Toni Bodenstein's Prager: High-Altitude Aristocrats

Posted by CrushWine

How many winemakers do you know would plant a high-altitude site even when everyone in the region warns against it?

How many winemakers do you know work painstakingly hard to re-cultivate some of the oldest and most extreme sites in historic vineyards? Sites that are an adventure just to access, let alone tend or harvest.

How many winemakers do you know fight for genetic diversity, not with trite one-liners or bumper stickers, but by actually sourcing diverse selections from all over Austria, Germany and France and cultivating them in one vineyard? (This is the "Noah's Ark" of winemaking.)

Well, here's one: Toni Bodenstein at Prager. Herr Bodenstein is one of the most interesting, engaged and thoughtful winemakers in Austria or anywhere else for that matter. His collection of 2007s is a testament to this extreme rigor, not to mention the incredible vineyards he works (more on that below).

What words describe the signature of Weingut Prager? Pure. Precise. Mineral. Intense rather than powerful, with a weight of concentration that is belied by the sharp focus of the wines, the dramatic cut and precision, the missile-like thrust and lift.

The 2007 vintage in Austria is exceptional because of the very long hang times it afforded the fruit, problematic because of fall rains. That said, vines (and wines) excel in tough conditions and sometimes to get the best, you need the worst. Those who sorted through the fruit - berry by berry - and selected only the best, created magnificent wines in 2007 with a degree of extract and concentration only possible through a long, long growing season.

The best of Austria in 2007 - and this includes Prager, FX Pichler, Alzinger and Nigl to name but a few - mirror the density and almost tactile concentration of the great 2007 Germans. It is a classic vintage, with a more vibrant and transparent acidity than the monumental 2006s and leaner, lighter forms with more focus. The best, however, as stated, suffer from no lack of concentration. These wines are *highly* recommended - see our selection by clicking here.

The Prager collection has a flawless purity to it, proof positive that Toni Bodenstein got very little sleep through the harvest. Indeed, he told me it was his most expensive harvest ever, as he employed 25 workers to comb the vineyards relentlessly for the best fruit. It's not easy to fathom the amount of money, time and energy spent on these wines, but it is easy to say that this was money well spent. These are exceptional wines and if I was forced to buy from only one Austrian producer in 2007, it would be Prager.

Toni Bodenstein is not just a banker, the Mayor of his town (Weissenkirchen), a scholar, ecologist and one of the most knowledgeable people on the face of the earth regarding the Wachau's various terroirs, he is also an inspired winemaker. With this in mind, I think the best way of detailing all of Bodenstein's unique pursuits is to go through the intricate lineup of wines.

2007 Prager Riesling Achleiten
It's time to add a site to the pantheon of the world's singular and hallowed terroirs: Achleiten.

The Achleiten vineyard is known for its steep grade and rambling terraces.

The Achleiten vineyard produces wines every bit as staining, pure, mineral and cut as the greats from the better known sites. I'm talking about places like Clos du Mesnil, Chateau-Chalon, Condrieu, Montrachet, Scharzhofberg and Juffer-Sonnenuhr, to name a few of the big boys. The wines of Achleiten however are most famous for their slate and flint-inflected minerality. For me, Achleiten is like a featherweight, pin-point Corton-Charlemagne in the density of its minerality and almost blunt linear quality.

The 2007 Prager Riesling Achleiten is a hammer of an Austrian Riesling, one of the richer wines in the Bodenstein portfolio with amazing concentration and extract though you have to take these comments in the context of the unreal precision and cut of his stable of 2007s. The fruit here is so, so, so pure and almost luscious - dense peach, apricot and even an edging of honey. There is a freshness to this Achleiten that surely has to do with the grippy acidity though it's enhanced by the herbs, flowers, smoke and wet-stone minerality.

2007 Prager Gruner Veltliner "Stockkultur"
This is wine #2 made by Toni Bodenstein from the Achleiten vineyard. It is sourced from a .3 hectare plot (that's less than HALF a hectare) with a small cadre of 70-year-old vines, quite high within the Achleiten. Herr Bodenstein says this tiny parcel is 25 terraces up, to be exact, so even though everything must be done by hand up here, you're exhausted by the time you get there. Bodenstein has a funny quote regarding being up in this section of the vineyard, writing that because you're so high up, "...your thinking and feeling is near heaven!" I'm all for that.

The word "Stockkultur" refers to the way the vines are trained, a single vine with four shoots. This is the traditional way vines were cultivated before the 1950s and it results in incredible vineyard densities - 15,000 vines per hectare! (Keep in mind vintners begin to brag when they hit 5,000-8,000 vines per hectare.) I believe this is only the second "Stockkultur" that Bodenstein has made. The first was in 2005 - I have not seen or heard of the wine from 2006.

