Austria vineyards: Graz expectations

I'll always remember my introduction to Austrian wine. It came, at the climax of a 23-course degustation at the Hotel George V in Paris, in August 2001, when the young sommelier, whose choice of complementary wines had so far been impeccable, poured me a chilled red dessert wine from the land I'd previously only associated with beer.  Well, that and a 1980s scandal in which Austrian wines were contaminated with a toxic ingredient used in anti-freeze.

Once I'd got over my astonishment at a French wine waiter choosing a Teutonic accompaniment to my crème brulée, I found the Austrian red cheeky and refreshing and vowed not to be so censorious in future.

Now, back in Austria for the first time in 20 years, I'm discovering an entrenched wine culture dating back to the first century BC and simultaneously encountering some ground-breaking young vignerons.

Before arriving in Vienna, I meet with 31-year-old Tamara Kögl, chief winemaker at the family vineyard, situated on the South Styrian Wine Road, near Graz, a region often compared with Tuscany.  

It's hard not to be smitten with the blonde, blue-eyed Kögl, but she is far from merely a poster-girl for the Austrian wine industry.  

When we meet she promises to enlighten me about the virtues of sauvignon-blanc, a varietal I cannot stand.  Sure enough, she delivers not one but two sauvignon blancs that make me swallow my skeptical words.

If that is a small miracle, here in Vienna I'm having my faith in Austrian wine further redeemed by another young vigneron who rejoices in the name of Rainer Christ.  

Christ is my host at a pumping wine tavern in Jedelsdorf, a €22 taxi ride to the north-east of central Vienna, lining up tastings as I enjoy a last supper in the city.  

Christ hails from a family  who have been turning water into wine for more than 400 years in this Viennese region, occupying both banks of the Danube River, and this tavern dates back to 1784, when Emperor Joseph II passed a law allowing vintners to sell wine from their own production.

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The Heurigen Christ combines the feel of an old-style wine tavern, with a garden shaded by vines and oleander and indoor alcoves with solid wood tables, with slick contemporary design.  

The avuncular and knowledgeable Christ, three-time Austrian wine-maker of the year, presides over it all, while waiters and waitresses belt around the tavern transporting dishes piled high with mountainous fare.

Vienna is the world's only capital that produces a significant amount of wine.  Its history can be traced back to when the Romans built a fort on the Danube, naming the area Vindobona, a reference to the "good wine" it yielded.  By medieval times, Vienna was a walled city in which 20 per cent of the population worked in the wine industry.

"Now there are 200 producers inside the city limits," says Christ, "it's actually a very small winery area but Austria's most popular wines come from the capital."

Covering the first Alpine hills to the east, the Viennese terroir has a high chalk content similar to Burgundy, producing wines that have a bold, earthy taste.  

"They belong to the zone b of European wines," explains Christ, "between the Mediterranean style vintages to the south and the colder climate wines of Northern Europe.  Other regions in this zone are southern Germany and northern France."

Eighty per cent of the wines produced here are white and they have a high alcohol content of 13-14 per cent.  

As I find out tonight, over a dinner that features an entrée of speck, salami and cheese and mains of chicken in breadcrumbs and pork with dumplings, they go well with traditional Austrian cuisine.

At the Christ winery, Rainer pays individual attention to crafting each wine, produced from single vineyards in five climate zones.

"Vineyards are our main asset," he says, "you have to search for a broken piece of mosaic."

All Christ's wines are very drinkable, particularly on a sultry Viennese summer night, but a 2013 Wiener Gemischter Satz, that is typical of the region with intense pineapple and lychee flavours, stands out.  It is the only wine in the world to have slow food certification, a testament to Christ's methodical philosophy.

Having smiled inwardly throughout the evening at the idea of a man called Christ being instrumental in a second coming of Austrian wine, I end my tastings with a fiery red Mephisto that convinces me that the family are happy to have fun with their name as well.

Back at my seriously groovy 25hours Hotel in the museums district, I unwisely take to the rooftop bar for a nightcap, finding a spot among divine young Viennese sprites with the faces of angels.  

After spending the evening with Christ, and imbibing his high-alcohol content beverages, I'm seriously in need of turning my wine back into wasser and becoming less and less able to distinguish Wein from wien. 

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

Vienna.info

GETTING THERE

Qantas and partners fly from Sydney/Melbourne to Vienna from $1800 return; see qantas.com.au.

TOURING AND STAYING THERE

25hours Hotel, Lerchenfelder Strasse 1-3, 1070 Vienna, is a circus-themed hotel ("We are all mad here") with rooms from €102 ($150); see 25hours-hotels.com/en.

Weingut Kögl, in the South Styrian region near Graz has wine tastings by appointment and guest rooms available; see weingut-koegl.com.  Heuriger Christ is at Amtssrasse 10-14, Jedelsdorf; see weingut-christ.at.

Daniel Scott was a guest of the Austrian National Tourist Office.

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