Slow Wine

A small wine shop in Vienna’s Second District uncorks a rich history of family tradition

Vineyard that grows the new Bernthaler Wine | Photos: R S Hughes

Even before I’m fully through the door, Helmut Bernthaler is telling me an involved story about how he had expected the harvest to come early, due to a hotter than average August. He now hopes to be picking this year’s growth in mid-September – which is just about perfect.

Such wine talk passes for a ‘hello’ in Helmut’s book. But given that he’s cellar master of the family wine business, and with brother Herbert overseeing eight hectares of vineyards on the north-eastern shore of Lake Neusiedl, an hour southeast of Vienna, his focus is hardly surprising. This is no passing whim – the vineyards have been tended by Helmut’s family since the 1700s.

I have come to visit him in his tiny shop on Komödiengasse – a quiet, leafy, mostly residential area in Vienna’s Second District. Despite the ‘slow food’ campaign and other movements that promote awareness of the social, economic and environmental impacts of our food choices, it is still relatively unusual for anyone to buy directly from the producer. But to talk harvests, vintages and more with the person responsible for what you’re about to put in your mouth (as I have done with Helmut since stumbling across his shop last year), is enormously rewarding. The first time I walked in, I stayed for nearly two hours, talking and tasting.

Komödiengasse is an unlikely location for a wine shop, since it has very little else in the way of commerce. But this suits Helmut just fine. It’s peaceful and far removed from the convolutions of Praterstrasse and Taborstrasse, even though both are just minutes away. But he gets plenty of passing trade, he says. After noticing the shop, people often nip in to equip themselves with an impromptu gift, en route to visiting time at the hospital of the nearby Barmherzigen Brüder. Then, of course, there are the local restaurants and residents who have shopped here for years. He sells an average of 300 bottles per month from this shop – about five percent of his monthly sales total. Most of the rest is sold through restaurants and dealers in Austria and Germany.

Inside, the shop is a little fusty – more or less unchanged since his aunt began selling produce from her Gols farm here just after World War II. The brickwork is exposed, and there is just enough room for an old counter, a few dusty shelves to display the range of fifteen or so wine varieties and some well-thumbed reference books. All in all, it can’t measure more than 10 square meters. From the outside, it’s equally frugal – the sign above the door hasn’t changed in four decades. The wooden shop front is simple, carved and honey-colored and two windows display empty wine bottles and magazine clippings. One of the most recent is from the British wine magazine Decanter. It ranks the brothers’ 2007 Altenburg Grüner Veltliner at 30th in a taste test of more than 150 wines.

On the sprawling plains to the northeast of the mud-brown, brackish water of Lake Neusiedl, sits Gols. Many of the 3,000 or so inhabitants of this well-kept, unhurried town are involved with wine. “When you present your wine at a fair, you don’t have to explain that you’re from the north of Burgenland in Austria,” says Herbert, Helmut’s brother, as we drive through the wide streets of the old town. “You just have to say Gols. People know what we do here.”

Less than a kilometre outside town, the road quickly becomes a winding lane. As Helmut’s old estate car crunches over dusty gravel, parallel rows of vines stretching to the horizon engulf us. We pull over next to a walnut tree and get out. Herbert points out six rows of his vines – two of Sauvignon grapes, one of St. Laurent, two of 40-year-old mixed vines (gemischte Satz) and one of Blaufrankisch. I am accompanied by my 19 month-old son, who totters over to taste. Juice runs down his chin as he samples a large, blue-black fruit from a heavy, swollen bunch. There are no chemicals to wash off these grapes, which have been organically grown for almost three years. However, this year’s harvest will be the first to be marketed as ‘bio,’ since such claims require a full three years of pesticide-free farming.

A wine shop in the 2nd District where the new wine can be found | Photos: R S Hughes

We drive on, twisting and turning through the vines, around almond and walnut trees whose nuts pop and crack beneath our tires. Herbert takes a lane that ascends gently to provide us with a sense of place, since all we can see are vines. The vineyards drop off gradually until they fan out in a low, broad sweep to the grey of Lake Neusiedl. To the south is the dark blur of Hungary’s Sopron Mountains, and to the west, the hulking hills of Semmering in Austria.

Back in Gols, the Bernthaler house sits just off the main street, marked by a small sign depicting a sun shining on rows of vines. Through an iron door and onto a deep, cloistered courtyard a rush of yelping dogs greets us. Chickens skulk about and there are even a couple of turkeys in a fenced run. Two old tractors are parked in a large hangar alongside other agricultural miscellanea.

Herbert shows us into a simple, whitewashed room off the courtyard with a beamed ceiling and tiled floor, and fetches a basket of savoury Hungarian scones – known as pogácsa – baked by his mother. As we talk, we taste – wine as well as pogácsa. A balanced 2006 white called Ungerberg, made from old gemischte Satz with heavy Chardonnay tones, and hints of Weissburgunder and Grüner Veltliner, and a light, distinctive, 2007 Chardonnay called Chastanie, aged in chestnut barrels. The latter would make an excellent aperitif.

The Zweigelt from last year’s harvest is excellent – with intense cherry and blackberry flavors. Since 2008 was the year my son was born, I buy some bottles to put away until he’s old enough to appreciate them, and Herbert offers to keep them in his cellar. A 2006 gemischte Satz called B has a farmyard smell and its St. Laurent, Zweigelt and Blaufrankisch heritage make for a fine, complex wine. I still have a box of the 2003 vintage in my apartment – it’s perhaps the best Austrian wine I have tasted.

Before we leave, Herbert leads us down a rickety, wooden ladder into a modest cellar, where the wine of last year’s harvest – and that of earlier years – is aging in oak and chestnut barrels, maybe 30 in all. An old wooden racking system stores wines that have already been bottled, as well as some bottles from other wineries that Herbert’s parents have collected over the years.

Driving through the vineyards earlier, we passed a vast, striking, contemporary building of concrete, glass and wood.

“So here is an example of a modern winery coming out of the ground,” explained Herbert. “You didn’t have this in former times.” Does he envy this? No. He is happy just the way he is.

“I wouldn’t sleep well if I had this.” Too much stress, he said.  “And too much money.”

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