The Wachau Valley is a wine region west of Vienna. Apart from the vineyards, it’s an all-around paradise of rolling hills, shimmering water, and heart-exploding views. This week my wife and I used a company called Vienna Explorer (no affiliation) to cycle around the Wachau Valley (pronounced ‘Vack-Ow’) and drain a few wine bottles along the way. It costs €64 p/p and lasts about 10 hours in total. It was the coolest thing we did during our month in Vienna. Try to get Stelios as your guide if possible. Enjoy the blog!
IT WOULD BE EASY TO presume I’m knowledgeable about wine because:
1. I consume a lot of it.
2. I’m Irish.
3. If you agree with #2, you just committed a hate crime my friend.
4. I worked in bars for five years in NYC, London, and Ireland.
Truth be told, I’m not at all. I spoke before about the all-consuming fear felt by Irish people: Being accused by fellow Irish of having ‘notions’ about themselves.
Considering this, what could be a riskier pursuit than wine tasting?
RISKY BUSINESS & KANYE WEST
Picture the scene: You’re holding a glistening wine glass by the stem, which you swirl elaborately so its contents ‘breathe’. You then stick your snout into the glass and inhale.
You trade vague adjectives with your drinking buddy like ‘buttery’, ‘minerally’, or ‘chewy’. Once you are both content with your adjectives, you take a slurp and swish the wine around your mouth like Listerine.
After swallowing, if you don’t use spit-buckets- which don’t exist in Ireland- you discuss the finish. Is the finish ‘rich’ and ‘complex’? What are we talking about here: Wine or KanYe West?
No, as an Irish person, I’m genetically allergic to such pursuits.
That said, I have a great deal of respect for those who possess this elite knowledge, palate, and balls.
AVOIDING 7 YEARS BAD SEX
Experts talk of a wine opening up, but I love wine for another reason: It opens people up.
It’s not as basic as just getting drunk with people. Sharing a bottle of wine is the perfect ice-breaker. There’s a kind of ‘breaking bread’ feeling as you share a bottle around a table. Since there are four solid glasses per bottle, it creates a more intimate group.
It’s not like buying 15 shots of Jaeger.
Pouring the glass, saying ‘Cheers!’ (never without eye-contact*), topping up people’s glasses, going around the table… The laughs and the conversation always flow easily. And after a glass or two, you’re all mates for life. Or, at the very least, for the duration of the bottle.
*Cheers’ing without eye-contact gives you seven years of bad sex. #science
Because of this, wine tours are a perfect way to meet like-minded, fun people while traveling. Everyone is interested in another culture and open to new experiences. And, worse case scenario: Wine.
While spending a month in Vienna, we went on a wine tour- on bikes- through the Wachau Valley.
Our Uber pulled up to the Vienna Explorer office at 9AM. Here we met our guide, Stelios, and 15 fellow weekend wine enthusiasts. We also signed waiver forms; probably clever when you’re putting strangers on bikes after a bottle of wine or two. Or three.
At 9:30, we walked to the train station together. Once we knew we were in time for our train- which takes an hour and change from the city center- we gathered in a circle and began to introduce ourselves.
DEFINE YOURSELF IN 4 SENTENCES
This is something I struggle with: How do you give an accurate representation of yourself in four sentences.
“Hi, I’m Keith…”
After your name, what truly describes you above everything else? Your nationality? If you’re British or American in 2017, you have to deal with people’s personal impressions or opinions on your country- regardless of how you think or vote.
It’s usually a pretty safe bet being Irish though. What are they going to say to me?
“You guys like to drink!” or “I heard your country is a well-known tax haven for U.S. corporations’ European headquarters”.
“And I’m Irish…”
I hate “So what do you do?” questions as much as I hate people telling me what they do before I ask. Surely, how you pay your bills shouldn’t be in the first 4 things about you as a person?
“And I’m a travel writer.”
Okay, okay… I was on the spot and didn’t have a time to think.
“My wife and I work and travel around Europe full-time.”
Then I stopped talking and looked at my aforementioned wife. It was the easiest way to switch the focus onto Rachael. She has a BFA in Musical Theater and is in her element in the spotlight.
Soon the introductions were done and our Wachua Valley-bound train pulled out of the station.
It was a rare day in Vienna. The view from the train got more stunning the further we ventured from the city. Large ornate buildings were replaced by small cottages, exotic looking trees, and green fields. Our group consisting of Irish, American, Hong Kongese, Greek, Canadian, and Finnish people hurtled onwards.
I liked the Finnish guy, Milos. We started talking to him by chance at a cafe around the corner from the tour office before we all realized we were going to the same place. He worked some big job in Helsinki, although he had spent a lot of time living abroad in places like Hong Kong. His wife was back in Helsinki, and about to give birth to their daughter.
We sat together on the train along with Lydia, a lovely student botanist from Hong Kong and a quiet American guy from my almost alma mater, UC Berkeley.
