Wachau is Austria’s crown jewel for a reason—a terraced patchwork of vineyards surrounds rural villages right out of a fairytale, all folded into one of the most beautiful river valleys in the world. Here, Grüner Veltliner is king: This noble grape delivers freshness and minerality without playing the Russian Roulette of sweetness that can make Riesling frustrating for some.
What’s more, this region remains a beacon of Austrian wine purity thanks to the efforts of the Vinea Wachau. Each member winery swears fealty to the “Codex Wachau,” a rigorous set of regulations promising the most honorable winemaking practices. It’s just as serious as it sounds, and Weingut Franz Pichler has committed with enthusiasm. This father-son team is busy restoring and celebrating ancient terraced plots with the fervor of true terroir disciples, and the results are undoubtedly one of the best examples of Grüner Veltliner I’ve enjoyed in recent memory. The “Bachgarten” Federspiel 2016 is fresh and silky all at once, perfectly aged and ready to accompany your first course. Don’t let the modest bottle price fool you: This is a wine of superb quality, restraint, and detail made by one of Austria’s elites. And while there are other, more-famous Pichlers in Austria (think Rudi Pichler, F.X. Pichler) this is right up there with the greats in terms of quality-for-price. They’re doing this famous surname proud!
Franz Pichler founded his winery in 1983, determined to celebrate Wachau’s seemingly infinite permutations on terroir through vineyard-specific wines. His seven acres of vineyards encompass a dizzying spectrum of soil types, elevations, microclimates, and varieties. Thankfully, Franz Junior is there to help. The father-son team is rarely indoors, traveling all over the valley to tend their ancient vineyards year-round. Both men consider it their calling to expose the nuance of their vineyards through wines of tempered alcohol and varietal precision.
As members of the Vinea Wachau, Weingut Franz Pichler uses the labels Steinfeder, Federspiel, and Smaragd as designations of ripeness for dry wines, each level indicating a specific window of alcohol levels. For example, today’s Federspiel must necessarily fall between 11.5 and 12.5 percent ABV and is appropriately medium-bodied, with a little more fruit and texture than the leaner Steinfeders and less weight than the opulent Smaragds. This wine is the best of both worlds—the perfectly balanced medium-weight Grüner.
The Pichlers are relatively hands-off during the winemaking process, but more hands-on in the vineyard and on the sorting table. The “Bachgarten” vineyard is a prized portion of their holdings, smack-dab in the middle of the Wachau, on the superior northern bank of the Danube in the village of Wösendorf. My favorite Grüners originate from these steep, terraced plots of old vines. Soil is thinner, rockier, and more shallow. The “Bachgarten” vineyard is on a 67 percent gradient, which means calves of steel when hand-harvesting into giant rucksacks, carrying them up and down scrabbly slopes covered in gneiss and silicate rocks. The higher the vineyard, the deeper the intensity of the wine. It’s no surprise that Pichler picks from the top—nearing 345 meters’ elevation.
These wines have no botrytis characteristics and the two Franz-es are strict about never adding sugar and eschewing oak. Topography, soil, weather, and the Pichler’s willingness to take risks are the main ingredients, here. Fermentations are done in stainless steel to preserve freshness and wines age in tank and bottle before being released.
The result makes me think of the old Wachau of the ’70s. The 2016 is blooming, softening from a liquid laser beam to a smooth, savory caress. It’s a pale straw with glimmers of green, initially a little austere out of bottle but give it a few minutes in Burgundy stems at 50 degrees and the layers will begin to reveal themselves. This is the ultimate “first-course” wine. Fresh aromas of cucumber peel mingle with melon rind, white pepper, and lemon blossom. The palate has excellent tension between the fresher, crunchier flavors (daikon radish, lemon peel) and richer notes of mango and honeysuckle. Underneath it all is a strong current of stoney, brisk acidity. Those three years of age have imparted a textural creaminess that really sends this wine home.
Don’t try and cook something time-intensive; the wine will be gone before you’re finished. Try a hot smoked salmon and fresh fennel salad—crunchy, herbaceous, fatty, and saline. And while the 2016 is drinking perfectly now, the “Bachgarten” is as collectible as it is drinkable, which is a really nice problem to have. Check in on a second bottle next year for a little more of those lingering honeyed notes.
Grüner Veltliner 100%
Gneiss & Loess