THE WEIN LOVER’S GUIDE TO AUSTRIA
The beauty of Vienna through wein
Vienna is Wien, and wine is wein, in German. And there really isn’t any better way to get to know this city than through a glass of its own high quality grapes. My first glimpse of Vienna’s Innere Stadt (old city) confirms all its tropes – grand Baroque and Jugendstils (Art Noveau) mansions, Habsburg Empire palaces and Neoclassical elegance. It lives up to its glittering reputation, from City of Music to City of Wine, having the most number of wineries still in production within its city limits.
Befittingly, one of the world’s finest cellar collections is located in the only existing portion of 15th century medieval town fortifications. Palais Coburg (palais-coburg.com), now a luxury hotel residence, was built before the town walls were demolished in the 1800s as the city expanded, hence preserving the atmospheric ramparts which are now repurposed as wine cellars. The Palais Coburg Wine Archive is the second most valuable in the world, numbering 60,000 bottles worth US$26 million. Tours are conducted for hotel guests, while non-hotel guests can join monthly scheduled tours.
Each cellar holds the finest wines of its category. In the shiplike New World Cellar, California’s Screaming Eagle and Opus One, alongside Penfolds Grange, dominate. There’s a Champagne cellar, one just for Yquem, and the Old World cellar which holds fine archives of the greatest Austrian wines. It is the French cellar that seals the deal. Bordeaux and Burgundy’s greatest marques are here, not just by chateaux but also by the legendary vintages declared. Try not to gasp when you spot the Domaine de la Romanée-conti, La Romanée-conti 1929 and 1945, Cheval Blanc 1947, or Petrus 1962 priced at $100,000. It’s no wonder that Coburg consistently scores World’s Best Wine List in competitions, including from World of Fine Wine 2017.
If all that touring gets you thirsty, the hotel’s bar or resident two-michelin starred restaurant, Silvio Nickol, would be a good place to peruse all 6,000 wine labels.
For years, you’ve probably heard that most Austrian wine is consumed in Austria itself, leaving very little for the international market. To better understand how some brands are positioning themselves for the overseas market, I travel south to Südsteiermark, to meet ‘Mr Sauvignon’. The moniker was bestowed on Walter Skoff, whose fifth-generation family estate – renamed Skoff Original (skofforiginal.com) since 2011 – specialises in Sauvignon Blanc.
They’ve notched up some 800 awards, including 300 gold medals, but in 2017, they made it to the very top, in the Concours Mondial du Sauvignon where the Skoff Original Kranachberg Sauvignon Blanc 2015 won the title of Best Sauvignon Blanc in the World. To do that, it had to beat 860 entries from countries like Italy, France, New Zealand and South Africa, through an international panel of over 50 judges from 20 countries tasting the wines blind.
I’m in picturesque Gamlitz, population 2,500, the hilly area that’s dotted with outstanding single vineyards such as Kranachberg, Obegg and Grassnitzberg, coincidentally also where Walter has plots. He farms 13 sites that are all less than 15km away from the winery, growing not just Sauvignon Blanc but autochthonous grapes like Welschriesling, Weissburgunder (Pinot Blanc), Gelber Muskateller, Grauburgunder (Pinot Gris) and Morillon (the local Chardonnay), alongside some Zweitgelt.
The air here is remarkably clear, and the environment is pristine. It’s clear why this area is considered a well-kept vacation secret. Head of marketing Harald Wickoff, drives me around town and to the vineyards, and also swings by Vinofaktur (vinofaktur.at), a slick one-stop gourmet and wine store with Styrian specialities galore. My wallet takes a huge dent as I revel in the selection of over 70 wineries, 100 food producers and even local gins. There are guided tastings and well-crafted exhibitions (in German only) on local delicacies, such as the pumpkin seed oil, a must-buy in this area. Later that night, at the winery’s restaurant Gastlichkeit, I enjoy the regional delight of backhandl (country style fried chicken) served with a potato and pumpkin seed oil dish called erdäpfelsalad, which went perfectly with – what else – Sauvignon Blanc.
Before I leave the next day, I make a beeline to the Skoff Original tasting room for the latest in their premium range – the STOAN 2015, an incredible skin contact Sauvignon Blanc made in a stone vat, exuding the most intoxicating minerality and intense ripe mango and stonefruit notes. With the success of the inaugural vintage, Walter is looking to expand the quantity by adding one more stone vat. It’s a taste of things to come, with sustainability and natural winemaking very much on the minds of Austria’s top makers. I’ll be knocking on the doors of his Singapore distributor, Schmidt Vinothek, for some of that supply!
Palais Coburg cellars Walter Skoff, on right, is known as ‘Mr Sauvignon’ View of vineyards from Skoff Original