“I wanted to be a winemaker since ever. The first time I wrote it down was in elementary school.”
— Georg Frischengruber
In the heart of the Wachau, on the slightly obscure south bank of the Danube, Georg Frischengruber is realizing his dream. Georg is the fifth generation of his family to steward their estate, now 10 hectares, mostly old vine grüner veltliner and a smaller quantity of riesling. Since taking over from his father, Heinz, in 2010, Georg has trained his attention on meticulous handwork in the vines, incorporating organic viticulture, and focusing on natural fermentations, gentle pressing, and extended fine lees aging in the cellar, to gain added texture, complexity, and clarity. Rossatz – directly across the Danube from Dürnstein –- is where the mighty river tapers to its narrowest span as it makes an ancient bend. Vineyards here slope gently upwards from the riverbank to meet the undulating edge of the Dunkelstein forest. The microclimate combines some of the world’s starkest diurnal shifts with a growing season that can stretch well into November. These are ideal conditions for grüner veltliner, on loess, to pick up tension and finesse, with an unmistakably piquant and vivid Wachau profile. Georg’s Smaragd veltliners reach a salty, sappy, spring-loaded ideal. Riesling, grown on Urgestein (primary rock) and in cooler sites, gains body, yet remains focused and fine-boned. Above all, the through lines at Frischengruber are purity, precision, and clarity of vineyard expression.
While wine growing in the Wachau dates to the period of Roman settlement, the first golden age of wine was under Carolingian rule. Later, the majestic Benedictine monasteries of Melk and Göttweig housed avid viticulturists, devoted to understanding and developing varieties and methods of cultivation suited to this terroir. By the Middle Ages, Wachau wine was already known far beyond Austria’s borders. The Frischengruber estate dates to about this time – 1563 – when the land (“an old winefarm,” as Georg calls it) now owned by his family was held by Austrian aristocrats.
“Because of the great history of making wine in the Wachau and the long tradition of making wine in our family, it was clear I would work on the farm,” says Georg. Even at the age of eight, when asked at school what he wanted to be when he grew up, he responded presciently: “I want to be a Winzer.” He studied viticulture at Klosterneuburg, staged in South Africa, New Zealand, and the Pfalz, then returned home to Rossatz. “My father produced the wine until 2010. Then I took over and started my own way.” His way excludes herbicides and pesticides and embraces a philosophy of “working softly and giving the soil and vineyards what they need.” In the cellar, “we have also made big differences from the previous generation. I use natural fermentation a lot. It’s a bit difficult, but in the end you get very different notes, from floral to fruity. And the wine gains creaminess.”
Rossatz and the Wachau
“If ever there were a region which justified a geographical approach to wine, it would be the Wachau,” writes Hugh Johnson, mapper of the wine world. Citing its “complex meeting point of northern and southern climates and rich mosaic of different soils and rocks,” Johnson argues that the specific intersections of climate and terrain in the various Wachau villages are articulated in their wines. Rossatz is at the geographical center of the Wachau, nestled on the south bank of a prominent U-bend in the Danube — directly across from Dürnstein and just downriver from Mautern, home to Nikolaihof and a few sites belonging to fellow Schatzis, Urban and Dominique Stagård. Here the slopes are gentler and soils more varied — mainly Urgestein subsoil topped by gravel, gneiss, mica-schist, and, crucially for veltliner, loess.
The microclimates of the Wachau are extraordinarily differentiated due to variations in topography. In a span of just 15 kilometers (some 9 miles) harvest times can be as much as two weeks apart. Rossatz is climatic crossroads: the Pannonian climate of hot, dry summers and moderate winters, extends, “like a tongue,” as Georg says, into the area from the east. Cool, wet air masses, rich in oxygen, flow down through little, forested stone valleys known as the Wachauer Gräben. This draws in a continuous flow of cool, oxygen-rich air and contributes to some of the world’s sharpest diurnal temperature swings, strongly influencing the aroma precursors that form in the grapes and later characterize the wines. The Danube moderates temperatures sufficiently to enable record hang times – well into November for the Smaragds –even in this recent era of foreshortened ripening.
