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.
The velvety Pinot Noir Reserve I sampled at Juris was exceptional, with a crisp strawberry aftertaste, as was the 2005 sauvignon blanc that hinted at elderberry flowers. Juris also produces 600 bottles a year of pinot gris, from the szurkebarat grapes grown by his father in Hungary, a smooth, nutty and elegant wine that finds its way to top-tier markets is Switzerland and Belgium.
Stiegelmar said Juris exports about 30 per cent of its produce, mostly to other European countries, with a small amount of pinot noir shipped to the United States. Juris wines can be found in some New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles restaurants and at Ritz Carlton hotels in Florida. As for Canada, Stiegelmar said the market is too hard to break into.
"With the pinot, we don't have to fight so much ignorance," he said with a smile. "Pinot drinkers are more knowledgeable and more critical than other wine drinkers, and they love to experiment. And they will quickly find that ours is very good."
Like many producers in the Neusiedler See area, Juris has started looking east to Slovakia, Hungary and Poland for new markets.
After the tasting, Stiegelmar took me out to one of his plantings, a beautiful sloping field shimmering in the heat of the mid-afternoon sun.
"This is sandy, dry and pebbled soil," he said, testing a cluster of grapes that would be ready to harvest a week later. "It is similar to the soil of Bordeaux. Perfect for our excellent wines."
My last stop before returning to Vienna was at Winegut Pockl on the outskirts of Monchhof, a village to the south of Gols. Pockl, one of Austria's most outstanding wine makers, has twice been named the country's best red-wine producer at the Falstaff competitions for its novel blend of syrah and zweigelt.
Here, too, the talent is multigenerational. Joseph Pockl is there with advice and a helping hand, but has turned the crafting of the wines over to his 27-year-old son, Rene, now the winery's cellar master.
While talking with the elder Pockl in the tasting room of the modern facility, I sipped his Admiral which, along with the Rêve de Jeunesse is the winery's flagship products. Dark red with a purple core, it is a magnificent blend of zweigelt, blaufrankische, cabernet sauvignon, merlot and syrah. It was described in Peter Moser's The Ultimate Austrian Wine Guide as having "complex aromas of dark berry jam, orange zest, cinnamon, and cloves with a gentle tobacco nuance." Easy for Moser to say. I would just call it one of the most powerful and complex reds I have ever tasted.
Rêve de Jeunesse, too, was exceptional, another dark red in which even I could detect a hint of berries and dried fruit. Added recently to the winery's product list, and produced in very small quantities, said Joseph Pockl, is Mystique, another robust red crafted from the very best grapes available.
Pockl, with 35 hectares of vines planted, produces about 250,000 bottles a year, mostly sold in Western Europe.
"In North America, the problem is that the name is not known and it would take a huge marketing effort to break in on a large scale," said Pockl. "And we just don't produce enough to make it worthwhile."
Pockl is also looking east for new markets, but a bit farther afield than Stegelmar at Juris.
"Hungary produces lots of wine and the quality is improving rapidly. In Poland it's a money problem. There may be a market in Russia. There's lots of money there. A small percentage of Russians are wealthy, but that's a few million people and they are very wealthy."
Of course, the region is not just about wine. There is much of both nature and culture to enjoy here. Hiking, camping and cycling along 500 kilometres of marked trails are popular summer pastimes and there are hundreds of small inns and restaurants scattered through small villages such as Gols, Monchhof, Frauenkirchen, Neusiedl am See, Winden and Purbach.
Then there is the lake itself. Constant winds and a Mediterranean climate make Neusiedler See a premier place for sailing and kite-surfing. Last year it was the venue for the International Sailing Federation's quadrennial World Sailing Games.
On the cultural front, visitors could easily spend a week here, sampling the fine wines of the region, especially in September and October, a season of festivals, such as the opera festival or passion plays in the romantic Roman quarry of St. Margarethen, the lakeside festival in Morbisch am See and the Haydn festival at Eszterhazy castle in Eisenstadt.
And it's not too early to plan a visit in 2009 when the Neusiedler See area will be the epicentre of festivities to mark the 200th anniversary of composer Franz Joseph Haydn's death. The central focus of the Haydn hoopla will be Eisenstadt where the maestro lived for more than 40 years. Or, just come on a day trip from Vienna for the wine and the gentle scenery.
Pack your thirst
The village of Neusiedl am See at the north end of the lake is about an hour from Vienna by car on Highway A4. There is regular train service from Vienna.
Most wineries in the region, including Juris and Pockle, are happy to receive visitors with advance notice.
Juris: A-7122 Gols, Marktgasse 12-18; 43 (2173) 2748; .
Weingut Pockl: 7123 Monchhof, Zwergacker 1; 43 (2173) 80258; .
WHERE TO STAY AND EAT
Landgasthaus am Nyikospark: A-7100 Neusiedl am See, Untere Hauptsrasse 59; 43 (2167) 40222; . A wonderful restaurant on one side of the street and a modern small hotel on the opposite side. Rooms from $72 a person.
The best guide to Austria wine country is The Ultimate Austrian Wine Guide 2006/2007, by Peter Moser, Falstaff Publications.
Being the designated driver or having to keep tasting to a minimum if you are on a day trip by car.
Wines of course.
Being able to taste a powerful red after being shown the grapevines from which it was produced.
Burgenland: For an exhaustive list of accommodations, restaurants, events and provincial history, visit .
Austrian National Tourist Office: 416-967-3381; www.austria.info.