Wine Wonderland Austria: Part 1

Believe it or not, Austria provides the world with outstanding dry whites with a mineral intensity like no other, gorgeous sweet wines and a range of interesting, often very Burgundian style reds–honestly! Difficult to accept isn’t it, as Austrian wine is so rarely seen in notable quantities outside the father land, but then who could blame the Austrians for keeping their delectable wines to themselves? Although international recognition and appreciation of what the country offers has been slow in coming, as I discovered during a recent trip to this wine wonderland, we don’t know what we have been missing!

I should really start this account of my time in Austria by saying thank you to Willi Klinger. I met Willi, head of the Austrian Wine Marketing board at a conference last year in Italy. He was dazzling everyone with his lovely singing voice and a great rendition of ‘I Did It My Way.’ After chatting over some fantastic Grüner Veltliner I mentioned I had never been to Austria so Willi invited me on their 3 day press tour in May. Nine months later I found myself in the center of Vienna on a Saturday afternoon. A beautiful city, from the little of it I managed to see during the trip.

Willi is a lovely guy, passionately committed to promoting Austrian wine. He surely must win the award for best name in the business–there is and will only ever be one Willi Klinger in the wine world. Marketing is quite the Austrian obsession, as he points out they conned the world into thinking that Beethoven was Austrian and Hitler German!

After a few hours in Vienna our massive group of over 200 journalists, sommeliers, importers and wine buffs gathered at Vienna’s premium vineyard, Rotes Haus on Saturday evening. The city itself, one of the few in Europe, has a lot of land planted to vines for everyday dry whites, and some gems like Rotes Haus. The group would be split into four over the next three days, each touring a diverse section of the wine country. As an Austria virgin I would be in the Wine Wonderland group, incorporating visits to several of the main wine growing regions in Austria, including Burgenland and Wachau.

The surprise of the night was a botrytised wine from Rotes Haus; sadly they only made one barrel of this fabulous field blend. Rotes Haus continue to grow a range of varieties in the same vineyard area and blend the grapes to make a wine of inexact proportions, a bit of Grüner Veltliner here, some Riesling there. In this Varietal-obsessed climate, it was refreshing to try something seldom found today where the wine maker was not too concerned with pure varietal expression. I could not tell you the exact composition of their sweet wine but I can tell you it was outstanding – incredible balance and minerality juxtaposed with honey, marmalade and spice. I would have paid almost any price for another bottle of this wine, so it was tragic they were only able to ferment one barrel. Perhaps we should plan a heist?

In true Austrian fashion we set off at 8:30am from our hotel and woe betide anyone who slept in. One of the most enduring memoirs from this trip will be Christian, our group leader mercilessly pointing at his watch and saying ‘funf minuten! (five minutes to go)

We spent the morning at the Wine Academy in Rust, a great institution that is a European leader in wine education. Willi gave a lecture about our forthcoming trip and the current state of the Austria Wine Industry. Funnily enough, Willi knows every Australian embassy in Asia, as taxi drivers always get the wrong end of his Austrian stick.

Rust is situated at the western edge of lake Neusiedlersee, an area known for its intensely sweet dessert wines. Formerly part of Hungary, it is by the tip of the Burgendland iceberg, one of the country’s largest and most important areas for whites and reds. After our brief visit to Rust we were whisked away to Esterhazy Palace in Eisenstadt. The gorgeous baroque palace was constructed in the late 13th century, and came under ownership of the Hungarian Esterházy family in 1622. Well worth a tour and a great setting for our introduction to the wines of Burgenland.

Reds are a key staple for winemakers in the Burgenland, in addition to the copious amounts of ice-wine produced around lake Neudiedlersee. Heading south into Mittelburgenland and Südburgenland respectively you encounter indigenous grapes St-Laurent, Zweigelt and Blaufränkisch. We spent the afternoon sampling many a Blaufränkisch. from three key appellations in Austria – Mittelburgenland DAC, Eisenberg DAC and Leithaberg DAC. I must admit my previous, albeit limited, experiences of Blaufränkisch left me less than enamored. Often showing aggressive, hard-edged tannin levels, earthy and rustic characters, the grape wasn’t exactly perfect date material. Date this grape and you would never play the guitar again. However, I tasted some wines from Leithaberg that showed real finesse and refinement, much older wines certainly. Perhaps great age is the key for this variety?

I could see Christian looking nervously at his watch so the group knew it was time to head back to lake Neudiedlersee for a boat trip and some sparkling wines courtesy of Szigeti. The lake is a must see for visitors who fancy escaping the confines of Vienna for a day. Sat in the sun, sipping soft, strawberry scented sparkling rose from Szigeti our group was definitely becoming won over by Austria’s charms. I was still skeptical about the reds but by now completely hooked on Gruner and Riesling after drinking far too much on Saturday night.

Next stop was an orgy of Ice Wine at the Weinkulturhaus, a great cultural centre with an impressive selection of Austrian wines for sale. Sweet wines are produced on both sides of the lake, on the western shore around the town of Rust and on the eastern shore around the town of Illmitz. Welschrielsing (no relation to Tom Jones), Pinot Blanc, Muskat Ottonel and Pinot Gris are some of most important white wine grapes.

Austria, like Canada, is renown for the quality of its Ice wine, which can sometimes lean towards cloying sweetness and unctuousness but the best examples offer a remarkable balance and freshness to counterbalance the intense, honeyed sweetness. Ice wine is made from grapes that have been allowed to freeze well whilst still on the vine. The harvest is often done in November/December time after the water has frozen, but crucially not the sugars in the grapes. The grapes are pressed as normal, et voila – a super concentrated must (unfermented juice) is released. We tried over 40 examples at the tasting, the wines of Kracher stood out as being the most impressive. Worth seeking out.

Dinner at a local restaurant rounded off the evening nicely before arriving at our hotel at 10:30pm. By now, I was in dire need of a shower. Still, everyone enjoyed the 40 minute queue to check-in, the poor lone woman at the desk looked terrified when an army of winos stagger in from the bus. Next time I think I’ll stay on the coach.

Part 2 next week: cooking Wiener Schnitzel, the wines of Styria and visiting the Schloss shop at Schloss Hof!

James Lawrence

James Lawrence is a self confessed wine obsessive, passionate about discovering and promoting the lesser known wines and wine regions of the world. He is a frequent contributor to and runs an interactive, community led wine forum, In 2004, he went to study in Bilbao, Northern Spain. Luckily for him, the famous wine region of Rioja was just over an hour away by car. He began to spend a great deal of time there, visiting the wineries in Rioja and speaking to local wine makers. Their passion for the subject and their pride in the wines was infectious. He began to realise what an amazing subject wine is and how wide and complex the world of wine could be. Subsequently James moved into wine retail while finishing his degree, and was hooked. James also enjoys food and travel writing - he lives for Italian and Thai cuisine!

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