In Austria’s Wachau valley, it’s hard to pay attention to what winemakers tell you, especially when they’re talking with you in a vineyard. The Danube twists olive and lazy below incredibly steep hillsides terraced with centuries-old rock walls, each containing but a single row of vines, climbing for thousands of feet from the floodplain. Never mind the vertigo that anyone susceptible to heights might feel perched on these ledges that perch precariously on slopes many would not ski down — the view is so incredible that you easily lose yourself in the vast majesty.
My appointment with Peter Veyder-Malberg was the last of the day in the Wachau, and we were late arriving on top of that. Having seen the valley from most vantage points, I politely suggested that we might skip the vineyard tour and just sit, talking and tasting, for the time we had available. But Veyder-Malberg was having none of that, and in the falling, gray evening light we hopped into his station wagon, and within 5 minutes we were on a ride I might have paid good money for at an amusement park.
Come to think of it, driving up incredibly steep one lane roads to some of the highest, coldest vineyards in the Wachau was better than most amusement park rides I’ve taken in my life. The day’s previous vineyard visits had been ambling strolls from just above the river to a few terraces up. But shortly I found myself soaring (or a little too close to that for much comfort) above plunging hillsides to access the tiny plots of vineyard that Veyder-Malberg has managed to acquire in the midst of vineyards that are quietly fading away.
The idea that some of the most stunning vineyard landscape in the world could be lapsing into decrepitude was hard to believe, but the signs of abandonment were all over the upper hills of the Wachau. Less obvious in the taupe bareness of winter, whereas in the summer they would be clearly barren scabs among leafy vined terraces, these abandoned vineyards were easily spotted here and there on the slopes.
“No one wants to farm these terraces anymore,” said Veyder-Malberg. “There are lots of sixty or seventy-year-old farmers who have been waiting to give these vineyards to their kids, but the kids don’t want them, and they’re hard enough to farm for young people. So these old timers sell their grapes to the co-op as long as they can, and then they leave them, or rip out the vines, because no one is buying them.”
Without vines, the weeds and grasses run rampant on the terraces, and the stone walls, maintained for centuries, slump and collapse, until what was once a agricultural and engineering marvel is nothing but a grassy slope that might easily pass as a mogul run on a ski slope.
Peter Veyder-Malberg is trying to save these old vineyards. He’s buying them (along with other working vineyard plots) when he can, and spending thousands of hours rebuilding the stone walls, replanting them according to historical methods, and farming them biodynamically. He’s just one man, with a very limited budget, however, so progress can be measured in increments of an acre or two, a year at a time.
A friend once said that you can tell a lot about a winemaker by looking at his boots. Veyder-Malberg’s boots had clearly kicked a rock or two.
As he crouched at the top edge of his Bruck vineyard, explaining his philosophy of farming and his personal quest to save what he could of the terraced vineyards of the Wachau, I was able to tear my attention away from the view to observe two things that define for me the essence of what Veyder-Malberg is all about.
His were the first, and only vineyards I saw in the Wachau that did not have any irrigation lines. And I had been flatly told by many eighth-generation winemakers that dry farming in the Wachau was impossible. I took this in stride, along with his detailed composting and particular cover crop strategies, until I learned that before being a winemaker, he had been an art director for an advertising firm. That was the moment in this film where the editor cuts in the sound of the needle being pulled off the record and everything refocuses and becomes still.
After spending days meeting with winemakers whose family histories and winemaking traditions stretched back centuries, here was a winemaker with some of the deepest integrity, passion, and dedication I’d seen, basically doing what many people thought was impossible, while at the same time struggling to preserve his own tiny slice of one of the world’s most historical wine growing regions in the world.
In short, as frigid winds and sporadic snowflakes whipped past, and the last bit of diffuse daylight slipped from the sky above the stone terraces, I fell in love with the wines of Veyder-Malberg before I had even tasted them.
Like many before him Peter Veyder-Malberg grew disillusioned with the culture of advertising and the corporate machine that ate it like a drug. Like a few people, he also managed to fall in love with wine. And like fewer still, he actually decided to do something about it. So in 1991 he shipped himself off to the United States to work a harvest or two at Pine Ridge winery in Napa, where he took wine classes at night at Napa Valley College. In 1993 he returned to Austria to work a few more harvests before signing up as a cellar rat at Weingut Graf-Hardegg. In his early years there, Veyder-Malberg would disappear at times to work harvests in the Southern Hemisphere or in Switzerland or Italy, soaking up as much knowledge as he could. Eventually he was given the title of winemaker at Graf-Hardegg.
When he left in 2007, he had been there 14 years, and had successfully converted the winery over to biodynamic, starting with the 2005 vintage. Like most accomplished winemakers, however, Veyder-Malberg wanted to do his own thing, and had long been in love with the pitched stone terraces of the Wachau.
“One of the most incredible things about farming on these terraces is that they have never been touched by a tractor, or by anything heavier than a human being. There’s absolutely no soil compression, and that is very, very rare,” said Veyder-Malberg. “I came because of the terraces.”
At the age of 47, he moved to the region, and started looking for land on the steepest, coldest parts of the hills. And while there weren’t a lot of pieces available to buy, those that were available weren’t expensive. But if they were houses in America, they would have carried the label “fixer-upper.”
