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WINE : Magical Wines From a Forgotten Valley

May 02, 1996|STUART PIGOTT | Pigott is a British journalist and author who lives in Berlin and is one of the world's leading experts on Austrian wine. He is writing a book on the wines of Germany

LOIBEN, Austria — "This is my best wine of the '92 vintage, and it's called M, which stands for Monumental," Austrian vintner Franz Xavier Pichler told me. There was no doubt about the man's earnestness.

"I wanted to erect a monument to the Riesling grape," continued Pichler, a winemaker from Loiben, in the Wachau, one of the Danube regions of Austria.

This sort of talk could have been the ultimate in winemaker arrogance, but what he poured in my glass exploded with the flavors of peaches, passion fruit and minerals; it was indeed one of the best dry white wines I had ever tasted. It combined the bouquet and elegance of the great German Rieslings with the power and weight of the finest examples from Alsace. It was a wine as unique as a great Montrachet.

Until a very few years ago, nobody outside the German-speaking world was aware of the extraordinary dry Rieslings produced in the Wachau. This idyllic 23-mile stretch of the Danube Valley between the towns of Krems and Melk, where the river flows between steep forested and vine-clothed hillsides, is one of the most beautiful winegrowing regions in the world. Each year it is visited by thousands of tourists from around the globe. In spite of this, most visitors to Austria come back with a stronger impression of the country's great coffeehouse culture than of its wines.

One reason for the world's ignorance of the region is a wine scandal that scared off importers and journalists 11 years ago.

When diethylene glycol, a harmless but illegal additive, was found in a small number of Austrian wines in 1985, exports of Austrian wines collapsed and several of the large companies involved went bust. So Austrian consumers turned to the small family-run estates and thereby encouraged a new generation of winemakers.


Wine importers and journalists weren't around to see the resulting changes in the Wachau. During the last decade, the Austrian wine industry has turned upside-down, and some extremely talented winemakers have become media personalities in their own country. Although their wines are limited in quantity, almost all of them are represented in the U.S. market.

It is the landscape that both makes these wines unique and limits their production. The combination of stony soils and the special climate of the Danube Valley enables the Riesling grape to reach very high levels of ripeness without losing acidity. The ripeness translates into richness, which the acidity balances perfectly, making for dry wines that remain delicate despite an alcohol level of 13% or more.

German dry Rieslings rarely achieve as much body as the Wachau Rieslings do, while Alsatian Rieslings with as much alcohol seldom taste as elegant. As for Californian Rieslings, few of them are vinified bone-dry, and those that are generally lack freshness and subtlety.

The distance from Krems and Spitz, where most of the vines are concentrated, is a bit less than 10 miles. There are virtually no vines on the right (north-facing) bank of the Danube because it gets too little sun. Instead there are orchards.

The best vineyards of the Wachau are planted on narrow terraces that tower over the Danube. There is no way of expanding the meager 3,578-acre vineyard area of the valley.

Fortunately, Riesling also grows in the neighboring Kremstal and Kamptal regions, parts of which enjoy similar conditions to the Wachau. For example, young Martin Nigl of Senftenberg in the Kremstal makes archetypal Austrian Rieslings, intense yet dry and sleek, from the Mochacker and Kremsleiten vineyards, proving that wines comparable to the best in the Wachau are possible outside its borders.

Great wines like Nigl's do not make themselves, though, and the international recognition they are beginning to gain is the result of the hard work and dedication of the leading vintners. Pichler--called simply F.X. by his countrymen--personifies these qualities. He is legendary for his obsession with wine quality--and for not suffering fools gladly.

During the harvest he is a bear, happy only when he is able to outdo all his previous achievements. His new tasting room, with its inlaid Italian marble floor, is ideally suited to impressing wealthy Viennese. If Pichler doesn't like the look of a potential customer, however, he suddenly becomes ausverkauft (sold out), and the customer goes home empty-handed. His Rieslings from the Kellerberg and Steinertal vineyards are worth any amount of trouble to obtain; they are so tremendously concentrated they taste not like wine but like an essence of wine.

Pichler's close neighbor, Emmerich Knoll of Loiben, could not be more different, nor could his wines. Often mistaken as shy and reserved, Knoll is a deep thinker with as profound an understanding of human nature as of the growth of vines and the development of grapes. Like their maker, his wines need time to be appreciated fully.

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