The wine world's biggest secret

Philipp Blom takes a tour of Austria's vineyards and explains why they are too often overlooked and undervalued
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The Independent Travel
When I lived in Vienna, I was hell-bent on becoming a tenor so I took singing lessons. Suffering induces comradeship, and I befriended another hopeful who paid for part of his studies as a chef. "You realise," he said, as we chatted after a lesson, "that Austria produces some of the finest wines in the world." At this I emitted a loud guffaw of derision. I might not be a food expert, but I do know a little about wines, I thought. I had tasted the local offerings at the country inns scattered around Vienna, and had even bought the two-litre bottles on sale at every grocer's. Nothing to write home about.

The effect of my hilarity was surprising. My otherwise gentle friend dragged me into his cellar. He didn't lock me up, as I feared, but chose four bottles and marched me up to his flat. Several hours and said bottles later, I admitted defeat. These wines were the start of something close to an obsession.

Austrian wines are the best-kept secret of the wine world. They are exciting, innovative, and a small band of top producers regularly wipes the board in blind tastings against the best international competition. What's more, most of the vintners are only too glad to welcome visitors on to their estates and show them around.

Where to begin a journey through the wine-producing areas of Austria? You could do worse than approaching it like a good meal, beginning with whites, progressing to meaty reds, and finishing off with some sweet wines which are giving the cellar-masters of Chateau d'Yqem sleepless nights.

Whatever, it's a happy coincidence that many of Austria's, and the world's, best Rieslings are made in some of its most beautiful countryside, the Wachau. The dramatic, graceful Danube valley, about 50km downstream from Vienna, is punctuated by little baroque towns and steeply terraced vineyards. The visitor could take refuge in the restaurant Loibnerhof, run by Josef Knoll, whose brother Emmerich makes famous Rieslings and Gruner Veltliners, an Austrian grape variety which can yield stunning, majestic wines, as well as the time-honoured plonk. No plonk in Knoll's cellars, though. His wines are just as baroque as the local architecture: big, rounded and gold-coloured, but also elegant.

Suitably fortified, I visited Franz Hirtzberger, a jovial man who also runs the local fire brigade. His wines are miracles of clarity and concentration and are among the very best produced here - full of steely minerals and fine fruit. The ultimate pilgrimage, however, would be to the enigmatic F X Pichler, more an artist than a vintner, whose temperament is as inscrutable as that of the opera singers he so admires. Even if you can't get an audience, do give your last shirt to get hold of his wonderful Rieslings and Gruner Veltliners.

A piece of advice: discover Willi Brundlmayer before the rest of the world does. His estate is only half an hour away from the Wachau, in the Kamptal. Not only is he charming, witty, stylish, and fluent in English and French, he is also one of the best wine-makers around. In contrast to many of his colleagues, he produces wines in quantity, which mean that there's actually something available when you get there. Most other top vintners are sold out long before the wine even sees a bottle. Brundlmayer has a range of wonderful wines, from the relatively straightforward to the highly sophisticated. Taste his Gruner Veltliner Alte Reben (vieille vigne) and swoon.

The next leg of the tour is Styria, which Austrians call their Tuscany, although the real thing is less misty. Wines produced here are very different, with the emphasis on Sauvignon Blanc and white burgundian grape varieties such as Chardonnay and Pinot Blanc and Gris. For great wine, look no further than Manfred Tement.

Sometimes penury can be a good thing. Had his father been able to afford becoming a priest, there'd be no Manfred Tement, and the wine world would be without some of its most stunning Sauvignon Blancs and Chardonnays. Tement never follows the latest fashions, he sets them. Complex, with wonderful fruit and perfectly integrated oak, they are all you can want, and more. Don't drink too much, though. You have to drive a little to get to your shack for the night. A castle, no less.

The medieval Schloss Kapfenstein, very much a robber-baron's refuge, is now a hotel combining rustic Austrian style (yes, the female staff wear dirndls) with a famous restaurant and powerful wines produced by the chef's brother, Georg Winkler-Hermaden (this fraternal vintner-gastronomer combo is popular in Austria).

For the red wines to go with your main course, it is only a short drive from southern Styria to the Burgenland, or castle country. In Austria, conditions for red wines are not as favourable as for whites, but that doesn't stop some vintners from harvesting considerable vintages. For the international palate, it is advisable to skip the (very good) peppery wines made in southern Burgenland, and to visit instead people like Andi Kollwenz or Josef Umathum. Both are happy to show visitors around, both produce dark and complex red wines and are pushing forward the boundaries of wine-making.

There are many other outstanding vintners in the region worth visiting. Stay in the lovely town of Rust, on the shores of lake Neusiedl. the area seems to consist only of wine estates, from the modest to the wonderful. The speciality here is Ausbruch, a sweet wine. One of the best exponents is the Feiler-Artinger winery, housed in a 17th-century building. They also make good dry red wine, as does Ernst Triebaumer.

What this area is most famous for is sweet wines. Look no further than Helmut Lang and Alois Kracher, who describes himself as "just a simple farmer". Kracher is a cult vintner and has won every international prize.

They make their wines from rotten grapes here. It may not sound appealing, but the "noble rot" extracts the water and leaves the concentrated sweetness in the grapes, adding a flavour of its own. The misty conditions are ideal. These are the perfect dessert wines to round off an extended dinner that has taken you through a wine country which must be the most underestimated in Europe, if not the world.