Standing at the edge of the Danube on a cold spring day, gazing at darkening clouds above the picturesque church of Spitz that is set against a natural bowl of steep terraced hillsides lined with vines, it would be so easy to imagine that you are actually looking backward through time. Other than the modern highway snaking past this little village at the northern end of Austria’s Wachau wine region, some barely visible power lines, and the occasional hum of aircraft, not much seems to have changed since the 13th century, when countless hands built these stone terraces that now contain some of Austria’s most precious natural resources. So precious that the entire Wachau has been designated a World Heritage site.
The feeling of looking back through centuries, as one might look through an exceptionally clear mountain stream, doesn’t fade upon the approach to a light grey-blue house encrusted with ivy that is set back from the street upon rough-hewn cobbles. The 600 year-old house bears all the signs of meticulous and loving care through its history, and most certainly in its last five generations of ownership by a family named Hirtzberger.
This house is home to Weingut Franz Hirtzberger in every sense of the word “home.” It is both a dwelling and a cellar, and the soul of this multi-generational winemaking family who, for several decades, have been making some of the best wines in Austria.
Light flurries of snow descended from the gunmetal grey sky as I knocked on the door of this ancient house a few months ago and was met by the younger Franz Hirtzberger. He led the way through the stone foyer and around to the back of the house where, quite literally in the back yard, the vineyard known as the Singerriedel arcs up and away across the steep, terraced hillside.
Following a path out of the small walled garden we began a steep climb of switchbacks among the stone terraces, their gnarled vines, and the tiny flakes of ice falling from the sky. This climb, winding among stones that have gripped the hillside for centuries, reinforces the sense of a journey through time, as does the knowledge that I’m speaking with the eighth in a long chain of winemakers bearing the name Franz Hirtzberger.
“There would have been nine,” he says with a grin, “if there hadn’t been one Herbert stuck in there several generations ago.”
Hirtzberger points out the meticulous stonework of the terraces, for which his family can take no credit, other than their dedication to ensuring that they come to no harm. One to two meters wide, and a little more than a meter high in most places, most contain a single row of vines on the top of the terrace, scrabbled into a shallow of eroded schist. In certain places, a second row of vines has been squeezed into the terrace — not standing vertically next to its fellows — but protruding sideways from the face of the terrace and then turning vertical in a remarkable economy of space.
The Hirtzberger family purchased its first vineyards in the village of Spitz in the late 1800s, farming between 8 and 15 acres for almost a century before Franz Hirtzberger (the father of the young man with the same name standing next to me on the steep hillside) expanded the family’s holdings to close to sixty acres in the early Eighties. This was around about the same time that he helped rescue the entire Austrian wine industry.
In 1985, the Austrian wine market basically collapsed in the wake of a scandal in which a number of the country’s largest producers were busted for doctoring their wines with a rather nasty chemical called diethylene glycol to improve their texture and sweetness. Up until this point, most Austrian wines had leaned towards the sweeter end of the spectrum.
Hirtzberger, along with one or two other small producers in the Wachau got together to form an organization known as Vinea Wachau, and published a manifesto (PDF), one of the tenets of which was a focus on making completely dry wines. This organization was responsible for spearheading the creation of the regional wine quality designations of Steinfeder, Federspiel and Smaragd.
Appearing only in the Wachau, these designations can be confusing to the uninitiated, but essentially boil down to how ripe the grapes were when picked, and therefore what the resulting alcohol levels of the wine will be. Steinfeder wines can only have a maximum alcohol level of 11.5%. Federspiel wines are made from riper grapes and weigh in between 11.5% and 12.5% alcohol, while Smaragd (pronounced “smarr-ogg-dh”) wines must have been picked ripe enough to yield at least 12.5% alcohol. Numbers aside, these designations can generally suggest how full bodied and rich the wine will be, with Steinfelder on the lighter crisper side, Smaragd on the more lush end of the spectrum, and Federspiel in the middle.
The work of Vinea Wachau and Hirtzberger’s tireless promotion of real quality winemaking served as a lifeline to the Austrian wine industry in its darkest hour.
Other than the family’s expansion of land holdings, and the renovation of the house’s basement into a rather modern and showy cellar, very little has changed at Hirtzberger as the reigns have been handed from one Franz to another over the decades.
“I’ve been running the cellar and the vineyards for the last five years,” says the young Hirtzberger, “and my parents will likely retire in the next two or three years. I don’t plan on changing anything, and the best scenario is that the customer notices no changes when my father finally retires.” While Hirtzberger has a brother and a sister, both seem to have followed paths out of the wine industry, leaving the continuation of the family’s legacy to him and his wife.
The family recipe for wine, if you will, goes something like this: farm with very little of anything added to the vines except water, eschewing most chemical inputs; harvest grapes “rather ripe,” and protect the fruit by moving fast through the vineyard with a decades-old harvest team of about 15 people comprised of retirees, housewives, and family friends who all know the vineyards intimately and understand the family’s exacting standards for quality; make two or three passes through the vineyards, harvesting fruit at various levels of sugar depending on the strength of the site; ferment in stainless steel with ambient yeasts to the point of dryness, and then age in a mix of old oak casks and stainless steel tanks before bottling.
The simplicity of this approach allows the wines to have a transparency of place and a complexity that simply astonish.
Out of the cold, in the family’s cozy dining room, Hirtzberger took me through most of the winery’s upcoming releases that were due to be bottled within the next month or two. At the moment, most of these wines are available in their 2010 vintages, which, to my limited tasting elsewhere, are tremendous.
