Pushing boundaries: classifying the Danube region

Darren Smith

Darren Smith

24 October 2017

Darren Smith looks to the flurry of activity in Austria's Danube region to gain insight into vineyard classification, as one group of producers brings the area through the long and complex process 

Most of us accept the status of the climats and lieux-dits of Burgundy without a second thought. They were decided upon long ago and we more or less assume that it was ever thus, that certain place names and certain plots of land have always been predestined for greatness and understood. We forget that it took time and the cumulative experience of generations of growers to establish the names we associate so implicitly with the best Burgundy wine. To get a more immediate sense of this dynamic process, we should look to the Danube region of Austria.

This region has a three-tier quality system for its wines, with regional (Gebietswein), village (Orstwein) and single vineyard (known as Riedenwein) tiers. Erste and Grosse Lagen (premier and grand cru, respectively) sites are within the top tier of this pyramid.

Right now, the Österreichische Traditionsweingüter (OTW) group of leading Danube region wine producers is hard at work amassing and analysing data to determine which sites in Kamptal, Kremstal and Traisental* will qualify by law for exalted Erste Lagen status. This is a genuinely historic process which will enshrine the quality reputation of the best growing sites in the Danube region, and in doing so give consumers and trade around the world a key to understanding the best dry Rieslings and Grüner Veltliners in Austria.

The OTW itself was set up in 1992 with the ambitious goal to establish a vineyard classification along the Danube. Overseen by chairman Michael Moosbrugger, owner of historic Kamptal estate Schloss Gobelsburg, the project is byzantine in scope. According to Moosbrugger, there are around 2,500 vineyards in the Danube region. From that number, 15-20% will eventually be designated as Erste Lagen; 3-5% will be designated Grosse Lagen. To reach this point, it is expected to take 15-20 years of synthesising a mountain of data that will include exhaustive historical records, economic analyses and the accrued ratings of individual journalists and wine experts.

Danube region at-a-glance 

Number of OTW producers: 33

OTW appellations: Kamptal (3,800ha), Kremstal (2,400ha), Wagram (2,700ha), Traisental (800ha)

Varieties: 55% Gruner Veltliner, 10% Riesling, 15% Zweigelt

Currrent number of Erste Lagen sites: 61

Vintage 2016: Compared with the riper 2015 vintage, 2016 is lean. Markus Huber of OTW producer Weingut Huber in Traisental described it as a 'classical year' producing wines of 'precision and purity'. For him, 2016 has a lot of potential to be a vintage for long maturation, showing similarities to vintages 1999, 2002, 2005 and 2010. Some of the wines from the Erste Lagen 2016 preview tended towards the austere, though the best were certainly very well balanced. Of the two varieties, Rieslings showed a little more interest. The fresh, zesty acidity shown by many of them suggests wines that will age well, and show more interesting expression over time.

*data from OTW

From 1992 to 2009, OTW member wineries and administrators were engaged with basic system building and research. A ‘Klassification 2010’ designated 53 sites as Erste Lage.

With the Klassification 2017 the number of producers that can carry the Erste Lage designation on their bottle labels has climbed to to 61 (16% of the total Danube region production area). Over the next few years, certain vineyards will accede, others may be demoted. The next step after that will be to start work on the classification of Grosse Lagen, a process which is expected to last a further five to 10 years. The final stage will be the passing of these classifications into law.

This ambitious project is arguably the most important advance in the history of white winemaking in Austria, a planting of the quality winemaking flag for all the world to see. It has been a long time coming.

Until the turn of the 20th century, very few Austrian wines were single site or varietal, rather they were field blends (one major exception is Heiligenstein Riesling, which has been made as such since the late 19th century). After the Second World War, field blend varieties began to be planted separately and wines began to be labelled according to the village in which they were made (eg, Krems, Senftenberg, Zobing). It’s only since the start of the 2000s that the appellation system has been developed, and in 2010 that the first Erste Lagen classification was declared.

Given the amount of red tape and convoluted rules involved in wine legislation, any attempt at simplification should be applauded. It’s encouraging that since 2011 the OTW has been working to harmonise its Ertse Lagen classification with the German VDP system and Styria’s STK Erste and Grosse Lagen system. The ultimate goal of harmonising all quality wines in the German-speaking world will be of huge help to international consumers and trade.

But as Michael Moosbrugger concedes, wine regulation is never simple, and several important challenges must first be met. So far, Kamptal, Traisental and Kremstal are fully signed up to the project; Wagram is still developing a complementary system for itself, while Wachau is not yet involved at all. Moosbrugger is, however, optimistic that they will both be on board at some point.

Another important challenge concerns the long-established historical boundaries of certain vineyard sites, where demarcations cannot readily be changed to make them more homogenous from a terroir perspective. One of the most famous examples is Kellerberg in Dürnstein, where the higher terraces of the vineyard are planted with Riesling, but the lower part of the slope is planted with Grüner Veltliner. It may take generations for growers on a historic site such as this to assent to any fundamental changes.

For sommeliers trying to get to grips with the wines of the Danube region, there are a couple of basic pointers. First, attempting differentiate the wines according to the DAC (Districtus Austriae Controllatus) classifications – Kamptal, Kremstal, etc, which are determined by the tributaries of the Danube (river Krems, Kamp, Traisen and their associated valleys, etc) – would be a futile exercise. There is such a huge variability of terroir within each appellation that you really have nothing by way of uniform identity. As Moosbrugger himself acknowledged when introducing the Erste Lagen 2016 vintage preview, “the differences within the appellations are more significant than the differences between them”.

