Weingut Rudi Pichler
The Sage of Wosendorf
Wosendorf, Wachau, Austria
When you have a connection to a wine producer from a special moment in your wine life, and when you finally visit him and he makes you feel like you are coming home, that is truly a special moment. Visiting Rudi Pichler at his home and wine making facility in Wosendorf, in the middle of the Wachau, felt that way for me.
Late one afternoon Rudi Pichler welcomed me for a tour of his vineyard sites and to taste his 2015 wines across his entire portfolio – from Federspiel to Smaragd; both Riesling and Gruner Veltliner. For context, a few older vintages were in the mix to see how the wines evolve while they mature. This is the perfect way to get to know the wine portfolio of a producer, side by side and down the line.
The special moment I referenced in the opening of this article dates back to 2013 when I tasted the majority of Rudi’s wines for the first time, all from one vintage in a long horizontal tasting. It was special, a true wine epiphany because it blew up my perception of what Gruner Veltliner was. Never before had I tasted white wines of such depth, tension and length from anywhere, except Burgundy. Prior to that, the Gruner I knew was the lighter, fresh, white peppercorn versions, that while delicious, did not hit the core of me like these gorgeous wines from the steep, terraced gneiss and loess vineyards.
Almost 3 years to the day after that epiphany, there I was with Rudi headed out of Wosendorf to the village’s border with Spitz where we took a look at the Kollmutz, Hochrain and Kirchweg vineyards.
Kirchweg is considered one of two Grand Cru Riesling sites that are not hillside in the Wachau, though it does have a noticeably higher grade closer to the village side of Wosendorf that descends towards Spitz. Kirchweg gets its name from the term “Church path” as the walk from Wosendorf to the nearest church for centuries was only Saint Michael, an ancient Gothic Church at the far end of the Wosendorf border. St. Michael’s is one of the oldest standing structures in the region, dating to the 9th century AD. Rudi’s grapes come from the best portion of the Kirchweg vineyard on the higher-grade section where an alluvial fan resides. The entirety of Kirchweg is a sedimentary base soil made by deposits from the Danube River, but here the alluvial fan forms a thick top layer of soil that is made up of sand and stones from deposits made by rain runoff from the adjacent Hochrain vineyard.
Kollmutz and Hochrain, a stone’s throw away from Kirchweg, are each separate hillside terraced vineyards planted on large hills that each has an entirely different geological makeup.
Kollmutz has a base of hard mother rock called Paragneiss. The topsoil is sandy and calcareous studded with sharper stones of varying size. Rudi planted Gruner and Weissburgunder in Kollmutz. This is my absolute favorite site for Weissburgunder, not just in Wachau, but maybe anywhere. Of all the Pinot Blanc I have tasted, this one has consistently impressed me, especially after a few years in bottle.
Hochrain has a split geological personality; it is entirely compact loess in the lower section, with the upper section resembling Kollmutz with a less weathered, sharper Paragneiss mother rock base and a higher percentage of gravel in a much sandier top soil. Gruner is planted in the loess sections, while powerful Riesling wines are born from the vines planted up top on the Paragneiss of this lieu-dit called “Hochrain-Ralais”.
We then turned about face and headed back down river on the other side of Weissenkirchen to the Grand Cru site of Achleiten which is considered one of, if not the greatest, vineyard sites in the Wachau. The first parcel we saw was insanely steep, it had to be something like a 60-degree incline planted with just 1-2 rows per terrace and facing south/southwest. There was an adjacent section Rudi acquired that he has yet to recondition. His next parcel a few minutes up and along the vineyard road on Achleiten is in the west-central section directly over the Danube that faces south. This was not far from another producer’s section I had visited the day before. Here the grade is lower, albeit still steep with 2-3 vines per terrace.
Achleiten is a lesson in geology in and of itself. The hard rock soil is a blend of sandy fine earth, with coarse scree and stone, mixed with Gfohler gneiss and migmatitic amphibolite. Both sections of this western part of Achleiten are characterized as being low in pH with virtually no limestone. The upper portion is primarily the Gfohler gneiss dominant soils. The lower portion is dominated by amphibolite, but also contains the Gfohler gneiss as landslides shifted earth from above down to lower terraces. Both Gruner and Riesling from these vineyards are powerful and deeply complex expressions of these wines. They take at least 5-7 years to start showing their best as time chips away and unwinds the coiled nature of these wines in youth.
