The Grafenegg tasting of the Danube's top wines is one of the highlights of the tasting year. Yet sometimes the wines can show a frustrating uniformity. Simon investigates why this is.

Grafenegg Castle - Photo © Bwag/Wikimedia

Imagine you’re a winemaker/grower lucky enough to own a prized parcel in a top vineyard location. How do you best ensure that the unique character of said vineyard expresses its maximum potential in the wine?

Ask three winemakers and you’ll get three different answers. At least one will say “our wine is made in the vineyard” – by which they mean that it’s the vineyard work that exerts the greatest influence.

Another may passionately believe that the bare minimum of intervention in the cellar is necessary to let the vineyard speak clearly in the finished wine. This could mean a wild yeast (spontaneous) fermentation, no temperature control and bottling without added sulphites or filtration. With white grapes, it could also mean skin fermentation – nothing taken away, nothing added.

Taste through the top wines of Lower Austria’s Kamptal, Kremstal, Traisental and Wagram regions and you might form a rather different opinion: the best way to express terroir is with cool fermentation (and perhaps fermenting with lab yeasts), filtration, fining and judicious amounts of added sulphites.

Same but same

In September 2020, I tasted around 150 of these wines (from roughly 30 different growers), as I have done for the last three years at the Österreiche TraditionsWeingüter’s excellent Erste Lage preview tasting, held at Grafenegg castle in the Wagram region (this tasting also includes wines from the ÖTW members in Carnuntum and Vienna, but they are outside the scope of this article).

The wines, including those of top estates such as Bründlmayer, Geyerhof, Jurtschitsch and Schloss Gobelsburg, are certainly high quality – and none more so than in 2019 (the vintage shown by most producers), a year that ÖTW president Michael Moosbrugger hailed as “almost perfect”.

The issue is a slight tendency towards uniformity. With the welcome exception of Wagram’s Roter Veltliner, all other single vineyard wines from these regions must be made from 100% Riesling or Grüner Veltliner. The vast majority conform politely to a classical and fairly technical winemaking style: tight and mineral for the Rieslings, creamy and peppery for the Grüners. The wines are mostly pale coloured, very proper in their star-bright sheen and sometimes just a bit straight-laced.

There’s nothing innately wrong in this. But shouldn’t there be more diversity in a region’s most revered vineyard sites and its top wines? Consistency and regional typicity are key for wines produced in large quantities and sold in supermarkets – drinkers buying at this level generally don’t want surprises. But at the premium end of the scale, more individuality and more strongly characterised wines might be expected.

Room for diversity

Take the classic French appellation Sancerre as a comparison. For white wines, Sauvignon Blanc is the only game in town. The vast majority of AOP classified Sancerre fulfils a formula: grassy, aromatic and citrussy, most likely made with a blocked malolactic fermentation.

But, the Sancerre AOP shows much more variety at the top end. Consider the wines of Cotat or Boulay – much fatter styles, with full malo and (at least in Cotat’s case) sometimes substantial wood influence. Then there are more maverick producers such as the late Didier Dagueneau (whose work is continued by his children) or Sébastien Riffault with his famously oxidative style. Somehow, the Sancerre appellation finds space for all of them. The implication is that, in their very different ways, they are all valid interpretations of its terroir.

Back in Austria, the Leithaberg DAC (in Burgenland) also seems more inclusive of different winemaking philosophies and styles. Compare the 2018 Leithaberg Chardonnays from Markus Altenburger, Hans Nittnaus, Sommer and Michael Kirchknopf for example. All excellent wines, they are somewhat thrilling in their divergence – Kirchknopf’s fatter, more lees-dominated Tatschler, a tight and reductive Nittnaus, a positively Burgundian effort from Sommer and a wild, unfiltered gem from Altenburger.

To qualify for their prüfnummer (the ‘license’ that allows an Austrian wine to be classified as quality wine and to show the banderole (Austrian flag) on its capsule or screwtop), Austrian wines are tasted by a panel which is partly made up of local winemakers. There are many stories of how conservative these tasting panels can be. Martin Diwald, one of the six ÖTW members from Wagram, says that he has problems almost every year getting the prüfnummer for his single vineyard wines.

