Undiscovered Treasures of the Danube: Wagram and Traisental

By John Szabo MS

This feature was commissioned by Austrian Wine.

East of Vienna, up the Danube Valley in the state of Niederösterreich, lie three of Austria’s most celebrated and historic winegrowing regions: the Kamptal, Kremstal and Wachau. Here some of the country’s — and the world’s — finest (mainly) whites from grüner veltliner and riesling are grown. Attuned wine lovers worldwide can rhyme off their top producers, discuss the merits of various single vineyards, and argue over favourite vintages.

Nearby in the shadow of these three giants, however, are yet two more distinct winegrowing areas, overlooked historically for different reasons and left out of such conversations. But it’s in these former fringe regions that a new wave of great Austrian whites is gathering momentum. Beneficiaries of inexorable cultural and climate shifts, the Traisental and Wagram offer new fertile ground for treasure hunters, especially those with a keen eye for value.

Sunrise in Wagram (© Austrian Wine / Robert Herbst)

On the Edge in Wagram

Wagram is the first wine region you’ll reach travelling east from Vienna up the Danube Valley. Here the valley is at its widest, stretching over ten kilometers from the hills that cradle it to the north and south of the river. Formerly known as Donauland, the region was re-named Wagram in 2007 to better reflect its geology and soil: the name is derived from the Middle High German word “wac-rein”, meaning river terrace, river bank or embankment – a reference to the fault scarp that runs through the region, marking the former northern bank of the Danube River.

The Danube effectively bisects the Wagram into two distinct areas: the majority of the region’s roughly 2500 hectares of vineyards lie north of the River, in the area locally referred to as the “Wagram edge,” a visually impressive stretch of terraced, hillside vineyards extending eastward from Krems some 30 kilometers before the landscape morphs into the more gently rolling hills north of Vienna. The scarp runs from a couple dozen meters above the Danube plain, up to 371 meters at the top of the Hengstberg, the highest point in the hills above.

Wagram Edge (© Austrian Wine / Robert Herbst)

South of the Danube is another small enclave of vineyards around the town of Klosterneuburg, a stone’s throw from the Vienna City limits, and also home to the Höhere Bundeslehranstalt für Wein- und Obstbau (Federal College for Viticulture, Oenology and Fruit Growing), the world’s first school of viticulture, founded in 1860.

Nowhere else in the Danube Valley will you find such uniformly thick löess terraces in such consistency and abundance; the powdery, greyish, calcareous, dolomitic rock dust that blew down from the Alps during the last ice age can be more than forty meters deep in places. These spongy soils are tailor made for rich, broad and spicy grüner veltliner with a characteristically creamy texture, which, as of the 2021 vintage, can carry the Wagram DAC designation.

Riesling, generally from the thinner soils higher up hillsides, as well as the local specialty roter veltliner, a later ripening variety (confusingly unrelated to grüner), highly ageworthy thanks to its generally higher acids and high extract, are also included under the new appellation laws up to single vineyard (ried) designates. Reds, too, from zweigelt, sankt laurent and blauburgunder (pinot noir), are covered under the regional and village-level classification.

And yet the wines of the Wagram remain relatively unknown, even within Austria. Many of the nearly 300 wine producers are small, family-run operations, whose wines were sold mainly in the region’s many heurigen (wine taverns). Lukas Strobl of Clemens Strobl, a leading producer in the region established in 2008, tells me that Wagram has historically experienced less tourist traffic than the more famous regions further upriver. “It’s more of a rural area,” he says, “with less infrastructure for tourism. In the past, the trains just kept going to the [neighboring] Kamptal.”

Wagram, Niederösterreich (© Austrian Wine / Anna Stöcher)

Producers consequently lagged behind in self-confidence, he feels, and prices remained relatively low, limiting re-investments to improve quality. But Strobl firmly believes that Wagram is set for a boom in recognition and, judging by the quality of his wines and a those of a handful of others, he might well be right.

Bernhard Ott has already achieved a high degree of success, arguably the most well-known and export-successful name in Wagram wine. Taking over from his father in 1993, Ott has built his estate into a model of what the region can offer: a 60-hectare property farmed organically and biodynamically, with an impressive range of single vineyard wines, mainly grüner veltliner, sold at premium prices. Ott’s pure and precise wines explore the nuances imparted by variations in soil depth and composition and vineyard elevation, such as the cool and composed Ried Spiegel, an exposed and permanently windy site near the top of the Hengstberg with pure, deep löess and river gravels, or the complex and complete Ried Rosenberg just below, with its extra gear and energy from 70-year-old vines growing in particularly calcium carbonate-rich löess.

Other wineries to look for include roter veltliner specialist Josef Fritz, especially the Ried Mordthal and Steinberg erste lagen (premier crus); biodynamic producer Weinberghof Fritsch, who also makes an excellent roter veltliner of great depth and purity from the Steinberg vineyard above the town of Engabrunn; and Leth, a third-generation family winery in Fels am Wagram.