2011 Weingut Franz Hirtzberger “Rotes Tor Federspiel” Grüner Veltliner, Spitz Donau, Wachau
Pale gold in the glass, this wine smells of green apple and wet stones. In the mouth it has an aromatic sweetness and wonderful round quality in the mouth, while green apple fruit, bright and crisp dances on the palate while floral aromas linger in a long finish. Silky, juicy and quite delicate, with perhaps softer acidity than you might like. Tastes slightly off dry. 12.5% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $25. click to buy.
2011 Weingut Franz Hirtzberger “Kirchweg Smaragd – Barrel Sample” Grüner Veltliner, Wachau
Light gold with a hint of green in the glass, this barrel sample smells of green apple and lemongrass. In the mouth the wine has a wonderful spicy balance of green apple and lemongrass flavors with delicate floral aromas and lacy acidity that highlights the wine’s minerality. Beautifully balanced. Score: around 9. Cost: $??.
2011 Weingut Franz Hirtzberger “Rotes Tor Smaragd – Barrel Sample” Grüner Veltliner, Wachau
Light greenish gold in the glass, this barrel sample has a wonderful floral character in the nose, with aromas of green apple and unripe pear. In the mouth the wine is smooth and delicate with very nice acidity, though on the softer side, plus floral and green apple aromas with notes of lemongrass. Long mineral finish. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $65. click to buy.
2011 Weingut Franz Hirtzberger “Axpoint Smaragd – Barrel Sample” Grüner Veltliner, Wachau
Light gold in the glass, this barrel sample smells of white flowers and green apples with a sweet wet stone richness. In the mouth the wine offers broad green apple, honeysuckle and wet stone flavors with a light white pepper spiciness that hangs in the back of the mouth. Slightly hot finish at this point in its evolution, but that will probably vanish with time. Score: around 9. Cost: $45. click to buy.
2011 Weingut Franz Hirtzberger “Honivogl Smaragd – Barrel Sample” Grüner Veltliner, Wachau
Light greenish gold in the glass, this barrel sample smells of apples and pears, with nice sweet floral overtones. In the mouth the wine has a light sweetness with flavors of apples, pears, and a light spiciness on the finish that has an herbal quality, though it is followed by some alcoholic heat. Unbalanced a bit at this point, but that may just be a state of evolution. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $80. click to buy.
2011 Weingut Franz Hirtzberger “Steinporz Smaragd – Barrel Sample” Pinot Blanc, Wachau
Pale yellow-gold in the glass, this barrel sample smells of white flowers and sweet lemonade. In the mouth, the wine is silky and round, with juicy lemon curd and floral notes with flavors of wet stones that linger in the long finish. Good acidity. Very pretty. Score: around 9. Cost: $??.
2011 Weingut Franz Hirtzberger “Pluris Smaragd – Barrel Sample” Pinot Gris, Wachau
Palest gold, nearly colorless in the glass, this barrel sample smells of pear and cold cream with a wonderful lemon blossom character. In the mouth, this wine has a wonderful cool sweetness, with pear and cold cream flavors and and a long floral character that is quite disarming. The finish is sweet. Lovely. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $??.
2011 Weingut Franz Hirtzberger “Steinterrassen Federspiel” Riesling, Wachau
Pale greenish gold in the glass, this barrel sample smells of incredibly floral apple and jasmine aromas. In the mouth, the wine has a phenomenal balance, with very delicate acidity and lemon, green apple, and pear flavors. Fantastic stoniness underlies a smooth silky and crystalline quality that is really remarkable. Wow. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $45. click to buy.
2011 Weingut Franz Hirtzberger “Setzberg Smaragd – Barrel Sample” Riesling, Wachau
Light gold in the glass, this barrel sample smells of white flowers, wet stones, and pears poached in sweet cream. In the mouth the wine offers beautifully balanced green apple, floral, and pear flavors with wonderful lacy, delicate acidity, and incredible length. Gorgeous and yummy. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $??
2011 Weingut Franz Hirtzberger “Horchaim Smaragd – Barrel Sample” Riesling, Wachau
Light greenish gold in the glass, this barrel sample has a honeysuckle brightness with wet stones and pear aromas. In the mouth fresh ripe pear and honeysuckle flavors morph towards green apple and wet stones as the finish lingers for a long time with an aromatic sweetness. Balanced, with excellent acidity. Stunning. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $??.
2011 Weingut Franz Hirtzberger “Singerriedel Smaragd – Barrel Sample” Riesling, Wachau
Light gold in the glass with a hint of green, this barrel sample smells of wet stones and rainwater with the barest whiff of lemon blossom and honey. In the mouth flavors of green apple and lightly spicy lemongrass mix with wet stones and floral notes, but a little bit of heat creeps into the finish. Fantastic, nonetheless. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $125. click to buy.
1997 Weingut Franz Hirtzberger “Singerriedel Smaragd” Riesling, Wachau
Light yellow-gold in the glass, this wine smells of honey and jasmine with a hint of paraffin underneath very fresh fruit aromas. In the mouth, bright and juicy lemon curd flavors are welded to a crystalline minerality. The wine is long, floral, juicy, and moves across the palate with a sensibility of being effortless. Totally gulpable, wet stone, slippery goodness. A very slight sweetness, but barely so. Fan-frikkin-tastic. 14% alcohol. Score: between 9.5 and 10. Cost: $n/a