Feeling GrüVe

Jean-Yves Salabaj

Achtung, oenophiles! Austrian wines are on the rise. From Kamptal’s Kellergassen to Wachau’s Weinstube and prime vineyards in between, Anya von Bremzen reports.

Call it love at first sip. The white wine in my glass enticed with suggestions of citrus, peach, and white pepper. It flattered even difficult foods like artichokes and asparagus. Best, it spoke of its origins, of flowering fields under apricot trees in the cool breezes of an Austrian summer. The wine? Grüner Veltliner.

My fancy for Grüner Veltliner—GrüVe for short—began a decade ago in the Wachau Valley, a gorgeous stretch along the Danube known for producing Austria’s greatest whites. Located in Lower Austria, the northeastern state surrounding Vienna, the region is dotted with spectacular Baroque abbeys and storybook hamlets. I feasted on schnitzel, Knödel (dumplings), and apricot strudel and fell not just for GrüVe but for aged Wachau Rieslings, too. These powerful yet refined wines are far drier than the German variety and have all the aromatic finesse of the best Alsatian bottlings. Why hadn’t most Americans ever heard of the Wachau? I wondered.

Well, they’re hearing these days. Austrian whites are darlings of savvy sommeliers, who will tell you that the country’s wine scene is roaring. During visits to Vienna I saw how this coffeehouse mecca has blossomed into Europe’s most winecentric capital—awash in designer wine bars where discussions of terroir are as passionate as soccer arguments in Brazil. I was impressed with the new-style wines from such emerging regions as Styria and Burgenland. Still, it was the classics, the zingy, elegant GrüVes and Rieslings of Lower Austria, that called me back. And so, dreaming of Grüner pastures and primed for bring-back-the-Hapsburgs cuisine, I plotted a long weekend exploring the winegrowing areas of Kamptal, Kremstal, and Wachau.

These neighboring appellations are easily reached from Vienna by driving one scenic hour west, past vineyards and sunflower fields. We started in Kamptal, the largest of the three areas. Long overshadowed by the patrician Wachau, Kamptal is enjoying a Bilbao moment, thanks to the splashy Loisium Hotel, a $24 million wine and spa resort designed by American architect Steven Holl just outside the village of Langenlois. As my companion and I approached, the aluminum-clad complex swaggered into view, a hypermodern mother ship seemingly alighted on these pastoral hills. From the terrace of our modishly streamlined room, we looked out over fledgling vines to red-shingled roofs and a Baroque steeple.

For lunch on our first day we drove 20 minutes south to the Nigl winery, in Kremstal. Nestled among terraced vineyards beneath a castle ruin, the whitewashed dining room with lacy-pillowed chairs was all gemütlichkeit and Grüner Veltliner. Nigl is the Kremstal winery most often mentioned in the same breath as elite Wachau estates. The GrüVes we tasted flaunted Martin Nigl’s signature freshness, perky acidity, and a savory minerality that made them terrific company with the food. Before the crunchy-skinned Junghendl (fried baby chicken) and the behemoth white asparagus, we let loose our cravings for Knödel. An airy bread ball studded with pork cracklings came with a spirited sauerkraut-and-Veltliner sauce. A liver dumpling in a rich amber beef consommé was pure Mitteleuropa.

And ah, what a gracious wine. We were still alert several glasses later, when we returned to Loisium for the popular tour of its 900-year-old stone cellar passages beneath the vineyards. This journey through the winemaking process shuffled us from an elevator designed like a grape press to the fermentation vat to the riddling chamber full of waltzing Champagne bottles. (Karl Steininger, one of the partners in Loisium, produces some of Austria’s best Sekts, or sparkling wines.) The tour finished with a theme park–like retail blast at a souvenir shop crammed with wine gadgets and boutique vinegars in flavors such as quince. It made us crave the local vernacular.

That night at a nearby village we got our fix. Squeezed onto long wooden benches with inebriated winemakers, we slathered black bread with Schmalz and quaffed young garage wines at a Kellergassenfest. Kellergassen are little romantic lanes flanked with working wine cellars that owners open to the public for a festival of food and booze, lasting a few days each summer. “Kamptal has five hundred wineries!” boasted one proprietor. “In a blind tasting you couldn’t tell Kamptal and Wachau wines apart—yet our prices are better and our winemakers are more open-minded!”

