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ADVENTURES IN AUSTRIA’S WINE COUNTRY


Traveler’s Spotlight


 

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By Sonja Eberly & Maria Milton

 

 

 

Being half Austrian, half American, I’ve been to Austria many times in my life. As a child, my visits centered around seeing my grandmother, or “Oma,” in Vienna. I have fond memories of walking with her to the local bakery for fresh rolls and cakes each morning, trying to catch hedgehogs in her garden, going to the Zoo at Schoenbrunn Palace, staring up at the impossibly ornate, vaulted gothic ceilings of Stephansdom (St. Stephen’s Cathedral) in the city center, and having an ice cream at Vienna’s famous Tichy ice cream parlor. All those things are great. You should do those things when you’re in Vienna.  More recently, though, my visits to Austria have been for its wine.

As the wine director of a busy neighborhood café and wine bar in the Washington, DC area, I was invited to come along this year on the annual wine buyers’ trip organized by one of the main importers of Austrian wine with whom I do business. This is fairly common in the industry. Buy and promote enough wine from one wine importer, and you might get an all-expenses paid (aside from airfare) invitation to Greece or Chile or France.

Through wineglass at Tegeernserhof vines

Of course, this is the importer’s way of saying thank you for the support. But it’s also an incredibly educational and enriching opportunity to understand the wines you’re buying on a much more intimate level. To see first-hand where the wines come from, smell the air, feel the soil. To meet the people who painstakingly tend the vines from winter’s dormancy to springtime budbreak to Autumn harvest, praying all the while for the good graces of mother nature and the weather gods. To meet the families who have made the wines for generations. To understand the unique culture and history and philosophies and traditions, which drive winemaking styles. To taste the finished, bottled product and to share a meal with the people who made it, often in their own home.

My first buyers’ trip to Austria was in 2013. It was life changing. Literally. I was inspired by the people I met, by the striking quality of the wines that I tasted, by the incorporation of wine in daily life, and of course by the desire to connect on a deeper level to my own heritage (I found out a few years ago that my great grandmother was a vineyard hand in the region of Burgenland). I was so inspired that I decided to quit my wine job in the US to work the harvest and live in Austria in 2014. Over a year later, to have the opportunity to return once again, to revisit old wine friends, familiar vineyards and cellars and to taste the new wines from those cellars, was something I wasn’t about to pass up. And this time I decided to bring along my friend and coworker, Maria. It was her very first time traveling abroad.

New to Austria

Start of the Trip

Sonja Eberly & Maria Milton

“If you’re like me, with a first grader’s grasp of German and you really want to practice, Austrians are just as happy, eager in fact, to help you polish your Deutsch.”

I can’t deny that I felt a certain sense of pride and excitement that Austria would be Maria’s first international experience. I did have a certain amount of apprehension about what it would be like for her being out of the US for the first time. (Book a direct flight; it’s absolutely worth saving the time and the achy muscles.) But in all honesty, for anyone deciding on their first international travel destination, Austria should be on your top five list.

Nearly everyone—I mean, really everyone—even in the smallest of towns will speak at least a little English. Go to Vienna and you’re golden; practically everyone speaks English. If you’re like me, with a first grader’s grasp of German and you really want to practice, Austrians are just as happy, eager in fact, to help you polish your Deutsch. Just keep in mind that Austrians revert to regional dialects at times, even in Vienna, and especially outside of the city. They may throw in a word or two that doesn’t quite mesh with school-taught “High German.” Personally, that’s one of quirks I love about the country. Learn how to say “Oachkatzelschwarf,” correctly and watch peoples’ faces light up. You’ll make friends instantly.

