Franz Hirtzberger and his family live in a 600 year old house at the base of the legendary Singerriedl Vineyard in Austria’s storybook Wachau Valley. Hirtzberger’s winery is located in the village of Spitz, at the far western end of the Wachau where the mighty Danube falls down out of the nearby mountains and flows broadly below the steep green walls of the valley. All of Franz Hirtzberger’s vineyards are steep hillside affairs, exposed to the wind and sun, and each reflects a unique terroir and the dignified, experienced hand of a master at work.
It is rarely accurate and often senseless to categorize one estate as the very best in any locale, as always there are a half dozen or more superior winemakers in any sizable appellation whose wines stand above the crowd. Great wine is always about great vineyards that produce grapes of unique quality and physiological ripeness. Great winemaking is also about respecting the vintage and the special attributes of the grapes one has to work with. These simple truths constitute brilliant winemaking, so if we measure winemakers by these standards there is no finer winemaker in the entire Wachau than Franz Hirtzberger.
Franz Hirtzberger can attribute at least some of his expertise in winemaking to his father, the founder and current President of Vinea Wachau Nobilis Districtus, the organization that preserves the quality of Wachau wines. The Hirztbergers produce all of the classic Wachau styles of wine from traditional Austrian varietals that include Gruner Veltliner, Riesling, Weissburgunder, and Grauburgunder. They use only natural, wild yeasts from their vineyards and are as meticulous in the cellar as they are in the vineyard, and therein lies the difference. Hirtzberger’s Honivogl, Rotes Tor, and Singerriedl are the single vineyard jewels in the Hirtzberger crown.
Along the flow of the Danube, as it passes out of the mountains and courses towards Vienna and the East, lies a fortunate and idyllic set of curves in the river. Here the Danube widens and slows, passing smoothly and calmly by the small villages and mighty terraced hillsides that are known as the Wachau Valley. Renowned for centuries as a prime location for the growing of many vine and tree fruits as the slopes at this enchanted place along the river provide access to long days of sunlight and the fresh cool breezes from the forests just to the north, this small region has vaulted in the past two decades to the forefront of quality in the production of Austrian wines.
It is in the Wachau that a group of growers founded 25 years ago the Vinea Wachau Nobilis Districtus, a growers’ association to protect and promote the unique character of the valley’s wines. Within the range are allowed three categories: Steinfeder (meaning the lightest or “feather light”) – which are easy drink wines that are mostly consumed locally; Federspiel (named for the instrument used in the call and tether aspect of falconry) – exemplary of a house style, these are the classic wines of the middle harvest that can be enjoyed young or after several years of aging; and Smaragd (“Emerald” for the small green lizards that live on the stone terraces of the vineyards) – the reserves, the “jewels” of the region, typically single vineyard designated wines of more than 12.5% alcohol that are capable of long term aging and development. They are typically higher in alcohol than Federspiel and often contain a hint of residual sugar as well, making Federspiel wines the more sought after on this side of the Atlantic.
Gruner Veltliner: An Austrian Icon
Gruner Veltliner is Austria’s most important white grape variety. Moreover, it has recently garnered iconic status as the magical varietal behind one of the world’s most unique wines. Grown in nearly all of the major wine producing regions of Austria, Gruner Veltliner is at its best around Vienna and atop the steep hillsides above the Danube to the north and west of the capital. In the hands of a fine winemaker, Gruner Veltliner yields a concentrated, complex wine that is capable of long maturation. It offers tremendous flavor, rich fruit, spicy accents, and a citrus like freshness that make it a perfect match for many difficult to pair dishes. So, whether dinner includes traditional Viennese fare, a scrumptious pâté, Asian stir fry, or just a plain old persnickety vegetable such as asparagus, Gruner Veltliner is the perfect wine to serve.