Another two year wait, and another group of relieved wine enthusiasts have made it to Vienna!
Fliss (Tim’s wife) is writing this blog, wild horses would not keep me from visiting Austria, a country whose wines I love.
We convened at the Penta Hotel in Vienna on Wednesday night, some of us having flown in that afternoon, others having arrived in Vienna a while earlier to enjoy its wonderful culture and ambience. A first night dinner at Gasthaus Woracziczky set the scene fabulously, with lovely wines and delicious food. As is usual on first nights some of the time was taken up with identifying whether you had been on tour before with your neighbour, and many happy reminiscences ensued.
On Thursday morning we had a reasonably civilised start time. At 8.45am we were all on the coach, which took us east, past the airport, and into the flat lands that neighbour Hungary. In the middle of this flat expanse is a very ‘flat’ lake – Neusiedl. As we were to learn, this shallow body of water is vital for the local wines – the series of 40 mini salt lakes, just centimetres deep, that surround it impart a mineral character to the wines, while its humidity ensures almost guaranteed conditions for the production of botrytised wines every year.
Our first visit was to Salzl, a family winery in the town of Illmitz, or rather on its outskirts, having outgrown the traditional family home. Christoph, the son of Joseph and Heribert, is the third generation of winemakers, his grandfather having decided to move from traditional mixed farming of some vines, some animals and some crops to focus on wine in the 1960s. They now own 100 hectares of vines around the lake, and as the beautiful winery built in 2008 indicates, they are making a very good business from making some extremely good wines.
In the white wine barrel cellar the family had set up a slide show that was really useful to explain to us the local area, images of salt crusted dried out lakes were not what we were expecting to see! This is a land of surprisingly low rainfall, sheltered by the hills of Leithaberg to the West, and has 2,000 sunshine hours a year – comparable to sunny Marlborough in New Zealand!
The light sandy gravelly soils are ideal for Bordeaux varieties, and more importantly the Austrian variety Zweigelt (a cross between Blaufränkisch and Sankt Laurent), which is their main focus.
We started our tasting with a very attractive rosé, and a two Grüner Veltliner wines that demonstrated how extremely versatile this variety can be – the first fruity and fresh, the second made from low yielding old vines, far more concentrated and softened by some time in older oak barriques.
We then moved onto the Zweigelts and were taken through the range of styles it can achieve – the first demonstrating its typical sour cherry, herbs and spices with soft tannins, the second a Reserve wine that had spent time in oak, altogether bigger and more complex and worth a bit of ageing. The final Zweigelt was Sacris, grapes come from a single vineyard, the wine spends 18 months in new French oak, and the 2018 vintage we were tasting was a very serious wine – its concentrated fruit and firm tannins should evolve beautifully over the next few years to deliver something very special. At a similar quality level we tasted the 3-5-8 Merlot Cabernet Sauvignon blend, which they have made since 1993. This was fascinating – definitely tasted those Bordeaux varieties, but with ripeness and freshness that I think puts it beside top cool climate new world wines.
We rounded off our tasting with their ‘Golden Finesse’, a sweet wine made from Scheurebe (a variety we met in Germany), that had lovely honeyed, dried fruits with a super herbal twist.
From Illmitz we skirted the lake to the western shores, and the City State of Rust. My history knowledge is not secure, but this was granted its status by Leopold in the 17th Century in return for a considerable quantity of its wine, which even then was famous. It’s a tiny town of just 1800 inhabitants (inflated by tourists during the summer) and is exquisitely pretty, with storks nesting above the chimney pots (on thoughtfully provided platforms), a mix of medieval and romance architecture, and traditional wineries leading off the town square.
We had lunch in one such building, taken over by the Hofgassl restaurant. In the balmy temperatures and under blue skies, it was glorious to sit outside and enjoy a three course meal with a super selection of wines.
As we finished, we were joined by Heidi Schrock, one of the most famous winemakers in Austria. Since the 1980s she has produced superb wines from the 10 hectares of land that has been in her family for three centuries. Now working with her twin sons, Johannes (the winemaker) and Georg (the viticulturalist), she continues to promote the wines of Rust, and her own personal passion for the Furmint variety (of Tokay fame).
Before we went to the tasting, Heidi took us on a walk around the town, describing the history and pointing out the different styles of architecture – many of the buildings were exquisitely pretty. It helped us to understand the deep cultural background to these wines, and the significance of wine in Austrian history.
In the entrance hallway of the winery we sat at a long table, and tasted a lovely flight of wines, from grape varieties we rarely drink – but should! Heidi and Johannes described the challenges of winemaking in the area, particularly for the late harvested botrytised grapes, which may not be harvested until November, and require a high level of selection in the vineyard. In 2019 starlings ate almost the entire crop of grapes destined to make botrytised wines!
Our tasting started with three dry whites, a Weissburgunder (Pinot Blanc), Muskateller and Furmint, all from 2021 each had distinctive flavours with great acidity – great by themselves or with food. The red Blaufränkisch/Sankt Laurent blend was a very foody wine, with cherry and berry fruits.
We finished with four sweet wines, an Auslese Furmint, a Beerenauslese Welschriesling, and two Ruster Ausbruchs – botrytised wines that can only be made in Rust. The second of these was a 1996 vintage, an incredible privilege to taste.
We were so sorry to leave the hospitality of this lovely family, but Heidi had to go to be interviewed on Austrian television, regarding the low levels of the Neusiedl lakes and the impact this may have on winemaking. We strolled back to the coach and were back in Vienna soon after 6.30pm, some of us heading out to high culture, others anticipating a bit of a rest. But all agreed it had been a perfect first day.