Wine Wednesday: Austria’s Danube Valley
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So far in our Wine Wednesday #WineWednesday series we’ve visited regions in both the Northern and Southern Hemispheres, in the Old World and the New. Today we head to the land of Von Trapps and wiener schnitzel to visit one of Europe’s most stunning wine regions, Austria’s dramatic Danube Valley.
Less than an hour from the stately, bustling boulevards of Vienna lies a land of vertiginous vineyards, ancient castle ruins, baroque abbeys, apricot orchards, fairytale villages and some of the best restaurants in Austria: the Danube Valley.
This winding river valley was once one of Europe’s main trade superhighways, and the medieval fortresses that dot its steep hillsides bear witness to its historical importance to this region – as do the vineyards that stretch along its banks, some of which have been cultivated since Roman times.
Vienna will be your jumping off point. Its international airport is a hub for Austrian Airlines and Niki, but it is served by airlines in all the major alliances including Air Berlin and British Airways in Oneworld; Air France and Alitalia in SkyTeam, and Lufthansa, LOT, Swiss and Turkish in Star Alliance. It’s located about 10 miles from the city center, or about a 20-minute drive.
Your best bet is to rent a car and self-drive out to the Danube Valley town of Krems in the Wachau region of the Valley, which is about 45 minutes beyond Vienna, to start your trip. Most of the major agencies are at the airport including Avis, Budget, Hertz, Europcar and Sixt.
Fortresses, Abbeys and Troubadours
Much of the winemaking activity in the Danube is centered around a region called the Wachau, which includes the three main towns of Spitz, Mautern and Duernstein. All three are pretty, but Duernstein is by far the prettiest and most romantic, though it does get touristy in summer. Its storybook buildings and church nestled on a plot of land between the rolling curve of the river and the jagged hills that rise up almost immediately from the riverbank, providing a spectacular backdrop.
Visitors can hike up from the town to the ruins of the fortress that used to guard it perched on the cliff top. According to legend, it was here that Richard the Lionheart was imprisoned by the evil Duke Leopold on his way back from the Crusades until Richard’s faithful troubadour Blondel found him by singing a song up to the castle ramparts and listening for Richard to sing the second verse back to him.
You can even stay at a charming little inn in town named after the troubadour called Sanger Blondel Gasthof. The area’s other two nicest hotels are also here, including the beautiful riverside Hotel Richard Lowenherz named after the imprisoned king himself, and the old-world luxurious Hotel Schloss Dürnstein at the western end of town. Both hotels have gourmet restaurants with huge terraces overlooking the river, and serve regional specialties like juicy Waldviertel duck roasted with apples and served with classic spaetzel and cabbage.
Across the river, the town of Mautern is a little lower key and has some great affordable options. The Ad Vineas guesthouse is run by the same family as the Nikolaihof winery (see below), which is also home to one of Austria’s best-known restaurants where you can taste dishes featuring the area’s other famous summer crop, apricots. Landhaus Bacher is the other gourmet must-dine restaurant (there’s also a little hotel) in town thanks to two chefs who are widely lauded as some of the best in Austria.
Farther west along the Danube are a couple more historical sights to pique your imagination. The ruins of Aggstein Castle perch dramatically like an eagle’s aerie of stone and iron on a sheer rock wall that rises up almost vertically from the river. The winding road up there is an adventure, so don’t shortchange yourself on time, and plan to have lunch at the traditional Austrian restaurant in the castle yard. Then head farther west to the baroque architectural gem of Melk Abbey, one of the best-known abbeys in the world thanks to features like a chapel practically covered in gold leaf, an extensive collection of rare books, and gorgeous gardens. You might also recognize it as the setting of The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco.
If you’ve had your fill of historical splendor, head a little north from the Wachau to the neighboring Kamptal where you can stay at the ultra-contemporary Loisium Wine & Spa and Resort in the town of Langenlois. The resort includes an Aveda Spa and a gourmet restaurant (here you can get breakfast and dinner included in your room rate at a significant discount, as well as an interactive wine museum and tasting room on the property called the Wine Cellar World.
One of the great ways to see the whole region, but especially the towns along the river is to bicycle along the paths that line both banks. That way you can stop whenever you want to have a snack, try a tasting at a wine bar or heuriger as the informal wine gardens and bars here are called, and just drink in the scenery.
But let’s get to the real reason to come to the Danube Valley, and that’s to taste the world-class wine that is produced here.
The main varietals made here are crisp, citrusy Gruner Veltliners and minerally, powerful Rieslings, both of which are produced on a spectrum ranging from bone-dry to syrupy sweet.
In Duernstein, you can get sample a range of the region’s wines (and get another great view of the river at the cozy Alter Klosterkeller heuriger. Otherwise, you can also just walk up the main street in town and stop in at any of the heurigen along the alleys. You can tell that these are taverns by the wreath of green branches that traditionally marks their entrance.
Between the towns of Krems and Duernstein are two of Austria’s most-lauded wineries. FX Pichler make a full range of both Gruners and Rieslings that serve as benchmarks for the high-quality wines that this region is capable of producing with vineyard-specific wines that are an education in a glass about the area’s various terroirs. Equally significant is Emmerich Knoll, another small winery whose range of wines can teach you practically everything you need to know about winemaking in the area and both noble varietals that predominate here.
If you’re interested in biodynamics, no visit to the area would be complete without a stop at Nikolaihof, located in Mautern. The winery is actually a complex of old buildings that includes a restaurant, and sits on a spot that has been in use, first as a Roman army camp and later as a church complex, for over 2,000 years. The family that owns it pioneered biodynamic winemaking in Austria back in the 1970’s hearkening to a more environmentally sensitive and labor-intensive form of agriculture whose care is evident in the delicate and distinctive wines they make.
Head up into the hills south of town to Geyerhof, another biodynamic winery whose winemaker is actually sisters with the former winemaker at Nikolaihof and who also helped pioneer biodynamics in the area. Don’t be fooled, though, the wines here are made in their own individual style and should provide a fascinating counterpoint to what you taste at Nikolaihoff.
If you do head up to the Loisium and Langenlois, stop along the way at Hirsch to taste wines from this part of the Danube Valley and note the different characteristics of grapefruit and tropical fruits, and even a hint of ginger and spice in some.
With breathtaking hillside vineyards, castle ruins, gourmet restaurants and more than its fair share of history, Austria’s Danube Valley is one of Europe’s premier yet understated wine regions, and its proximity to Vienna makes it a great destination for a day (or several) of wine-tasting on your next trip to Europe.
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