Eventually Veyder-Malberg assembled about 10 acres of vineyard, spread across 20 plots up and down the 15 main kilometers of the Wachau valley.
“My first year was complete improvisation. My second year was better. And now I’m on track,” said Veyder-Malberg, who immediately started with an organic farming regimen (the first vineyard to be farmed this way on his side of the river) and is slowly integrating biodynamic composts and preparations into his work. “Of course we’ll never really be able to be a fully self-contained system, because, well, where are we gong to put the cows, and chickens?” he mused with a smile.
If he doesn’t farm quite like anyone else around, Veyder-Malberg doesn’t exactly make wine like most others either. Let’s start with when he picks his grapes.
“I don’t believe in all these designations for different wines like Federspiel or Smaragd [two official classifications of Riesling that dictate specific alcohol and sugar levels in the wine]” said Veyder-Malberg. “Basically I don’t believe that higher sugar levels mean higher quality. The quality is determined by the site, the terroir. In some years your grapes are ripe at a lower degree, and some years you need them to hang longer for ripeness and the sugar goes up. Maybe the alcohol is higher one year than another” he said, noting that he doesn’t use a refractometer or other device to measure ripeness, but merely tastes the seeds.
“Everything I do is to try and have the lowest possible sugar content at harvest,” he continued. “I do everything I can to inhibit botrytis.”
“This year  I picked my grapes starting on September 15th and for two weeks, I was the only one picking in the entire Wachau. I was out there every day wondering why no one else was picking. I finished picking on October 18th, and some people were just starting. Many of my colleagues finished picking on November 15th, or 25th, or 28th” said Veyder-Malberg.
The winemaking regimen matches the farming philosophy. The grapes are pressed very gently, over the course of many hours and the juice then settles for a few hours and the initial sediments are racked off before fermentation begins. The fermentations are warm, and use native yeasts, and only rarely get stuck and refuse to finish (in which case Veyder-Malberg uses a basic commercial yeast to get things going again). Very little else is done to the wines, except for fining the Gruner Veltliners with bentonite, “because they have unstable proteins, and would certainly spoil if I did not.”
From the first tiny vintage in 2007, Weingut Veyder-Malberg‘s production has grown to a paltry 1900 cases of wine, and he expects to expand that to no more than 2500 cases as he slowly rehabilitates and replants the derelict vineyard plots that he has been working on for the past few years.
“I’m never going to be able to sell heaps of wines,” he said, explaining that he cared most about getting the wines into the hands of people who understood what he was trying to do, and why.
For my part, I’m unbelievably impressed at what I tasted from tank and barrel after just four vintages. The wines are electric and alive and some of the best wines I tasted in the entire Wachau. They are hard to find in the United States, but worth seeking out. In addition to the five wines below, Veyder-Malberg has a new vineyard called Brandstatt, whose bare, recently repaired and partially replanted terraces you can see on the right. He also makes two additional Gruner Veltliners which I did not get a chance to try.
2011 Weingut Veyder-Malberg “Kreutles – Barrel Sample” Gruner Veltliner, Wachau, Austria
Light greenish gold in the glass, this barrel sample smells of mouthwatering fresh green apples, cucumbers, and star fruit. In the mouth the wine is fresh and bright with a gorgeous silky texture and bright star fruit flavors with a hint of lemongrass. There is a hint of aromatic sweetness in the glass that lingers through the long finish. Fantastic acidity. 12% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $25. click to buy.
2011 Weingut Veyder-Malberg “Hochrain – Barrel Sample” Gruner Veltliner, Wachau, Austria
Pale greenish gold in color, this barrel sample smells of flowers and star fruit and the more profound smell of wet stones. In the mouth, flavors of star fruit and flowers dance with a stony minerality before they morph towards lime and lemon juice in the long finish. Delicate, balanced, and quite lovely, with fantastic acidity. 12.8% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $55. click to buy.
2011 Weingut Veyder-Malberg “Weitenberg – Barrel Sample” Gruner Veltliner, Wachau, Austria
Light greenish gold in the glass, this barrel sample smells of floral notes, wet stones and a gorgeous faint sweetness and green apple tang. In the mouth, green apple and wet stone minerality mix with a wonderful long sweet-tart character that makes the mouth water. Beautifully delicate acidity. Made from very old vines, almost 60 years old. Almost 14% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $70.
2011 Weingut Veyder-Malberg “Bruck” Riesling, Wachau, Austria
Light yellow gold in the glass, this wine smells of gorgeous wet stones and chopped herbs with white flowers. In the mouth, the wine has an incredibly bright floral and wet stone quality that comes across as crystalline, with fantastic balance and acidity. A very long lemon and lime flavor lingers in the finish. Outstanding. 12% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $35. click to buy.
2011 Weingut Veyder-Malberg “Buschenberg” Riesling, Wachau, Austria
Light yellow gold in the glass, this wine smells of white flowers white flowers and white flowers dunked in a cold mountain stream. In the mouth, crystalline and perfectly balanced floral and wet stone notes swirl in a glassy sunlit atrium. This wine tastes of what you might imagine perfectly sweet mountain stream water to taste like… in a dream. Beautiful acidity and aromatic sweetness. The mineral and floral flavors linger with incredible length. 850 bottles made. 13.7% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $90.