Water to wine

Gary Tippet navigates an oenophile's paradise aboard a sleek river boat in Austria.

Far below the tumbled-down ramparts of the Kuenringer Castle, above Durnstein in Lower Austria, the Danube traces a mighty curve. In this wet, early summer it is running high and fast, coloured that soupy grey-green that suggests that as much as Beethoven was deaf, Johann Strauss II was profoundly colour-blind.

A sleek river cruise ship eases away downstream, one of a constant flotilla on the river. But if the tourists have come looking for Strauss' "Danube so blue, so bright and blue", they didn't read the fine print.

Not that it keeps them from coming: on the best guess, somewhere between 20,000 and 25,000 Australians cruise the Austrian stretch of the Danube every year, spending an average three nights watching the country drift by. (I say "guess", because even the Austrian National Tourist Office doesn't have an exact figure. Tourist numbers there are calculated on hotel stays and the ships don't fit that definition.)

From up here, as another rain squall threatens, it's tempting to succumb to envy. Sitting back in a deckchair, feet up, a glass of white wine in one hand, a camera or sachertorte in the other, seems like luxury. So why do I feel like shouting, self-righteously, "You've got to get off the boat"?

To be fair, some do. Not just in Linz or Vienna, for a taste of opera or Hapsburg history and architecture, but sometimes even here in Durnstein, where the ancient castle ruins loom high on a craggy outcrop above the ancient and pretty town.

It was here in 1192 that Richard the Lionheart was held captive by Austria's Duke Leopold after the Third Crusade. The hike up is hard work, but the view of the Wachau Valley is so stunning you have to hope Richard had a bay window in his cell.

The castle itself seems to sprout out of the surrounding rock — as do the steeply terraced vineyards ascending towards it, but they have been laboriously hand-built and maintained, literally dug out of the rock, over centuries. They make the Wachau the most dramatic, if not most picturesque of Austria's major wine-growing regions.

It might be from these demanding slopes that the flinty riesling being sipped by our ship-board friends, might originate. Or down in the light, fertile loess soils of the riverbanks, if it is a full-bodied, peppery gruner veltliner, Austria's native and favourite varietal. In almost three decades since the infamous Austrian wine scandal, the reputation of the country's wines has been rehabilitated and now, pushed by young, savvy sommeliers, Austrian wine is on the verge of becoming the vinous Next Big Thing.

Austrian wine and food tourism is also growing apace and anyone left behind by a cruise ship might happily spend the next few days self-indulging without going much more than a half-hour drive from Durnstein.

The tramp back from the castle needs first to be rewarded, perhaps by a tasting at Domane Wachau or in the stunning modern architecture of FX Pichler. At Krems, about 15 minutes downstream, is Nikolaihof, the oldest wine estate in Austria. Here, wine has been made since the days of the Celts and the first documentary evidence dates from 470 AD.

Just 11 kilometres further, in the Kamptal wine region, is the little town Langenlois with its ancient cellars and baroque town houses – and, in a flat patch of vines, one outstanding piece of modern architecture. Designed by American architect Steven Holl, the Loisium wine centre is equal parts spa hotel, restaurant and wine museum, lodged over 900-year-old cellars.

In its Wine Experience, the history and future of Austrian wine combine. The visitor "becomes" a grape and is transported through the winemaking process. Tradition is not forgotten either, with a visit to a re-created 19th-century wine grower's house. It's a remarkable educational experience.