Rediscovering winemaking in Austria


18th Dec 2017 Travel

Rediscovering winemaking in Austria

In the picturesque valleys outside Vienna—a land of renowned Rieslings and Grüners—the next generation of winemakers is bringing the Old World into the future.

I was sitting in an ornate dining room eating a breakfast of the Hapsburg Empire: cheeses, meats, smoked fish, black bread with apricot jam. Chandeliers hung from the ceiling. Framed landscapes adorned the walls. Outside, the Danube flashed in the morning sun.

Schloss Dürnstein was built in 1630. Like the rest of Wachau—a rural region some 50 miles west of Vienna that stretches for 20 miles along the Danube—the castle and Dürnstein village look like they belong in the middle of the last millennium. With 47 rooms, Schloss Dürnstein is the largest and most luxurious hotel in a valley of inns and guest houses set along narrow streets that slope up from the river.

Otti, a server who’s been working at the hotel for nearly four decades, appeared holding a slim stack of newspapers. “Is that today’s International New York Times?” I asked, having recognised the typeface from across the room.

She gently put a copy on my table. I glanced at the date. “But this is from yesterday,” I said.

“For us,” she replied tellingly, “today is yesterday.”

Breakfast at Schloss Dürnstein

The day before, I’d accompanied Toni Bodenstein through the neighbouring village of Weissenkirchen, where he’s the owner of the renowned Prager winery. When he was Bürgermeister (mayor), Bodenstein supervised the installation of the handsome new Wachau Museum in a 16th-century building. He showed me historical paintings of Weissenkirchen, then pointed out the same houses when we walked around the town. “If you take a photo today and compare, nothing has changed,” he explained.

The Wachau valley was designated a Unesco World Heritage site in 2000, and has been famous since the 1950s for producing some of the world’s most compelling white wines.

The soaring popularity of Grüner Veltliner, now the country’s signature grape, has shone a new light on the region and given people a fresh reason to visit. Today’s winemakers, chefs and hoteliers are dedicated to preserving the old-world feel of the valley.

Loisium Wine Museum

At Landhaus Bacher in Mautern an der Donau, Lisl Wagner-Bacher has run one of Austria’s most famous kitchens for three decades. Seven years ago, her son-in-law Thomas Dorfer took control and revamped the restaurant’s recipes. “The Wachau is slow-moving,” Dorfer admitted. “But to stay at this level, you have to keep reinventing what you do, even if it’s subtle.” Landhaus Bacher still serves food that is unreservedly Austrian. For dinner, I had a terrine of duck liver with rhubarb jelly and a salad from the garden, followed by local pike perch in parsley sauce: classic dishes that Emperor Franz Josef would have recognised. The cuisine was airy, refreshing, and intensely local.

“We’re in wine country, not a big city like Vienna,” Dorfer reminded me. “We want you to take your time, and forget life around you.”

Another evening, I visited Nikolaihof, a winery, restaurant and inn just a few streets away. In 1971, it became one of the first producers to embrace biodynamic viticulture. This process involves organic agricultural practices—growing grapes without chemical treatments—but also more mystical ones, among them burying a manure-stuffed cow’s horn in the soil.

Nikolaihof’s wines have always been formidable, but 38-year-old Nikolaus Saahs Jr, the older of the owners’ two sons, has lifted them even higher. One Riesling was the first Austrian bottling to earn 100 points from leading US wine critic Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate.

The property itself is arranged around a Celtic holy site. A deconsecrated 12th-century church has been converted into offices for the family, who live nearby in the Nikolaihof section.

Dining at Pulker's Heuriger

I sat down for dinner under a majestic linden tree, and fell into conversation with Nikolaus Jr and his brother, Martin. Their friends arrived, in from Vienna for the night. Before I could order, we all piled into a car and headed to the family’s terraced vineyard, perched above the Danube, where they’ve built a small wooden hut. Martin ducked inside and emerged with seven bottles, dark bread, and a plate of hams and cheeses. Girlfriends, daughters, and various in-laws joined our group.

We drank crisp Grüner Veltliners and a Klausberg Riesling, made from grapes grown where we were standing, that tasted of pear and orange peel. I could see the evening beginning to settle over the streets of Stein and the lights from the outskirts of Mautern.

“This is nightlife here,” Martin said. “We go to a beautiful spot, we eat and drink some wine, and make a party.”

The Wachau’s traditional feel is even more striking when set against Langenlois, some ten miles north in the Kamptal. Though it has its share of historic churches and homes, many of its buildings are surprisingly cool. Acute-angled terraces jut from glass-and-steel cubes. Undulating roofs and diagonal lines impose themselves on the landscape. Works of art line a three-and-a-half mile path that threads through world-renowned vineyards. It includes sculptures of a giant earthworm, a pair of scissors, and steel grapes designed to oxidise and streak with each rainfall.