From the top of this Achleiten site, we could almost see the entire Wachau Valley, from Spitz to our right to Durnstein and over to Mautern on our left. From here the “White Church” of Weissenkirchen stood proudly as the core of the village. Next to it is the only limestone based vineyard of Rudi Pichler, the marble and limestone banded Steinriegl. The base rock is weathered Paragneiss, like Kollmutz, but the big difference in Steinriegl is the white marble bands at the anterior of the bedrock. Marble is metamorphized limestone, and thus this is the suspected source for the marble used to create the “White Church”.
On our way back to taste, Rudi stopped to take a call and at that exact stop in my purview was a beautiful site with wretchedly unkempt vines. I asked Rudi after his call what the site was and he said it was a newer owner applying natural and organic principles. He then mentioned the site has not produced fruit in 2-3 vintages, it was essentially dying a slow death.
This opened my eyes to the reality of the Wachau’s continental climate along a river that can see its share of rain. Not every year is perfect, not only can it rain too much, but some years there is drought and irrigation is allowed in certain circumstances. Frost in the spring is a definite reality as the Wachau (especially near Spitz) and many other European regions saw in the damaging frosts of late April 2016. Humidity is a constant being adjacent to a river, thus botrytis or gray rot must be watched for carefully.
Back at Weingut Rudi Pichler, Rudi lined up the 2015s front to back starting with the Gruner, then the Weissburgunder and finishing with the Riesling wines. My notes below attest to the extremely high quality and character of each vineyard site that comes through in the wines. It is no surprise that these wines have such soul and vivid personality of site as they reflect not just terroir but also a little bit of the personality of a driven and passionate vigneron.
The 2015 Wines
From talking with Rudi, I learned the average sweet spot for a drinking window is 5-8 years. If you truly can’t wait on a younger vintage decant the wine or open it several hours before you drink it. It is recommended you wait at least 2-3 years from the vintage date in most cases to allow the wines time to be at their best. Many of them will age for decades, so there is no rush. Generally speaking, macerations are cold flotation and occur for 3 – 36 hours depending on the quality of the vintage and the vineyard site. This can brown the juice slightly before the maceration starts at very cold temperatures that prohibit fermentation from starting. Thus the wines see some skin contact, while the hard solids precipitate to the bottom of the tank, leaving behind a cloudy juice to start fermentation.
We tasted the entire range of the 2015s, with a few older vintages for contrast and aging potential likeness.
The 2015 vintage was spectacular here in the Wachau, as it was in most of Europe. Made in a consistent and particular style varied by vintage conditions, Rudi rejects any fruit with botrytis as he deems it unpure and not a natural expression of the style of wine he likes to make. In 2015 the Gruners are powerful and dense, yet fresh and polished. These were some of the best 2015 Gruners I tasted the entire trip, maybe, in fact, the best. They were certainly the most consistent. The Rieslings are off the charts good this vintage, showing intense levels of energy, cut and verve allied with purity of fruit and acidity. His only Weissburgunder, hailing from Kollmutz, is perfect this year as well, but I am biased as it is my favorite Weissburgunder.
Federspiel Gruner Veltliner 2015
Minerally, pear & spice, savory, pepper, smoky but clean and fresh, quite elegant with good persistence, long, filigree-like finish. Grapes for this come from the flat low elevation sites and the upper reaches of the terraces.
Terrassen Smaragd Gruner Veltliner 2015
Powers up some from the Federspiel with lime and a deeper mineral influence, energetic acidity and great lift on the palate. Savory and peppery, smoky mineral. This is a blend of 50 different terraced parcels with a mix of different soil types consisting of the common gneiss and loess, but also Schiste, and sandy granite.
Kollmutz Smaragd Gruner Veltliner 2015
From 40+-year-old vines on a hump-like” vineyard site just south of the village of Wosendorf and set off from the Danube. Meaty, spicy, peppery, honeydew melon, apple this is fresh and compact, showing good mineral complexity with good density and tension.
Achleiten Smaragd Gruner Veltliner 2015
Slightly reticent to start, this is tightly wound up with a density in the nose and palate that hint at the greatness that will come with time to peel back the layers of orchard fruits, citrus, and savory green veg. The main star is the mineral component in this that is off the charts. Acidity is in full effect, like a power source for the soul of this wine it lights up and maintains the mineral cut and fruit balance in the wine.
