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Styria's vineyards

Styria's vineyards

Paul Wade - 2003-03-01

Austrians love their wine. They enjoy it so much that they drink most of the country's production themselves - at home, in restaurants, on picnics, and, in Styria, at a Buschenschank with their Jause. At a recent blind tasting in London, the UK's best wine buffs put Austrian white wines up against the rest of the world, and Austria grabbed seven of the top ten placings, including best Chardonnay. As Paul Wade reports, a visit to the Styrian vineyards only confirms that judgement.

According to local lore, Buschenschanken have been part of the Styrian way of life for 1,000 years. What is fact is Emperor Josef II's decree, allowing Styrian wine growers to serve wine to travellers; so the tradition of these rustic 'pubs' in the vineyards certainly dates back to 1784. Jause is often translated as 'snack', but turns out to be a platter of locally-smoked pork, sliced sausage and salami, piled high and served with eye-watering horseradish and thick slices of rustic bread. It's enough to keep me going till breakfast!

Styria's best wines are white, produced mainly in the southern, south-eastern and western parts of the province. I have seen steep vineyards in my time, but nothing like the wildly corrugated countryside that grips Graz like a horseshoe. And, wherever you go, tall wooden wheels clack noisily. Serving as scarecrows, these ingenious, wind-driven contraptions, called Klapotetz, symbolise the region's vineyards.

Styria's most extensive vineyards are south of Graz. Their Weissburgunder (Pinot Blanc) enjoys a growing reputation for intense flavours, plenty of body and a good balance of fruit and acid. Also produced, unusually for Austria, is the herbaceous Muskat-Sylvaner (Sauvignon Blanc to you and me). Then, there is Morillon. Imported from France 150 years ago, Morillon is another word for the Chardonnay grape, and this, too, thrives and becomes full-bodied in the sunshine. Look out, for the sweet Muskateller, with a hint of nutmeg on the nose - perfect with a slice of cake.

Grown on volcanic soil in South-eastern Styria are flowery German-style wines, such as Müller-Thurgau, spicy Traminer (Gewürztraminer) and Rheinriesling (Riesling). More typically Austrian is the round, nutty Welschriesling (no relation to Riesling), with an enough bite to stand up to the local pork dishes.

The smallest wine area is to the west and known for Schilcher. Made only from Blauer Wildbacher grapes, this rosé plays an important role in Styrian tradition. It seems to slide down well with Schmalzbrot, a fatty pork spread that is yet another Styrian delicacy. Decidedly sharp, Schilcher may not be to everyone's taste, but locals reckon that Schilcher is best after the third glass!*

Styria has eight designated wine trails that follow twisting country lanes with distracting views - and the regular temptations of the Buschenschanken. We joined the 'Taste of the South Styrian Wine Country' bus excursion from the tourist office, that incorporates some of the routes. On the Sausaler wine trail, our guide pointed out vineyards that pre-dated the Romans. "The vineyards are on the southern slopes, with forest on the northern side. The farmers have always kept the trees as insurance for a poor vintage." We stopped at Schloss Seggau, the 14C palace of the Bishops of Salzburg, with its 4-ton bell and Roman carvings. In the vineyards below, monks produce wine that has won the International Mass Wine Championship.

The Südsteirisches wine trail starts in the Baroque village of Ehrenhausen, then parallels the wriggling border with Slovenia. The road itself is virtually a no-man's land: when the tour guide asked passengers on the left side of the bus to have their passports ready, we looked at one another quizzically. Yes, it was a joke, but there is no visible line between the two nations that were once part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. At Eory's Winzerhaus, a typical Buschenschank, the owners explained how they are only allowed to sell what they grow or make themselves, so tea and coffee are Verboten. Set in a converted stable, we discussed the owner's refreshing Welschriesling, grown on the slopes outside the window. We also munched his hearty Brettljause, a wooden board covered with air-dried ham, roast pork, sausage, Speck (like bacon) and brawn, all garnished with hard-boiled egg, gherkin and cheese. After this 'snack', we clambered down to the 16C cellar, with its 300-litre oak barrels and cool, damp walls studded with coins, from roubles to US quarters. "Stick a coin on to the wall and make a wish. Don't ask for too much or the coin will drop off," laughs the owner. Our wish was simple: a return visit ... soon.

* ViaMichelin reminds its readers that excess alcohol represents a health hazard.
Excursion: A Taste of South Styrian Wine Country. Fridays 14:00 to 19:00. Cost (including wine and snack): 24 euro, children 6-15 9 euro, family 49 euro.
From the tourist office, 16 Herrengasse.
Tel: 00 43 316 80750, www.visitgraz.com

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