29 Mar 2012

The sun'll come out, tomorrow (Alto Adige, Italy - Day Three)

Thanks to the generosity of Franz Haas who put me up for the night in Ora, I didn’t have as far to travel both to and from my accommodation. Sleeping in a bit was blessed relief, as was the necessity to spend so much time in the car. Whilst it is nice to have a private room, a large bed, my own bathroom and general peace and quiet, it does get very lonely of an evening. It’s bad enough that I spend so much time in the car by myself, particularly on those long drives between regions. Travelling in Europe so far has been more difficult, as when I have been able to find hostels to stay at in the regions, they have been either empty, full of families/school groups, or the young people staying there are working or studying and not interested in socialising. The weekend I had in Vienna was fantastic, and staying with friends in Paris and Dusseldorf were great. This is one of the reasons I am so glad to be in Italy, because people seem so much more generous and hospitable and I am looking forward to sharing great times and meeting people here over the next eight weeks.
Protected viticulture in Terlan

Italian generosity (Alto Adige, Italy - Day Two)

For I think the first day since I arrived in Europe, today I was able to go outside not wearing my jacket, as the weather was sunny and warm(ish). Alto Adige actually gets over 300 days of sunshine each year, which not helps for the ripening of the grapes, but also gives everyone here a sunny outlook. One of my hosts on the previous day actually asked me if I had brought the rain and fog with me from Germany. Part and parcel of this sunny outlook is their love of simple pleasures, such as good food and wine. On my first two days in the region, two wineries gave me lunch, and another offered to put me up for a night nearby. When you have been travelling for six months with another 10 to go, watching money steadily drain out of your accounts, these simple gestures have the biggest resonance. It also puts me in a really positive mood, and lets me overlook any difficulties I may be having with my travel. The great news is that I have some work organised in Germany and my visa is not far away, the problem is that I have to return to Germany to collect it in person. Ce la vie!

My first prosciutto crudo in Italy

22 Mar 2012

I say tomato, you say potato (Alto Adige, Italy – Day One)

Well I’ve finally made it to Italy, but as anyone who has crossed the border from Austria would know, it doesn’t quite feel like Italy yet. Alto Adige is also known as Sud Tyrol, or South Tyrol. This is because for centuries the whole area was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire up until the end of WWI. After this point the Italian border was set at the Brenner Pass on the Southern side of the Alps, but the citizens remained proudly Tyrolean. Hence they continued to speak German (albeit an Austrian dialect), ate Austrian food, and made many wines from German/Austrian varieties such as pinot bianco/weissburgunder, pinot grigio/grauburgunder, gewurtztraminer and muller-thurgau. During the fascist era Mussolini attempted to make Alto Adige an Italian speaking region like the rest of the country, by introducing southerners into the area. But the inhabitants are stubborn and proud, and now there is a mix of Italian and German spoken, almost on opposite sides of the narrow valley that makes its way south towards Trentino.

Pergola trellising at Tiefenbrunner; now I'm south of the Alps

16 Mar 2012

Not enough time (Niederosterreich, Austria - Day Four)

It is difficult enough trying to find time to visit each region and spend enough of it to really get to know the producers, varieties and styles. There are so many regions in Europe alone that I am having to compromise in missing so that I can spend enough time in other regions. Further difficulties have come up recently as I have been attempting to get a working-holiday visa for Germany so that I can join such producers as Reichsgraf von Kesselstatt in the Mosel and Gunderloch in the Rheinhessen. It's also important for me to be able to travel in Europe for the remainder of the year. This has meant I have had to return to my local Aliens Authority office in Neuss where a friend lives three times, the most recent time driving back for nine hours to provide fingerprints and my signature. I'm also not so happy with my car so I'm trying to find a mechanic who can have a look at it, but it's not so easy. Thus I had to cut my Austrian journey short and I didn't get to visit Burgenland as I planned.