Ducking from cellar to cellar, we greeted men dressed in real Kalmuck jackets (19th-century vintner wear), tucked into cabbage strudel and liverwurst, and trailed a traveling band from Salzburg. The musicians made merry, poking one another’s feathered hats with their drumsticks. They took forever tuning their tubas and horns. But when they finally gave forth, you could tell that sober, they’d practically be the Vienna Philharmonic of oompah bands. “Bravo!” one percussionist made me write in my notebook before he sank to the sawdust-covered floor.

The next morning we visited vintner Fred Loimer, a rising Kamptal star whose crisp, bright Grüner Veltliners sell out in a flash at hip Viennese wine shops. Effortlessly stylish in a T-shirt, Loimer looked more like an architect than a farmer. His futuristic château, which he calls Wine Loft, is a bold black cube with an industrial-cool concrete interior built atop a 200-year-old cellar. This sleek minimalism rhymes perfectly with his winemaking style.

Sitting around a cantilevered table, we tasted a $9 GrüVe called Lois, a peppery Loimer Estate Grüner Veltliner Kaferberg, plus a Pinot Noir that showed off Kamptal’s potential for quality reds. The wines combined fruity zing with a restrained elegance. After raising eyebrows by aging GrüVe in oak barriques, Loimer now admits that “international style isn’t right for cool-climate whites.” We were relieved that Loimer and other Kamptal vintners aren’t pumping out overextracted, juiced-up oompahs.

While many wine valleys meander, revealing their charms gradually, the Wachau, with only 3,500 acres of vineyards, packs a visual wallop into a narrow 20-mile stretch of the Danube. Drive it, hike it, cycle it—or take a boat ride, as we did. The vistas unfold like a highlight reel. From river’s edge the hills rise like layer cakes stratified with vineyards. Warm winds from the Hungarian plains blow across some of Austria’s oldest rock formations, giving Wachau GrüVes and Rieslings their ripeness. The goulash of soil types contributes endless nuances in minerality.

Capturing the character of the soil in a bottle with minimum oenological trickery is the approach adopted by the best local producers—Hirtzberger, Jamek, Knoll, F. X. Pichler, Prager. One afternoon we tasted barrel samples at the ur-traditional Weingut Knoll, run by a father-and-son team. Emmerich Knoll Jr. eloquently defined his best wines as the ultimate expression of the three V’s: vineyard, varietal, vintage. Meanwhile, a young oenology major from Napa whispered into my ear: “Man, those slopes, brutal. The labor, awesomely manual. Compared to California the plots are tiny, but the soil varies, like, every nanosecond!”

At Restaurant Loibnerhof, owned by Knoll’s relatives, we had more outsize asparagus and a perfect roast duck with brittle skin and melting flesh that I will dream about for years to come. Ditto Knoll’s ’89 Pfaffenberg Riesling: Bone-dry with bold petroleum notes, it teetered between perverse and sublime. But for the rain that was coming down, we would’ve been drinking it in the gorgeous garden under apple trees.

Every morning we woke at the charmed Romantik Hotel Richard Löwenherz, in Dürnstein (where Richard the Lionheart was imprisoned), yanked open the shutters, and gawked at the Danube, swollen from rain. For breakfast we enjoyed dense brown bread with ham and salami and ethereal housemade jam of local apricots.

Wachau viticulture dates to prehistoric times, but it was the Romans who brought serious cellar savvy to this northerly outpost of the empire. “Our cellar, 1,800 years old, withstands floods even today,” Nikolaus Saahs Jr., 28, told us on a tour of the underground vault of Nikolaihof Wachau, his family’s winery. Then he showed us a newly restored 320-year-old elm winepress. Founded in 985 in a former monastery on the Danube, Nikolaihof is Austria’s oldest and most distinguished wine estate. It was also Europe’s first vineyard to go biodynamic, in 1971.

