Austria is a country which is chock-full of hidden wine gems, most of which are found in the 140-ish kilometres from the Hungarian border in the east, to Spitz, the town in the western end of the Wachau Valley, where the Danube River turns sharply south and waves goodbye to wine country. There are of course plenty of other superb wineries in wonderful wine regions dotted elsewhere in the country, north and south of this imaginary line, but this area with Vienna in the middle, is home to the greatest concentration of the most well-known winemakers.
If you continue west from the town of Spitz, as though leaving the Wachau region, you quickly gain some altitude, find yourself surrounded by steep hillsides and terraced vineyards and feel the temperature drop. The landscape suddenly starts to feel much more alpine and perhaps slightly more stereotypically Austrian. The 'Side Valley' (Spitzer Graben) is an off-shoot of the Wachau and produces wines in stark contrast to the rich, full-bodied and viscous rieslings and grüner veltliners so famous in the main part of the region. Here you will find wines which are generally more fresh, lifted and focused on the palate, due to the cooler climate. If you keep going west still, take a left and then follow a winding road deeper into the picturesque countryside, you will eventually come to Trandorf, the home of Grabenwerkstatt.
I discovered Grabenwerkstatt thanks to a friend and colleague, who professionally scours central and Eastern Europe, seeking out small organic and biodynamic producers. Every now and then we will meet up and he will bring a selection of his most exciting new discoveries. In 2018 he came armed with some interesting and downright delicious bottles, but one in particular caught my attention. In a tall, 'Alsace flute' bottle with a simple but smart grey label was a grüner veltliner which I was told was made by two young guys in Austria. As a wine buyer, you taste an awful lot of wines, naturally. An awful lot are downright disappointing, lots are fine but just don't cut the mustard, some are good but don't quite inspire enough to win you over, fewer are superb and make an excellent addition to a range, fewer still are downright, darned delicious 'must-haves' and then every once in a while, you find a wine that knocks your socks off. This was one that blew my socks to smithereens and toasted my toes in the process. I knew that I had to get out to Austria to learn more about these, 'Two young guys.'
I always try to head out to Austria in January. It's not exactly the warmest time of the year, with temperatures in Lower Austria reaching as low as minus 15 degrees in the depths of winter; however, it's the best time to taste the new vintage from barrel, allowing me to place reserves on wines with Society members in mind before it is bottled and available to the rest of the world. So, every January, I put on my warmest coat and woolly hat and fit as many wineries into four or five days as possible. The schedule is always tight on these trips, often I only spend an hour or so with most of the wineries, which is always challenging but it's the only way to see everyone that you need to. I had one additional visit to squeeze in during January 2019 though, and it was Grabenwerkstatt.
It was the last day before flying home, of a trip that had taken in 14 wineries in the previous three and a half days, and next on my list was a drive to Trandorf from Traisental, south-east of the town of Krems. It's a beautiful drive along the Danube through the Wachau Valley from Krems. You follow the road directly next to the river for the vast majority of the time, with steep, terraced vineyards rising up beside you on your right-hand side. Passing through picturesque Austrian villages, with their traditional church towers along the way. At one point, near the town of Dürnstein, nestled up on the top of the steep hill above the vineyards, you can see the ruin of the castle where King Richard The Lionheart was held prisoner in the late 1100s – this sight reinforces the feeling of already being in some sort of fairy-tale land.
As you continue to drive further west, into the depths of the countryside, arriving upon open areas of rolling green hillsides and then steeper, more dramatic landscapes, you eventually find that you have seemingly left winemaking country. There are no signs of vines here when you look around. Cattle and potatoes, but no vines. Eventually though, you arrive to an opening of beautiful hillsides covered with terraced rows of vines. If you are looking for an easy place to work with grapes, this isn't it!
I eventually arrived at the address I had been given for Grabenwerkstatt by my contact in the UK, only to be met with a closed garage door on a narrow country lane. Mysterious, and with no sign of life here. Imagine the sleepiest English village you can and then picture it laid out on one of those fancy new mattresses and pillows which claim to make the user practically comatose… then you might have some sort of idea of just how sleepy Trandorf is in the depths of January. Nobody was around; not even a stray dog! I managed to get some mobile phone signal and get hold of Franz, one half of Grabenwerkstatt, who told me to turn around; I was at the winery (didn't look much like a winery I thought!) and instead instructed me to drive back down the road and head to Michael's house. I wouldn't miss it, he assured me. I certainly didn't miss it, as in a quiet, sub-alpine Austrian town in the depths of winter, any sign of life is starkly noticeable and a few hundred meters down the road and around the corner, there was Franz, out on the doorstep of Michael's house. Michael, I was told, was sorting out some lunch for us.
You wouldn't think of placing these two guys in this sort of setting. They are both in their 30s, full of enthusiasm, energy and humour and in many ways a long way removed from the sort of people that you might unfairly assume to be working in agriculture in the middle of nowhere. Yet here they are. Franz grew up in this small village, his parents' house was above the garage winery I had arrived at earlier and aside from having spent some time living in Krems and travelling around the world to learn winemaking, his home has always been firmly in Trandorf. Michael however is German and met Franz when their paths crossed through making wine abroad. Michael has since moved to Trandorf and married a local girl; now with a young family, this is where he plans to stay. The immediate thing which is clear is the level of chemistry and synergy between these two guys and that immediately made me realise that they were on to something very special.