The "Rotes Tor" (Red Door) entrance to the vineyards above Hirtzberger

15 Mar 2012

Persons of interest (Niederosterreich, Austria - Day Three)

There is something quite magical about Vienna. Not only is it a beautiful and historic city but it is also a thriving metropolis, home to 2. 4 million people. Walking around the central part of the city there are any number of tourist sites; the cathedral, the Belvedere Palace, the numerous museums and theatres. You would hardly believe there are operating vineyards and wineries within Vienna, which unfortunately I didn’t have a chance to visit. By all accounts they are very traditional, making field blend wines from any number of native varieties. Vienna is a very multicultural city, which is not hard to understand when you consider that it is the gateway to the East. Something I found very interesting was the high concentration of Japanese restaurants in the city centre, even more than in Dusseldorf which has the highest concentration of Japanese people in Europe. Vienna is famous for its music, as celebrated composers like Mozart and Strauss lived here. For as little as €3 you can see one of the daily performances at the historic Opera House. Having been to a number of performances of Opera Australia back in Melbourne, one of the things I wanted to do was to see some opera in Europe, and I was thrilled to enjoy Verdi’s “Simon Boccanegra” over the weekend before returning to Niederosterreich to visit some more wineries.

Ruins above Weingut Nigl in Kremstal

14 Mar 2012

History in the making (Niederosterreich, Austria - Day Two)

Niederosterreich is Austria's largest and most important wine producing area, covering just over 27,000 hectares of vineyards across eight distinct regions from the Wachau until Carnuntum. The majority of the premium wine comes from three of these regions along the Danube River; Wachau, Kremstal and Kamptal, with the top wines being made from fruit grown on steep and terraced vineyards. There are over 4,000 different producers in Niederosterreich, but the average vineyard owner only holds a few hectares of vines. The largest producers are often cooperatives or wineries owned by the state, and many of these produce large volume wines for the Austrian market. The wine consumer in Austria is very patriotic, consuming 80% of domestic production at a level of 30L per capita per year. Austrians actually consume as much as they produce, so the 20% of production that is exported is replaced by imported wine, mostly German.

Modern art along terraced vineyards above Unterloiben

10 Mar 2012

Gruner pastures (Niederosterreich, Austria - Day One)

Although it’s nowhere near as luxurious as some of the rental cars I’ve been driving on my trip so far, it is so nice to have my own car and not worry about the daily costs involved. The 1995 Volkswagon Golf I bought for €500 was in reasonable condition but through a friend I had someone take a look and replace a few things. Otherwise it wouldn’t have even survived the eight hour drive down to Wachau, let alone all around Europe this year. It is also great being in another new country, far away from the previous place so that the scenery looks very different. I will say that the Niederosterreich region on the banks of the Danube River reminds me a little bit of the Rheingau region of Germany, but the people and most importantly the wines are quite different. About a third of the vineyards are planted on flatter slopes, and the rest is planted on the steeper terraced slopes where you find the better parcels on primary rock with less loam. There are two major varieties; riesling and gruner veltliner, and I am here to find out more about them.

Domaene Wachau in Durnstein

9 Mar 2012

Prowein 2012, aka "The Business" - Dusseldorf, Germany

I'm not ashamed to admit that I am a Wine Trade Fair virgin. Way down in Australia we don't have anything like this as it is not a big enough market for such a trade fair, and most of the market is dominated by six wine companies. The closest thing we have is individual distributors inviting their producers to show new release wines either once a year or every other year. Having visited Prowein 2012 I can say that this is preferable, as there are far less producers to see and I am familiar with them all. There is also the fact that I know many other attendees and can chat about the wines with them. Attending Prowein is a little bit like the edible room scene in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, except in that scene they knew what everything was and what they wanted to taste. I spent most of my time wandering around not knowing many of the producers and not knowing which were good enough to visit. It is amazing to see all of these big bright shiny stands, and the layout is generally clear and makes sense. There are a lot of stands for negociants and importers, so you sometimes stumble on Australian wines in the German hall, or French wines in the Spanish hall.

Shiny Prowein 2012
The second problem that I had was the difficulty in tasting the wines completely out of context. I have now been travelling for five months across three wine continents, where I visit the regions vineyards and wineries before tasting a selection of wines. Tasting wines with owners and winemakers at the estate gives you wonderful perspective and understanding and deepens the connection with the wine. Tasting at Prowein is inelegant and unromantic for a number of reasons. The first is that in such a crowded and corporate environment there is no connection to what makes the wines so unique and great, which is the vineyards and winery. The second is that producers are often distracted, exhausted, overwhelmed and so bored with saying the same things over and over again. They have little interest in talking to someone who isn't a customer in the immediate future. The third reason is that the vast majority of wines on offer are brand spanking new, mostly still in barrel/tank or freshly bottled wines that are far too young to truly appreciate and enjoy. The German wine trade/consumers like their wines young before they are even ready and actually expressing something.

