My first trip to Austria’s wine regions begins in one of its most unknown corners. And I’m accompanied by a cosmopolitan trio. Not Austrian, but a pair of Portuguese winemakers and Dirk Niepoort of the Port- (and now table wine) making family in the Douro. Dirk is in Austria checking on the wine venture he owns with his wife, Austrian Dorli Muhr, which they have dubbed D & D. Their wines are still mostly in the experimental stages, and their vineyards are located just a half an hour from the Vienna airport, in the Carnuntum district, where I have touched down amid heavy clouds and light rain.
With Niepoort is Jorge Moreira, who makes the Douro red Poeira and also oversees the wines at Quinta da La Rosa, and Niepoort’s winemaker, Luis Seabra. Dirk is the one of the godfathers of the Douro table-wine revolution, and he is helping to shepherd the two Portuguese on a marketing and education trip in Austria. The two Portuguese and I quickly bond through our mutual ignorance of German.
We speed east on the autoroute in the direction of Budapest. The clouds hang low. Soon, we are off the main route and traveling through small, quiet and seemingly remote villages dominated by Baroque architecture. We stop just west of the Hungarian border in a small vineyard area called Spitzerberg. I breathe a sigh of relief as we finally get out of the car to look at the vines; there’s only an occasional drop or two of rain.
Carnuntum, comprising about 2,200 acres of vineyards, is named for an old Roman city. It is one the warmest and driest regions in Austria, explains Niepoort. Still, it seems green and lush to me, the vines pushing vigorously with bunches of small flowers that will soon turn into grapes. Unlike the Douro, where terraces running across slopes are the rule, these vineyard are arranged in narrow parallel plots that push directly up the gentle slope. Austrian red varieties dominate the region, Zweigelt and Blaufrankisch, with some white, mainly Grüner Veltliner. Niepoort prefers the dense fruit flavors of the Blaufrankisch to the usually lighter-bodied Zweigelt. But he is here for other reasons as well. “Pinot Noir is a personal disease which does have some influence on my life,” he says in a wry manner. Moreira agrees. “He’s completely crazy about Burgundy,” he says.
He’s not the only one. I soon find a number of Austrian vintners who have caught the same disease for Burgundian and other French varieties, especially Pinot Noir. At first I feel they are just winemaking wannabes, trying to reach for a model that will gain them quick recognition in the crowded stage of world competition. But I soon find out otherwise, in the complicated winemaking realm of the Burgenland. Set in the middle of Europe, it is at the crossroads of cultures, climates and winemaking styles. It is also home to some of the greatest sweet wines in the world. Before the Iron Curtain fell, it was Austria’s poorest region, forgotten amid Cold War politics and frontiers. Today, it is one of Austria’s most exciting regions, and is experiencing revolutionary change. Wine is at the center of it all.
Tomorrow: The Neusiedlersee, a shallow lake that is the key to the whole region.