“Colleagues thought we were crazy when they heard we planted and harvested by the moon calendar and buried manure in cow horns,” Saahs said. These days biodynamic is the new buzzword among Austrian growers. “Low-tech wines might seem quieter,” he added. “Yet they have a much longer cellar potential.” We admired the elegant stone and fruit aromas of the 2005 GrüVe from Im Weingebirge, the winery’s prized sixth-century vineyard. And we loved the watercress-accented sprightliness of the unfiltered GrüVe Hefeabzug.

Even if Nikolaihof’s Weinstube (wine tavern) served Riunite on ice, I’d still run here for the home cooking. Under antlers in a cozy, vaulted dining room—or, in summer, beneath the majestic linden tree in the garden—Christine Saahs, the winery’s matriarch, serves soul-warming buffet meals showcasing local organic ingredients. There was a game terrine punctuated by the soft crunch of walnut as well as soufflé-like fresh goat cheese scattered with pumpkin seeds. A salad of toothsome biodynamic lentils and speck was followed by wild-nettle dumplings so light that they practically levitated.

The best came last. Frau Saahs uncorked the GrüVe Vinothek 1991. Produced 15 years ago, it was bottled in 2006. Nikolaihof is legendary for small releases aged for years in 3,000-liter casks. I can’t say I sniffed quinine, Virginia tobacco, and lanolin, as the ecstatic review in Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate cited. But it was fresh and rich, with a profundity that forever banished the stereotype of GrüVe as a flirty, summery sip.

Indeed, Wachau’s ripest and strongest Grüner Veltliners, known as Smaragds, can be monumental, with the weight of a white Burgundy, minus the oak. “Veltliner is like an expensive wife that needs pampering,” said Toni Bodenstein, winemaker at the venerated Prager Estate, in Weissenkirchen. “Riesling is an easy mistress that flourishes in the difficult, steeper slopes.” Bodenstein is Wachau’s Lord of the Rieslings. While his recent vintages that we sampled showed beautifully, some of the bottlings from the late eighties and early nineties were so aristocratic, complex, and just plain dazzling, we abandoned all pretense of tasting and guzzled them down.

We didn’t do badly at our final dinner either, at Landhaus Bacher, the country restaurant in Mautern that first seduced me ten years ago. The place felt more urbane this time around, following renovations, but it was still enchanting—a suite of handsome low-ceiling rooms with butterscotch-colored upholstery and book-lined shelves.

Lisl Wagner-Bacher, the owner and one of Austria’s top chefs, has handed over the kitchen to her modern-minded son-in-law, Thomas Dorfer. Among the evening’s standouts were a fresh cheese terrine framed by tomato-water gelée; a ravishing rabbit and green-pea mousse napoleon; and venison medallions accompanied by candied celery and dainty bread dumplings shot through with cranberries. The food seemed almost too polished for a place where waitresses wear milkmaid dirndls. Then again, those milkmaids could talk through Klaus Wagner’s 15,000-bottle cellar one grape at a time.

Scanning the wine list, my companion and I broke into a debate. he: GrüVe should be young and vernacular. me: I can’t wait to bury my nostrils in Herr Wagner’s Smaragds. I won. Hirtzberger’s Ried Singerriedel ’88 had a deep color of hay and a powerhouse nose. The gorgeously creamy F. X. Pichler 2000 GrüVe paired pleasantly with the pappardelle in a foamy chanterelle sauce. After dinner Frau Wagner joined our debate. Whose side was she on? Well, let’s just say that for her daughter’s wedding she served a crisp, unpretentious young GrüVe called Ott.

“It reminds me,” she sighed sweetly, “of a blue sky with puffy white clouds.”

Gruner to Riesling: Austria’s Great Whites

The state of Lower Austria, surrounding Vienna, is white-wine country, though the Kamptal region produces some interesting reds from Pinot Noir and Zweigelt grapes. The chief white varietal here is Austria’s signature Grüner Veltliner, or GrüVe, which makes highly drinkable spicy wines that can grow seriously sophisticated with age. Riesling production is far smaller, but a great Wachau Riesling—very dry, lots of minerality, and elegantly austere—can stand up to the best German and Alsatian varieties. Wachau also produces a small amount of Pinot Blanc and Muskateller, while Kamptal and Kremstal are bottling some nice Chardonnays and gorgeous sparkling Sekts. Prices range from less than $15 for a young, simple GrüVe to upwards of $100 for Rieslings from elite Wachau estates. A wealth of information is available at winesfromaustria.com and austria.info/wine.

