You Probably Won’t See a Bear: 5 Surprises of Our Austrian Wine Tasting Weekend
When our friends told their co-workers in London that they were going to Austria at the end of May, most people assumed they’d be skiing. In fact, they were joining R and me for a weekend of Austrian wine tasting in impeccable summer conditions, but there were a few other surprises.
1. Gols has 40 Wendelins and even more wine
Making our way from the Vienna Airport to Gols, Burgenland, we drove through flat fields of wind turbines and down roads lined with bright red poppies. Though I hadn’t heard of Gols before, I soon realized just how many of the wines I am used to seeing in the supermarket come from this small wine-producing town. With a population of only 3,677, the sign that you see upon arrival proves just how much this town revolves around wine. A stark contrast from the mountains and green hills of Styria, it is the hot and dry conditions that make the area around the Neusiedler lake so ideal for winegrowing.
Our first stop was our B&B, the Paul Achs Weingut, where we were thrilled to hear that we could help ourselves to any of the wines in their fridge or red storage area. After a fantastic fish lunch at Varga – strongly recommended – we made our way to our first official wine tasting, at Paul and Andrea Wendelin’s Winzerhof. Andrea Wendelin, who guided us through their wines, explained to us that there are over 40 Wendelin families in Gols, most of whom also produce wine. There are even three Paul Wendelins, which means that if you’re trying to identify a particular vineyard, you had probably better have the address too.
Andrea introduced us to their extremely drinkable Welschriesling and their refreshing Chardonnay, pointing out the advantage of simple wines that you can drink in large quantities on a hot summer day—fortunately, it was just such a day. Their Chardonnay matures in metal flasks and so lacks the oakiness that can make some North American Chardonnays overbearing. Next we moved on to the reds: we tasted Paul Wendelin’s 2012 Merlot, a pet project of the vintner’s, and learned that the wine will keep improving as the vines age. We ended up leaving with some of their 2012 Novem Cuvée, a mix of Zweigelt, Blaufraenkisch, and St Laurent grapes, as well as their Cabernet Sauvignon Vintage Cuvée (2012/2013), and we couldn’t resist a bottle of their bubbles: a sparkling Müller Thurgau white perfect for a picnic on a hot day.
Heading home with our haul
2. The southernmost point of Styria is…. a bit underwhelming
As we left Gols and headed back to Styria, the hills became steeper and more mountainous. We skirted Graz and headed South, towards our local wine region: “die Sudsteiermark” (or South Styria). Our journey ended at the Moserhof, a hotel and distillery just south of the town of Leutschach, mere kilometres from the Slovenian border.
Although the pool was beckoning, we laced up our boots and took off on an afternoon hike to the southernmost point of Styria. Thinking we were at the top of the hill, it came as a surprise when the hiking route continued taking us up, and up, and up, past farm houses and through fields, where the English boys couldn’t resist a good-old-fashioned “hills are alive” run through the grass. Eventually the path flattened out and we cooled down a bit beneath the trees. The path we had been following was called the Border Panorama Route, so we assumed that at some point, a panorama would unfold before us.
This turned out to be false. After a short loss in elevation, we found ourselves at our destination: a sign in the woods! While the enjoyment of “now I’m in Austria, now I’m in Slovenia” is never to be underestimated, the name of the “border panorama route” turned out to be a bit misleading. Fortunately, I knew I had a glass of sparkling wine and a pool waiting for me upon our return to the hotel.
Enjoying the View of the “Panorama Route”
3. There aren’t any bears, but…
The nearest Buschenschank – a small, usually family-owned farm restaurant and vineyard that sells only what it can produce itself – was about a 15-minute walk away. We left the hotel and took a right—our first mistake, apparently, because we once again ended up walking down a steep hill, only to look up to our left and realize that the restaurant was perched atop a hill on the opposite side of the ravine we had just descended. Oof.
We finally made it, after switchbacks up the hill under the watchful eyes of goats, to the Panorama Schenke, run by the Kure family. Unlike the “border panorama route”, this time the claim was supported by the amazing view of the hills and valleys around us from the garden patio. We arrived around 8 pm to find four people sitting at a table, the windows of the home dark. We sat down at another table, and were immediately served by one of the women who had been enjoying a glass of wine with her friends. A glance at the menus then revealed that they are technically only open til 6:30 pm—no matter, apparently, Helga was happy to have us and served us up huge portions of typical Buschenschank delights: a Brettljause for three, sheep’s cheese salad, runner bean salad (soaked in delicious pumpkin seed oil), and a litre of wine, a litre of sparkling water. While this combination is usually good no matter where you go, the Panorama Schenke was better than most, and definitely exceeded my expectations.
Having seen the bear-bridges over the highway on the way to Gols, our English friends had gotten the impression that it was possible they just might see a bear on this trip to Austria. Upon asking our hostess about a shorter route home, she pointed us towards the road we apparently should have taken, and, when I asked about bears, laughed out loud and gave us each a schnapps. Crossing the pitch dark field she had directed us to, we heard a movement, and turned to find ourselves face to face with some very large, horned cows. Deer or hares we might see, she said, but bears probably not. No mention of the heifers we’d be trespassing on. The cows – and the schnapps, most likely – put some spring in our step, and still watching the lightning in the distance, we made our way home unscathed.
4. The water is cold but so is the wine.
The next morning, we checked out of the hotel and made our way directly to the adjacent schnapps distillery. While none of us were in the mood to taste the stronger stuff so early in the day, we did sample their sparkling wines. The perfume of the rose petal frizzante was a little bit too strong for me, but I love a good sparkling Schilcher, a rosé made from the Blauer Wildbacher grape and indigenous to the region. With another bottle of bubbles added to our growing stash, we made our way back towards Graz, by way of a favourite summer destination.
Steinerne Wehr is a swimming hole at a bend in the river Sulm. Having visited on more than one sweltering day the year before, I was expecting the water to be refreshingly cool. This year, however, has been heavy with rain and not nearly as warm, and a jump into the deep end resulted in chest pain and gasping for breath. Afterwards, with fried chicken strips on green salad, again doused in pumpkin seed oil, we got down to the real refreshing business.
A quiet day at the swimming hole
About 45 minutes from Graz, Steinerne Wehr is ideally located for another reason: it is a very short drive from the Kieslinger Buschenschank and vineyard. While we had had enough Buschenschank food for the while, Kieslinger has a beautiful sparkling Schilcher without which our wine tasting weekend would not have been complete. As of Fall 2016, their Muskatellersekt (Prosecco) will be available, so we’ll definitely be going back. Plus, all the Schilcher will be gone by then.
5. There’s more than burgers at Kirby’s
We normally go to B.eat for our American style burgers in Graz, but Kirby’s had been recommended to us and was a welcome change from the typical Austrian food we’d been eating. Upon entering, we realized that it is run by the same couple as another of our favourite restaurants in Graz, Steak Boutique. While Kirby’s may be small – reservations are definitely recommended – the menu has a selection of dishes that appeal to the American food trend Graz is currently experiencing. The burgers don’t beat B.eat’s, especially given that fries are not included in the price, but the tuna tartare was amazing and I will definitely be visiting again for the buffalo wings. In terms of atmosphere and originality, Kirby’s is worth a visit if you’re looking for a change from Austrian/Italian cuisine or searching for the perfect sweet-sour barbecue sauce.