Well-kept secrets: tension between science and tradition in the Wachau

We walked down a dark staircase and the air got humid and cold, as I touched the moldy stone walls to remind myself that this place was real. Winemaker Ludwig Hiedler pointed me to two arches that, dimly lit side to side, led to the cellars that store his family’s wine archive. “This cellar is from the 1850s, but we think that the deeper part over there is a hundred years older,” he said. Dating back as early as 1934, the bottles stored within were covered in black mold that is a point of pride and indicates the conditions are ideal to preserve wine. Brick niches that were built onto the wall separated each one of the family’s bottlings, which laid sideways and unlabeled. Each niche was identified by a handwritten sign that read things like “1978 Grüner Veltliner Heiligenstein” or “1995 Chardonnay Gaisberg”, indicating the year and grape varietals of each harvest, as well as the vineyards where the grapes originally came from.

The wine culture of Lower Austria is tremendously unique. Vineyards have been planted on the terraced hillsides of Wachau, Kremstal, and Kamptal for over a thousand years, and even though their wines are widely regarded as some of the best examples of Riesling and Gruner Veltliner, they still occupy a niche-interest role in international wine markets, with roughly 70% of production being consumed domestically. Last week I visited the region for Weinfruhling (wine spring), a yearly festival when over 200 wineries in the area have open doors and offer free tastings. This allowed me to taste over a hundred wines, talk to over a dozen winemakers, and ultimately put together the pieces of what makes this place special.

This post summarizes the lessons I learned about how land, heritage, production, and consumption coexist in the vineyards that surround this wonderful corner of the Danube.

The local wine culture is steeped in tradition

One would think that the luscious wines, the green meadows, and stunning steep hills of Wachau would attract greater attention from tourists and wine lovers around the world. However, the Austrian winemakers set their own priorities, and much like generations before them, their focus is only on growing healthy grapes and making quality wines. Only a few producers here have broken through and gained recognition in global wine markets, but no one is losing sleep over that.

Winemaking in the Wachau dates back to the early centuries of our era, and their popularity has seen brighter days. According to a local producer, the area dedicated to grape growing across Lower Austria was roughly 4 times larger during the Middle Ages. Most of the terraces where Riesling grows today date back over a hundred years, and over the generations families have gained an incredible familiarity with every site they work. It is very common to find producers who are now the 3rd generation dedicated to a vineyard, but the lineage goes much deeper in some cases. For example, I met Franz and Barbara Zederbauer, who are 6th generation winemakers and proudly display the pictures of every married couple who have taken charge of the winery’s legacy at each step of the family tree.

The combination of a long tradition and medium-sized recognition is profoundly consequential, as the pressures of a global market are felt only distantly and there is more room for eclectic taste, choices, and risks. In contrast to recent trends that have taken over some of the more sought-after wine regions, producers in Lower Austria don’t seek out as much technical or quantitative assistance to support their production process. While the chateaux of Bordeaux, Napa, and Champagne hire soil scientists, hydrologists, and microbiologists to sharpen up their plans and actions from the vineyards to the fermentation tanks, tradition and experience take the precedence in the Wachau.

View of the Danube, facing south from Durnstein, in the heart of the Wachau.

Curious to hear a counter argument, this weekend I told Gerald Gabillet about the Austrians’ preference for low scientific intervention. Gerald leads production and management of Cheval des Andes, which is Cheval Blanc’s satellite winery in Mendoza, Argentina; there, he relies on a large team of scientists that advise him on building a healthy vineyard ecosystem that can sustain weather shocks and manage pests organically. The information provided by scientists is also useful to select grapes at harvest, define the varietals to be planted in each plot, and ensure that each vine gets the inputs it needs to produce excellent fruit. His approach is the complete opposite to that of most winemakers in the Wachau, for whom he says “wait and see.”

Austrians along the Danube may be playing a dangerous game by assuming that traditional vinicultural and oenological knowledge will continue to yield excellent results thirty or fifty years from now. Admittedly, their water sources may be more reliable in the long term than those of Bordeaux and Mendoza. Similarly, the heavy, law-protected vegetation of Wachau, as well as the tremendous difficulties associated with terracing and turning steep hills into vineyards, may provide the type of ecosystem services that producers in less traditional wine regions have to engineer.

Every step in the winemaking process comes with risk, and one can choose to manage that risk by investigating new techniques or by relying on tradition and the timelessness of nature. There is no definite answer and I will be looking to taste how the variety of choices pay out in the coming decades. A part of me roots for the courageous outcasts that stick to what they, their parents, and their grandparents have tested as they prepare to face an unknown, gargantuan rival called climate change. I guess this is a good time to remember that inventiveness can be just as bright when it looks backwards as when it looks forward.

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