Austria’s Vinea Wachau was founded four decades ago, on 17 August 1983. Even the founders Wilhelm Schwengler, Josef Jamek, Franz Hirtzberger and Franz Prager were perhaps unaware of the far-reaching implications of their decision to create the producers’ association. Certainly, they had a vision and ambitions for the future of their Danube Valley region, which stretches between Melk and Krems. But even they could not have foreseen how the Wachau would become Austria's most renowned wine region within a few years, not to mention one of the world's most valuable appellations.
The founders had to tackle a situation that was far from rosy.
Since the Second World War, mechanisation had made vineyard work easier and faster throughout Austria, and wineries took advantage of this by planting more and more vineyards. Production kept increasing every year, but marketing and sales did not. The warehouses became fuller and fuller.
However, in Wachau, a narrow Danube valley, the steeply terraced hillsides and small-scale farming did not allow the use of machines in most areas. Production was labour-intensive and expensive, and many consumers could not comprehend the price difference between these wines and those from other, flatter areas. The arduous work and low yield were a particular problem for the large number of smaller operators in the Wachau. The threat of families not being able to afford to work their terraces for much longer loomed large.
To ensure the maintenance and preservation of the Wachau’s dry-stone walls – and thus the region’s unique landscape (now recognised as a World Cultural Heritage site) it was imperative that the wine industry should continue to flourish. This meant far-reaching decisions needed to be made. These decisions were vital to secure a good income for both small and large producers in the Wachau, ensure the maintenance of the historic terraces and to guarantee a vibrant wine industry. The founding of the area protection association ‘Vinea Wachau Nobilis Districtus’, formed the basis for the development of the winegrowing area on whose ideals the history of the Wachau is still being written today.
Protecting origin & style
The idea of origin has been implemented in the Wachau in an uncompromising form since 1983: Vinea Wachau’s member wineries must have their headquarters in the Wachau, farm exclusively in the Wachau (only vineyards in an adjacent community that belong to a Wachau winery are also included), must harvest by hand and are prohibited from buying in grapes or wine from other regions.
As early as 1984, the Vinea Wachau began to create three categories to make the Wachau wine style as comprehensible and transparent as possible. Thus, the three designations – Steinfeder, Federspiel and Smaragd – were born. They are reserved exclusively for wines from the Wachau, which are made in a style which reflects regional typicity: dry white wine, without any addition of sugar or detectable wood influence.
It proved to be sound thinking. When in the late 1980s, lighter wines became popular, the Wachau was already ahead of the curve. The Steinfeder boom not only swept through Austria but also far beyond its borders, laying the foundation for the new-found popularity of its wineries.
One remarkable feature of the Wachau’s success is that it has benefited the entire region. Vinea Wachau represents wineries of every size, from small sideline wineries and regionally anchored wine tavern keepers called ‘Heuriger’, to larger, export-oriented producers and the Domäne Wachau cooperative. All profit equally from the joint marketing.
The top category, ‘Smaragd’, which references the German name of the emerald-coloured lizards that bask on the warm stone terraces found throughout Wachau’s vineyards, became the beacon of Austria’s most valuable white wines in the 1990s.
The Wachau thrives on the large number of small wineries who continue to cultivate terraced vineyards. It would be fatal for our landscape if the terraces were no longer cultivated, and this work needs to be a joint effort. That is why the idea of solidarity was, and still is, extremely important in our region. An appreciation of craftsmanship, quality, a multi-generational perspective and a strong sense of community are the driving forces for our association.
It is no coincidence that Vinea Wachau has nearly 200 member wineries today compared to just 24 when it was founded in 1983. Together they cultivate more than 1,000 hectares of vineyards, around 35% of which are on steep slopes.
Ready for the future
Leading Wachau’s winegrowers towards a successful future, even in the face of changing environmental conditions, has seen Vinea Wachau launch major joint projects, such as using synthesized pheromone diffusers to combat the grapevine moth, an insecticide-free biotechnology control method. There is also a research project into combating erosion through the planting of native species as well as educational lectures for members.
Another new initiative of Vinea Wachau is a biodiversity stocktake for the entire wine region in cooperation with the nature conservation officer of the Wachau World Heritage Site, the first wine region in Austria to jointly prepare such a report. And from the 2023 vintage onwards, all Vinea Wachau member wineries producing Steinfeder, Federspiel or Smaragd must have the ‘Sustainable Austria’ seal of quality.
Wine is an important identity product in Lower Austria and the Wachau is a magnificent flagship. Thanks to Vinea Wachau, it has been possible not only to generate significant added value for an agricultural product, but also to create added cultural and social value. The founding fathers of Vinea Wachau deserve our respect and thanks for this.