Time in a Bottle
In the vineyards outside Vienna, winemakers are bringing the Old World into the future.
In the picturesque valleys outside Vienna—a land of renowned Rieslings and Grüners—the next generation of winemakers is bringing the Old World into the future
I WAS SITTING in an ornate dining room eating a breakfast out of the Hapsburg Empire: cheeses, meats, smoked fish, black bread with apricot jam. Chandeliers hung from the ceiling. Framed landscapes adorned the walls. Outside, the Danube flashed in the morning sun.
Schloss Dürnstein was built in 1630 and is now a Relais & Châteaux property. Like the rest of the Wachau region—a rural region some 80 kilometers west of Vienna that stretches for 35 kilometers along the Danube—the castle and Dürnstein village look like they belong in the middle of the last millennium. With 47 rooms, Schloss Dürnstein is the largest, most luxurious hotel in a valley of inns and guest houses set along narrow streets that slope up from the river.
Otti, a server who has been working at the hotel for nearly four decades, appeared holding a slim stack of newspapers. “Is that today’s International New York Times?” I asked, having recognized the typeface from across the room.
She confirmed that it was, gently putting a copy on my table. I glanced at the date. “But this is from yesterday,” I said.
“For us,” she replied, “today is yesterday.”
The day before, I’d accompanied Toni Bodenstein through the neighboring village of Weissenkirchen, where he is owner of the renowned Prager winery. When he was Bürgermeister (mayor), Bodenstein supervised the installation of the handsome new Wachau Museum in a 16th-century building. He showed me historical paintings of Weissenkirchen, then pointed out the same houses when we walked around the town. “If you take a photo today and compare, things look the same,” he explained. “Nothing has changed.”
The Wachau valley was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2000, and it, along with the nearby Kamptal and Kremstal, has been famous since the 1950s for producing some of the world’s most compelling white wines—dry, refreshing Rieslings that are as focused and precise as the trim on the shutters of the area’s painstakingly maintained buildings.
The soaring popularity of Grüner Veltliner, now the country’s signature grape, has shone a new light on the region and given people a fresh reason to visit. Today’s winemakers, chefs, and hoteliers are dedicated to preserving the old-world feel of the valley.
AT LANDHAUS BACHER, in Mautern an der Donau, Lisl Wagner-Bacher has run one of Austria’s most famous kitchens for three decades. Seven years ago, her son-in-law Thomas Dorfer took control and revamped the restaurant’s recipes. “The Wachau is slow-moving,” Dorfer admitted. “But to stay at this level, you have to keep reinventing what you do, even if it’s
subtle.” Landhaus Bacher still serves food that is unreservedly Austrian. For dinner, I had a terrine of duck liver with rhubarb jelly and a salad from the garden, followed by local pike perch in parsley sauce: classic dishes that Emperor Franz Josef would have recognized. The cuisine was airy, refreshing, and intensely local.
“We’re in wine country, not in a big city like Vienna,” Dorfer reminded me. “We want you to take your time, and forget life around you.”
Another evening I visited Nikolaihof, a winery, restaurant, and inn just a few streets away. In 1971, it became one of the first producers to embrace biodynamic viticulture. This process involves organic agricultural practices, like growing grapes without chemical treatments, but also more mystical ones, among them burying a manure-stuffed cow’s horn in the soil.
Nikolaihof’s wines have always been formidable, but 38-year-old Nikolaus Saahs Jr., the older of the owners’ two sons, has lifted them even higher. One Riesling was the first Austrian bottling to earn 100 points from leading U.S. wine critic Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate.
The property itself is arranged around a Celtic holy site, and the main building was mentioned in the Nibelungenlied, the medieval German epic. A deconsecrated 12th-century church has been converted into offices for the family, which lives nearby in the Nikolaihof section.
I sat down for dinner under a majestic linden tree, and fell into conversation with Nikolaus Jr. and his brother, Martin. Their friends arrived, in from Vienna for the night. Before I could order, we all piled into a car and headed to the family’s terraced vineyard, perched above the Danube, where they’ve built a small wooden hut. Martin ducked inside and emerged with seven bottles, dark bread, and a plate of hams and cheeses. Girlfriends, daughters, and various in-laws joined our group.
We drank crisp Grüner Veltliners and a Klausberg Riesling, made from grapes grown where we were standing, that tasted of pear and orange peel. I could see the evening settling over the streets of Stein and the lights from the outskirts of Mautern.
This impromptu gathering was such a simple yet delightful way to spend a few hours, I couldn’t imagine why anyone would do anything else. “This is nightlife here,” Martin said. “We go to a beautiful spot, we eat and drink some wine, and make a party.”
THE WACHAU’S traditional feel is even more striking when set against Langenlois, some 16 kilometers north in the Kamptal. Though it has its share of historic churches and homes, many of its buildings are surprising, witty, and just plain cool. Acute-angled terraces jut from glass-and-steel cubes. Undulating roofs and diagonal lines impose themselves on the landscape.
View from the famous Ried Klaus vineyard to Weissenkirchen, in the Wachau region