We had a good group.
TOUCHDOWN IN VIENNA’S WACHAU VALLEY
The train screeched to a stop. We walked to a nearby garage to pick up our bikes. After I carefully applied my factor 275 sunscreen, we began to pedal towards our first winery of the day in the Wachau Valley.
Vienna is bike-friendly from start to finish: The land is flat and bike lanes are plentiful. The views in Wachau are otherworldly. In hindsight, I would have paid for this tour for the cycling scenery alone.
There’s the sparkling water of the Danube to your left and vine-covered mountains to your right. Myself and another tour member, also named Keith, guarded the back of our wine-seeking cavalcade. Keith, a 60 year-old TV producer for PBS in Vermont, was fascinating to chat to.
Just like with fellow left-handed people, I feel an inexplicable affinity for other people named Keith. Except for Keith Urban.
Keiths have gone through a lifetime of people misspelling their name ‘Kieth’. And when a Keith will politely say “It’s actually spelled K.E.I.T.H,” they will often be told: ‘It’s I before E, except after C.” This is where the misspeller will ‘C’ a look of disgust spread over Keith’s face.
Also, Keiths can rarely, if ever, find any stock mugs or fridge magnets with their name printed on it in gift shops. Granted this affected me more as a 9-year old on school tours, but still: Screw you Johns and Annas.
I’m just putting the pieces together that I married a left-handed women named Rachael with two A’s. Coincidence?
Needless to say, Keith and I got along swimmingly while we cycled to the first winery. Our Greek guide Stelios was the man. He made Austria’s 4,000 year wine history fascinating.
Although Austria’s on the same line of latitude as parts of France, it has its own microclimate in wine terms. This means that, from year to year, Austrian wine differs wildly. Lack of consistency isn’t necessarily a good thing or a bad thing- after all, who wants a completely predictable life?- but it does add an element of chaos each year that most other wine producers don’t face.
And then, Stelios told us Austrian Wine’s dirty secret.
4,000 YEARS OF WINE INDUSTRY OBLITERATED
In what was otherwise a great year for humanity, 1985- the year I was born- is the most scandalous year in the history of Austrian wine.
A small number of wine producers, perhaps frustrated with those damned unpredictable grapes decided to take matters into their own hands. If you wanted to improve your family’s wine, what would you do?
That’s right! They added diethylene glycol, an ingredient found in anti-freeze. Suddenly, their wines tasted sweeter and more full-bodied. Everybody wins, right?
When the anti-frozen cat got out of the bag, it crippled the entire Austrian wine industry. 4,000 years of stellar wine production evaporated in the blink of an eye. In fact, it even damaged the Australian wine industry. Less worldly wine drinkers weren’t sure of the difference between the two countries and didn’t want to take the risk.
Whenever you feel like you’re mixing up Austria and Australia, remind yourself:
There are no kangaroos in Austria.
After the First World War, they had been the world’s third largest wine producer. Now, Austria was forced to start afresh from ground zero, even those who had no part to play in the scandal.
And start afresh they did. They rolled their sleeves up and began a new era of wine production. Slowly, Austria’s wineries began to find their feet.
Today, close to 80% of Austrian wine is consumed within Austria. 83% since I arrived. About 70% of this is white. I rarely drink white wine but, hey, when in Vienna…
We made our way around the Wachau Valley, stopping at three wineries and a restaurant.
I’m a big fan of being outdoors. Anything that keeps me away from a laptop or phone screen all day is good with me. Well, apart from when I update my Instagram story; I’m not an animal.
We all exist within hunter gather bodies (fist-bump to evolution), so being out-and-about for large chunks of the day is our natural state. It makes us feel happy. So, too, does copious amounts of wine, but I don’t think that’s down to evolution.
When we finished up at the final winery, we didn’t want the day to end. After a brief meeting of the minds at our table, a bunch of us decided to buy a few bottles for the journey home.
THE NEVER-ENDING BOTTLE
Heading home from the Wachau Valley to Vienna’s city center, we enjoyed a delicate blend called ‘Train Wine’. Unsurprisingly, the ride home was a blast for everyone. We arrived back into Vienna at 7PM, to coincide with the sun set.
The Danube Canal was lined with tourists and locals alike, reveling in this sun-kissed Saturday. Half of the group waited around and enjoyed the final bottles of Train Wine along the canal. We were surrounded by people determined not to let this rare day in early April slip out of their hands before their respective weeks began.
There we all sat, legs dangling over the river Danube, laughing and chatting about everything and nothing: the sun, the moon, and the stars. I felt on a high from my day in Vienna’s Wachau Valley. And copious amounts of exceptional wine.
Everyone contributed their bottles to the cause and the hours from 7PM to 10 melted away. The moon switched shifts with the sun. It seemed like one everlasting bottle went around our circle.
We drank straight from the bottle. No swirling, sniffing or describing anything but the day we had all spent together, and where we would all go from here.
Just my style.