warmth to the surrounding vineyards.
Here in the Wachau, there is a different classification scheme that includes three levels of wine strengths, based on alcohol level, which is used as a measure of richness and body. The lightest of the three wines is called Steinfeder, which means "stone feather," and this type of wine, having a low alcohol level, is pretty much never seen in the United States because the wine doesn't travel well. Or, maybe it doesn't have much of a market. The next level up is called Federspiel, which means "feather play," and that is pretty much equivalent to a Kabinett Trocken, if you are more familiar with the German classification terms. The final level, which is like a reserve level, is called Smaragd, which is a type of emerald-colored lizard that suns itself on rocks in the Wachau region, and this level has the highest alcohol level and is usually a rich, full-bodied wine that is equivalent to a Spatlese Trocken in the German classification system.

But enough about terms, here are some vineyard pictures I took after we left Jamek and went for a walk up a terraced vineyard in the Wachau:

Note the terraced vineyards. Didn't see too many of these in Germany except in the Lower Mosel (Untermosel), which is also called Terrassenmosel, but it doesn't seem to exist in the Middle Mosel where all the premium Mosel sites are, nor in the Rheingau.
Terracing needs to occur more here in Austria due to the type of soil found here, which is called loess (pronounced "less"). This is a fine and sandy soil type on which Gruner Veltliner thrives. This loose soil retains more water than the slate and stony soils on which Riesling thrives. Gruner actually needs more water and does better without so much water stress (ie lack of water or drought).
At any rate, something I personally noticed was that with these terraces, the Gruner Veltliner vines are planted ACROSS the terrace and the hill (horizontally), in contrast to Riesling vines in the Mosel, which seemed to be planted DOWN a hill (vertically). I'm sure that has to do with the terracing found here in Austria, and not found in the slatey soil found in the Mosel.

Above is an old vine building itself right into the rocky terrace.

So here's the beautiful Danube river. This was the first time I was in Austria that I was reminded of Germany. It was like being in the Mosel, though the vineyards in the Mosel are way steeper. But the effect is similar, a river valley that has its vineyards facing the river and getting all its warmth.

Note the grey sky. We had to leave in haste when it began to pour. We ran back to the bus and we sped off to our final destination for the evening, Nikolaihof.
It was still pouring when we arrived at Nikolaihof, and we were not dropped off at the front door here and had to run through the rain some, so when we got inside, we were pretty soaked. Fortunately, we were treated like royalty and greeted with glasses of Gelber Muskateller wine. This is a fairly ubiquitous yellow muscat wine we seemed to taste at almost every winery as a fun aperatif sort of wine.

Note how dark it was outside. It was only just after 5pm or so. This is in June, so it should have stayed light out till 9pm if it were a sunny day. But it wasn't!



Here's a bit of the facade of the estate from one angle. There are better pics of this estate elsewhere, but that day, it was dark, so hard for me to capture.

Here's the dining table they set for us to taste at, followed by serving us a huge feast. Let me reiterate that I felt like we were being treated like royalty. It wasn't bad. It was one of those moments when all of us, wine distributors, restaurant sommeliers, retail grunts - we probably were all thinking - yeah, this is pretty nice. Maybe this is why I'm in the business!

We also did a cellar tour and learned that the estate is something like 2000 years old. I really didn't know such old estates existed in Austria! For some reason, my impression was that Austrian wine was somewhat of a new phenomenon. Maybe its the modern way they market themselves. Or maybe it is because the quality has gone up so much in the past 20 years that it is almost as if the industry had reinvented itself in the last 20 years and is portraying itself in this light alone. But on this trip, at places like Schloss Gobelsburg, which remains a monastery holding, and at Nikolaihof, I began to understand that Austrian wine is not just a new thing - it has been there for hundreds and in some cases thousands of years.
The dinner we had a Nikolaihof was a feast. I took some pics but they were too dark. Suffice it to say that even though we were chilled to the bone from being rained on and then stuffed into a dark, cold cellar, we had a great time. The wines are fantastic, amazing, and above and beyond the scope of other Austrian wineries. This is top notch stuff, all biodynamic, but more importantly, simply amazing stuff. I bought some amazing 1993 Nikolaihof Vinothek Gruner Veltliner on the Michael Skurnik/Terry Theise presale that will arrive to our store around November that is amazingly expensive, but I plan to sell and promote as my Wine of the Year choice. This wine is simply outstanding, complex, and a whole bunch of other words I can conjure right now and I don't want to steal Terry Theise's words at the moment. It is something to taste, and I hope I get it on as many lips as possible!!!








3 comments:

David McDuff said...

Great report, Nancy. I'm a bit jealous as I only had the time and mobility to visit Nikolaihof when I was in Vienna a couple of years back. Had the '93 GV Vinothek then as well, definitely outstanding juice. I really wanted to see Alzinger on the same trip but, without a car, it was just too tricky.

As to vertical versus horizontal plantings, the vineyards in the Mosel, Rheingau and Mittelrhein are often too steep to allow for farming and labor across the hill. Working up and down makes for better stability and also makes some minor forms of mechanization more feasible.

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