A riesling supremo with terroir on his mind
The wines of Rainer Wess (pronounced Ry-ner Vess) are among the most distinctive in the area. His whites are remarkably pure and linear, and unusually he devotes most of his production to riesling rather than to the much more widely planted grüner veltliner.
His labels are also striking, simple and clean, apparently based on the 'W's for Wess and the Wachau Valley, in which he is situated - the shape also representing the valley's peaks.
Unlike many of the more tradition-steeped addresses on our itinerary, Rainer only started out on his own in 2003, albeit with many years' experience under his belt from other ventures. Visiting him at his winery, set in an old monastery building, was a fascinating experience.
'Terroir', that infamously untranslatable-in-English word that signifies the influence of the land on its wine, is seldom far away from conversation on winery visits. It's a relatively simple idea on the face of it, but the multitude of variables that people can single out and argue about, coupled with winemakers' subjective philosophies, can complicate the concept greatly.
Rainer's wines offered perhaps the most compelling argument for the importance of terroir that I have ever encountered.
Among others, we tasted wines from two different grapes but from the same vineyard: a cool but south-facing vineyard that marks the entrance to the Wachau Gorge, named Loibenberg.
I was amazed by how similar the grüner veltliner and riesling from the same vineyard tasted: both expressed the different characteristics of the grapes, of course - the grüner contributing its peppery freshness and the riesling its lime-spiked character - but both were underpinned by a delightful, crystalline but chalky flavour that was difficult to describe.
Both wines clearly exhibited what Rainer triumphantly assured us was the character of the vineyard's distinctive gneiss soil and microclimate.
Subtle innovations at Austria's most traditional address
It is perhaps unsurprising that the ethos of Rainer Wess, who started his estate in 2003, is different to that of Michael Moosbrugger at the beautiful Schloss Gobelsburg.
Vines have been harvested here since the 1170s, and the castle's present baroque façade dates from 1725. It's a stunning setting which would give any of the grand châteaux of Bordeaux an aesthetic run for their money.
2016 marks Michael's 20th year at the helm here, but as he says, 'what is 20 years in the context of 850 years?'
For Michael, terroir is about a single grape variety's suitability to the soil, and the idea that two grapes should be planted in the same vineyard is not one he was keen to entertain. His reasons, it became clear, are based on the rich history of his estate: the monks that first farmed his vineyards had long ago worked out which sites suit which varieties.
Who is right and who is wrong? I would humbly suggest both, and neither: the two wineries make markedly different styles, and there is room for the philosophies and wines of both.
Schloss Gobelsberg's wines have long been a regular fixture on our Fine Wine List, and for good reason. These are truly benchmark wines: cerebral yet satisfying bottles that show off the world-class quality of which Austria is capable, achieving stunning complexity and able to age brilliantly should you be able to resist their youthful bloom.
Like any good online segment worth its salt, I conclude with a picture of a cat - one of the friendliest winery custodians I have had the pleasure to meet!
A new generation experimenting with terroir
This family-owned winery is now in the hands of the younger generation, Alwin and Stefanie Jurtschitsch, who took the baton in 2007 after gaining considerable experience - and more than a few ideas - in Australia, New Zealand and South America, and studying oenology in Germany.
Alwin is a man fizzing with ideas, and there is an infectious enthusiasm and energy about him; qualities that can also be attributed to Jurtschitsch's wines.
One of the most striking examples of the experiments afoot here, 'Wurzelwerk', involved a highly novel approach to ascertaining how much of a wine's flavour comes from its terroir and how much from the winery.
Jurtschitsch joined forces with two German wineries to vinify each other's fruit: the Rheinhassen estate of Gunderloch and Society suppliers von Hövel in the Saar.
The results are nine different bottles of three wineries' vinifications of theirs and each other's grapes. Alas, production was too limited for us to taste the results, but the idea - especially given the opinions we'd heard earlier from Rainer and Michael - is a fascinating one.
The project has also informed the current renovations taking place in the cellars here. Like Rainer Wess, Jurtschitsch's winery is set in an old monastery cellar. The juxtaposition of building work and clean modern equipment with the dampened stone arches and family archive bottlings was striking.
Putting more than just vines in the ground
Bernhardt's wines were first offered to Society members in 2014, and it was exciting to meet the man behind them: he is an engaging, erudite man and a joy to be around.
Here too, the concern is very much with the land and all efforts on the ground and in the winery are designed to get the best out of the vineyard.
In order to try and achieve his goal of the purest expression of the land, Bernhardt is putting more than just vines in the ground: he is fermenting and maturing some of his wines in qvevri (clay amphorae), taking cues from the ancient Georgian winemaking tradition.
Having shown us his vineyard holdings on an 1823 map, he expressed his philosophy very clearly and rather beautifully to us, so I jotted it down studiously:
A sustainable outlook in the vineyard, a preference for clean fermentation vessels that don't impart flavour and strictly controlled use of sulphur are all employed with the above in mind. Like everyone else we visited, the 2015 vintage story is a positive one here despite some hail loss, and the samples we tasted were extremely good, especially his single-vineyard grüner veltliners.
In sum, we visited growers planting two grapes in one terroir, planting one grape per terroir, vinifying three different terroirs in three different wineries and attempting to express terroir via a 5,000-year-old method… no one can accuse Austria's best of resting on their laurels!
The visits to these world-class producers opened up a world of differences, dynamism and delicious results. I do hope that you'll consider trying them.
One big name from the Kamptal, however, is missing! That name is Willi Bründlmayer, the man behind our Exhibition Grüner Veltliner bottling since its introduction to our range in the 2004 vintage.
You can find out more about him, and the wine, here.
Where to go next?
Looking Behind Our Flagship Label: The Society's Exhibition Grüner Veltliner >
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