Schloss Dürnstein

Some of the area’s wineries and hotels also revel in this contemporary aesthetic. The starkly geometric Weingut Loimer, set on the site of a former Second World War aeroplane factory, consists of four black boxes scattered across the vineyard like giant pieces of stereo equipment. Loisium Langenlois, where I stayed, looked like it was constructed out of Lego blocks.

That night, I dined with the owner, Willi Bründlmayer, at his ambitious Heuriger. This is a type of local tavern found in and around Vienna that specialises in robust lunch fare and house-made wine.

As we drank a fresh, young Grüner full of minerality and lime, and then a remarkable 2002 Riesling, he explained the cultural geography at work. Unlike the Wachau, the Kamptal looks northward, toward Prague. In design and mindset, the Slavic influence is palpable. “The Wachau is close by, but the countryside is wilder here,” Bründlmayer said. “There’s more sense of risk and adventure.”

That’s also true in terms of viticulture. The region grows Grüner Veltliner and Riesling, but also Chardonnay, and Neuburger— more than 30 grape varieties in all. Bründlmayer, whose wife is French, even produces sparkling wine to satisfy her love of champagne. It was one of the many small choices the town and its residents made with no direct correlation to commerce. Rather, their decisions were aesthetic, emotional, even whimsical. 

Nikolaus (far left) and Martin Saahs (far right) with friends in the vineyards of Nikolaihof winery

 Krems an der Donau, a university town of some 24,000 people and the centre of the Kremstal region, serves as a middle ground between the more traditional Wachau and the forwardthinking Kamptal. It’s just seven miles down the highway from Langenlois. Its young, progressive outlook is an appealing contrast to the town’s breathtaking old buildings, imposing churches, and charming shopfronts.

I had planned to spend all day exploring it. But what had been only mist in Langenlois became a downpour in Krems, so I drove across the river toward the town of Rührsdorf until I saw Pulker’s Heuriger, an informal roadhouse run by Bernd Pulker, a former server at Landhaus Bacher.

Back home, I’d have dismissed this spot as a biker bar. It had a row of deer skulls along one wall, a tired Christmas wreath, and empty wine bottles everywhere. Yet there wasn’t a biker in sight. Instead, it was filled with families. Children sat at picnic tables, laughing and talking as loudly as they wanted while adults ate and drank heartily around them.

Pulker emerged from the kitchen. A tall man in his thirties with a heavy beard and wearing ornate lederhosen. He balanced six or seven plates in his arms, and distributed them with ease. Eventually, he brought me two kinds of sliced sausage, a salad of yellow potatoes in vinegar, and plump beans, each the size of a postage stamp, served cold with chives. I devoured every bite.

Bernd Pulker runs Pulker’s Heuriger, an informal roadhouse in Rossatz

I’d heard stories of Pulker’s enthusiasm for wine, and they proved to be, if anything, understated. Every few moments, he’d appear with a fresh glass and a bottle, and pour me something invariably compelling.

These were wines made for the Heuriger, low in alcohol and thirst-quenching, perfect for a Sunday afternoon. But Pulker is also a collector, and his cellar of 3,500 bottles is renowned in the community. “Guests say, ‘Make me some food and give me a little Henri Jayer Burgundy,’ or whatever it might be,” he said. “And they sit here in shorts and t-shirts and have an unforgettable meal.”

I’d had plenty of fine lunches and dinners over the course of my trip but this was the one I won’t forget. What set it apart, more than anything, was Pulker himself, an oversized presence who embodied the enthusiasm and hospitality of the region.

I can see him now roaring with laughter, looking preposterous yet altogether fitting in his traditional costume, striding toward my table holding up a bottle he’s eager for me to try. I’m pretty sure it’s a Riesling.


Travel tips

SIP Franz Hirtzberger, a 13th-century winery that turns out rich Grüners (hirtzberger.com); F.X. Pichler, a futuristic winery where traditional Grüners rank with the region’s best (fx-pichler.at); Loimer, known for intense Rieslings (loimer.at); Nigl, supremely balanced Rieslings with 50-year life spans (weingutnigl.at); Nikolaihof, pinpoint-precise wines are almost as memorable as dinner in the courtyard (nikolaihof.at); Prager, complex wines (weingutprager.at).

STAY Loisium Wine & Spa Resort Langenlois, doubles from £143 (loisium.com); Schloss Dürnstein, doubles from £187 (schloss.at).

EAT Heurigenhof Bründlmayer, Walterstrasse 14, Langenlois, specialty is deep-fried chicken with potato salad, £15; Landhaus Bacher, Suedtirolerplatz 2, Mautern, specialty is deep-fried caviar (£53); Pulker’s Heuriger, Ruehrsdorfer Kellergasse, Ruehrsdorf, specialty is roast pork (£11).