Getting Around

Navigating our way through Vienna was easy from the airport. We took the City Airport Train (CAT) into the city center, where we switched to the subway. In Vienna, there are several modes of public transport, all of which are incredibly efficient, safe and relatively clean. Between the buses, the street cars, the subway, the CAT, and the actual trains which connect all of Europe, you can get basically anywhere you need to go. You can always ask someone in the OBB train info office at each station, or someone in a uniform around the station. I also discovered on this trip that Uber exists in Vienna! As long as I was connected to WiFi, I could use the Uber app I already have on my smart phone to request a car, which ended up being helpful more than once.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If you have the time, getting lost in Vienna like Maria and I did our first day isn’t all that bad, either (though going 24 hours without sleep after an overnight flight was probably not the best idea). Wandering the city, you might happen upon a festival celebrating the food, music, crafts, culture and wine(!) of Austria’s Steirmark region right in front of city hall. Or you might wander into a nearly deserted amusement park after getting caught in a rain storm, discovering mirrored fun houses, giant clown faces, and bumper cars in the truly enormous city park called the Wiener Prater.

Vienna is big and is broken up into 23 different named districts, or “Bezierke.” But the city is delightfully walkable for the most part, especially within the Ringstrasse, the avenue that encircles all of the old inner city. And if you get tired, you can always pop into a smoky Stuberl for a little beer, or perhaps a stiff nip of schnapps to keep you going.

A note about most bars and restaurants in Austria: like most of the rest of Europe, smoking is still allowed indoors in most places, so if you’re sensitive to cigarette smoke, beware. On the plus side, Austrians love sitting outdoors and you can find beer gardens and wine patios nearly everywhere.  

Wine Regions

Sonja-Maria

There are very basically four main federal wine regions of Austria, which spread over the crescent of Austria’s eastern borders. I always tell people to imagine Austria as a chicken drumstick, with the bone pointing to the west. All of Austria’s wine regions form a crescent around the meaty other end.

Vienna itself is one of these wine four main regions and is one of only two European cities to also be recognized as an independent wine region (the other city being Madrid). We skipped Vienna for winery visits only because we didn’t have the time on our own and because none of the wines our importer carries are from Vienna.

The other three main wine regions are Neideroesterreich (“Lower Austria”), Burgenland, and the Steiermark (Styria). You can definitely travel by train, but to visit these regions properly, I recommend renting a car and spending at least a week exploring. You’ll save time with a specific itinerary and appointments set up in advance, but it’s just as easy to tool around, stopping into the small towns, tasting at wineries with open tasting rooms and discovering which of the local Heurigers are open that day. As a buyers’ group, we traveled on a swanky government wine marketing-funded tour bus, complete with beer cooler and a TV that played this beautifully choreographed video, which was really cool the first five times we watched it.

Heurigers
“I spent many a wonderful evening making new friends at communal tables, getting to know local grape growers, tasting the years’ new wines from productions way too small to be sold anywhere outside the family tavern.”

Heurigers are one of my absolute favorite parts of Austrian wine country, and it was one of my big regrets that Maria didn’t get to experience going to one. It didn’t stop me from pointing them out to her every time we passed one. I spent many a wonderful evening making new friends at communal tables, getting to know local grape growers, tasting the years’ new wines from productions way too small to be sold anywhere outside the family tavern.

Heurigers are only allowed to be open 6 months out of the year and most will be open during the wine harvest, or “Wein Herbst,” from August to November. This is of course the optimal time to visit wine country. But there are always one or two Heurigers open in each town during other times of the year. Keep an eye out for a “Buschenschank,” a braided wreath or evergreen frond hanging over a doorway or a sign along the road reading, “Aus’gesteckt is,” to find the closest open Heuriger.

Food

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Get ready to eat. A lot. And really, really well.” That’s one of the first things I told Maria when preparing her for Austria. Each and every winery we visited made it a point to welcome us–how else—with lovingly prepared food to accompany the wines we were tasting. We toured almost as much of Austria’s food as we did its wines.

We were served the most comfort-foody of traditional dishes like the tears-of-joy evoking Paprika Gulash that Christine Netzl made for us in Goettlesbrunn, the melt-off-your-fork Tafelspitz with apple and horseradish sauce prepared for us by Mathias Jalits’ mother in their family restaurant in Eisenberg, and the perfectly tender and crispy Backhendl served for dinner at Weingut Strauss in the Steiermark, which Maria truly loved, Southern Belle that she is. I couldn’t get over dipping hunks of freshly baked bread in the most delicious Kürbiskernöl, made from local Pumpkin seeds.