Mini-vertical of Hochrain Gruner Veltliner 2008-2013-2015
Hochrain Smaragd Gruner Veltliner 2008
A stunner, this was very intense and super aromatic lime, smoke minerality, with shades of lemon, peach, nectarine, and honey. This has perfect balance, mouthwatering acidity, and a long, huge finish. This tastes like it was maybe 4-5 years old, not 8. Again, Rudi’s wines evolve slower and very balanced. While not a perfect vintage, 2008 was very good and in the hands of the better producers like Rudi, some excellent wines were made. This here is proof of that and the huge potential these wines have to age.
Hochrain Smaragd Gruner Veltliner 2013
A powerful nose, the fruit is at the forefront here as the 2013s were more opulent in style. Pronounced notes of sweet lemon, melon, peach, some sweet green veg, a touch of smoky mineral and spice. This has excellent persistence and density, loads of extract; a balanced palate washes over the entirety, covering every section of the palate. A creaminess in the texture is noticeable on the huge finish that sails on for well over a minute.
Hochrain Smaragd Gruner Veltliner 2015
Smoky and fruit nose of apples, melon, lime fruits, the palate is coiled tight and adds a touch of tobacco; the texture has a creaminess and weight, while still maintaining freshness and a spike of cracked peppercorn on the finish. This is a very complex Gruner that will require a bit of patience. Made from 50+year-old vines.
WEISSBURGUNDER (aka Pinot Blanc)
Kollmutz Smaragd Weissburgunder 2007
The nose is very expressive, showing pronounced and pungent yellow and sweet citrus fruits, smoky minerality and deep complexity. The palate revealed ripe apricots, white/yellow plum, pineapple and sweet Meyer lemons. Excellent acidity and a huge, fresh finish. This is very broad and generous, but still maintains a firmness and snap of freshness.
Kollmutz Smaragd Weissburgunder 2015
Lemon and lime, a touch of wax and a medium intensity nose. The palate dials up the intensity some with a bigger mouthfeel adding a spice component and some underlying minerality to the layered and rounder texture of the Pinot Blanc. Very compact and youthful, the Weissburgunder also takes time to unfurl its riches and requires patience.
Federspiel Riesling 2015
Here we go down the Riesling rabbit hole with Rudi Pichler. The Federspiel is a light weight, elegant and clean wine showing the typical smoky minerals with a touch of lime. Pronounced acidity and tension, this won’t be a long ager but look to enjoy this in its youth.
Terrassen Smaragd Riesling 2015
As one would expect the density jumps up here too, with a denser mouthfeel, more power, flush full of refreshing acids we get lemon, lime, peach and nectarine and crushed rock minerality. The length is good at medium+ and I would say this is on the lower scale of body for a Smaragd clocking in at 12.5.
Steinriegel Smaragd Riesling 2015
Different from all the other sites that Rudi farms, the soils here are limestone that lay near the Weissenkirch, or “White Church” in the center of the village bearing the same name. A lifted and brighter fruit expression, this has super high mouthwatering acids, juicy with sappy and ripe extract of citrus and apples.
Kirchweg Smaragd Riesling 2015
A pronounced and intense nose and palate, this is a lime and mineral machine that shows a cool textured and crackling texture and finish. Rudi says to him there are only 2 exceptional Cru Riesling vineyards that are on the flat lower reaches of the Wachau (not terraced). My guess the other GC to him is Schutt at the foot of the Loibenberg vineyard.
Hochrain Smaragd Riesling 2015
A seriously pretty nose flirting with the tension and energy this wine exudes. Minty, with grapefruit and lime citrus, smoke, and loads of chalky minerality all on a lacey and filigree palate that reveals its dimensions in layers on the palate. Beautiful extract here again (a trait of 2015) this has a racy and higher appearance of acidity, very original and distinct.
Achleiten Smaragd Riesling 2015
Dense and compact, air and some agitation in the glass brought this around nicely. A deeper and distinct expression here of fresh green veg asparagus and peas, an herbal note, all of which is just a highlight of the dense citrus, apple and stone fruit mélange. The palate is medium+ to full-bodied with a long, pure finish lasting well into the second minute. Seeing the site from which this wine comes from gives you the distinct impression the expression here is true in the amount of complexity and power. Decant now or better yet wait 3-5 years minimum.
Kirchweg Smaragd Riesling 2009
Excellent, riper yellow and gold fruits mix with a fresh baked bread note, the palate is juicy showing good focus and tension of acid and fruit. The warmer year is apparent but not overbearing as the wine has great balance and shows plenty of youth and tension.