“We wanted to take a vacation once a year,” Martin Nigl said, explaining why his family dropped mixed farming of crops and livestock to specialize in wine grapes. “You can’t take a vacation from cows.”
That’s a common theme among the vintners I met during a recent visit to Austria’s wine country. These are family businesses that turned exclusively to wine in the last generation or two, a period roughly from the early 1960s through the 1980s. By specializing, they also began focusing on improving the quality of their wines. So when “The Scandal” hit in 1985, when several larger wine manufacturers were found to be doctoring their product with antifreeze, many of these small, family run wineries were poised to ignite Austria’s current rise to quality.
And what quality! I visited nearly 20 wineries in five whirlwind days, many of them already favorites based on my tastings at home. Every wine I tasted was impeccable and many were exceptional. (Well, okay, I did some random tastings, including on the airplane and in a hotel lounge, which proved that Austria can produce pedestrian wine.) By no means did I visit every top winery, or every wine region – Mittelburgenland and Styria (Steiermark) were too far afield for the time I had.
Most of the wineries are still very much family affairs. Behind a modest door along a street of winemakers – each town has a Weingasse, or wine street, it seems – would be a courtyard that served as the center of a mini-village: home to the winemaker’s family (perhaps a couple generations) as well as the office, tasting room and production facility. Franz Netzl’s compound in Göttlesbrun, in Carnumtum, just southeast of Vienna, was the most impressive I saw, extending from a farmhouse to a modern winery. As families became more prosperous, I was told, they would extend their houses and their cellars back from their homes. So it is quite common in Austria to have these long, narrow properties, often with underground cellars dating back a couple centuries. You wouldn’t know it from the front doors, to be sure.
This wouldn’t be Europe if monks weren’t involved. Schloss Gobelsburg, a large Renaissance mansion on the site of an old castle, is still owned by an order of Cistercian monks that took possession in 1786. Today, Michael Moosburger oversees an operation that produces some of the world’s most stunning white wines, especially Gruner Veltliner and Riesling from the Heiligenstein and Gaisburg vineyards. The Stift Göttweig, a Benedictine monastery that haunts a mountain overlooking the city of Krems along the Danube, owns 26 hectares of vineyards, which are leased to the same management team that runs Weingut Stadt Krems, owned by the citizens of that city.
Austria, of course, is the homeland of Rudolf Steiner, founder of biodynamic agriculture. At Meinklang, on the eastern side of the Neusiedlersee, a large lake that I never saw because of dense fog overhanging Burgenland during my visit, the Michlits family oversees a complete biotope, cultivating ancient grains, produce, cattle and of course wine grapes according to strict biodynamic practices. Werner Michlits handles the winemaking, experimenting with vines that he hasn’t pruned for a decade and fermenting and aging the wines in concrete eggs.
Not all Austrian wineries are ancient or traditional. Anton Bauer in Wagram proudly showed me his laser-operated sorting machine, designed to eliminate inferior grapes before crushing. He was one of the first in Austria to make such an investment, he said, and now only six wineries have one. In Langenlois, in the Kamptal region, I toured a modernist museum that shows visitors the winemaking process from the perspective of the grapes – no, it doesn’t put us through the crusher but we do go back in time through the cellars into a 1924 farmhouse that doesn’t look too much unlike today’s. And some wineries show Austria’s entry into the modern wine world. Leo Hillinger (vintage 1967) and Claus Preisinger (1980), both in Burgenland, have created visually striking, modern wineries that combine technological advancements to make better wine and the commercial savvy needed to sell it.
Over the next several weeks I will post more on my stay in Austria. Unfortunately, it will take me longer to do each post than I spent with the winemakers, but I hope my reports can give a picture, however incomplete, of a thriving wine country that continues to establish itself as a leader in quality and value.
In the meantime, a heartfelt “Fröhe Weinachten” to everyone!