We were also served the most gourmand of meals, including breathtakingly delicate Zander (freshwater perch) served with perfectly cooked Spargel (white asparagus) after an even more breathtaking tasting of single vineyard Gruner Veltliners and Rieslings (they’re, dry) with Martin Mittlebach of Tergernseerhof winery in Austria’s famous Wachau region. Our grand finale meal was hosted by Anton Bauer at the uber-fine Mörwald restaurant, housed at Graffenegg Palace. If you’re looking to splurge on an unforgettable culinary experience and you find yourself within driving distance of Schloss Graffenegg, make sure to visit and taste at Weingut Anton Bauer in Feuersbrunn, and then take a taxi up to the palace for dinner.

Amazingly, in the eight days we spent in Austria, not once did Maria or I eat Schnitzel. Take that, stereotypes. (Ok, but really, Schnitzel is actually fantastic, especially with fresh lemon squeezed over the top. If you’re in Austria, go to the most local non-chain looking restaurant you can find and order it. At least once.)

Spargel

Spargel

Spargel.

We visited Austria in March, which meant we didn’t see any grapes on the vines, but we were just in time to see the first bud breaks all over the vineyards. We were also just in time for Spargel! But just barely. Spargel is the supremely coveted and celebrated white asparagus that decorates farmers’ markets and roadside produce stands beginning around mid-March. While prices don’t get reasonable until April when the season really sets in, we were very fortunate to have been treated to numerous meals featuring this delectable albino vegetable. The best part is seeing your Austrian dining companion’s excitement when they see Spargel on their plate, an enthusiasm that’s easy to adopt.

Desserts
“There is no end to the fine selection of carefully confected patisserie in every bakery window, every glass café case, even on the breakfast tables!”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I would be committing a grave mistake if I were to exclude a nod to the sweeter side of Austrian cuisine. Yes, perhaps it’s a truism to say that Austrian pastries—particularly Viennese—are the envy of the world (though I’m sure the Parisians would have something to say about it). There is no end to the fine selection of carefully confected patisserie in every bakery window, every glass café case, even on the breakfast tables! But of all the memorable desserts, the Kardinalschnitte made by Roland Steindorfer’s mother at their family home in Ilmitz by Lake Neusiedl is legendary. Perfectly airy, it’s almost a cloud of cake and cream, and there is nothing more suited to accompany this fluffy dessert than a sip of what the Neusiedlersee region is most famous for: Trockenbeerenauslese (“TBA”), i.e. liquid gold. This also happens to be one of the types of wines (though young Roland is developing his dry reds and sparkling roses now, too) that the Steindorfer family is most famous for. Impossibly, shamefully sweet, equally impossibly balanced and vibrating with acidity. Wonderfully harmonized. Amazingly long-lived. That is a Steindorfer Beerenauslese or Trockenbeerenauslese. Amazing cake and amazing sweet wine that create magic together; go figure. We definitely poured some of our TBA right onto our cake. Perfection.

Neusiedlersee and Burgenland

 

Lake

Lake Neuseidl in Austria’s Burgenland region is the largest body of water in the country. Yet, they say that a man over six feet tall can walk across the entirety of the lake without drowning. The lake itself is absolutely gorgeous and a favorite day-trip destination for people and families from all over lower Austria. On nice days, couples, families and individuals alike flock to its shores to sunbathe on docks, take boats out on the choppy waves, parasail, fish, raft, or just sit out on the deck of one of the many wine-centric restaurants overlooking the glittering waters. When she saw the photos we posted online, my mom was full of fond recollections of childhood trips to the “sea” with my great-grandmother Anna, who herself worked the nearby vineyards as a teenager.

This uniquely shallow body of water creates an amazing microclimate of humidity in the region, perfectly suited for the formation of Noble Rot, that grape-shriveling fungus which means death to red grapes, but sweet immortality for the right white grapes. This fungus is what allows for the extremely labor-intensive creation of ethereally sweet dessert wines.