I still remember Joe, very clearly, looking at me in amazement as we both first tasted this wine in Austria last June. If this wine doesn't eventually become a legend, there is no justice in the world. It's so precise you almost forget it's a Gruner. It has uber-concentration, dense, perfumed citrus oils, mouth-watering apricot, tangelo and watermelon, edged by flowers, herbs and a wickedly complex minerality that somehow feels like chalk smashed into gray shards of slate. Staining, sappy and muscular - the Stockkultur smacks the palate and leaves reverberations lingering for 90 seconds easily - though it's also (somehow) elegant. Filigreed, with that haunting Bodenstein precision.

2007 Prager Gruner Veltliner Achleiten
And here we are on wine #3 made by Toni Bodenstein from the Achleiten vineyard. Of the three Gruners made from this site (the Gruner "Stockkultur" and "Wachstum Bodenstein" are the other two), this is the most basic, though this should be taken into context of the site itself. No, this isn't Drouhin's Montrachet "Marquis de Laguiche," it's just regular Montrachet. Sorry! It's still jamming. Don't believe me? Here's Tanzer's tasting note: "Inviting yellow apple, apricot and honeydew melon with subtle pepper and tobacco nuances on the nose. Full-bodied and powerful, with sweetly extracted fruit and a silky texture. Very well-balanced thanks to juicy acidity. Sweet tropical fruit and dark wet slate linger long on the finish. Already surprisingly approachable yet possesses tremendous aging potential."

2007 Prager Gruner Veltliner "Wachstum Bodenstein"
Finally, wine #4 sourced from within the Achleiten vineyard. This is the first-ever vintage of a Gruner "Wachstum Bodenstein," though fans of Prager will recognize that he's been making a Riesling "Wachstum Bodenstein" since 1997, though this wine is actually sourced from a special high-altitude parcel in the Hinterseiber. More on this wine below.

"Wachstum Bodenstein" basically means "the site of Bodenstein," and it refers to a project very close to his heart - the cultivating of genetic diversity for both Riesling and Gruner. Bodenstein sometimes refers to these sites as his "Noah's Ark" parcel. For the Gruner, the "Ark" resides in a section of the Achleiten, high up, between the rock faces I believe (see picture above). He purchased this plot from the Bishop of St. Polten, so this should be an indication of the quality of the parcel. (The Bishops historically have always drank very, very well.) He has been cultivating this vineyard since 2003, not only planting over 110 different types of Gruner Veltliner, sourced from the Wachau, Krems and the Weinviertel, but he also had to do considerable work rebuilding the old stone terraces. Toni says: "With this rich diversity of Gruner Veltliner we are able to show the genetic possibilities and variation of this grape. All of us who work in wine have to fight against genetic erosion!"

A view of the Danube Valley in Austria's Wachau, from vineyards just outside of Weissenkirchen.

The vines here have been trained as they are in the older "Stockkultur" section, so single vines tied to posts. No irrigation is used in this vineyard. This is probably the most intense of the Gruners and not surprisingly, it shows the varietal characteristics of the grape very well. It is a dense and saturating Gruner but the end is, for me, where the fireworks are: A complex, rapid-fire chain of herbs, minerals and pulverized stone. Awesome.

2007 Prager Riesling Klaus
The Klaus vineyard, nearby, would be my pick for the Austrian equivalent of Montrachet - it tends to producer richer, more voluptuous and oily wines. And in true form the 2007 Klaus is the darkest and oiliest of the Pragers, luscious and enveloping though of course also with great minerality. Darker melons and citrus oils provide a mammoth foundation for this very long, very impressive wine.

2007 Prager Riesling "Wachstum Bodenstein"
One of the first wines to really showcase the free-thinking, experimental and provocative side of Toni Bodenstein. Planted in 1990 in a high-altitude section of the Hinterseiber vineyard (literally bordering the forest at the top of the mountain), this was planted at an altitude of about 1,500 feet (between 440-460 meters). Many people doubted that the vineyard would be able to fully ripen Riesling. Over 10 years later, not only does the vineyard produce incredibly elegant and mineral wines, but while others have problems with over-ripening, the Bodenstein wines, even in hot vintages like 2003 and 2006, are balanced and elegant.

Anytime you you see the "Wachstum Bodenstein" moniker, you should know that one of the points of the wine is to showcase genetic diversity. Bodenstein planted the vineyard with 15 different types of Riesling sourced from the Wachau as well as Germany's Rheingau, Mosel and Pfalz and France's Alsace. This is, year in and year out, one of the top Rieslings from Austria and the 2007 edition is stunning. From Tanzer's IWC: "Very precise aromas of peach, papaya and lichee complicated by cool wet slate and lime zest. Elegant apricot and blackcurrant flavors are stunningly wound around a taut spine of acid. This riesling boasts superb posture! Abundant wet slate and sweet peach flavors carry impressively on the long, palate-staining finish. Outstanding potential."

The Prager estate in Weissenkirchen.