Franz and Michael decided to start making wine themselves after working together largely in New Zealand, for wineries such as Pyramid Valley and Felton Road. Neither of them comes from a winemaking family, but despite the lack of winemaking in Franz' home village, it was never in doubt as to where they wanted to set up their new project. They started out around 2015, renting half of Franz' parents' garage, buying a few small tanks and approaching locals with old vineyards to see if they could rent or buy them. In the main Wachau Valley, the vineyard situation is not dissimilar to that in Burgundy, whereby if you want to get your hands on a good vineyard the only way to do it realistically is to have it passed down to you from your parents or to marry into the family who own it! Otherwise the land is nigh-on impossible to get your hands on. The Side Valley, closer to Grabenwerkstatt is historically less significant in terms of its winemaking. In decades gone by, the area was largely considered too cold to make the rich, ripe wines that the main valley was known for and therefore it was considered second-rate. Lots of families who own vineyards here would simply sell their fruit to the local co-operative, Domane Wachau and be done with it. Franz and Michael saw an opportunity though. Since so many of the vineyards here are extremely steep, they can only be worked and maintained by hand and in order to do that you need to be fit and able-bodied. There are a lot of sites dotted around the area which have fallen into disrepair because the owners have perhaps become too old to be able to maintain them, so Franz and Michael started approaching some of these land-owners, offering to either buy the plot or to rent it from them, with full control of the vineyard throughout the year. What they found, were some incredible old vines of grüner veltliner and riesling, with a few little surprises dotted around them too. The guys have given these old vineyards a new lease of life, protecting the old vines and rebuilding the terraces and converting to biodynamic farming, bringing a new lease of life and energy to each plot.
We sat in the quaint and comfortable living-cum-dining room of Michael's apartment, outside the kitchen, where he was making schnitzel for lunch while Franz guided me through their 2018 vintage, showing me first their Wachauwerk label, which is their one wine made from a small vineyard at the other end of the valley, before taking me through their single-vineyard riesling and grüner veltliners. I was struck by the amazing ability the wines had to be able to portray the taste of the cool, exposed vineyards through the magical freshness of the wines. They each were taut, vibrant, steely and bursting with energy and yet totally unique from one to the next – some more powerful and firm and others light, bright and delicate. I will be the first to admit that I can go into these sorts of situations as a sceptic. In fact, I think it's the right approach to have – I want to be proven wrong and wrong I was proven; these were some of the most accomplished wines I had ever tasted from such a young winery. The ageability of these white wines struck me as truly impressive; however, that is naturally yet to be seen for such a new set-up. I have high hopes, however. Quantities here are miniscule, with only a few hundred cases being made of their entry-level wines and even fewer of their single-vineyard wines but I knew that this was not one to miss. All that tasting made me hungry.
Schnitzel is a national dish of Austria, which always amused me because on the surface it is so simple – a similar sort of principal to a giant chicken nugget (sorry Austrian friends), albeit not with chicken, however perhaps this simplicity is part of its success. The very first time I went to Austria some years previously, I was unlucky with the food that I experienced, as truth be told it wasn't that good. However, having discussed my disappointment with a few folks who had wholly different experiences from my own, I realised I must have just been unfortunate. The second time I visited, I came to the conclusion that was absolutely the case. This is a country built on delicious, hearty grub, from apfelstrudel to tafelspitz, via gulash and of course, schnitzel. One thing that's for sure though, is that the Austrians are proud of their ability to rustle up their own grub and so the fact that a German was in the kitchen making us schnitzel on this occasion was a surprise to say the least! There was clearly a little schnitzel-related-rivalry between Michael and Franz, however after a bit of back-and-forth between the two on the subject, it was settled on that Michael made excellent schnitzel only because Franz taught him how. Franz seemed more convinced by this than Michael and I stayed well and truly out of it!
What followed was perhaps the best buying trip lunch I have ever had – and believe me, I've had one or two! Certainly the best schnitzel. This was proper, authentic stuff; no giant schnitzel-singular, instead a mountain of side-plate-sized, crispy and mouthwatering, golden wonders. Served alongside a potato salad like we don't know in this country. Instead of quartered baby potato in a mound of mayo, this was thinly sliced in a fresh, vinegar-based dressing which cut through the flavours of the schnitzel perfectly. I explained to them both what potato salad consisted of in the UK and they laughed. I didn't bring it up again.
Some of the best food and wine pairing works so well because it is simple; some also find true harmony from the 'what grows together goes together' principle. We drank both grüner veltliner and riesling from Grabenwerkstatt with that lunch and there were few better wine and food pairings that I can remember. The steely freshness of both cut through the fried breadcrumb crust beautifully and balanced the potatoes admirably. The core of vibrant, energetic and concentrated yet vivacious fruit, with a twist of spice in both varieties, meant that the dollop of cranberry sauce on the side fitted into the mix too. Comforting and all entirely harmonious.
The recipe for this properly authentic schnitzel, which Franz tells me he has enjoyed on Sundays with his family whilst growing up, I was told is a secret! However, part of the wonderful thing about the relationships that we are lucky enough to build with many of our fabulous suppliers at The Wine Society means that not only do we get access to some of the best wines out there before others do, but I'm very pleased to say we get secret schnitzel and potato salad recipes too! I managed to do a deal with Michael to get hold of this recipe for members to make at home, in return for a 'good bottle of wine' which I assured him will be opened by me when I see him and Franz next.
Try making this at home and pair it with a good Austrian grüner veltliner or riesling if you have one. If you were lucky enough to get your hands on a bottle or two of Grabenwerkstatt Wachauwerk when we offered the small handful of cases of the 2017 and 2018 vintages then you are able to enjoy the full experience! If not, a good dry-riesling from elsewhere would work, or a Muscadet, or a bone-dry chenin, or a nice cold glass of Chablis and so on. Failing all of the above, a nice cold lager hits the spot wonderfully.
We are hoping to release the 2019 vintage of Grabenwerkstatt Wachauwerk around October 2020, so stay tuned as it's truly a vintage not to miss!