VDP pavilion at Prowein 2012
I spent the Sunday of Prowein 2012 in Hall Four which was dedicated to Germany, and most of this was spent in the VDP section where I caught up with producers I had visited or ones that I hadn't but wanted to. It was great to meet with and try some new wines with people like Kuenstler, Wittman, Christmann, Leitz, Hans Wirsching, Gunderloch and Buerklin-Wolf. I was also glad to be able to meet and try wines with such amazing German producers as Fritz Haag (Mosel), Emrich Schoenleber & Dr. Crusius (Nahe), Rebholz & Becker (Pfalz) and Kuehn (Rheingau). All of these producers were astonishingly good, with Haag, Crusius and Kuehn particular highlights.

Spanish pavilion at Prowein 2012
The second day at Prowwin was spent in Hall Seven which was dedicated to Austria. Thanks to a couple of importers in Australia that I worked with back in Melbourne I was familiar with a few names, some of which I had already made appointments to visit immediately following Prowein. In researching good estates to visit in Austria I had discovered that most of the top estates are all imported by Cellarhand (much like the top German estates), and so went to introduce myself. In general I was very ignorant of the many and varied names in Hall Seven, particularly as I was yet to visit the country and its regions. It was great to meet producers like Knoll, Bruendlmayer, FX Pichler, Nigl, Stadt Krems, Moric, Kollwentz, Alzinger, Franz Hirtzberger and Sepp Moser. Again the 2011 wines on offer are far too young to truly express anything, but they certainly got me excited to visit and get to know them better.

A familiar face at Prowein 2012
The third day I was a tad jaded with the experience, and somewhat tired from the party the night before hosted by the German Sommeliers Association. Held in the top nightclub in Dusseldorf there is free-flowing wine from five different bars, and it is a veritable who's-who of the German wine industry. I had been invited by my lovely host at Weingut Hans Wirsching Andrea Ebert, and it was great to see her and a number of people I had met on my German excursion. Anyway, the third day I went a wandering and saw a number of producers that I had already visited in North & South America, and some I am hoping to visit this year in Europe. I was also feeling a little homesick, and so when passing through the Australian area I couldn't resist tasting some wines from De Bortoli, as the Yarra Valley was my first wine home back in 2006 and I knew the wines were good as they were the first I ever cellared.

De Bortoli stand at Prowein 2012
I was glad to have had the opportunity to attend the trade fair to know what it is like without the pressure of being on the job and running around to appointments. Next time I attend I will probably be there in an official and non-observational capacity, so won't be overwhelmed with the experience. At least I will be somewhat prepared for Vinitaly in a few weeks. Or will I...

8 Mar 2012

The other Burgundy (Baden, Germany - Day Two)

The largest town in Baden is Freiburg, and is famous in Germany for two things. The first is that it is the capital for cycling, and it is hard to miss them. When I say that I don’t mean that I hit a bunch of people on bikes in my rental car, I just mean that there are a lot of them, obviously. They are a little aggressive, but I guess you would be if you finally outnumbered cars on the road. The second thing that makes Freiburg famous in Germany is that it is a university town, and so is filled with plenty of good places to eat and drink for not much money. There is a really nice brauhaus where I enjoyed a stein of local lager with a big plate of smoked ham and sauerkraut, for only 10 Euro. I spent a fair amount of my time in Starbucks taking advantage of the free wifi, as my hostel didn’t have any. The coffee is terrible, but you can’t pass up on free wifi.

Schlossberg vineyards of Weingut Huber

3 Mar 2012

Border hopping (Baden, Germany – Day One)

You forget how close Alsace is to the border considering how different it is, but it dawned on me five minutes after leaving my accommodation in Strasbourg I was back in Germany. Situated on the eastern bank of the Rhine is the state of Baden-Wurtemberg, but Baden and Wurtemberg are legislated as different wine regions. Baden alone is the third largest wine region in Germany covering 16,000 hectares, but compared to Rheinhessen and the Pfalz it is not really known outside of Germany. The region has similarities to its neighbour over the French border, but is generally considered the red wine region of Germany. Much like Alsace cooperatives are very common, and 85% of the production is made by them. Also similar to Alsace, burgundian varieties are very popular, the most important being spatburgunder (pinot noir), grauburgunder (pinot gris) and weissburgunder (pinot blanc). The region is separated into nine districts from north to south, with the best known being Kaiser Stuhl. This name may be familiar with Australian wine consumers, but associate it with very cheap cask wine from the last century, no longer in existence (as far as I know).

Kaiser Stuhl vineyards