In 2009, WineSpeed reader George Caloyannidis visited Emmerich Knoll, whose sensational grüner veltliner was the Wine to Know in last week’s WineSpeed. In this guest blog, George writes about his remarkable encounter.
By George Caloyannidis
In the year 2000, UNESCO listed the Wachau among its World Heritage Sites next to among others, the Parthenon, the Pyramids, the Taj Mahal and Yellowstone National Park. This is the most beautiful section of the Danube River which runs through it and can be best viewed by boat from Melk to Krems. Past the charming medieval towns of Spitz and Dürnstein, past castles on mountain tops, extensive apricot orchards and some of the steepest vineyards imaginable, one can only feel thankful to Franz Hirtzberger and Joseph Jamek for spearheading the defeat of a proposed power generating plant on the Danube in the 1970s.
How some of the vineyards on gradients steeper than 45 degrees were created out of sheer rock and how they are maintained, is awe-inspiring. They rightfully deserve their claim to be planted on Urgestein (primeval rock) formations. The appellation is very small, encompassing just 3,500 acres and while some other varietals are planted here and there, the appellation is world famous for its Riesling and Grüner Veltliner wonderfully crisp, stony, dry wines with a lovely long finish, but also for its miniscule quantities of amazingly rich and complex sweet wines.
The VINEA Wachau was founded in 1983 and soon thereafter created the designations (in increasing degrees of complexity, concentration and alcohol content) of Steinfeder (11.5% max.), Federspiel (11.5 to 12.5%) and Smaragd (over 12.5%). These designations are extremely helpful in as much as depending on the mood and occasion, one can precipitate into the appropriate category without thinking too much. In 2006, the VINEA members enacted the CODEX WACHAU which in its simplicity and honesty makes one wonder why it is not being followed everywhere. Its members who by now number over 200 and control over 90% of the appellation’s acreage abide by six rules:
Only 100% indigenous grapes may be used. All bottling must take place within the appellation’s borders and no bulk wine may leave the appellation.
No chaptalization is permited and no grape concentrate may be used so that the wine ends up naturally in the appropriate designations of Steinfeder, Federspiel and Smaragd.
No methods of artificial concentration are permited, such as reverse osmosis, vacuum distillation etc.
No tannin powders, wood chips or other aromatic substances are permitted.
The natural wine may not be separated into its components and reconstituted by any means such as the spinning cone method.
The VINEA wine makers believe in letting nature be the sole ingredient of the wine.
No place in the world produces more natural and purer wines than the Wachau.
As tiny as the appellation is, vineyard ownership patterns are Burgundian as there are a dizzying number of small vineyards with multiple owners some of whom may own just a couple of rows of vines. Here too, tradition is heavy as evidenced by many producers with similar family names, such as a confusing number of Pichlers!
As small as production of individual estates may be, the number of different wines each vinifies is also amazing. Prager for example, produces Riesling alone from seven different sites, F.X. Pichler, produces Grüner Veltliner from eight, if I count right, each vinified separately in tiny quantities.
As helpful as the three designations are, there are differences in quality. At the very, very top, one would have to place Franz Hirtzberger, Emmerich Knoll, and F.X. Pichler. One would have to argue if Leo Alzinger, Josef Jamek, Rudi Pichler or Franz Prager belong a notch below. These vintners are icons who produce spectacular wines from some of the most prized vineyards in the world.
Prior to our trip, chef Wolfgang Puck, who along with Arnold Schwarzenegger are the most famous Austrians in America, had offered to arrange visits for us to some of the wineries as they are not open to the public and require prior appointments. But I always prefer to pay visits as an ordinary mortal because it gives me a better understanding as to what these people are all about.
Weingut Franz Hirtzberger is located in the picturesque town of Spitz. A narrow cobblestone street leads to a two-story, house painted white with black trim. No sign indicates the identity of the winery, neither is there any directional sign anywhere on the road leading up to it. This is a true wine-lover’s temple but you have to ring a bell on a simple house door hoping it is the right one. We are welcomed by one of the sons, Mathias, who leads us to a small tasting room where he proceeds to pour wines with abandon.
2008 was extraordinary in as much as harvest began in mid October and ended on December 8, the latest on record (despite global warming); and this with the first snow having fallen in November! The wines are wonderfully crisp but opulent with round acidity from the Steinfeder to Smaragd. The sweets, Beerenauslese Riesling and Weissburgunder (Pinot Blanc) show honey and sweet apricots, with that all-so-beneficial acidity.
