Dry stone walls are the familiar face of the Wachau. Now is the time to get the walls back in shape. We visit with the Mang family as they go about it.
Florian and Heinrich Mann kneel beside a huge pile of stones. Which ones fit together? How do we avoid any gaps? Obviously something you can’t look up in a book. Building a dry stone wall is a technique that takes many winters’ practice to master. This is the time of the year when the Wachau’s vintners tend to the task.
A dry stone wall is built by hand. With heavy gloves and a hammer. Alone, you don’t get very far. “Three of us working together need a week for this 250-square-foot wall. At best,” Heinrich Mang reports. He is flanked by his son Florian, a student at the Klosterneuburg College of Viticulture and already working steadily at the family winery. There are still a few things to learn: “I reach for ten stones before I find the right one. My father gets it right the first time,” Florian says through a grin.
Getting stones to fit together perfectly is all about picking the right ones. Because no mortar or cement is used to strengthen the wall. The stones by themselves do the job, with the added benefit that rainwater drains easily.
At the very front, and in full view, are the best-looking stones, make for an even finish. These are stones with a face – or G’sicht as they say here in their Wachau dialect. Sometimes you have to reach for a hammer to smooth the surface. Like a sculptor who looks for the shape in the block, the mason gives the stone its face.
Why are the Mangs building a dry stone wall, here in the Steinriegl vineyard at Weißenkirchen? It’s part of Florian Mang’s newest project. He wants to plant Neuburger, an ancient variety that used to be highly popular in the Wachau. “I like the idea of having a very typical indigenous variety on offer, besides Grüner Veltliner and Riesling. To bring an old variety back to life is a cool thing. I want to prove that it pays off,” the young vintner explains. The proving grounds – or better said, the proving slope – is roughly 12 hectares in size. The father-and-son team are planting an initial 300 Neuburger vines. A manageable number for trying out something new.
Like the dry stone walls, people like the Mang family are typical for the Wachau. The family is the winery’s life-blood. You can tell that everyone has found their unique role at this place. “Manghof” is not, by the way, just anywhere: the winery, one of the finest in Weißenkirchen, is under monument protection. Hildegund Mang is congenial hostess at this house that regularly fills with guests as temperatures rise. Hildegund tends to three double rooms and a holiday apartment. Her guest book is replete with personal anecdotes and words of gratitude, compliments like “the best apricot jam in the Wachau”. Or referring to how handsomely the inner courtyard is planted with stunning flowers, which every summer day take an hour of Hildegund Mang’s time to water. But she enjoys tending to the flowers. Just like the men-folk, who take care of the vines.