Time in a Bot­tle

Reader's Digest International - - Contents - FROM TRAVEL & LEISURE BY BRUCE SCHOENFELD

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

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