When buying in the Wachau, you need to know that dry wines are classified as Federspiel, which is light and lower in alcohol, or Smaragd - best wines from the best, ripest grapes. The difference in price is enormous, but so is the difference in quality. All the Smaragd wines can be enjoyed now, but will develop in complexity given a few years - and sometimes a couple of decades. I will put the bottles I've acquired in storage for a good long time, and I urge you to do the same.
A few merchants take a close interest in the above-mentioned foursome. Gauntleys of Nottingham (0115 911 0555) and Raeburn Fine Wines in Edinburgh (0131 343 1159) sell Pichler's 1997 and (shortly) 1998 wines. The 1998s will also be available from Noel Young Wines in Cambridgeshire (01223 844744) and Seckford Wines in Ipswich (01394 446622). Prices start from about pounds 11.50, though the best wines are much more expensive. If you feel rich enough, Pichler's Riesling and Gruner Veltliner from the Kellerberg vineyard, one of the area's best, are both memorable - especially in 1998.
Knoll's wines are also available from Seckford and Raeburn, while Prager is available only from Morris & Verdin (0171 357 8866), who brought it into the country. They sell the Prager Rieslings, from the fantastic Klaus and Achleiten vineyards (both about pounds 22), plus an extraordinary Chardonnay Auslese 1998 (about pounds 18) with amazing layers of candied citrus fruit. A great dessert wine. They are not selling Prager's Gruner Veltliner, but if you shout at them long and loudly enough they may change their minds.
For Hirtzberger's wines, from the most westerly of the Wachau's great vineyard areas, go to Ben Ellis Wines in Surrey (01737 842160). They are selling the 1998s now, with a first tranche mostly sold out and a second arriving in September. Their Gruner Veltliner Honivogl Smaragd (pounds 20.50) is huge and honeyed, though its 15 per cent alcohol, a result of hot weather in the autumn, is slightly intimidating; Riesling Singerriedel Smaragd (pounds 27.75) is a mere 14 per cent and possesses wonderful perfume and profound complexity of flavour.
Outside this group, there are two other options worth mentioning in the Wachau. One is Nikolaihof, an organic producer based in a huge house of great antiquity: the bottling line occupies the site of a Roman cemetery. I don't think they coped with the tricky 1998 vintage as well as my Famous Four, but their 1997 was top-notch. Look for it at Raeburn, Bibendum (0171 916 7070) and The Wine Society (01438 741177).
The final option is the co-operative Freie Weingartner Wachau (FWW), whose 770 members control about 40 per cent of the Wachau - including parcels in some of the best vineyards. Grapes come into a spanking-new winery in Durnstein for vinification, and are sold here by a wholly-owned subsidiary. The wines may have a single vineyard name or, if blended from different sites, the name "Terrassen Thal Wachau".
The FWW has a number of stockists for at least some of their wines. Ring 0181 786 8161 for details or, if you live in London, head along to two shops that sell everything: Philglas & Swiggott, in Battersea (0171 924 4494) and Bouquet Wines in Chelsea (0171 351 9623). FWW wines start at much lower prices than my Famous Four, and the cheaper wines are not to be sneered at.
Before leaving the subject, I can't resist urging you to visit the Wachau - the valley is ravishingly beautiful. Fly to Vienna, hire a car and make the drive in about two hours. Stay at the Land-Haus Bacher in Mautern (00 43 2732 82937); the food and wine is excellent. It's a short drive to the major vineyards. And it's said to be particularly lovely in autumn.
But it's still summer and we need refreshing beverages to drink without the expenditure of too much money or thought. Here's a threesome that should do the trick. First, Bianco di Sicilia 1997, La Torricella (pounds 3.49, Majestic). This is pleasant picnic stuff made with a combination of Greganico and Cattarato grapes. Second, Kendermanns Dry Riesling 1998 (pounds 4.49, widely available from Oddbins, Wine Rack and elsewhere), a "new-style" German from the Pfalz. With just 11.5 per cent alcohol and light, refreshing lime flavours, this is a good summery aperitif. Third, for seekers after soft drinks: any of the single-variety apple juices sold by Orchard, Hive and Vine (01922 867279). They all cost pounds 2.15 for 75cl, all that I've tasted are absolute
To drink now
Low-priced fizz from the New World competes only with the sort of Champagne you wouldn't drink anyway. But two give a lot of Champagne a good run for its money. My favourite is Pelorus 1994, from Cloudy Bay in Marlborough; the current vintage is richly elegant, probably the best sparkling wine produced outside France. Roederer Quartet NV from Mendocino County is a lighter style with nice biscuity flavours. Majestic sells both at pounds 15.99 and pounds 14.99 respectively; a 20 per cent
discount on six bottles lowers the numbers to pounds 12.79 and pounds 11.99. You'll also find Pelorus at Justerini & Brooks (0171 493 8721) for a surprisingly low pounds 14.50.Reuse content