Wachau is a small but important wine district on the Danube River in northern Austria. It follows the Danube for roughly 20 miles (33km) until Krems-an-der-Donau, the fifth-largest city in Lower Austria and the commercial hub for Wachau and its neighbouring districts Kremstal and Kamptal. One of Austria's most famous and respected wine regions, Wachau is known for its full-bodied, pepper-tinged Grüner Veltliner and rich, steely Riesling.
Most Wachau vineyards are located on steep (often terraced) hillsides above the Danube – a naturally sunny location where warm summer temperatures are stabilized slightly by the river below. The most flavourful Wachau wines come from vineyards perched on sun-drenched, south-facing terraces.
Wachau's steep, sweeping, vineyard-lined riverbanks could easily be mistaken for those of Germany's Mosel, even if the wines could not: classic Wachau Rieslings taste richer, riper and more tropical than their counterparts from the cooler, wetter Mosel. They have much more in common with the richest Rieslings of Alsace and Pfalz.
Wachau Grüner Veltliner is arguably the most iconic of all Austrian wine styles in the modern day. Racy, aromatic and intense, these wines are marked by zesty citrus notes and a chlorophyll-tinged zing of white pepper. Neighbouring Kremstal and Kamptal are the only other regions on Earth capable of producing Grüner Veltliner like this.
Wachau lies outside of Austria's DAC classifications: instead, the terms Steinfeder, Federspiel and Smaragd are commonly found on bottles of white Wachau wine. This three-tier wine-style classification was developed by the region's producers as a way of communicating the style of their wines, beyond region and grape variety. Steinfeder wines are the lightest: fresh and tangy, with a maximum of 11.5% ABV. The term means "stone feather", and is the name of a wispy, feather-like grass that grows on Wachau's stony terraces. Federspiel wines are the middleweight category (11.5–12.5% ABV), with the racy, precise, elegance of a hunting falcon; federspiel means "falconry". Smaragd wines are the richest and fullest-bodied, with a minimum of 12% ABV. Smaragd translates literally as "emerald" but refers here to a distinctive, emerald-green lizard which basks on the warmest of Wachau's sun-baked stone terraces.
Top-end Wachau Smaragd wines can improve in the cellar for 20 years or more. Sought-after examples of these wines include F.X. Pichler's "Unendlich" Riesling, and both the "Singerriedel" Riesling and "Honivogl" Grüner Veltliner from Franz Hirtzberger. Among the region's top Federspiel wines are Domane Wachau's Terrassen Riesling Federspiel and Emmerich Knoll's Grüner Veltliner Federspiel.
The climate in Wachau, and indeed all of northern Austria, is influenced by two dramatically different climatological zones: the chilly Eastern Alps to the west, and the warm Pannonian Plain that dominates Hungary to the east. Overall, the Austrian climate is decidedly continental, with warm summers and cold winters, but along the banks of the Danube a more moderate mesoclimate prevails.
Soil types play an important role in Wachau vineyards. They are composed largely of sand, gravel and loess, carried downstream by the Danube over many millennia. Also present is a special kind of gneiss known as gfohler, which is said to bring a certain minerality to Wachau wines. Riesling performs best in the weathered, granitic soils on the steeper terraces, while Grüner Veltliner prefers the sandier loess carried by prevailing winds over time to eastern hillsides.
Viticulture in Wachau is thought to have been introduced by Celtic tribes and continued in the 1st Century B.C. by Romans. The most important influence, however, came from Bavarian and Salzburger monks who built the steep, terraced vineyards along the riverside in the Middle Ages.