When most people think of Austria, images of soaring Tyrolean mountains, alpine lakes, the imperial architecture of Vienna and the baroque beauty of Mozart's Salzburg come to mind.
But less than an hour to the southeast of the capital, in the province of Burgenland, is another Austria: a gently rolling landscape sprinkled with bucolic villages clustered around Neusiedler See, a shallow, steppe lake that straddles the Austrian-Hungarian border. The region is a favourite summer destination for Viennese water-sports enthusiasts and bird watchers, who come to see the 300 species that nest in the lake's vast reed beds.
In 2001, the national parks around the lake on both sides of the border were together accepted as a World Heritage Site in recognition of the fact that the region has been the meeting place of different cultures for eight millennia. But I didn't travel there last fall to sail or watch birds. I was on a day trip from Vienna to sample some of the wines of a region that has, since the 1990s, produced some of the best vintages not just in Austria, but in all of Europe.
North American travellers have been tramping and sipping their way through Europe's better-known wine regions - such as Burgundy in France, Chianti in Italy and Mosel in Germany - for decades while, for the most part, Burgenland has remained off the radar. But as the reputation of Austria's wines grows, wine tourists are sure to follow.
More than 8,200 hectares of vines are planted around the lake that regulates the region's climate with warm, moist thermals ideal for the development of botrytis, or noble rot, on the muskat ottonel, traminer and bouvier grape varietals grown here to produce excellent sweet wines. But this is also Austria's sunniest region, ideal for the powerful reds and whites that have attracted the attention of wine publications such as Falstaff Wine Guide and Wine & Spirits Magazine, and wine writers such as Stephen Tanzer and Philip Blom.
"In terms of sheer quality and value for money, you'd have a hard time trying to beat the great whites of Austria," said Blom in a recent interview with The Boston Globe. "Crystal-clear and complex aromas coupled with wonderful individuality and fabulous aging potential at a price for which you won't even get a mediocre Californian."
It's not just terroir that has vaulted the wines into prominence. While wines were produced here under Roman occupation and continuously since Benedictine monks from Burgundy introduced pinot noir and pinot gris grapes in the 13th century, it is the younger generation of viticulturists who have pushed quality forward in recent years. Many, like Axel Stiegelmar, director of Weingut Juris in the small town of Gols on the east side of Neusiedler See, went abroad to hone their wine-making skills in places like California.
Juris, a property that has been in the Stiegelmar family since the 16th century, was my first stop and I was immediately impressed by the combined sense of tradition and the winery's embrace of modern techniques.
"We grow our own grapes on about 20 hectares of land scattered on a number of plots in the area," Stiegelmar told me as he showed me through his barrel rooms with both stainless steel and oak casks. "We only produce about 100,000 bottles a year, but we want to stay small and concentrate on a quality niche market."
That accent on small but quality production is a multi-generational trait. Axel's father Georg - now semi-retired but still dabbling in wines with a plot in Hungary's Balaton region growing szurkebarat - was named Robert Mondavi Winemaker of the Year in London in 1995. The younger Stiegelmar made his own mark when his St. Laurent Reserve was named Falstaff champion three years later.
Today, 50 per cent of Juris's acreage is planted with pinot noir, while most of the rest is planted with blaufrankisch and St. Laurent.