Top Austrian whites 2015
I was fortunate enough recently to get the chance to taste the top white wines of the Danubian appellations in Krems, Austria in August 2016. The occasion was the release of the 2015 vintage. Once a year the ÖTW (Österreichische Traditionsweingüter, Austrian traditional wine estates) organise a tasting of all the single-vineyard wines from its four appellations: Kremstal, Kamptal, Wagram, Traisental. It invites wine journalists, sommeliers and on this occasion, MW students. In the interests of transparency, I would like to acknowledge here the generous sponsorship of the ÖTW who paid for my trip. What did I learn?
The ÖTW and its aims
Founded in 1992, the ÖTW is a grouping of quality-minded wine producers based in the Danubian regions of Kremstal, Kamptal, Wagram and Traisental. In a way, it is a response to the success of neighbouring Wachau’s promotion of itself (Vinea Wachau, 1983 onwards). Both are private associations who determine their own membership, like the much bigger VDP (founded 1910) in Germany. ÖTW’s purpose – apart from promoting quality Austrian white wines – is to identify the best vineyard sites on this part of the Danube, the Erste Lagen or premier crus. By 2012 it had identified 62 named vineyards deemed to be of the right quality level. The association has set itself a limit of 20% of the total vineyard for Erste Lagen status. In time grand crus (top 3-5% of the total vineyard) will follow. Thus, it is following a Burgundian pathway in the search for quality, based on the best vineyards, not the domaines which make the wine.
Nearly all the wines in this tasting boast a DAC recognition. Kamptal, Kremstal and Traisental all have DACs committed to Grüner Veltliner and Riesling. Wagram is the odd one out and currently has the consolation status of a ‘specific region with a focal variety’. In its case, this is Grüner Veltliner and, intriguingly, ‘possibly Roter Veltliner’. In practice, all the wines at the 2015 launch are one of the two better-known varieties. The main point is very important: this entire system was invented to steer clear of the older Germanic quality system which was based on must weight, the amount of sugar in the juice. As we noted, the Austrians have taken the view that site of origin is the clue to quality. As such it is not surprising that the next step has been to identify the most outstanding vineyards. Hence the term Erste Lagen which refers to a named, delimited, single-vineyard, or to give it its Austrian name a Ried.
In practice the wines are are all basically dry. (Sweet wines can use the Kabinett/Spätlese etc system.) There is a further classification within DAC which is to do with the style of wine. ‘Classic’ refers to wines with are dry, medium-bodied and opulent, while ‘Reserve’ is for dry wines from late-harvested grapes with higher minimum alcohol levels and longer mandatory ageing. But the ÖTW is now regretting this distinction but is stuck with the ‘Reserve’ category as it is a part of Austrian wine law. Be careful what you wish for!
Outstanding organisation – with a smile
OK, the ÖTW had luck with perfect weather in late August 2016 – bright sunshine, warm but not too hot, cooling breezes. But they also got everything else right – the site at Schloss Grafenegg and the organisation for the two mornings of the tastings, the complementary geological field trip to understand the soils of Kremstal, the old vintages tasting on the first evening and the informal picnic on the second. When the coach for the transfer to the tasting location failed to turn up, taxis were ordered in minutes and we only lost a quarter of an hour. There was even the opportunity to go to a concert by the London Symphony Orchestra on the last night which sadly I had to miss. But this was a great package with friendly and efficient organisation by Dorli Muhr’s Wine&Partners. Caroline Derler provided excellent support by email and during the event itself.
A rolling landscape
The Danube has carved out a broad valley floor in this part of Austria. While neighbouring Wachau with its terraces gets a lot of the glory, Kremstal, Kamptal, Traisental and Wagram benefit from rolling hills and gentle plains. Viticulture shares the land with vast fields of sunflowers and general agriculture. The vineyards, at least in Kremstal which we visited, are on both the slightly richer loess soils (basically a deep layer of wind-blown silt from the Alps) and the meaner soils over hard, crystalline rocks. These two soil types allow these appellations to focus on Grüner Veltliner on the loess and Riesling on the rocky sites. This is is a perfect match for the contrasting needs of the two varieties.
Wines to drink young … or age
One of the joys of these wines are that they are highly versatile. In an excellent vintage-like 2015 many of the wines were perfectly drinkable in August 2016. No doubt some will integrate more with a year or two in the bottle while many will age for a decade or more. But unlike tasting young oaked wines these showed a lovely fruit purity, with the ripeness being well-matched by the underlying high acidity. In addition, the opportunities to taste old wines showed that both varieties, not just Riesling, age brilliantly. We tasted many 2010s and 2005s on the first evening and a handful of older vintages.
