Why Austria? - Part 3

Why Austria? - Part 3

30th Jul 2011

By James Lawrence

Another beautiful morning, another roll call from Christian, our AWMB group leader who rejoined us for the final part of the tour. This would be our last full day in Austria and the organisers had definitely left the best till last. Today we would feast on a smorgasbord of delights: a tasting at Domäne Wachau, a river cruise along the Danube before lunch and then a farewell party in Vienna.

Apparently there would be a host of awards given tonight, but as far as I was concerned the marketing team had already won the coveted prize for the best organised trip. I had never seen such precision in my life; these guys should run Britain's NHS. Bound to be an improvement!

Departure this morning was scheduled for 8:00am - thankfully I was forgiven for arriving at the coach at 8:03. Before we started our tour through the Wachau region of Austria we took a brief detour to visit the Loisium or Wine Museum in Langenlois. The wine museum sits on the site of a family co-operative producing some decent sparkling wines, and is the latest addition to their family concern.

Sadly we only had an hour to experience the museum’s impressive themed ride through wine making, whilst our poor guide (a woman with a considerable amount of experience and age on her side) became rather flustered with the pace of the tour. We would arrive at an exhibition only to be told – "please, we must to be moving on, there is no time." This approach would surely take the fun out of cooking, love-making and other time consuming activities.

Undoubtedly, the wine museum is worth a trip for wine lovers and the yet to be initiated, but it is worth more than a hour as you need at least half a day to do the museum justice. Time was pressing so we dashed back into the coach and set out for Domäne Wachau. This is what we had really come on this trip for, to sample some of the finest Riesling in the world, and take a boat ride on the Danube.

The Wachau is the leading wine region of Niederosterreich(Lower Austria) and together with the aforementioned Kremstal and Kamptal in part 2 it produces the majority of Austria's best dry Rieslings and Gruner Veltliners. Other regions can produce good examples but the Wachau is the true leader and this is unlikely to change anytime soon, at least in my opinion.

We arrived at the estate to be given a tutored tasting by Roman Horvath MW, probably the leading Wachau expert in Austria, if not Europe. We tasted what was undoubtedly the finest wines on the trip so far - a collection of Rieslings, including some from Domäne Wachau, that were generally sublime. The tasting confirmed what I already suspected – the Wachau's Rieslings are generally similar in style to Alsace rather than Germany; full and powerful, with a marvelous concentration, purity of fruit within a vibrant structure.

Austria's most famous variety, Gruner Veltliner, judging by the tasting also excels in the Wachau, with great depth and power to its peppery fruit character. The wines varied enormously in 'pitch' - some wines were quite fat and textured whilst others had a strong minerality and nerve; light, stylish and very aromatic.

After a tour of the Domäne we were treated to a boat trip along the Danube, giving us an unrivaled view of the Wachau's finest vineyards and villages. Enjoying the wines whilst our hosts pointed out the properties or sites we were passing along the river really enhanced my understanding of this intensely beautiful wine region.

The first lesson concerned the quality system in the area. There are three levels within the Wachau system of ripeness: Steinfeder, Federspiel and Smaragd, with the best quality consistently from Smaragd. Stenfeder, for example, produces light pleasant wines but with little ageing potential. Interestingly, there is no Burgundian-style Cru system, where individual vineyards are classified according to the quality of their terroir. Instead, wines from leading vineyards or Crus can sometimes be used on the bottle rather than the village. This piecemeal approach was a cause of considerable frustration for the majority of winemakers I spoke to, who are constantly calling for a more regulated approach. Watch this space?

We sailed past the prized vineyards of Hochrain and Singerriedel, and continuing further downstream we encountered the favoured steep slate terraces running from the village of Durnstein. Amongst the ocean of high quality, the Lagler, Jamek and Schmelz wines stood out as being particularly impressive. Until this week I had considered Alsace and the Mosel the Holy Grail of Rieslings but this spectacular (if brief) tour of Austria had given me pause for thought. Certainly, the top wines more than held their own against their counterparts in Alsace and Germany. Some were arguably even more complex...but keep it quiet in case the French get too jealous.

Lunch was served at a local restaurant with great views of the River. The tour was drawing to an end but we still had the 3 hour bus journey to Vienna to look forward to :) Even with that to look forward to, the highly-anticipated event was in fact tonight's farewell party at the famous Prater theme park in Vienna. All the various groups would converge on the Prater for a final farewell, not to mention a quiz on Austrian wine. Some of the less fortunate had flights at 6:00am the following morning; mercifully mine was in the afternoon.

Those members of the group who suffered from vertigo slightly regretted taking a trip on the Prater Wheel, essential if you have time as the views of the city are magnificent. It is one of the oldest Ferris wheels in Europe, a fact which truly disturbed some of my neighbours. The AWMB kindly organised a ride before the party began, a great opportunity to compare stories and catch up with the group in its entirety. They had manged to run no less than 4 consecutive tours, all which seemingly went without a hitch. It's no lie, Austrians are the most efficient race of people in the world.

The party was a great success, other than consuming vast amounts of Gruner Veltliner I took pause to consider what we had seen. Until this week, Austria had been a curiosity, a fabled source of great Rieslings and Gruner Veltliners but rarely glimpsed on a wine list or a wine merchant's shelves. The AWMB have gone to great lengths to increase their presence in the UK, US and Asian markets and this is to be applauded. To ignore Austria would be to miss out some of the finest white wines in the world, not to mention many good reds. The tour had put Austria's wine into context, they say Austrians are expert marketers and yes, I was convinced. In fact, I was in no hurry to go home.

As it turns out, Austrian Airlines were in no hurry to send me home either. The afternoon flight to London was oversold, so I spent an extra night in the Hilton Vienna. It's a good job my business partner is an understanding woman.

It's true what they say: be careful what you wish for, you may get it!

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