The rest of Burgenland is primarily celebrated for its incredible range of red wines, from supple, silky Pinot Noirs like those of beautifully, wholistically Biodynamic Meinklang winery just across from the Hungarian Border, to Mathias Jalits’ structured, thoughtful, moody and complex library of Blaufrankishes, which come from the iron-rich soils of the Eisenberg DAC. And then there’s former super model Leo Hillinger’s super hip, ultra-modern winery in Jois, with its toasty, oaky robust reds. Burgenland nurtures reds for all palates and preferences.

Steiermark

Steiningerwine

Further to the south, along the border of Slovenia, is the Steiermark, the “Green Heart of Austria,” where white wines dominate production, and mirror the styles of Italy’s Alto-Adige region more than the Rieslings and Gruner Veltliners of Niederoesterreich. Yet to put Styrian wines in any category other than their own is totally wrong. There is a distinct mineral expression in the wines that’s like no other wine region, while the whites can range from the lightest and most aromatic of Muskatellers to the nuttiest, creamiest of single vineyard Chardonnays. These are the sorts of wines and the sort of variety that you will find from Weingut Strauss, located directly across the road from the famous Gamlitzberg, a cross-hatched mountain of vines.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Styria is by far, the most mountainous of all the wine regions, with gut-wrenchingly dramatic vistas and hopelessly steep vineyards. We learned that at least one person dies from a tractor tipping over in the vineyards every year. And yet, looking down at the vines plunging below the wine road along which we drove, I couldn’t help but feel an aching sense of beauty and connectedness as well. Those mountains felt like home.

Niederoesterreich

Klaus (left) Franz Netzl of Netzl Wineries (center) and Sonja Eberly (right)

If you like red wines, fear not, there are certainly parts of Lower Austria that boast a range of reds, from Burgundian-trained Anton Bauer’s subtly oaked Pinot Noirs and velvety Blaufranksich and red blends, to the ancient roman ruins of Carnuntum, where Netzl cellars regal red blends and single vineyard Merlot, Zweigelt and St. Laurent.

That being said, white wines—specifically Gruner Veltiner and Riesling (it’s dry!)—are crucial. And when you taste the whites from regions like the Kremstal and the Kamptal and the Wagram and the Wachau (all about 15-30 min apart from each other), you’ll see why each of these designations matters so much. 15 minutes, heck, 15 footsteps, can mean a completely different personality in a bottle of wine made from the same grapes in the same year, from even the same winery.

 

Do yourself a favor and take the time to really delve into the whites wines of this area. There’s Tegernseerhof, with Martin Mittelbach’s pure, mineral-driven single vineyard Rieslings that will leave your taste buds reeling. And Steininger, where father Karl and daughter Eva produce not only some of the most beautiful and classically expressive method-traditional sparkling wines in Austria (they might even let you try to saber or disgorge your own bottle), but also a mind-bogglingly wide array of Kamptal-specific and reserve still wines.

And when you’re completely tuckered after a very full day of tasting gorgeous wines, and hiking the 7km winery-sponsored Weinweg through the vineyards of Langenlois, trust me when I tell you that the Loisium hotel and spa is exactly where you want to end your day. If there’s only one place you decide to splurge during your time in Austrian wine country, make it this hotel. I can’t think of a better way to start and end your day than by floating in a heated pool in the middle of the vineyards, the onion domes of Baroque churches peaking up over the tiled roofs of the town and a glass of your new favorite Austrian wine at the ready.
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Edinburgh: Books, Bagpipes, and Muddy Boots


Traveler’s Spotlight 


 

AmyArden

 

By Amy Arden

 

 

After my visit to Edinburgh I discovered that J.K. Rowling and I have something in common – we’ve both haunted its coffee shops with our laptops, pounding out our stories, hoping to nurture tiny creative sparks into something that could be called art.

