A cable car provides the only access to Burg Vital Spa & Resort, in the heart of Austria’s famed Arlberg ski region. The snowcapped mountains in the distance look like giant white pillows, stitched here and there with the dark threads of ski lifts.
It’s a 10-minute trek in the snow from the gondola terminal to Burg Vital, a luxurious 70-room hotel on the edge of the exclusive resort of Oberlech, which visionary farmers built on a plateau where cows once grazed in summer. Now home to several hotels and restaurants as well as vacation condos, the outcrop, at nearly 5,600 feet of elevation, overlooks the valley and its main village, Lech, itself about a two-hour drive from either Innsbruck or Zürich.
The hotel lobby overlooks an indoor pool whose azure water reflects the blindingly white snow outside the wall-to-wall windows. A spa and fitness center features a second heated pool, this one filled with salt water. Persian carpets grace floors of Piedmont marble. A fire crackles in the hearth. A pianist plays next to a walk-in humidor. Owner Thomas Lucian’s collection of mostly Austrian masters—700 paintings total—hangs on the walls everywhere.
Wine too is everywhere. In the homey sitting areas, large-format bottles of Bordeaux, super Tuscans, Burgundies and other collectibles rest in temperature-controlled glass-fitted units. Three stories underground lie three cellars holding 60,000 bottles.
“You can always do better, that’s my philosophy,” says the elegant Lucian, who worked patiently for decades to make the family-owned Burg Vital into one of the greatest wine destinations in the Alps.
The French Room, a designer wine cellar with a long table earmarked for sit-down tastings, is filled with French benchmarks, from Domaine de la Romanée-Conti (10 vintages of Romanée St.-Vivant, including the 2009, $2,935) to Bordeaux back to the 1980s.
A second cellar contains Austrian wines, which represent half the hotel’s wine sales—not surprising, as Lucian has assembled a masterful collection of the nation’s top producers. A third cellar holds an excellent selection from Tuscany and Spain, with impressive verticals of Ornellaia, Sassicaia and Tignanello. The cellar is rounded out with strengths in Swiss and German whites, along with California reds (seven vintages of Dominus back to 1989, $384; Sine Qua Non Syrah Touche 2009, $1,682).
The 3,000-wine list provides a unique opportunity to match the food at Burg Vital’s flagship restaurant, Griggeler Stuba, an intimate, elegant dining room of only five tables to accommodate 20 diners.
Dominic Baumann’s subtle, unfussy cuisine is the perfect foil for Lucian’s wines. A former sous chef at the hotel, Baumann was promoted to chef of Griggeler last year. He eschews salt in his cooking, using instead some of the 120 species of herbs at his disposal, including pineapple mint, jiaogulan, cordifilia and lemon thyme. He works with ingredients from a network of longtime suppliers—farmers and fishermen who adhere to sustainable methods worked out in collaboration with Lucian, who sometimes finances vendors in need of help.
Lucian’s son, Maximilian, who acts as food and beverage director, and head sommelier Michael Bauer mine the list, plus an additional 2,000 cellared wines awaiting their turn on the list, to match each of the seven courses on Baumann’s prix fixe menu ($194; the seven-glass wine pairing is an additional $158). Delicate char from Lake Constance is matched with a racy Austrian white, Josef Jamek Grüner Veltliner Smaragd Trocken Wachau Ried Achleiten 2014. The Burgundy-like complexity of the outstanding Chardonnay Passion 2015 from famed Swiss winemaker Martin Donatsch marries well with cured Salzburg beef with horseradish and sorrel ice cream. A soft, rich Château Léoville Las Cases 2007 paired perfectly with tender veal fillet and sweetbreads.
Burg Vital has the feel of a cozy mountain lodge thanks to an ingenious design: Five unobtrusive chalets are connected by nicely decorated underground tunnels that allow guests to walk from building to building and from activity to activity, as you might move from one room to another in your home.
The Lucian family is close to nature. Matriarch Helga, Thomas’ mother, started on the Oberlech plateau with a two-bedroom Alpine cabin and “milchbar” before building a successful hotel nearby. Now 80, she still forages for Alpine herbs and flowers to supply the organic teas served in the hotel’s chic tea bar.
Today, this affinity with nature has evolved into the Alpine cuisine served in Griggeler Stuba, where it plays a supporting role to the main attraction: Lucian’s encyclopedic wine collection.
—Contributor Per-Henrik Mansson is based in Switzerland.
Read the entire 2019 Restaurant Awards package, including the cover story, “Sharing the Table," in the Aug. 31, 2019, issue of Wine Spectator.