Farming and vineyards
Some 900 named vineyards, or Rieden, as they known here, line the Danube in the Wachau. Frischengruber’s principal Rieden are Zanzl, Steiger, Kirnberg, and Goldberg. All are farmed with organic practices and particular attention to the match of variety and site.
Steiger faces the Danube and is a prime example of a so-called “footslope” location, a slightly concave feature at the base of a hill that collects erosive deposits. Here, accumulations of paragneiss (gneiss derived from sedimentary rock) are several meters thick. This layer ensures a balanced water supply to the vines, even in the hot, extremely dry summers that are typical here (no rain fell for a full 10 weeks during growing season 2017). A humus-rich topsoil further improves both water absorption and storage capacity, protecting the vines from hydric stress while steadily supplying nutrients. This brings out a fruitiness in grüner veltliner that is especially suited to the expressive, mid-weight Federspiel style Georg makes from this site.
Zanzl sits at the foot of the Dunkelstein Forest. This is Georg’s coolest site for veltliner, as it faces westward. It is mostly loess over primary rock, so veltliner, which has a strong affinity for the deep, water-retentive loess, is the natural choice. Georg points out that at this site, “the variable rock shows its colorful side. The reddish-orange horizon represents a matrix of weathered, crumbly material coated with iron oxides, with some fist-sized feldspars. Underneath, the rock transitions from a dark mica-rich layer to a hornblende-rich amphibolite. The 50-cm topsoil layer consists of sandy, stony material enriched with humus in the upper 15 cm.” He attributes the fruitiness and “greenness” of veltliner grown here to the unique soil mix and exceptionally cool microclimate.
Kirnberg is a warmer, eastern plateau, less shielded by the forest. It is predominantly planted to grüner veltliner, though riesling does find its place on the cooler, western edges of the site. Georg notes, “The rock has the character of a mica schist with lots of dark mica and magnesium- and iron-rich biotite. The topsoil is mixed with loess. The dissolved carbonate was leached out and partly precipitated again in the light-colored areas between the mica schist layers.” This, he believes, accounts for the greater concentration and, in Georg’s words, “more mineralic notes, not typical of Wachau wine” found especially in the Kirnberg Smaragds.
In the cellar
The dry wines of the Wachau are categorized into three styles, defined by must weight and finished alcohol. Steinfeder is the lightest. The more substantial two are Federspiel (a term taken from falconry), brisk and bantamweight, and Smaragd (named for an emerald lizard often found basking on the drywall stone terraces that are the region’s hallmark), harvested last, and consequently more fulsome, built for depth and aging.
These stylistic differences play out within a very precise and focused range in the Frischengruber wines. They are not in the vein of many Wachau producers, who embrace botrytis and full-bodied expressions. Georg is much more interested in purity and vineyard expression than power. To achieve this, all of the wines are fermented spontaneously and aged on the fine lees until late summer, adding extra texture, complexity, and clarity.
Steiger and Kirnberg are picked in mid-October and November for Federspiel and Smaragd, respectively. The grapes are crushed, then gently pressed for four hours. The Steiger Federspiel then goes into stainless steel tank. Natural fermentation takes about 100 days, with bottling in May. The Kirnberg Smaragd goes into neutral oak barrels, with natural fermentation taking about 120 days. After a maceration period that varies depending on vintage, grapes are gently pressed at a maximum 1.8 bar. Afterward, the wine stays on its fine less until late spring/early summer, with bottling in May. For the Zanzl grüner veltliner Smaragd, harvest comes last, typically in mid-November. The grapes are crushed and gently pressed for six hours. After 24 hours, the must goes into neutral oak barrel, with natural fermentation taking about 120 days. Bottling is held back until August.