In the back of the house, the small winery and the steep mountain with the fabled vineyards held by retaining walls are all so compact together, as if all the equipment and the vineyards were part of the family, just as a barn with the cows under the house still is, in much of the countryside.
Peter Moser publishes the “Ultimate Austrian Wine Guide” and says of Emmerich Knoll that he is not a fan of meaty, overly voluptuous wines. Like a Swiss watchmaker, he writes, Knoll tinkers uncompromisingly at details to bring terroir and finesse in the bottle. The house Knoll in Unterloiben by Dürnstein breathes tradition and its inhabitants are straightforward, charming and accommodating.
And indeed they are. Again one hopes that the bell at the narrow cobble stone road is the right one, but Mrs. Knoll lets us in and leads us under the house to a small open courtyard surrounded by a tall wall, the house and part of the winery. The courtyard is perhaps 30 feet wide and 80 long. Mr. Knoll is obviously very happy to see us and makes you feel he would be so with any other guest.
He invites us to sit around a small table under the exterior staircase leading to the second story of the house. We converse in German, and he gradually senses that I understand wine and openly expresses his appreciation. We don’t get this very often, he says, and it is a true pleasure when we do.
As I sit in this magical courtyard around this simple table with the dense ivy climbing up the house, sparrows twitching in and out of it, and talking wine with Emmerich, I begin to feel like a neighbor who just dropped in for the usual glass of wine to talk things over. I could not help compare that feeling with that of the impressive, polished Napa Valley estates on mountain tops, overlooking vineyards and valleys built to impress. We talked for a long time and drank his magnificent wines, among them what may be considered his most representative vineyard, Schuett. Emmerich tells of his one and only visit to America some decades ago when Wolfgang Puck showed him around and hosted him for dinner at Postrio. He is an eminently endearing person.
Moser writes that if one were to ask the cognoscenti of Austrian wines which wine they would take to a desert island, the answer would be, a Knoll. Nevertheless, Emmerich Knoll is the epitomy of a humble man. His wines do not show the exuberance of Hirtzberger’s; they are serious and restrained but generous in a sophisticated way, just like him. In the end, he willingly parted with some of his library old TBA, Muscateller and rare Traminer Beerenausleses. True gems!
Part of why the small courtyard is so gemütlich as the evening falls may be the fact that one feels it that the Knoll family has been making wine since 1825. But they were not making Riesling, nor Grüner Veltliner which was first introduced at the beginning of the 20th century – its origin still unknown although one of its parents has been identified as Traminer. Most likely they were vinifying Heunish, from the “vine of the Huns.” And the tradition continues in the good hands of Emmerich Junior who speaks flawless English and travels the world.
Just as in Burgundy, but infinitely more so, terroir is sacrosanct. Some plots are only measured by the hundred feet square such as Gewächs Bodenstein at Prager, specifically carved out by son-in-law Toni Bodenstein in the middle of a vineyard for no apparent visual reason but for its unique soil below. Difficult to find but if you are in Vienna, they always have it at Zum Schwartzen Kamel, an ancient restaurant dating to 1618 founded by a spice trader. When there, having lightly smoked ham from the leg with a bottle of Veltliner is special.
Terroir parcelization and style make for quite different wines within each designation. While Knoll is the “watchmaker,” Hirtzberger kicks it up a notch but with a lot of beneficial acidity to back it up. The most recognized of them all is F.X. Pichler, an ultra modern winery as if it had dropped from the sky. It produces by far the most expensive wines and Parker favorites with alcohols too intrusive for my taste to the point where the wine becomes cloying.
Across the cobblestone street is the Loibnerhof, a large restaurant within a two-acre, mature apple orchard with some forty large tables under the trees. It is owned by Emmerich’s brother-in-law and it is where the VINEA board recently met to discuss its future direction. The preservation of the individuality among the various producers carried the day on the agenda. “Even 20 years down the road they will stand on VINEA’S center stage,” proclaimed Prager’s Toni Bodenstein.
We crossed the street to the Loibnerhof where we settled under the apple trees. Great Austrian fare and all Knoll wines at simple retail prices are served by uniformed waiters and waitresses in the magical garden. The Danube is so close that the restaurant has been flooded several times with water 4 feet high memorialized with markings on the walls.
An occasional crimson apple falls to the ground or onto the table, sometimes on one’s head! In the warm Danube night, it was magical.
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