In our not-so-much younger days, Bob (once known as Bicycle Bob) and I did lots of serious pedaling. Weekend bike trips loaded down with panniers in Germany. Longer treks in Austria, and even over the Swiss Alps several times. The Swiss rides, no doubt the most challenging, were our favorites.
Since we’ve settled down in southern France, we seem to do less and less cycling. A pity, as there is great riding in these parts. Mt. Ventoux for one. I’d never attempt that climb, but Bob long ago said he would… He’s still thinking about it.
The scenery was superb along a meandering river bordered by cliffs, forested hills, vineyards and picture-perfect villages. The pedaling was easy, just 25 kilometers on mainly flat terrain along the Danube and never more than about 25 minutes on the bikes before a stop. The bikes were easy- to- ride cruisers with extra comfortable wide seats. And, the wines were excellent with informative commentary by our helpful guide, Endre Barz, a Hungarian who told us to call him Andy.
Only the weather did not cooperate. It was cold, gray, dismal, although we never had to use the rain ponchos provided by the tour company. But, neither did we get to swim in the Danube as the tour literature described.
Our first stop after a ride along the bike trail that is part of the popular Donau Radweg (Danube Bike Route) was the Domȁne Wachau, a cooperative on the edge of the medieval town of Dϋrnstein where we sampled four different white wines. In the Wachau Valley, a 21 mile stretch between the towns of Krems and Melk also known as the Danube River Valley, 85 percent of the wines are white.
Then came Katzensprung 2012 from the indigenous Grϋner Veltliner grape, a dry, light wine. Andy told us that there are between 700 and 800 wine producers in the Wachau Valley, mainly small, family farms, with a total of 1,400 hectares of vineyards.
He went on tell us the importance of the Katzensprung wine in the country’s history. After World War II, Austria was divided into four zones: British, French, Soviet and American. The seat of government was in Vienna surrounded by the Soviet zone. ”In 1955 the Austrian president gave visiting Soviet leaders this wine. He got them drunk and convinced them to let Austria become a neutral nation,” Andy related.
We tasted two Rieslings before a visit to the winery shop where most of the wines were reasonably priced, from seven euros per bottle. “It’s amazing in Europe. Austria produces high quality wines but at a lower price than in other countries,” Andy said.
The charming town of Dϋrnstein where we had a lunch break sits at the foot of terraced vineyards and castle ruins. Richard the Lionheart, King of England, was a prisoner in the fortress during the Third Crusade.
From the town, a footpath leads to the ruins where a remarkable view awaits. The town’s Parish Church with a Baroque tower is also worth a visit. Most of our fellow cyclists (we were 12, from Sweden, Norway, Singapore, Chicago, and Bob and I), preferred to peruse the town’s shops where all sorts of products made from Marille, an apricot variety grown in the Wachau Valley, are big sellers (jams, soaps, schnapps, mustard, chutney, chocolate). The Marille strudel Bob ordered to finish off his lunch of a hearty goulash and dumplings was fabulous.
We pedaled on through picturesque countryside, often with vineyards on both sides of the bike path, to Weissenkirchen for a tasting at Weingut Hermengled Mang, a family winery which also has a restaurant, a Heuriger, a special Austrian eatery attached to a winery that serves the season’s new wines and simple, local food.
As we sipped and swirled a Grϋner Veltliner, then a Riesling and lastly a Chardonnay, Andy told us about the wine scandal that almost finished the wine business in Austria. Prior to the 1980s, Austria produced mainly sweet wines. The country had a good rapport with Germany which did not produce enough grapes to satisfy the demand of its thirsty citizens. It bought Austrian wine which it sold as German wine. But in 1985, Austria did not have enough sweet wine to fulfill its contract for the German market. Vintners could not add sugar to the wine as it would be detected. Instead, they added antifreeze which the Germans discovered. Although only three or four companies were involved, “It destroyed 80 percent of the Austrian wine production,” Andy said.
When the wine business was revived, it was decided to focus on dry wine of a high quality and to avoid mass production. Today “small is beautiful” best describes Austrian wine, most of which is white. The crisp, dry vintages are appreciated by wine experts around the world.
Back in Vienna, we learned more about Austrian wine with a tasting at the Christ Winery and Heuriger in the Vienna community of Jedlersdorf.
Vienna is the only world capital with vineyards in the city limits. Some 700 hectares on both sides of the Danube are devoted to grapes with 250 wine producers, most of whom produce their own wine, although some sell their grapes to other vintners.
Rainer Christ took over his father’s winery in 2004, aiming to breathe new life into the more than 400 -year- old company. He is most enthusiastic about his renowned Gemischter Satz, a Vienna white wine made from different varieties of grapes and his “biggest seller.” After World War II most vintners used one grape variety to produce one wine, he explained. However, historically several grape varieties were often combined into one wine. “This had been forgotten in Vienna, but it’s become popular in the last 10 to 15 years, “ he said.
Some producers use from eight to ten different grapes varieties in Gemischter Satz, but usually it’s from two to four . We tasted his 2012 Wiener Gemischter Satz which sells for 7,90 euros and is a combination of Grϋner Veltliner, Weissburgunder (Pinot Blanc), Riesling and Welsch Riesling (an Austrian grape variety). Christ termed it “elegant, refreshing.” It has a maximum of 12.5 percent alcohol and is “ not too rich,” he added. We loved it. If the trip back to the hotel hadn’t involved a Strassenbahn trek, followed by a ride on the S bahn and finally U bahn, we would have purchased a case.
Christ has studied oenology and worked in the wine business in many different countries, including the U.S., France, Italy and Germany. Within the past 20 years, there’s been more science involved in wine production, he explained. “It’s more and more professional, yet knowledge of the past is very important. Theory and new techniques do not make a good wine. You need to be out in the vineyards, get ideas and the participation of your parents.”
Christ, like most vintners, experiments with growing techniques. His Weiss Burgunder der Vollmund is one result, a wine made from grapes harvested during a full moon. “We learned that the moon makes a difference.” Grapes harvested one day before or one day after the full moon had a different character, he explained. The full moon wine is “richer in aroma, more massive, longer on the tongue.”
We also tried a 2012 Bisamberg Alte Reben, Wiener Gemischter Satz, made from grapes grown in a 75- year old vineyard. The wine, named “white wine of the year in Austria,” goes well with richer foods. “Austrians like to combine heavier dishes with full bodied white wines,” he said. And, Austrians drink white wines with all types of food –meat, fish, poultry, cheese, etc.
Grape Grazing Bicycle Wine tour of the Wachau Valley with Vienna Explorer, 59 euros, http://www.viennaexplorer.com/tours/grape-grazing-tour/
Domȁne Wachau, www.domaene-wachau.at
Weingut & Heuriger Christ, www.weingut-christ.at
Vienna Heurigen Express, Hop on, Hop off sightseeing tour through the Vienna wine region and villages. Trip ends with a visit to a Heuriger, but you can get off en route to see more at leisure. www.heurigenexpress.at
Excellent, reasonable hotel in Vienna, Hotel Daniel, http://www.hoteldaniel.com
More helpful web sites:
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