Heading south, I stop first to taste and to tour the Hillinger winery near the small village of Jois. The winery is impressive for its modernistic approach; it appears almost like a cube, two stories set into a small hillside with huge picture windows on the upper floor affording magnificent views of the surrounding vineyards. Rising just to the northwest is a small range of hills called the Leithagerbirge, also known as the end of the Alps. It helps moderate cooling winds in the immediate vicinity, helping vineyards to thrive.
I look at the map and it suddenly clicks in my mind that these vineyards are almost as high in latitude as those of Champagne, just below the 48th parallel. One reason that both red and white grapes can thrive here is due to the influence of the large Pannonian plain that rests over much of this section of central Europe, centered on Hungary. Somewhat like the great central valley of California, it provides a reservoir of heat in the summer. But another important reason lies just to the south: the shallow and large inland lake called the Neusiedlersee. About 25 miles long and two to four miles wide, its waters moderate the climate, providing warmer nights and cooler days in the summer, as well as protecting against frosts. In the fall, its humidity is responsible for ground fogs that hang over lakeside vineyards and promote the growth of the botrytis rot that is the key to the magnificent dessert wines of Alois Kracher and others.
While the Neusiedlersee does provide a sense of wildness and nature, it is definitely not an Alpine gem. It is surrounded by marshes and reeds (which provided excellent habitat for birds) and its waters are muddy. On the west side, one of the key wine villages is called Rust, where I visit the cellars of Heidi Schröck. While best known for sweet wines, including those called Ruster Ausbruchs, which are made in the style of Hungarian Tokays, Schröck is pursuing another Hungarian-inspired wine, dry Furmint.
Leaving the busy streets of Rust, filled with plenty of small gasthaus, wineries and hotels catering to wine tourism, Schröck takes me to her vineyards just to the west of town. She has upwards of 40 different small plots located all around the town, a legacy of medieval land patterns. On a small hill covered with vines, we gain a clear view of Rust and the broad expanse of the lake waters, with Hungary in the distance. Schröck says she often comes here to get away from the crowds of the town. “When I come up this hill I often think what the first settlers must have thought when they came here,” Schrock says in her soft voice.
That was millennia ago, of course, but it underscores the frontier feeling of the region, and what distinguishes it from the rest of Austria. Until the early 1920s, this was part of Hungary, though mostly German-speaking. And after World War II, it was the end of the world, according to most of the locals. The Iron Curtain lay draped across the south end of the lake, with watchtowers and guards with machine guns. It made the entire region the poorest in Austria as well.
But since 1989 and the fall of the Berlin Wall, the region has been on the upswing. Investment by the European Union has helped reinvigorate the vineyards, and people are moving back in after decades of depopulation. And while the vintners and winemakers are part of the Austrian mainstream, they also look east to Hungary. Their lifestyle is Pannonian, they say, more easygoing, with a cuisine influenced by the toothsome spiciness of Hungary.
Schröck’s experiments with Furmint are part of that Hungarian reorientation. “It’s very floral and fruity, with a very special character,” she says of her wine. There only 30 acres of Furmint in all of Austria, she says, with 90 percent of that in Rust. I taste a dry 2006 Furmint that she pours; it features a crisp acidity like a better Sauvignon Blanc, with plenty of apple and lemon flavors; I rate it 86 points, non-blind. I also taste an outstanding dessert-style Ruster Ausbruch Furmint, rich and buttery, with loads of apricot and peach flavors. With only 600 bottles made, Schröck has little to send outside Austria. I enjoy my sips and am reminded of four or five puttunyos Hungarian Tokay. It also beckons me to travel farther east someday, and visit that region as well.
Next: A visit to the east side of the Neusiedlersee.