Austria’s most famous wine region isn’t very large, but what the Wachau Valley lacks in size it makes up for in scenic grandeur and the superlative quality of its products. Reminiscent in some ways of Germany’s Moselle Valley, the Wachau has steep, terraced vineyards tumbling down toward a large river, the Danube, which moderates the climate and reflects light, helping grapes to ripen. And like the Moselle Valley, the rugged and picturesque Wachau is dotted with little wine towns and the occasional castle.
Red grapes, notably Pinot Noir, have made minor inroads in the Wachau, but white wine is king. It is here that Grüner Veltliner reaches its peak, and Wachau Rieslings can stand toe-to-toe with top examples from Germany (or anywhere else in the world). In addition, these wines tend to be excellent values for the money, especially considering the challenge of working the vertiginous slopes. It’s not difficult to find good wine for as little as $10 a bottle, and at $20, the quality starts to become world-class.
In order to keep things interesting, the Wachau has its own classification system, unique to the valley. The region categorizes wines according to the ripeness of the grapes at harvest, a factor that also affects alcohol content. Alas, the names for the categories are hardly intuitive, even to a German speaker: Steinfeder is the lightest and least ripe, followed by Federspiel and then Smaragd. This last style, named after a local emerald-colored lizard, is the richest, most alcoholic and usually the most interesting and complex.