We look for stones that have a ‘face’. Only some of the grey rocks do and they will get pride of place in the drystone wall we are building. It is a cold but sunny day in early December, and I have joined the vineyard team of Weingut Jamek in the Wachau, Austria. The men work in the vineyards all year but clear winter days are spent repairing, rebuilding and even constructing new drystone walls. We are on one of the terraces of the storied Achleiten vineyard and we are busy analysing rocks.
The stones don’t come from the vineyard. The local Gföhler gneiss is considered a little too crumbly, so granite boulders quarried in nearby Waldviertel are used. We pick rocks that look suitably large and heavy, lift them onto the wall, turn them this way and that, see which side is snug and smooth, and at which angle there is a better fit. Often we move the stones along the wall: we know they are right but their perfect spot is yet to appear. Sometimes it takes the deft knock of a mallet to wedge a rock into place, others magically fit and lock into each other.
As to whether a stone fits, the foreman Miro’s word is final. His judgement is central when it comes to placing the large cornerstones. I watch in awe as he sizes up a boulder then lands his sledgehammer at the exact spot to make it split with even surfaces that will ensure the soundness of the wall. The work takes strength, skill and judgement. And you need to concentrate on the surface and shape of these granite rocks and how they might sit alongside and on top of each other. After a while you get a sense for the ‘right’ stones even though they are anything but uniform. The pace is slow in what seems to be a giant, unwieldy and primal puzzle.
A string stretched between two wooden slats is our guide for the straightness, raised at intervals as the wall grows; sometimes one of the men uses a spirit level. We let no stone slope forward and I am surprised how strong and solid this wall without mortar is. It has to be strong in order to retain the weight of a whole new terrace. ‘The walls are made stable by their own weight and the fact that they are constructed placing the stones with as much surface area pressed together as possible,’ explains Dr Herwig Jamek.
As the wall is built up, it is backfilled with soil and stones. Here, a compact wheel loader makes the work easier. It is also used for bringing the large boulders up to the terrace. I think of the monumental effort it must have taken to build these narrow ledges in the first place. Terraces have enabled the cultivation of steep hillsides where nothing but the vine would thrive. How precious a crop it was becomes evident when I take in the myriad vineyard steps along even this short stretch of river. I can only imagine the sweat, strength and determination that have shaped this landscape so dramatically.
In the Wachau, 43% of vineyards are terraced. Held together by ancient drystone walls that were built by hand from the crumblier local gneiss, they were first documented in the 11th century. Most of those still standing today date from the 17th century. Maintaining them is a life’s work, not only here but also in the Douro, in Saxony, in the Mosel and Ahr, in Cornwall and in Burgundy. Jamek tells me: ‘Josef Jamek bought the Ried Klaus vineyard in 1959 and spent 30 years renewing the terrace walls with his men. We are doing the same in the Ried Achleiten. For the first part of the project it took 17 years to build 17 walls; we finished in 2015. Now we have moved to this part of the vineyard and will probably spend the next 20 years working here. Progress is slow, everything is done by hand, and my crew can only do this work when there is nothing else to do in the vineyard.’
The cost is immense: creating one square metre of wall costs roughly 350 euros. Jamek also emphasizes that the drystone walls have a huge ecological role to play as habitat for beneficial wildlife, not least the Wachau’s famous emerald lizard, Smaragdeidechse, that lends its name to the region’s most prestigious wine.
As the winter sun sets, I consider the few courses of stone we added to this wall today, how natural and right they look. I hope the stones will still sit here long after I am long gone, and that future generations will rejoice as much as I do in the filigree, profound and almost eternal wines that grow here. As I sip a glass later that evening, I raise it to all those who stacked stones through the centuries.
*Handbuch Trockensteinmauern, Wein & Obstbauschule Krems, Zweite Auflage 2009.
German-born but London-based, Anne Krebiehl MW is a freelance wine writer and lecturer. She is the contributing editor for Austria, Alsace, Burgundy and England for US Wine Enthusiast Magazine and also publishes widely in trade and consumer publications. Her first book, The Wines of Germany was published in 2019.