The wines, reviewed below, should be reason enough to include the Wagram on your next tour of Danube Valley vineyards, but the region’s rural charm and splendid countryside also make the region a must-see. For wine lovers who like to be “in the know” — well, you’re now up to speed. (Note: Not all prices are known and not all of these wines have representation in Ontario.)

Top Wagram Wines

96 Bernhard Ott Ried Rosenberg Feuersbrunn Grüner Veltliner “1ÖTW” 2020, Wagram DAC

Rosenberg is the cru with the most heart of the family, a parcel planted in 1956. It’s a 100% pure löess site, with lots of active calcium carbonate up to 30 percent, fermented and aged in 5,000 to 7,000 liter casks for two winters before bottling, like all of the cru wines. The 2020 is a particularly stony, mineral, complex and complete wine with terrific depth and structure on the palate and fine and chiseled acids. It’s very rich and concentrated with superb length. A true grand cru site, with an extra gear, and extra level of energy. Magnificent. Best 2024­–2035. 

94 Bernhard Ott Ried Spiegel Feuersbrunn Grüner Veltliner “1ÖTW” 2020, Wagram DAC

Ott owns six hectares of this cru, a site with pure, deep löess and some river gravels. It’s permanently windy, exposed at the top of a hill (not quite the highest point of Hengstberg). It’s cool and composed, usually the most understated of the four crus, though this 2020 is still quite richly extracted, with fruit slipping from citrus into a more yellow and orange-fleshed range, and with firm, steely acids underpinning and very fine depth and length. A detailed precise wine, showing no lees interference, no oxidative deviation. Professional, sophisticated, stylish. 

94 Bernhard Ott Ried Brenner Grüner Veltliner 2021, Wagram DAC

Brenner is a sub parcel of Spiegel; just 1000 litres were made. It’s very tightly wound on the nose, still very youthful — some SO2 noted. This is built to last longer than the Gmirk. Firm, taut and muscular, needs time, another 4–5 years minimum. This is the bottling for wine lovers. Will be sold exclusively to friends and family.

94 Bernhard Ott Ried Rosenberg Grüner Veltliner “1ÖTW” 2019, Wagram DAC

Nice nose, floral and perfumed here, with roses and citrus peel, round and full in texture but also marvellously balanced, a fine 2019 to be sure and a regional leader. I love the harmony and synced-up elements. Terrific length.

93 Clemens-Strobl “Rosen” Riesling 2019

Rosen is one of the coolest, highest sites in the Wagram, reaching up to 380 metres, with cold nights that serve to retain acidity and freshness. It’s also one of the stoniest vineyards. Strobl works hard to avoid botrytis, employing selective harvest when necessary. Really nice nose here, explosive, with well-chiseled palate, properly sharp and enveloping acids, and high flavour intensity. This reverberates on and on.

93 Bernhard Ott Ried Stein Engabrunn Grüner Veltliner “1ÖTW” 2020, Wagram DAC

The Ried Stein Engabrunn was first mentioned in 1427. It’s a site with deep löess, but covered with rich humous, a happier soil for vines that produces more boisterous wines. I find this more aromatically shy than the Spiegel though the palate is broader and verging on tropical, a fatter and richer wine than the Spiegel, though the alcohol is the same — 12.7 percent in this vintage. Doesn’t quite have the length in my opinion, but an excellent bottle to be sure, just a step behind.

93 Bernhard Ott “Der Ott” Grüner Veltliner 2021, Wagram DAC

A blend of the three single-vineyard crus, the young wines (35 years or so), 45 percent Spiegel, with the Rosenberg and Stein splitting the difference. All handpicked, wild fermented, malo done, aged in large barrel. This vintage was the first made using the new (old-style) basket press. The extract here is superb: fruit is precise and juicy, forward and ready, with great acids, a little more baby fat than the crus on their own, but length is excellent.

93 Bernard Ott Ried Gmirk Grüner Veltliner 2021, Wagram DAC

The first bottling of this single parcel “marking a border” between Feuerbrunn and the neighboring village. Still quite tightly wound on the nose, though the palate delivers a raft of flavours, with great acids, saliva-inducing, and finely detailed. Intensity is high, and length is excellent — a small step above the “Der Ott” bottling.

92 Clemens-Strobl “Lössling” Grüner Veltliner 2019

Lössling features gravel over löess, one of the estate’s warmer vineyards, yielding higher-pH, lower-acid wines relatively. It’s a more exotic example, with fruit shifting into the yellow-fleshed spectrum. Palate is broad and round, fleshy, with billowing, silky texture, refined, clean and pure. Again, not very varietal, but represents löess and this warmer site. Excellent length on creamy lees notes. 

92 Bernhard Ott “Fass 4” Grüner Veltliner 2021, Wagram DAC

A hugely popular wine for Ott, 100 percent from estate vineyards, vines aged at least 12 years, also including some hillside single vineyard parcels. The 2021 is fragrant, perfumed, with great purity, tightly wound, surely a step up in depth and concentration from the (very good) Am Berg, also more textural. Another classic, proper example.