Wachau Winespeak

Arguably the area’s most distinguished wines are Wachau’s whites, which are divided into three categories. Steinfeder (named for a local grass) is the lightest, with a maximum of 11.5 percent alcohol. Next is Federspiel (the name is derived from the German term for a falconry lure), which contains between 11.5 percent and 12.5 percent alcohol. The finest, ripest wines are the Smaragds—the word for emerald as well as for a type of lizard. Smaragds can easily climb above 14 percent alcohol. These are the wines to age. With their combination of depth, body, and acidity, they pair beautifully with everything from asparagus to seafood to pork.

Where to Stay, Eat, and Drink

Loisium Hotel

A collaboration between local vintners and private investors, this brashly modern hotel and wine center, designed by Steven Holl, put Kamptal on the international map. Its theme park–like cellar tour is a hit with guests; ditto the grape elixir treatments at its swanky Aveda wine spa. From $280 to $440. At 2 Loisium Allee, Langenlois, Kamptal; 43-27/347-7100; loisiumhotel.at

Romantik Hotel Richard Löwenherz

This old-world hotel, occupying a former convent, is indeed romantic and more charming than the posh Schloss Dürnstein nearby. The 39 rooms are simple but cozy (request one with Danube views), the public spaces are filled with antiques, and the garden invites lingering. Owner Franziska Thiery watches over guests like a guardian angel. From $260 to $490. At 8 Dürnstein, Dürnstein, Wachau; 43-27/11222; richardloewenherz.at

Restaurant Loibnerhof

From the foie gras parfait to the smoked trout with herb crust to perfect schnitzel, expect a lusty meal at this old-school restaurant owned by the winemaking Knoll family. In warm weather meals are served in the garden beneath fruit trees. Dinner, $100. At 7 Unterloiben, Dürnstein, Wachau; 43-27/328-2890; loibnerhof.at

Winery and Restaurant Jamek

An éminence grise of Wachau viticulture, Josef Jamek founded this restaurant run by his daughter and son-in-law, Jutta and Hans Altmann. Wine-industry types sniff and twirl at the zinc bar before a meal of ethereal Hechtnockerl (pike quenelles) in parsley sauce, Tafelspitz (boiled beef), and elder-flower desserts. Dinner, $80–$110. At 45 Joching, Weissenkirchen, Wachau; 43-27/152-235; weingut-jamek.at

Nikolaihof Wachau

Everything about this winery and restaurant is remarkable: the grounds incorporating Roman, Romanesque, and Renaissance elements; the terroir-driven biodynamic wines; and the organic home cooking served in a folkloric tavern. Dinner, $75–$110. At 77 Nikolaigasse, Mautern, Wachau; 43-27/328-2901; nikolaihof.at

Landhaus Bacher

On the banks of the Danube, this Michelin two-star restaurant with a ten-room inn is one of Austria’s top food and wine meccas. Young chef Thomas Dorfer has added modern flair to the menu while staying true to regional roots. Dinner, $265– $280. At 2 Südtiroler Platz, Mautern, Wachau; 43-27/328-2937; landhaus-bacher.at

Weingut Nigl

Martin Nigl, Kremstal’s top vintner, recently opened this idyllic restaurant and guesthouse set among his vineyards. The dumplings—spinach, bread, cheese—and poppy-seed soufflé are pure Austrian comfort food. Dinner, $55. At 1 Kirchenberg; Senftenberg, Kremstal; 43-27/192-609; weingutnigl.at

Three top wineries without restaurants but offer tastings and tours: Weingut Knoll in Unterloiben (43-27/327-9355), Weingut Fred Loimer in Langenlois (43-27/342-239; loimer.at), and Weingut Prager in Weissenkirchen (43-27/152-248; weingutprager.at). Knoll and Loimer are by appointment.