In the picturesque valleys outside Vienna, Austria—a land of villages and renowned Rieslings and Grüners—the next generation of winemakers is bringing the Old World into the future.
I was sitting in an ornate dining room eating a breakfast out of the Hapsburg Empire: cheeses, meats, smoked fish, black bread with apricot jam—not a cereal bowl in sight. Chandeliers hung from the ceiling. Framed landscapes adorned the walls. Outside, the Danube flashed in the morning sun.
Schloss Dürnstein was built in 1630 and is now a Relais & Châteaux property. Like the rest of the Wachau region—a rural, 120-square-mile area that begins some 50 miles west of Vienna—the castle and the surrounding village of Dürnstein look like they belong in the middle of the last millennium. With 47 rooms, Schloss Dürnstein is the largest, most luxurious hotel in a valley of small inns and guesthouses set along narrow streets that slope up from the river.
Otti, a server who has been working at the hotel for nearly four decades, appeared holding a slim stack of newspapers. “Is that today’s International New York Times?” I asked, having recognized the typeface from across the room.
She confirmed that it was, gently putting a copy on my table. I glanced at the date. “But this is from yesterday,” I said.
“For us,” she replied, “today is yesterday.”
The day before, I’d accompanied Toni Bodenstein through the neighboring village of Weissenkirchen, where he is the Bürgermeister (mayor) and owner of the renowned Prager winery. Bodenstein recently supervised the installation of the handsome new Wachau Museum in a 16th-century castle. He showed me historical paintings of Weissenkirchen, then pointed out the same houses when we walked around the town. “If you take a photo today and compare, things look the same,” he explained. “Nothing has changed.”
Indeed, the Wachau can seem stuck in the past. The valley was designated a unesco World Heritage site in 2000, and it, along with the nearby Kamptal and Kremstal, has been famous since the 1950s for producing some of the world’s most compelling white wines—dry, refreshing Rieslings that are as focused and precise as the trim on the shutters of the area’s painstakingly maintained buildings.
Along the banks of the Danube, in the villages of Spitz and Joching, those gorgeous old buildings are kept freshly painted in pastel ice-cream colors, the churches’ artichoke domes still perfectly intact. Today’s winemakers, chefs, and hoteliers are dedicated to preserving the old-world feel of the valley. But they also understand the need to discreetly modernize. The soaring popularity of Grüner Veltliner, now the country’s signature grape, and a renewed interest in Austrian food (signaled by the success of stateside restaurants like Wallsé, in New York City, and Grüner, in Portland, Oregon) have shone a new light on the region and its traditions and given people a fresh reason to visit. So these days, while the swallows still nest in the Schloss Dürnstein lobby, the hotel also has Wi-Fi and Thai yoga therapy, thanks to Christian Thiery, the 39-year-old son of the owners. “We update year by year, piece by piece,” he said. “If everyone did it all at once, the region would be destroyed.”
The philosophy is the same at Landhaus Bacher, in Mautern an der Donau, where Lisl Wagner-Bacher has run one of Austria’s most famous kitchens for three decades. Four years ago, her son-in-law Thomas Dorfer took control and revamped the restaurant’s recipes. “The Wachau is slow-moving,” Dorfer admitted. “But to stay at this level, you have to keep reinventing what you do, even if it’s subtle.”
Landhaus Bacher still serves food that is unreservedly Austrian. For dinner, I had a terrine of duck liver with rhubarb jelly and a salad from the garden, followed by local pike perch in parsley sauce: classic dishes that Emperor Franz Josef would have recognized. The cuisine was airy, refreshing, and intensely local. “We’re in wine country, not in a big city like Vienna,” Dorfer reminded me. “We want you to take your time, and forget life around you.”
Another evening I visited Nikolaihof, a winery, restaurant, and inn just a few streets away. In 1971, it became one of the first producers to embrace biodynamic viticulture. This process involves organic agricultural practices, like growing grapes without chemical treatments, but also more mystical ones, among them burying a manure-stuffed cow’s horn in the soil. Nikolaihof’s wines have always been formidable, but 35-year-old Nikolaus Saahs Jr., the older of the owners’ two sons, has lifted them even higher. One Riesling was the first Austrian bottling to earn 100 points from Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate.
The property itself is arranged around a Celtic holy site, and the main building was mentioned in the Nibelungenlied, the medieval German epic. A deconsecrated 14th-century church has been converted into offices for the family, who live nearby. In the basement is the largest wooden grape press in the world, still used once a year to make a special cuvée.
I sat down for dinner under a majestic linden tree, and fell into conversation with Nikolaus Jr. and his brother, Martin. Their friends arrived, in from Vienna for the night. Before I could order, we all piled into a car and headed to the family’s terraced vineyard, perched above the Danube, where they’ve built a small wooden hut. Martin ducked inside and emerged with seven bottles, dark bread, and a plate of hams and cheeses. Girlfriends, daughters, and various in-laws joined our group.
We drank crisp Grüner Veltliners and a Klausberg Riesling, made from grapes grown where we were standing, that tasted of pear and orange peel. I could see the evening settling over the streets of Stein and the lights from the outskirts of Mautern.
This impromptu gathering was such a simple yet delightful way to spend a few hours, I couldn’t imagine why anyone would do anything else. “This is nightlife here,” Martin said. “We go to a beautiful spot, we eat and drink some wine, and make a party.”