Edinburgh is known as the “City of Festivals,” and it frequently plays host, most famously for the Fringe each August. There’s also its celebrated landmarks, like Edinburgh Castle, home to a colossal 15th-century cannon known as Mons Meg, and the Palace of Holyroodhouse, once the residence of the doomed Mary Queen of Scots and now the site of annual garden parties hosted by British royals. Among Edinburgh’s Gothic spires and modern flats, tradition and creativity not only coexist, they swirl together in a captivating mix that draws tourists, artists, and voyeurs alike. What else would you expect from the first city named as a UNESCO City of Literature? As a result, it’s a great city for writers – and anyone else who likes to go exploring.

When I began working on a novel based on the life of the intrepid Lady Katherine “Kate” Cochrane and discovered that some of her correspondence still survived in Scottish archives, I found all the excuse I needed to head to Scotland. As the native of a small Pennsylvania town called Edinboro, namesake of the original, I’d grown up with bagpipes and Braveheart, and was eager to see how my childhood assumptions stood against genuine experience.

Bagpipes are indeed everywhere. Shops selling tartans – for you, for your kid, for your dog – are everywhere. Pub and bus tours are everywhere. Such amusements are yours for the taking, though you can just as easily opt out and strike out on your own.

 

“Inside the castle, you can view a 12th-century chapel, visit the National War Museum of Scotland, and see the Honours of Scotland.”

 

Sights

The Royal Mile

Tourists flock to this pedestrian-friendly street that stretches from Edinburgh Castle to the Palace of Holyroodhouse. Not only does it connect two of the city’s most visited attractions, it’s also chock-full of restaurants, pubs, and shops. You can take it a good bit of history just by walking around – you’ll pass Tron Kirk, dating back to the 1630s when a local parish lost their church following a decree by King Charles I and, in a fit of religious pique, built this one instead (it’s now a visitor center rather than a church), and Deacon Brodie’s pub. The pub is named for William Brodie, whose double life of both good and evil is said to be the inspiration for Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Outside of Paris, the Royal Mile may be one of the best places to play flaneur and simply engage in people-watching.

Edinburgh Castle

View of Edinburgh

Photo by Amy Arden

The castle casts an imposing shadow over Edinburgh’s Old Town, and the structure itself is intimately connected with Scottish history. Inside the castle, you can view a 12th-century chapel, visit the National War Museum of Scotland, and see the Honours of Scotland. The crown jewels have had a tumultuous history of being smuggled, hidden, and rediscovered over the centuries, and I found their story – truly a case of the truth being stranger than fiction – one of the most fascinating aspects of my visit.

There is also a tiny cemetery on the grounds where pets who served as regimental mascots are buried, a touching nod to the animals who have taken part in history’s conflicts.

Edinburgh Writers Museum

This small museum in a courtyard off The Royal Mile hosts displays on Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott, and Robert Louis Stevenson. Here the literary legacies of these writers are given their due, along with humanizing touches: Scott’s childhood bout with polio that left him lame for life, Burns’ tumultuous love affairs, Stevenson’s real-life fascination with tropical islands that prompted voyages to Hawaii, Tahiti, and beyond. Admission is free.

Arthur’s Seat

Arthurs Seat summit

Photo by Amy Arden

Arthur’s Seat offers a taste of the wilderness in the heart of the city. Ramble over its winding paths and craggy bluffs to enjoy superb views over Edinburgh and catch glimpses of the sea. I climbed here very early one morning and had the place nearly to myself – much of the path was still in shadow, every new turn brought a new view over the city, and the sound of birds crying overhead and the damp grasses underneath made it easy to imagine I’d stepped back into another century. As I climbed, the sun rose with me, and I reached the summit under bright blue skies and a feeling of pure exhilaration. Be sure to take sturdy footwear and be prepared for steep ascents and descents. If you’re planning on an extended hike, bring a snack!

Dunfermline

Photo by Amy Arden - Ruins of Dunfermline Abbey.

Photo by Amy Arden – Ruins of Dunfermline Abbey.

