Wine and Food in the Borderlands
Posted: 4th June 2019
These days when I go to Austria I seldom chance it beyond the Vienna’s wide city limits. Last week it was different: almost as soon as I arrived I was whisked off in a coach driven by Wolfgang the Bavarian and taken to Poysdorf on the ‘Brünnerstrasse’, the famous Brno Road. The Brünnerstrasse used to go all the way to Brünn or Brno in Southern Moravia but after Austria-Hungary lost the First World War it stopped at the River Thaya. The other side was the new state of Czecho-Slovakia. This rather downsized picture of Austria and the history of its wines was the theme behind the trip.
The ‘Brünnerstrasse’ was famous for the sharpness of its ‘Brünnerstrassler’ wines. They even had a coarse epithet to describe them, claiming they were so acid they would draw your shirt tails into your entrails via your fundament. When the sparkling wine craze hit Austria in the 1840s, the Brünnerstrasse found a new vocation: it became the plinth for wines made by the champagne-method: sour wines could be fattened up with sugar for the second fermentation.
Despite the vicissitudes of the twentieth century, the wines made either side of the frontier have remained very much in the same idiom, but I doubt that the sparkling wine producers in Vienna’s Döbling have access to wines from the Czech side of the border any more. I used to like the simple Grüner Veltliner wines from the eastern Weinviertel very much. They rarely achieved great ripeness but they were fairly priced and refreshing. This time I struggled: warmer summers have nudged them up by a degree or two robbing them of much of their acidity. I began to see the sense in the sparkling wines: they could be picked early, and that way retain some of their bite.
After lunch in a local inn we went to a tasting of Carnuntum wines at Schloss Hof, the former summer residence of Prince Eugene of Savoy: it is so close to the Slovakian Border that the gardens seem to collide with the tower blocks in the suburbs of Bratislava. The tasting was in the ballroom, which was in a muted, early classical style distinct from the original baroque and rococo conception of the house. We were urged to go out and look at the newly restored gardens, passing through the sublime sala terrena on the way. The tasting showed beyond doubt that Carnuntum is producing some of the best red wines in Austria: not just my old friend Hans Pitnauer, with his Bienenfresser, but also Muhr-van der Niepoort, Gerhard Markowitsch, and the new star Michael Auer.
We had a considerable treat that night in dinner at Zur Dankbarkeit in Podersdorf on the Neusiedlersee: the most authentic country inn on the far side of the lake and now in the fourth generation of ownership by the Lentsch family. You might have found the great sweet winemaker Alois Kracher enjoying a fag at the bar here before his untimely death a decade ago. Some two hundred years before, a Prussian count is supposed to have sought refuge in this building after killing a man in a duel and somewhere in the bowels of the inn there is a quaint series of paintings describing his life.
It was good to see Josef Lentsch presiding in person at our Pannonian feast and celebrating the current asparagus season. He told me that the local sandy soils are famous for it and asparagus found its way into several courses of the meal: a terrine of goats’ cheese, Mangalitza sausage with some cabbage steeped in paprika; zander with braised radishes (brilliant idea) braised ox cheeks with asparagus and semmel terrine, finishing up with chocolate cake with asparagus ice. To go with this there was a really nice Veltliner from Sommer in the Leithagebirge with the fish, a St Laurent Ried Rosenberg from Gerhard and Brigitte Pittnauer (the Golser Pittnauer not the Göttlesbrunner Pitnauer) with the ox cheeks; and a fantastically sweet (360 grams per litre), coffee-coloured 2008 Welschriesling Trockenbeerenauslese from Velich with the pudding.
The following morning we had a rare treat (rara avis perhaps?) when we went on safari in the national park. It wasn’t really a safari – although we did see some hares and deer speeding by – it was chiefly about birds and the very many sorts that congregate around the salt-water ponds and lakes. I wish I could remember them all, but there were plenty of egrets and buzzards, pied avocets, lapwings, cormorants, storks and a sole marsh harrier out looking for lunch. Done twitching, we went to Austria’s hottest spot: Andau on the Hungarian Border, home to Kracher’s friend Hans Schwarz the big butcher and his suitably voluminous wines.
