From there it was on to the lovely town of Eisenstadt where we sampled the regional specialties of Burgenland at the Palace Esterhazy, the country estate of this noble Austro/Hungarian family.
As we drove through the countryside it was fascinating to see very few power lines, the occasional series of windmills, and fields patterned in strips of corn, wheat, and grape vines. Evidently the inheritance laws in Austria, like in Burgundy, are such that land is divided among the children. The result is long, narrow patches owned by different folks. One particular grower had a plot of land that was one row wide by one kilometer long. The vines themselves are planted right up to the road side and behind and adjacent to the houses. I saw many houses where you could reach your arm out the garage window and pick grapes if you were of a mind.
Then it was on to the Leithaberg area which just received a DAC designation. This is the culmination of a program driven by the AWMB to define a set of standards, production processes and quality level similar to AOC in France. There are currently six, and the AWMB’s goal is 16…and I do believe they’ll get there soon.
After that we did a tasting of sweet wines at the Nationalparkzentrum Neusiedlersee in Ilmitz which is dedicated to the natural history and ornithology of this special place which is unique in Europe. This type of area is known as a Steppe Lake and is the home for some 300 species of birds.
Dinner that night was in Neuseidel am See where I was taught how to say cheers in Japanese, Korean, Chinese and Malay at the fabulous Nyikospark Restaurant.
Thursday began with a lecture and guided tasting by Suzanne Staggl of AWMB on the wines of Niederosterreich (Lower Austria). The tasting was in a spectacular setting…the banquet hall of the Schloss Hof which is the summer palace build by Prinz Eugen who also built the spectacular Belvedere Palace in Vienna. There we sampled the wines of this region and I had the opportunity to meet Heidemarie Fischer of Pfaffl who is just beginning to import her family’s wines to America through Palm Bay. We also were treated to a short course in how to make Wiener Schnitzel by Suzanne Staggl and Barbara Arbeithuber (who was the guiding hand making the trip such a success) and got to dine on our own creations. This was followed by a tour of the palace and stroll around the fabulous seven levels of gardens which have recently been restored to their 18th century glory
On to the Kremstal, and the city of Krems, in the center of the lower Austria (Niederösterreich region which is Austria’s version of Napa Valley…well, except for the fact that the Wachau part of the region is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site. Krems has a beautifully preserved old town (Altstadt) with historic churches dating back to the 1200’s and delightfully decorated homes and a village lifestyle that apparently hasn’t changed for centuries. Winding staircases, buildings at crazy angles, all accented by window boxes full of geraniums, cafes serving mélange (Austrian Cappuccino) and strudel, and some of the most pleasant people I’ve met in Europe.
We were then taken up to one of the literal and figurative highlights of the trip…a visit to Stift Göttweig, an 11th century monastery that has the most spectacular view of the entire Danube valley and prime wine regions. From there you can see the whole valley and get a sense of what makes the wines from there so special that maps can only hint at. From the Pannonian Plain and Vienna to the east and south the Danube winds its way up the foothills of the Alps. Each of the wine regions in turn get more mountainous as you go west from Kamptal to Kremstal to Wachau with the vines being planted right up the slopes.
At the monastery we had the opportunity to sample another 20 wines served by the winemakers themselves and get a first hand sense of the passion they put into their product. We tasted Grüners and Rieslings from Kremstal, Kamptal, and Traisental DAC’s and tasted the fruits of the AWMB’s collaborative push with the producers to create regional standards that will define quality for this area long into the future. Of particular note to me was meeting Huber, which is one of the better distributed wines in the U.S. The tasting was held in a fabulous hall with cathedral ceilings painted with frescos from the 1700’s and a view of the Danube Valley that was nothing short of awe-inspiring.
We moved on from there to the town of Mautern in the Wachau for a dinner that my words here simply can’t describe. The proprietor/chef Lisl Wagner-Bacher runs a Michelin Two Star and Gault Millau Three Toque temple to gastronomy, and our group took over the entire restaurant for the night. Every dish left us speechless as they came in course after course of creative reinterpretations of Viennese classics from Tafelspitz Raviolini, Perch dumplings and a raspberry tart fresh from the oven that was to die for. All of course were paired with wines carefully selected by the AWMB and the Bacher’s 5 person sommelier staff to enhance the culinary creations. Turns out Willi used to be Managing Director of Domäne Wachau and had squirreled away 500 bottles of the 99 Loibenberg Riesling. There are now only 489 left! The evening finished with a special treat of fresh local cherry juice topped with an almond meringue…Yowza!