A short train ride from Edinburgh, the town of Dunfermline is home to Dunfermline Abbey, the resting place of King Robert the Bruce. The church itself has a fascinating – and long – history! And in case there’s any doubt about the church’s connection to Scotland’s most famous monarch, a glance at the name carved into the top of the abbey’s tower makes it plain.

Culross

Heading further into Fife, I took a local bus from Dunfermline into Culross. This tiny village perched on the Firth of Forth dates back to the 16th century. It too has an abbey – partly in ruins – and like any good Jane Austen heroine would do, I made a beeline for it as soon as I stepped off the bus.

Photo by Amy Arden - Culross Firth of Forth.

Photo by Amy Arden – Culross Firth of Forth.

Here too I could explore at will, alone, snapping photos as quick as my smartphone could take them, and wandering among the ruins. A metal ladder led to a second story, and standing under those ancient stones again allowed past and present to collapse.

Nearly next door to Culross Abbey is Culross Abbey House, boyhood home of Admiral Thomas Cochrane, husband to my heroine Kate. The house has stood for over four centuries on the high ground overlooking the Forth. It is a fitting place for a boy who loved the sea to grow up; Thomas returned later in life with Kate hoping to buy the place back after his father had sold it off to settle the family’s debts. On the afternoon I visited, sheep grazed in the adjacent meadows, sun split between the gray clouds and fell sparkling onto the windows and the waters of the Firth, and I could only wonder at who now called it home.

Photo by Amy Arden - Culross Abbey.

Photo by Amy Arden – Culross Abbey.

Food
“I tried the daily special of trout with steamed seasonal vegetables – hello, fancy! – served up with a pint and found both food and drink delicious.”

There is far more to Scottish cuisine than haggis, Scotch eggs, and ale.

Feeling luxurious or literary? Try afternoon tea at the upscale Balmoral Hotel. J. K. Rowling stayed here and famously finished Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. If you are feeling posh, you can book a stay in the “Rowling Suite.”

The diminutive and popular Jolly Judge Pub offers friendly service, a wide selection of ciders, ales, and beer, and a cozy nook to escape the crowds. Seats fill quickly.

If you are craving the tastes of Asia, Ting Thai Caravan has reasonably-priced rice and noodle dishes served at communal tables. My order of pad Thai with chicken was pleasantly spicy with a complex mix of flavors. It’s location near the University of Edinburgh campus means that hours are student-friendly (it’s open ‘til 10pm). Beer and wine are available. NOTE: Cash only.

In Culross, the Red Lion Inn is a charming pub within a few minutes’ walk of the town center. The menu includes many traditional favorites, like a ploughman’s lunch or Cumberland sausages, but the offerings are wider than most pubs. I tried the daily special of trout with steamed seasonal vegetables – hello, fancy! – served up with a pint and found both food and drink delicious. Also in Culross, the Biscuit Café serves soups, light fare, tea, coffee, and pastries. I ended my visit to Culross with a very restorative cream tea at this delightful café. There’s also a small patio where guests can sit when the weather allows.

Stuff

Wardrops Court Edinburgh

Photo by Amy Arden – Wardrop’s Court

After you’ve bought your kilt and CD of pipe music, what else should you bring home? A spurtle, a wooden spoon traditionally used for stirring porridge, makes a fun and easy-to-transport souvenir. If porridge isn’t your thing, your spurtle could be just as easily used for oatmeal, soups, smoothies, etc.

For something with a literal flavor of Scotland, skip the shortbread and try the Edinburgh Gin Raspberry Liqueur. Made from Perthshire raspberries, it has a lovely and authentic raspberry flavor that is neither too cloying nor too fake. I mixed mine with a bit of tonic water for a refreshing version of the classic gin n’ tonic.

In short, visiting Scotland was like stepping into a cross-century game of six degrees of separation. Each person and place had connections to the others: Robert Burns had visited Dunfermline Abbey, Sir Walter Scott played a hand in recovering the lost Honours of Scotland, Kate Cochrane toured Edinburgh and attracted the attention of Scott during a night at the theater (Scott dashed off a poem in admiration). I followed along after them, walking in invisible footsteps that led us to each other.