The Wachau's traditional feel is even more striking when set against Langelois, some 10 miles north in the Kamptal. Though it has its share of historic churches and homes, many of its buildings are surprising, witty, and just plain cool. Acute-angled terraces jut from glass-and- steel cubes. Undulating roofs and diagonal lines impose themselves on the landscape. Works of art line a 31⁄2-mile public path that threads through world-renowned vineyards. It includes sculptures of a giant earthworm, a pair of scissors, and steel grapes designed to oxidize and streak with each rainfall.
Some of the area’s wineries and hotels also revel in this contemporary aesthetic. The starkly geometric Weingut Loimer, set on the site of a former World War II airplane factory, consists of four black boxes scattered across the vineyard like giant pieces of stereo equipment. Loisium Langenlois, where I stayed, looked like it was constructed out of Lego blocks by a creative nine-year-old. Fifteen of its rooms are sponsored by wineries, which buy the right to stock the mini-bar with their bottlings. Mine was filled with Riesling and Grüner Veltliner from Bründlmayer, one of my favorite producers.
That night, I dined with the owner, Willi Bründlmayer, at his ambitious Heuriger, a type of local tavern found in and around Vienna that specializes in robust lunch fare and house-made wine. As we drank a fresh, young Grüner full of minerality and lime, and then a remarkable 2002 Riesling that had somehow gained intensity over the years, he explained the cultural geography at work. Unlike the Wachau, the Kamptal looks northward, toward Prague. In design and mind-set, the Slavic influence is palpable. “The Wachau is close by, but the countryside is wilder here,” Bründlmayer said. “There’s more sense of risk and adventure.”
That’s also true in terms of viticulture. The region grows Grüner Veltliner and Riesling, but also Cabernet Franc, Chardonnay, and Neuburger—35 grape varieties in all. Bründlmayer, whose wife is French, even produces credible sparkling wine to satisfy her love of champagne. It was one of the many small choices the town and its residents made with no direct correlation to commerce. Rather, their decisions were aesthetic, emotional, even whimsical.
Krems an der Donau, a university town of some 24,000 people and the center of the Kremstal region, serves as a middle ground between the more traditional Wachau and the forward-thinking Kamptal. It’s just seven miles down the highway from Langenlois. Its young, progressive outlook is an appealing contrast to the town’s breathtaking old buildings, imposing churches, and charming storefronts. I had planned to spend all day exploring it. But what had been only mist in Langenlois became a downpour in Krems, so I drove across the river toward the nearby town of Rührsdorf until I saw Pulker’s Heuriger, an informal roadhouse run by Bernd Pulker, a former server at Landhaus Bacher.
Back home in the States, I’d have dismissed this spot as a biker bar. It had a row of deer skulls along one wall, a tired Christmas wreath, and empty wine bottles everywhere. Yet there wasn’t a biker in sight. Instead, the place was filled with families. Children sat at picnic tables, laughing and talking as loudly as they wanted while adults ate and drank heartily around them.
Pulker emerged from the kitchen. A tall man in his early thirties with a heavy beard, he was wearing black- rimmed glasses, a white shirt, and ornate lederhosen. He balanced six or seven plates in his arms, and distributed them with ease. Eventually, he brought me two kinds of sliced sausage, a salad of yellow potatoes in vinegar, and plump Austrian beans, each the size of a postage stamp, served cold with chives.
I devoured every bite, along with hunks of dense bread. I’d heard stories of Pulker’s enthusiasm for wine, and they proved to be, if anything, understated. Every few moments, he’d appear with a fresh glass and a bottle, and pour me something invariably compelling.
These were wines made for the Heuriger, low in alcohol and thirst-quenching, perfect for a Sunday afternoon. But Pulker is also a collector, and his cellar of 3,500 bottles is renowned in the community. “Guests say, ‘Make me some food and give me a little Henri Jayer Burgundy’ or whatever it might be,” he said. “And they sit here in shorts and T-shirts and have an unforgettable meal.”
I’d had plenty of fine lunches and dinners over the course of my trip, but he was right: this was the one I won’t soon forget. What set it apart, more than anything, was Pulker himself, an oversize presence who embodied the enthusiasm and hospitality of the region.
I can see him now emerging from the kitchen. He’s roaring with laughter, looking slightly preposterous yet altogether fitting in his traditional costume, striding toward my table, weaving between a runaway toddler and a stack of dishes, holding up a bottle he’s eager for me to try. I’m pretty sure it’s a Riesling.
T+L Guide Austria
Where to Sip
Wineries in the Wachau, Kremstal, and Kamptal are hospitable and beautiful. However, their visiting hours can be uneven. Appointments may be necessary: it’s always best to inquire first.
Franz Hirtzberger: A 13th-century winery that turns out especially rich Grüners.
F.X. Pichler: The futuristic winery might appear jarring, but Lucas Pichler’s traditional Grüners rank with the region’s best.
Loimer: Known for intense Rieslings—and a controversially modern winery.
Nigl: Supremely balanced Rieslings with 50-year life spans.
Nikolaihof: The pinpoint- precise wines are almost as memorable as dinner in the courtyard.
Prager: Complex wines with fine detail.
Hotel Pricing Key
$ Less than $200
$$ $200 to $350
$$$ $350 to $500
$$$$ $500 to $1,000
$$$$$ More than $1,000
Landhaus Bacher $$$$
Restaurant Pricing Key
$ Less than $25
$$ $25 to $75
$$$ $75 to $150
$$$$ More than $150