A privileged tasting
All wine writers and those in the trade are in a very fortunate position in that they get to taste a range of wines simply not available to the public. But the ÖTW pulled out all the stops to make this a great tasting experience. 132 single-vineyard wines were assembled from the 2015 vintage and served to us, seated, which enabled us to taste in silence for four hours on each of the two mornings. This was achieved by having a very efficient wine ordering system. The wines were numbered and you listed the ones you wanted to taste, five at a time. The producers were on hand to deliver the wines to you. In turn, this meant that you could taste by vineyard, by appellation, by estate or in whatever way you wanted. But most of all it enabled you to concentrate – no moving about, no chatting, no distractions. A well-lit and spacious room completed a perfect tasting environment. Could it be improved? Well, yes, you could have 15 glasses so that you could taste all the wines from the top single-vineyard Heiligenstein side by side. But that would be greedy!
The 2015 vintage
Julia Harding MW wrote up the 2014 vintage which was challenging (cool and wet). But even so, she awarded over 80% of the wines a score of between 16 and 17 out of 20. I guess the weaker vintage shows in the lack of any wines with a score of 18 and that there were fewer 17s than 16.5s and fewer 16.5s than 16s. In time she will no doubt publish her 2015 scores which will make for an interesting comparison. Nonetheless, this was a testament to the quality of the wines. Of course, they should be good as these are from the selected 63 top single-vineyard sites. Unlike 2014, 2015 was a straightforward and very good year. The fruit is ripe but not over-ripe or baked; the acidity is high but rounded. There are some excellent wines, a huge number of really good ones and just the occasional under-performer.
October 2016: Julia Harding has now published her scores and notes here (subscribers only). Her scores are indeed higher – two 18s (a very high mark on the JR website), 7 17.5s and an impressive 28 17s. I was pleased to see that we had at least some common wines in our top-scoring list – see below.
My top wines
The notable feature of this tasting was how the Rieslings from Kamptal’s Heiligenstein really shone.
Weingut Bründlmayer, Heiligenstein, Kamptal DAC, Riesling, Lyra, 13.50% – already showing its class with bold stone fruit concentration on the nose, rich compote of peach and green apples and lovely creamy notes from lees on the nose, super tight, great potential
Weingut Bründlmayer, Heiligenstein, Kamptal DAC, Riesling, Alte Reben, 13.50% – restrained stony and herbal nose, great concentration of lime and lemon on the palate, a real star in the making, taut and tight at the moment, give this 10-20 years for a pyrotechnic display. This was a Julia Harding 18-pointer.
Weingut Jurtschitsch, Heiligenstein, Kamptal DAC, Riesling, Alte Reben, 13.00% – Wow, after a touch of camphor to start with fabulous concentration on palate following a refined, layered entry. Powerful, Riesling on (refined) steroids, massive density matched by steely acidic line for a very long future. Stunning. Also a Julia 18-pointer.
There are six Grüners on my favourites list as I had six of this variety on exactly the same score. (I have not included my scores, marked out of 20, as for me they were only a device for making distinctions between the wines tasted on the two days. ) Interestingly, my top Grüners were 1-1.5 marks lower than my top Rieslings, even though I tried to grade them as two separate groups by variety. Much as I love, admire and drink Grüner, in pure quality terms, Riesling is a higher potential quality variety.
Weingut Allram, Gaisberg, Kamptal DAC, Grüner Veltliner, Löss, Kristallin, 13.50% – taut nose with a hint of nutmeg, palate showing honeyed concentration, already delicious, green pears on a long finish, excellent
Weingut Schloss Gobelsburg, Grub, Kamptal DAC, Grüner Veltliner, Löss, 13.50% – complex, hint of nuttiness, bright acidity, green pears, dense, powerful and promising for the future
Weingut Rainer Wess, Pfaffenberg, Kremstal DAC, Grüner Veltliner, 13.50% – both Wess wines, Riesling and Grüner, were rich and sumptuous; peach, cream, angelica, green pears make a great combination here, full-bodied, underpinned with a fine acidic streak, good length, much potential
Weingut Salomon Undhof, Wachtberg, Kremstal DAC, Grüner Veltliner, 13.00% – green leaf, stony nose; rich peachy and tropical palate, very ripe fruit balanced with fine acidity, outstanding already
Weingut Markus Huber, Alte Setzen, Traisental DAC, Grüner Veltliner, Kalkkonglomerat, 12.50% – dried apricot and green fruit, peaches and cream texture, lively acidity still sitting apart from fruit, good savoury finish, impressive
Weingut Fritsch, Schlossberg, Wagram, Grüner Veltliner, 13.00% – elegant mid-palate, lovely honeyed stone fruit, well-tempered acidity, ready to drink but will improve, very good
It is encouraging to see that all four appellations were represented in the Grüner group.
This tasting has really put these Danubian single-vineyard wines on the map for me – which is no doubt exactly what the ÖTW intended. In English, we call that a ‘win, win’ situation.