Soil and cool climate. Near the Austrian Alps. © Huber Markus.

THE WACHAU - Twenty years ago, praising Austrian wines was regarded as eccentric, to say the least. Now you are thought to be ‘cutting edge’ if you extol the virtues of Zweigelt or St. Laurent, and loving Grüner Veltliner is positively old hat. I adore the whole spectrum of Austrian wines, from dry to sweet whites, to all sorts of fruity, structured reds that have undoubtedly benefited from global warming. We have found that Austrian wines are a big hit at Sotheby’s Café in London, but then those who lunch there are a discerning bunch.
It was time for some research on the ground. After some extraordinary Gregorian plainsong at the Cistercian Abbey of Heiligenkreuz in the southern Vienna woods, we trekked to the Wachau, the magical vineyard area along the Danube to the west of Vienna. I think we had a better time than Richard the Lionheart, who was held captive there by Duke Leopold V – while we were entertained by wine Royalty: Emmerich Knoll, who makes some of the most glorious Grüner Veltliner and Riesling to grace a glass. But first we had to qualify for an epic tasting by accompanying Emmerich up the vertiginous slopes that expose the vines to the sun and light that give such mouth-watering ripeness. We ourselves were ‘exposed’ to a wonderful range of Knoll’s 2011s, with my two absolute favourites being the Grüner Veltliner Ried Loibenberg Smaragd and the Riesling Ried Kellerberg Smaragd. These richer white wines are named after the ‘emerald’ lizard one sometimes sees in these vineyards, a very specific term that is only used in the Wachau. Then we repaired to the lovely garden restaurant owned by the Knoll family and drank a fabulous, complex, greengagey Riesling Ried Schütt Smaragd 2001 with chanterelle mushrooms and dumplings – paradise under the trees.

Loibenberg vineyard, Weingut Emmerich Knoll.

There were more delights in store south of the Danube in Traisental, where one of Austria’s ‘young lion’ winemakers, Markus Huber, is working miracles on limestone, crafting elegant, seductive wines from, guess what, Grüner Veltliner and Riesling. Here the 2011s are just as full of charm as in the Wachau, but in a different style, fresh, silky and grapefruity. We also lapped up the GV Berg 2010 and 2008 and the Riesling Berg 2010 and 2007, which showed just how well these wines develop in bottle. Markus is a man to watch, developing his estate with astute talent and abundant, informed enthusiasm.

© Weingut Huber.

We had no time on this visit to go to the Burgenland in eastern Austria to survey the stunning red wines made from Zweigelt, Blaufränkisch, St.Laurent and Pinot Noir (or sometimes combinations of several such grape varieties), but we did the next best thing by heading for the extreme west of Austria and Schwarzenberg in the Bregenzerwald where the extraordinary musical experience of the Schubertiade takes place in the summer months. With a feast of ‘lieder’ and quartets, we needed more corporal nourishment as the sun set behind the mountains and we found this in spades at the picture-postcard Gasthof Hirschen where Franz Fetz presides with true professionalism. His knowledge of Austrian wine is reflected in his delectable wine list and his vinous guidance is as sure as his path finding in the snow – he was head of the local ski school for 20 years. We had great fun picking our way through the reds of his friend Gernot Heinrich from Gols in Burgenland and lingered long over a 2006 St.Laurent vom Stein from Josef Umathum in the same area and a 2006 Perwolff from Krutzler in Südburgenland, all fleshy wild strawberries made from Blaufränkisch and Cabernet Sauvignon.
And when music, food and wine pall (what am I saying here?), there is another reason to go to Schwarzenberg – it was the home village of Angelika Kauffmann and her murals and those of her father decorate the church in this beautiful corner of Austria.