Where’s the funk?

Diwald does not make funked out natural wines that look like milkshakes, but neither is he a fan of overt intervention in the cellar. All of his wines are wild fermented, coarse filtered when necessary and bottled with a minimal dose of sulphites. Stylistically, his wines are elegant and classical. Yet even he falls foul of the Krems tasting panel’s apparent desire for uniformity. “My wines usually get kicked out due to reduction”, he explains, noting that oxidation or the presence of tannins/grip are also frequent issues when the panel rejects wines.

According to Diwald, some of his winemaker colleagues insist that the customers for top single vineyard bottlings would not accept unfiltered wines. He disagrees, and adds “once in my lifetime I fined a wine to get the prüfnummer and I have sworn to myself that I will never do that again, as it lost all its character.”

His experience is typical of many winemakers whose wines don’t quite conform to the prevailing stylistic idea in the region. Some turn their backs on quality classifications altogether, such as Claus Preisinger in Burgenland. But this approach also has its challenges. Because he now declassifies his wines to table wine status, Preisinger is not allowed to write the name of the vineyard on the label. Hence the torturous name of his top Grüner Veltliner – ErDELuftGRAsundreBEN – sourced from the Edelgraben vineyard within the Leithaberg DAC.

We’re all individuals

Michael Moosbrugger, who is also director of the winery at Schloss Gobelsburg, takes a different view. For Moosbrugger, it’s important that winemakers work as a kind of community with a shared vision of their terroir – this directly supports the guiding vision of the ÖTW, which is on a decades long quest to catalogue the Danube’s best vineyards.

He makes the point that 200 years ago, activities such as harvesting or winemaking did not involve much in the way of individual choice. But in the modern age, individuality is seen as essential for marketing. “Nowadays every winemaker claims to have the ultimate right to do whatever pleases him or her.” he says. “When it comes to appellations we are talking about using names of origin as a name for a wine, which means that everyone who is using a name of origin is sharing this name with others.”

His impetus is clear: winemakers need to forfeit a little of their individuality in order to preserve the integrity of famed vineyard sites and their wines. He adds “So this is the fundamental question: To what extent do I have the ultimate right to do whatever I want, and at what point does my responsibility towards the collective start?”

It’s understandable that winemakers need to play by the rules a bit, if they want to tag their label with the name of a prestigious appellation. But the challenge comes when quality control starts to spill over into stylistic restriction.

Schloss Gobelsburg makes a number of outstanding single vineyard wines, including two of the Kamptal’s greatest locations: Ried Heiligenstein (famed for Riesling) and Ried Lamm (famed for Grüner). They are (gently) kieselguhr filtered and in the case of the Grüner also bentonite fined. I can’t help wondering how much more expressive these wines could be with a bit less intervention?

Where did the cool kids go?

While the ÖTW doesn’t play a direct role in the approval of quality wines, it strengthens the hold of the DACs (Kamptal, Kremstal and Traisental) and the tasting panels by requiring that all the single vineyard wines shown at the annual preview tasting have the prüfnummer. Diwald suggests that the ÖTW could consider allowing wines to be exhibited even when they fail the tasting panel. This would almost certainly increase the variety in the tasting, and it would be interesting to note if journalists, importers and sommeliers reward or punish such wines – all participants are asked to submit their scores to the ÖTW at the end.

The risk with the current situation is that the Danube DACs and regions (Wagram does not yet have a DAC) and their tasting panels further reduce their stylistic ideas down to an overly simplistic template, becoming ever stricter and requiring ever more uniformity for wines that want to remain ‘in the club’. This in turn would widen the gap between the minimal interventionists and the ‘classicists’, potentially causing the Dagueneaus and Riffaults of the Danube to turn their backs on the classification.

For appellations and associations such as the ÖTW, dynamism and relevance are at stake if the firebrands, the iconoclasts or the innovators no longer want to play along.

As you survey your prized parcel of Ried Heiligenstein (or insert the name of your own favourite top vineyard), wouldn’t you like some artistic freedom to let it express everything it’s got?

Grafenegg ÖTW Erste Lage Preview tasting 2020


Complete tasting notes for 2020

Complete tasting notes for 2019

Complete tasting notes for 2018