Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Our Austria trip is coming to an end ... (Part 1)

Reality always sets in at some point after an amazing experience, and the thought that I will be back at work in a matter of hours is floating somewhere in the back of my mind. But for now, I sit here in my living room letting the memories and details of the last week in Austria wash over me.
There is so much to process, and luckily for me, I have many outlets through which I can gradually sift through all the wonderful experiences. One such outlet that I have employed is sifting through the many, maaaany photos I took while abroad. Conveniently, these are all on my phone, which was also my camera. The Frametastic app also happens to be on my phone. I realized this connection on the last night in Vienna in our hotel, and thus three hours were wasted (er, I mean used productively) and between my photo-obsession and Claudia's wifi-euphoria after our week-long rationing, we got about three hours of sleep before having to wake back up to catch our morning flight back to DC. But all is not lost, since I can now condense our experiences visually for you here, using the product of my hours of photo manipulation in our Vienna hotel lobby. This, being perhaps the last post for a bit, may end up being long, so read what you want or just look at the pretty pictures. Enjoy!

I would first like to point out that it was freezing during our entire week. Of course, most people wouldn't necessarily think that cold weather is conducive for vineyard touring and wine tasting. And yet, what I found was that seeing the naked vines in winter helped me to better see how vast the vineyards truly were. Seeing the snow piled up along the sloping vineyard plots incited more curiosity about how weather affects the vines. We learned that all the snow that Austria has gotten this year has been a God-send because the moisture from snow actually seeps in deeper and lasts longer in the ground, quenching the thirst of the droughts the vineyards experienced the year before.

Sure, visiting the vineyards in the Spring or Autumn when leaves are vibrant and grapes are growing would have been beautiful, but being there in winter, I was given a special appreciation for the work of the winemaking families we met. Their job never stops, regardless of the weather. They have to be outside checking the vines and in cold cellars and barrel rooms and taking groups like ours on tours of the vineyards. Workers need to be out on tractors beginning to till the soil (when the terraces are wide enough to even allow a tractor to pass) and pruning the young shoots off the sturdier vine stalks to allow for a new growing season. Wine isn't all glamor and leisure. It's also a lot of very hard work. There were times when I just had to stop and let my mouth fall open looking out at all the vines--all the thousands and thousands of individual vines--that had to be tended, mostly by hand. 

Being there in winter also allowed me to see very clearly the variations in vineyard topography, in the particular characteristics of the different wine regions. Styria in the south of Austria is quite mountainous. The mountains aren't as tall as the craggy snow peaked Alps maybe, but still quite dangerous for people on tractors trying to drive through rows of vines planted vertically along the slopes. Gustav Strauss told us that there are sometimes five tractor-reltated deaths in one year in their region. In contrast, Burgenland, especially the areas around the flat shallow Neusiedlersee (Lake Neusiedl) that runs along the border of Hungary is very flat and very, very windy. It also experiences much more heat and humidity in the summer and is a region very conducive to make the highly prized Beerenauslese and Trockenbeerenauslese (TBA) wines.
 The beauty and history of the Wachau, even in winter, left me speechless. And the incredible complexity of the vineyard terracing system, with hundreds of stone walls in place to hold up the terraces actually reminded my quite a bit of the way Machu Pichu looks on foot. After greeting us with mulled white wine at a cliff-top Gazebo overlooking the Wachau wine region, the Danube river, the city of Krems, and the ruins of Durnstein, Martin Mittlebach, the son of the owners of Tegernseerhof and probably its biggest advocate, took us to every important vineyard site, pointing out exactly where each of his single vineyard Rieslings and Gruner Veltliners comes from. We were incredibly lucky to be able to later taste side by side vintages of many of the single vineyard wines coming out of these plots at the Tegernseerhof winery, followed by a lunch of venison and winter vegetables under a hundreds of years old wooden grape press. The personal care that every single winemaker took to meet with us, feed us, educate us, share their passion with us, answer our questions, and at the end of the day laugh with us, was at once humbling and unforgettable.

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