Our goal was the little bridge across which thousands of Hungarians fled to the West in 1956. It is not the original bridge, which was subsequently demolished, but one put up for a film. Our lecturer not only recounted that moving story, but taught us about how little wine culture there was on the eastern shores of the lake before the seventies and eighties. South of Gols there was too much mist, making the area by the lake suitable only for luscious sweet wine production. This used to be mostly cattle country, with vegetables planted in the sand like the asparagus we had eaten the night before.
After lunch at the enormous Scheiblhofer Winery at Andau (the outgoing Austrian wine chief Willi Klinger designated Scheiblhofer’s 200 hectares of vines as the ‘new face of Austria’) we cut through Hungary to Central Burgenland. From the coach window I could see the Esterhazy Summer Palace. My Polish neighbour reminded me that it was there that Haydn’s Farewell Symphony was first performed to quietly intimate that it was time the orchestra had some compassionate leave. Our destination was the Kirnbauer Winery in Deutschkreuz with its spectacular views over the vineyards to the north. Here we had a Blaufränkisch tasting animated by David Schildknecht among others and including a few Hungarian wines from the far side of the border. There were decent things from Reumann, Iby, Wieder and Gesellmann. Moric, made from ancient vines in Lutzmannsburg, I tend to love more with my head than my heart. More enjoyable wines came from Kirnbauer himself, Prieler in the Leithagebirge and Schiefer on the Eisenberg but my favourite of those tasted that afternoon was the 2011 Ried Sonnensteig from Wellanschitz.
We continued our journey south to the Eisenberg with its vineyards rising to 440 metres and overlooking the Pinka Valley as it meanders into Hungary. We had an elaborate dinner at Wachter Wieslers Ratschen in Deutsch Schützen. It was a far cry from my first meal in South Burgenland twenty-eight years before, when there wasn’t so much as an upmarket Beisl for miles around and I spent the evening on a pub-crawl through smoky bars led by my host, a Herr Körper-Faulhammer. This meal was very soigné with small dishes flanking contrasting ingredients and exotic flourishes of wasabi, calamondin oranges and shiitake dim sum accompanying salmon trout, kingfish, blacktail chicken, Angus beef and white chocolate mousse…
Wines included a 2015 Leithaberg Cuvee from Nehrer, a 2005 Velich Tiglat (of which there was less than a thimbleful as a result of a supply mishap), 2015 Leberl Blaufränksich Ried Föllikberg and the two stars: a 2015 Eisenberg Blaufränkisch Senior from Schützenhof and a 2013 red Pannobile from Gernot Heinrich. We finished off on an eccentric note with a sparkling Uhudler – a wine made from ungrafted American vines. Sometime in the early nineties when it was still illegal, I reported on an Uhudler tasting in a thatched cottage out there in the woods, orchestrated by Erich Krutzler and the self-proclaimed Uhudler Queen. I have a lemonade bottle full of the winning wine. It might be the oldest Uhudler in existence?
The next morning we gathered on the Eisenberg to hear a lecture on the fate of the border dwellers after Hungary was torn from Austria in 1919. A few wines were served there and then. Eisenberg red wines have a certain sharpness to them, and you are tempted to taste the abundant iron that is a large part of the mineral content of the Eisenberg. Then we left Burgenland for Styria and a simple lunch of fried chicken and pumpkin seed dumplings with elderberry sauce at Schloss Kapfenstein.
It was a pleasure to see George Winkler-Hermaden again and recall the few years when I made an annual pilgrimage to the castle to taste Styrian wines with the late Mario Scheuermann. There were wines to try with lunch. Some of those that hit the spot were surprises, some not: a nice Gelber Muskateller from Fuchs and excellent Sauvignon Blancs from Lackner-Tinnacher, Gross (Nussberg), Sattler (Kranachberg) and Neumeister; a Weissburgunder (Pinot Blanc) from Winkler-Hermaden, a Grauburgunder (Pinot Gris) from Harkamp and a Gewürztraminer from Skoff at Domäne Kranachberg.
Lunch was followed by a sit-down tasting, of which the stars were Tement’s Ehrenhausen Sauvignon Blanc, Walter Skoff’s Eichberg Sauvignon and Schauer’s Kitzeck Riesling. The best wine of all for me was the Gamlitz Muskateller from Alois Gross, but then I’m a sucker for these things.
It was time for Wolfgang to ferry us back to Vienna. On the Sunday the loose ends were tied up in the grandiose Renaissance debating chamber of the old Lower Austrian Estates while we heard more details of the epic history of Austrian wine that is to be issued in September. I am counting the days.