Focusing too keenly on the geology of specific sites also has its pitfalls and blind alleys. The Danube region encompasses a kaleidoscope of different geologies and soil types: clay marl, loess, permian sandstone, mica schist, gneiss, gravel, granulite, carbonate conglomerate – these are all represented among the OTW producer vineyards. One basic distinction in geological terms is between vines planted on crystalline rock and those on loess.

Those planted on crystalline rock (essentially Riesling) are likely to give more of a sense of finesse and minerality; those on loess (basically Grüner, which benefits from loess’s water-retaining capacity) more body and fruit. There are exceptions. Heiligenstein, for example (permian sandstone plus volcanic and carboniferous material), and those vineyard sites based on river sediments. Moreover, as previously mentioned, some Erste Lagen vineyards also straddle both loess and crystalline rock soil areas, which makes the job of pinning the wines down even harder. Moosbrugger notes that the problems of such awkward boundaries “have to be solved on the long run” and are on the agenda of the OTW.

A slightly more reliable guide to sites would be altitude and the microclimatic variation it provides. Climatically, there is a 1C-1.2C difference between the average temperature at the lower and upper end of the Danube valleys. This doesn’t sound like a lot but it can produce significant differences between the wines.

While the nuances of the many different Erste Lagen sites are often vanishingly fine, over time a certain clarity will emerge as the classification is refined before, finally, it is passed into law. It is an inexact process but one that brings us to a much closer understanding of the quality winemaking sites of the Danube region.

For now at least, as in Burgundy, individual producer style is the most reliable guide to what to expect from a wine. This leads us to the Erste Lagen 2016 vintage preview tasting at Grafenegg Castle. Here, there were some very clear star performers with wines of a consistently high quality, whatever the vineyard site. Most, if not all, of these will hardly come as a surprise to anyone who is familiar with Danube wines, but it is helpful to reconfirm the status of the finest Grüner Veltliners and Rieslings in the Danube region.

Best 10 wines from Erste Lagen 2016 preview tasting:

Weingut Allram, Gaisberg Riesling, Kamptal DAC

'Fine riesling. A sappy freshness, creamy peach and yuzu/orange blossom. Tension and a fair amount of structure/extract given the ABV. Finely detailed with a mineral streak.'
Awin, Barratt, Siegel, £15.08 (2015 vintage)

Weingut Bründlmayer Heiligenstein Riesling Alte Reben Kamptal DAC

'More richness than other B Rieslings; a honeyed element as well as toast along with creamy peach and white flowers. Hints of apricot, yellow fruit. Chalky, grippy palate, palate-cleansing minerality and taut acidity. Fuller in flavour, longer and more interesting than the other B Rieslings.'
FMV, £32.75 (2015 vintage)

Weingut Bründlmayer, Steinmassl Riesling, Kamptal DAC

'Open, subtle orchard fruit, peach with some fun, exotic yuzu citrus. A petrichor element too. A touch more sweetness though the acidity is still high. Leaning towards dry but hint of sugar makes it juicily expressive. Pleasingly broad on palate.'
FMV, £20.45 (2013 vintage)

Weingut Fred Loimer, Langenlois Käferberg Grüner Veltliner, Kamptal DAC

'Very elegant, spicy, creamy ginger, peppery nose. White flowers. Hint of toast, which grows on palate. While pure and clean, there's richness here. Finishes spicy with ginger notes. Expressive.'
Liberty Wines, £30.04 (2015 vintage)

Weingut Geberhof, Oberfucha Steinleithn Grüner Veltliner, Kremstal DAC

'Rich and spicy, white pepper and toasty-creamy. Elegant, creamy, rich palate. Some finesse withal.'
Genesis Wines £17.36 (2015 vintage, pre-order)

Weingut Hirsch, Lamm Grüner Veltliner, Kamptal DAC

'A bit more pungent than other Hirsch wines here. Herbal. Mild hops. White flowers and subtle yellow fruit. Palate has a bit of sweetness but is pure and cut through by fine yuzu-citrus acidity and a mouthwatering, faintly chalky minerality.'
Indigo Wines, £25.87 (2011 vintage)

Schloss Gobelsburg, Gobelsburg Gaisberg Riesling, Kamptal DAC

'Elegant white flower and vanilla with hints of white peach and yellow fruit. Quite zingy acidity, textured and a touch of minerality. Peachy with some tangerine peel hints on palate. Well defined and a touch spicy too.'
Clark Foyster, £16.03 (2014 vintage)

Weingut Hirsch, Gaisberg Riesling, Kamptal DAC

'Flinty and delicate with hints of lime and yuzu citrus. Very 'Japanese'. Very dry and supremely drinkable given how seemingly austere it is.'
Indigo Wines, £25.87 (2010 vintage)

Weingut Jurtschitsch, Heiligenstein Riesling, Kamptal DAC

'Elegant, expressive with white peach, lime and tangerine citrus, very pure and clean on palate, fine mineral quality. Amazing finesse with a yuzu citrus aromatic prevailing.'
Newcomer Wines, £18.18 (2015 vintage)

Weingut Rainer Wess, Kögl Grüner Veltliner, Kremstal DAC

'Yellow fruit and acacia honey. A bit of spice. Broad, spicy, texured palate, buttery hints but fresh. Decent length.'
Clark Foyster, £12.41 (half bottle, 2015 vintage)

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