The Wine Drinker

This is the Dead Letter Office of my wine writing. These stories ended up not fitting on our company's Facebook page (Piedmont Wine Imports) or website,, for reasons that I think are clear once you scroll through a few posts. Less professional musings, impressions that ultimately never got past the rough prototype stage. Um... enjoy!

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Wine From the Danube

Wine from the Danube

I create an impenetrable fortification of logic before I travel abroad on wine business. I have to the survive the weeks of, "Oh, fancy that, a business trip to Austria. Well, we hope you don't suffer too much, enjoy the vacation etc." I line up the reasons. Wine tastes better on the banks of the Danube, the schnitzel in my office is terrible, how do you expect me to sell Federspiel when I've never seen Federspiel in flight over the vines of the Wachau.... I kid, clearly there are many legitimate reasons to meet the people whose wine we decide to sell, and to walk through their vineyards and cellars. I get to poke stuff, ask questions, play the dumb American to full effect. I wear white sneakers to disarm my hosts, and also maybe to blind them. "Why's it so cold in here? Wow, those vines sure do look old. What's that bubbling sound?" It's a brilliant interrogation technique that I'm pretty certain Europeans dismiss as provincial ignorance, humoring me and patiently spilling the beans regarding the sordid ins-and-outs of their estates. Ok, I get little dirt. But I do dredge up enough morsels of fact to cram into infinite versions of this prose. And that is worth enduring coach class discomfort, and the high probability of developing gout. The winemakers I visit seem to deploy cured meat as a weapon, or a winnowing device. "Are you serious about selling my wine? Then step up to the plate and scarf down a second helping of lardo. My wife made it. I raised the pigs myself." No is not an option, even if at times the (I'm sure earnest) hospitality can be deliciously painful.

I never knew the scale of the heart of Austrian wine country until we were driving north, our car pointed directly at the Wagram. Even on a foggy, rainy day it was possible to see clearly all the important grape growing regions along the Danube, spread out to our car's left in relatively neat divisions: Wachau, Kamptal, Kremstal. My topographic map of this region is now set in stone, a sureness about their scale and position that a decade of book learnin' had failed to cement.

A wider, basically sea-sized prehistoric Danube created the character of Donauland (the old name for the sum of these regions), and made the wines that grow on its old banks taste as they do. Much later in the slow march of geologic time, great masses of wind-propelled loess blew down from the alps to coat this part of Austria, creating a unique topsoil so fine that its individual particles can only be seen with the aid of a microscope. I believed I knew what loess was. It is a big deal soil type, always mentioned in a general discussion of the peculiarities of Austrian wines, specifically Gruner Veltliner. But standing in front of the exposed 10-meter-high wall of loess that confronted me when I walked into a Donauland vineyard for the first time, and rubbing this stuff between my fingers that felt like very fine cake flour and essentially disappeared from my hands, it became clear that my knowledge of Austrian vineyards was at best abstract and also fairly incomplete.

Leaving for a foreign country for over a week does feel like an indulgence. Hundreds of the moments described above pile up (like loess settling on primary rock, if you enjoy extraneous simile piled upon simile) to make for a very meaningful travel experience. A related geologic aside: I now fully understand how quartz shaped the course to the Rhine. I know I've read the dull details, but standing where the ancient river met unmoveable primary rock and was forced away, to bore through softer sedimentary stuff upstream, it all seems suddenly very interesting. If school could be all field experience maybe I would have majored in Geology.

Let's leave rocks behind. People take the vines they were born to and shape them as much as weather and soil allow. I got to stand (in the rain, as always) in the most well-regarded expanse of vineyard in the Kamptal, next to a patch of scruffy old vines farmed for Ludwig Hiedler by an ancient farmer from whom Ludwig hopes to purchase the field some day. It is a small patch, probably smaller than your front yard. The Kamptal sloped gently away from us toward the Danube, all its key players in view. Brundlmeyer's holdings surrounded us. The workers of Schloss Gobbelsberg were busy pruning, for a few more minutes at least as the rain came down in threatening waves. I stood surrounded by vines that produce wines that we sell. The differences in these wines spread out around me, easy to see. A stack of books and tasting notes would not explain it, but one hour on a hillside and the immutable logic of farming was clear, in focus. Thanks to a cold slog and a good guide I'll take to my grave a pretty good sense of the flavors this distinct territory is capable of producing.

A related postscript. It's amazing how flat the revered Lamm vineyard is, stretching out in front of the real slope in a pretty sunny place. The grade is totally contrary to our stereotype of a Grand Cru, which makes me think the drainage and aspect to the sun must be perfect. Experience on the ground both confirms suspicions and raises new questions. Hopefully the answers motivate me to buy better wine for us to drink back at home. That's the plan.


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