92 Bernard Ott Ried Kirchtal Grüner Veltliner 2020, Wagram DAC

Not yet classified as a cru, planted around 2010. The first vintage bottled separately was in 2017 for a union of restaurants and bars. Kirchtal is the highest vineyard in the Ott portfolio, on the shoulder of the Hengstberg, with löess, gravel and a thick layer of clay. It shows fine purity on the nose, with plenty of citrus and gentle reduction, solid length. There’s something here — cru-worthy, not entirely convinced — though the wine is excellent in the price range.

92 Weinberghof Fritsch Ried Steinberg Roter Veltliner “1ÖTW” 2020, Wagram DAC

A clear and transparent roter veltliner of terrific purity and depth, showing a mix of stone fruit and citrus flavours. Length is excellent.

92 Weinberghof Fritsch Ried Schlossberg Grüner Veltliner “1ÖTW” 2019, Wagram DAC

Here’s a 2019 with more tension than the mean, still very ripe and powerful to be sure, but with sufficient acids undergirding the ensemble. Length and depth are very good to excellent, with limey-citric finish.

91 Josef Fritz Ried Mordthal Roter Veltliner “1ÖTW” 2020, Wagram DAC

Nicely perfumed, spicy-peppery, white fleshed fruit-flavoured roter veltliner, youthful, aged part in oak and part in acacia barrels. It delivers a creamy, slightly lactic character, with very good length.

91 Clemens-Strobl “Donauschotter” Grüner Veltliner 2021

Donauschotter (“Danube gravel”) is the entry point in the range, from higher yielding vineyards on the flatter lands of the Wagram by the Danube River; about 20–25k bottles per year. Like everything at CS, it’s all wild yeast fermented. Clean, quite pure and fruity, white-fleshed orchard fruit leads; acids are comfortable, mingling with lactic-creaminess on the palate (malo done). Length is very good. I like the elegance and purity, not particularly varietal, but intriguing to be sure.

91 Clemens-Strobl Grüner Veltliner 2019

From the Schreckenberg, on the border with Kamptal, with deep löess surrounded by forests full of wildlife. Facing east-southeast, formerly a heavy frost zone, cool site where ripeness was hard to achieve, but things have changed. Fermented in a 2,500-liter wooden vat, 1.5 years on the lees. Subtle, delicate aromatics, pretty and refined. The palate is silky-textured, with creamy acids, supple, refined flavours, integrated alcohol, and very good length. A fine example.

91 Clemens-Strobl “Donauschotter” Riesling 2021

Donauschotter (“Danube gravel”) is the entry point in the Clemens Strobl range. Riesling generally needs to grow mostly on the upper parts of the hillsides with poorer soils, though this, like the grüner is from a collection of the higher yielding parcels. Malo done. Clean and pure here again, with surprisingly firm and fresh acids. Fruit moves from candied lime into peach and apricot. Understated varietal character, long finish. An intriguing version.

91 Clemens-Strobl “Donauschotter” Rosé 2021

Pinot noir and St. Laurent from a vineyard just above the winery with old vines. Fermented in small used barriques and concrete eggs in a labor-intensive way — “the most expensive wine to make in the winery.” The results appear to be worth it; it’s clean, with pure cherry and strawberry fruit, and some yoghurt notes. The palate is mid-weight, pure, less fruity than the nose, fully dry, well balanced, with long finish. A sophisticated example, elegant and finessed and characterful.

91 Lust by Lukas Strobl “Hafonisi” Grüner Veltliner 2020

Lukas’s version of a skin contact grüner, eight days on skins, but only 30 percent whole berries, the rest juice. Pretty nose, bruised pear, herbal tea, chamomile, orange peel-inflected, exotic, very good. The palate shows little tannic extract, quite supple and textural, with very good length and depth. A really clean and well-made, precise example.

91 Bernhard Ott “Am Berg” Grüner Veltliner 2021, Lower Austria

The entry point in the excellent Ott range, Am Berg is made in part from purchased grapes, but close friends, also biodynamic, but not Respekt-certified. The 2021 is fine, clear, pure, fruity, lime-driven, a very sharp and chiseled grüner, a very serious entry level wine to be sure, from vineyards in both Wagram and Kamptal. Length and depth are very good to excellent. Treated exactly like the top vineyards — “it’s an important wine for us.” Textbook stuff.

91 Bernhard Ott Ried Kirchthal Riesling 2021, Wagram DAC

Fine and crystalline aromatics, very much in the riesling spectrum, fullish on the palate, with great acids, and good to very good length. Best after 2024 or so — this has stuffing and legs in spades.

Report on the Traisental coming soon.

This feature was commissioned by Austrian Wine. As a regular feature, WineAlign tastes wines submitted by a single winery, agent or region. Our writers independently, as always, taste, review and rate the wines — good, bad and indifferent, and those reviews are posted on WineAlign. We then independently recommend wines to appear in the article. Wineries, wine agents, or regions pay for this service. Ads for some wines may appear at the same time, but the decision on which wines to put forward in our report, and its content, is entirely up to WineAlign.