A Wine Category and Wines to Look For, Smaragd, Wachau Austria

The picture above is from the Vinea Wachau website. “The Vinea Wachau (Vinea Wachau Nobilis Districtus) was founded in 1983 as an association of winemakers in the Wachau (va-COW)  winegrowing area in Austria. Restricting the production of wine to the legally-defined growing area only, and the commitment without compromise to quality, origin and purity, are the association´s main principles. The name Vinea Wachau Nobilis Districtus actually dates back to Leuthold I von Kuenring (1243-1313). The core of his possessions was comprised of what is today the wine-growing area of Wachau.” (Vinea Wachau)

Several weeks ago I had a whirlwind of classes and tastings of Austrian wines, 1) a presentation and tasting of Wachau wines by MS Jesse Becker as part of the intense, information-packed SommBootCamp held by the Second City Somms of Chicago, 2) a GuildSomm Austria Masterclass given by MS Matt Stamp at Southern Glazer’s Wine & Spirits and finally a consumer tasting of the Wines of Austria with MS Jesse Becker at Plum Market Chicago. 

Prior to this, my experience with Austrian wines had been tasting and purchasing Grüner Veltliners and Zweigelts over the years. The GV’s only impression on me had been a light, sometimes spritzy, very grassy white wine. I had one takeaway from the Zweigelts I had purchased that salespeople would emphasize, that Austrian wines are very pure, in the sense that chemical use in the vineyard was very low. I had always looked at Austria as “green wines” being grown sustainably and in most cases organically.

In my wine studies, Austria had always been very intimidating. First there was the language, pronounciation problem. I never studied german, I don’t speak german and the words can be very off-putting. I think with American consumers there is a direct correlation between how easy the wine name is to pronounce to how likely the consumer is to buy it. Since I think I have been a part of every wine trend that existed, there was a period where I seemed to be drinking Grüner Veltliners, although as I mentioned above, they really never made a great impresssion on me. I think I bought the bottles because of the name. Grüner Veltliner is one of those fun, provocative wine names to pronounce, it is almost a James Bond kind of wine or in a comical sense Austin Powers who I could see saying “gru-vee- bay-bay”. I think it is one of the few germanic words that is easy to pronouce along with schnitzel. The more wine you drink the more fun it is to pronounce the word.

Studying Austria for some of the wine tests like the CSW and the WSET was a challenge. It was a challenge just remembering the 9 wine regions and in particular, Kamstal DAC (riesling and GV), Kremstal DAC (riesling and GV), Traisental DAC (riesling and GV)  and Wienvertel DAC (GV). In fact, on the Certified Specialist of Wine exam, the one Austria question on the exam I took, which was “of the DAC’s I noted above, which one is authorized for only GV?” I got wrong.

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Wine studying has so many layers to it, the language, grapes, regions and wine laws among many areas to cover, the first start is the appellation system and wine laws. When you take a country like Austria, add the language difficulty it is no wonder that the tests really didn’t focus on where some of the best wine made in Austria is and the answer is the Wachau along the Danube river. Traditionally, the wine appellations and laws in Germany and Austria, Jesse and Matt explained, are focused on ripeness levels of the grapes and the different levels of sugar in the wine and in the Wachau the group is focused on dry wines.

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Jesse Becker who has visited the region many times and knows the wine makers, got into the details of growing wine in this region. He really emphasized it is a labour of love and dedication to a crafted product because harvesting the grapes is so dangerous and grueling dealing with the extremely steep, rocky slopes. However, harvesting by hand is always a sign that the wines will be flavorful because the grapes were handled so gently.

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The Wachau is a UNESCO world heritage site and like most world heritage sites, a region of natural beauty. It lies in the Danube valley between the towns of Melk and Krems. The varieties  Grüner Veltliner and Riesling prevail on 1,350 hectares, partly on very steep-inclined terraces. The best vineyard sites produce some of the best white wine in the world with decades of aging potential. (Austrian Wine in Depth, Austrian Wine Council).

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From Vienna, drive west along the Danube. Just past the city of Krems, you’ll encounter idyllic, terraced vineyards of the Wachau valley. Walking along a path through these ancient vineyards, may lead you to spy an emerald-scaled Smaragd lizard. This sun-loving vineyard denizen is the mascot for the richest, most intensely flavored wines of the Wachau Valley. The wines made in the Wachau literally let you “travel by the glass” when you drink them when you envision this gorgeous area where the grapes were harvested from.

In the mid-1980s, a select group of innovative producers in the Wachau created their own codex, called the Vinea Wachau, where dry white wines are divided into three categories, based on their natural alcohol content by volume. Aromatic, light-bodied wines up to 11.5% are called “Steinfeder” (named after the tall, feather-like grass stipa pennata). The most common category  is the “Federspiel” with 11.5% to 12.5% alcohol by volume, and the late-harvest, rich and powerful, dry wines carry the term “Smaragd” (min. 13.0% vol.) There is even a “MyWachau” app for your phone. The “Smaragd” wines have the weight and body of white burgundies. 

Over the course of my multiple Austrian classes I was able to taste a variety of “Smaragd” wines. I listed them below, including the notes I took from the tastings. One point that Jesse made is that Grüner Veltliner’s used to have very distinctive peppery notes whihc was a distinctive marker for blind tastings but that as global warming advances, the peppery, rotudone is much more subtle to barely there. The GV’s to me had a savory, celery root,  vegetal aroma and taste along with grapefruit notes and distinct minerality  due to the soil and terrain. The Rieslings had notable apricot and pear notes. GV and Riesling remind me of Pinot and Chardonnay in Burgundy. The Riesling is hardier, like Chardonnay so grows on the upper slopes of the Danube and the GV grows on the lower slopes. Another distinctive difference of Smaragd’s is the mouthfeel. Perhaps due to the higher alcohol and ripeness of the grapes, the distinctive terroir and soil, the wines have the body and complexity of a Meursault without the butteriness of malolactic fermentation.

Rudi Pichler, ‘Smaragd’ Riesling, Ried Achelten, 2015 – More austere, reductive style, dense, ripe pear, apricot

Hirtzberger, ‘Smaragd’ Riesling, Ried Hochrain, 2013

Rudi Pichler, ‘Smaragd’ Riesling, Terrassen, 2013

Hirtzberger, ‘Smaragd’, Grüner Veltliner, Kirchweg

Prager, ‘Smaragd’, Riesling Klaus 2012

FX Pichler, ‘Smaragd’, Riesling  Loibner Steinertal 2008 

Rudi Pichler ‘Smaragd’, Grüner Veltliner Wösendorfer Hochrain 2014 A very rich, exotic character, mineral notes, bright dense fruit

Emmerich Knoll ‘Smaragd’ Riesling “Loibenberg” Weingut Knoll 2011 I wrote down very savory, radish, celery root, minerality, dried pear

Prager ‘Smaragd’, Riesling Achleiten 2011 Dense, ripe fruit

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All the wines from Jesse Becker’s Wachau class at SommBootCamp

So the next time you want to do some wine exploring or just have a beautiful, delicious, high quality bottle of white wine with a meal, think of a Wachau Smaragd. The wines are more dense, full of fresh fruit towards the apricot side for the rieslings and grapefruit side for the GV’s. Put the Wachau on your wine “to visit” list, I have!

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