Wachau Valley, formed by the Danube River, includes famous Old World and family-run wineries. The area is a UNESCO cultural World Heritage site due to its farming, vineyards, and architecture, all of which started in prehistoric times. Insight Vacations hosted our contributor, Annemarie Dooling, for a Signature Experiences trip that included a notable amount of wine tasting in Wachau Valley, Austria – Ed.
The sun was big and ripe when I climbed back on the coach to head to Vienna. My 19 travel companions were slowly following, all of us sun drunk – and literally drunk from an afternoon tasting some of Austria’s finest wines.
The Wachau Valley is a 24-mile long rolling green wonderland of grape vines followed closely by the Danube River. It sits roughly 52 miles from Vienna, but it might as well be from another era. I had spent the afternoon wandering a town called Durnstein with two of my Canadian travel companions, opting to lazily venture from shop to shop searching for just the right souvenir for our people back home, and happenstancing on Instagram-worthy spots, one after the next, just begging to be photographed. A little shop window packed with colorful bottles of honey and liquors. A stone ledge reaching out over the Danube, complete with red birdhouse peaking out from under a leafy branch. A crumbling set of stairs set against a white picket fence and framed by a cornflower blue sky and overgrown patches of yellow flowers. The town serves as a stop along a Danube River wine cruise; the dock was quiet save for a grumpy pug dog catching up on his sleep when we arrived there. The other journalists on our Insight Vacations “fam” tour had opted for a group lunch, but I couldn’t put my camera down long enough for that and I needed a breather. So, we happily ambled around the town, squeezing in an abbreviated lunch of shared dumplings and a big basket of flaky rolls.
Our appointment at Domäne Wachau was preceded with that walk through Durnstein where cafes and figs were prevalent. The area, as it is known today, was settled as early as 488 AD, and, in its own unassuming way, holds its own against what’s left of Kuenringerburg castle. This is where King Richard the Lionhearted was incarcerated between 1192 and 1193; and no one in the village will let you forget it. It’s a story as dear to them as their wine, which was introduced to Wachau in the 17th century. Wine tasting in Wachau Valley, Austria, should start with this walk through Durnstein. Understanding the cultural history of the region adds to appreciation of its wine.
And, so, as a group, we finally arrived at the winery, greeted by about 500 hectares of grapes grown on the area’s steep, dry, stone terraces; Durnstein gets its name from this landscape and it comprises an important part of the UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site. The vineyard itself is a co-op of around 600 contributing families, who tend to their own grapes, creating a slightly competitive collaboration. It’s interesting to be in the midst of this friendly competition. Domäne Wachau’s signature wine is its Gruner Veltliner, which I was lucky enough to view in its natural habitat: the cellar.
This 300-year-old cavern is where Domäne Wachau does some of their best work, concentrating on reductive fermentation and single-vineyard wines. The musk hits you before you even come to the line of sturdy oak barrels where the fermentation process begins, the importance of this process is not even lost on a wine amateur like myself. A thin layer of mold grows on the walls of the cave, and in at least one section, you may come face-to-face with a vintage telephone hanging on the wall, completing the experience.
The next room, however, couldn’t be more of a juxtaposition. Spacious with taller ceilings, this is where you’re greeted with a row of modern copper pots, where their brandies are double-distilled. The whole thing is topped by a 1719 pastel baroque chateau also known as the Cellar Castle. Taking in the stone terraces and view of the Danube from in front of the castle, I couldn’t help but enjoy the mellow pace, a welcomed contrast from the overenthusiastic beer cities we’d just visited. It was a different face of Bohemian beverages, and helped me enjoy wine tasting in Wachau Valley, Austria.
We were greeted on our way out with a quick tasting, and confronted with a table setting of thick, crusty bread and tall glasses just perfect for sampling three house specialties – a perfect sight after my fast and heavy dumpling lunch and the tour around the property. We were poured the Gruner Veltliner Hochrain 2013, Gruner Veltliner Loibenberg 2013, Gruner Veltliner Kellenberg 2012 and the Riesling Bruck. Yes: four glasses of wine to start.
The wines were sweet, the alcohol content was just low enough that we could splurge on more than one glass of each, and a cacophony of wine terms (citrusy! fragrant! a hint of lavender!) were thrown around. As a group, we decided on our very favorite drink — the Hochrain — having just one more glass before leaving. After all, wine tasting in Wachau Valley means one more glass.
We reluctantly meandered toward the door where our coach was waiting to drive us into that beautiful tangle of a city that is Vienna, where a plush five-star hotel and a classical music performance (a special Insight Vacations Signature Experience) were waiting for us. But first, that slow and steady ride out of wine country, through the hills and along the river. We had more places to go, more heavy meals to eat, a lot more to see, but our day in Durnstein was as if we had pressed the pause button on a fast-paced trip. A day of wine tasting in Wachau Valley, Austria is quite literally the breathe of fresh air between the tourism tumult of Prague and regal Vienna.
Annemarie Dooling is a restless community manager who still buys print travel magazines and talks to internet commenters. Her life highlights include being featured on NatGeo.com, as well as bylines in Time Out, Salon, The Huffington Post, BuzzFeed and others. Between tweets, she lives vicariously through French fashion blogs and Reddit’s photography community. Insight Vacations, which hosted Annemarie on assignment for The Vacation Gals, offers an assortment of luxury escorted tours in Europe, Africa, North America and Asia.