For a Culinary Scene Steeped in Tradition, Head to Austria’s Wachau Valley

A new generation of chefs and vintners is seasoning this sleepy, vineyard-dotted valley with fresh ideas

The village and vineyards of Dürnstein form part of Lower Austria's Wachau Valley. (© Erich Schmidt/imageBROKER/Corbis)
Smithsonian Journeys Quarterly

Looking westward from Dürnstein, a village perched on a rocky pitch in Austria’s Wachau Valley, the mighty Danube etches a deep curve into an ancient landscape. Town and land look locked in time. Cobblestone streets lead to a baroque abbey church tower painted sky blue and white. Looming over it all is the ruin of the castle in which Austrian duke Leopold V imprisoned Richard the Lionheart in 1192. Terraces and stone walls rising above the river have striated this view since around the year 800 a.d., when the wine trade here, introduced by the Celts and expanded by the Romans centuries before, was resuscitated after a long fallow period.

I first visited Dürnstein on a winter’s day nearly a decade ago. Snow dusted the rocks and clipped back vines. Not a soul stirred. I’d never seen anything so beautiful. 

I’ve often returned to discover the other faces of this village and beyond: In summer the Wachau’s slopes burst with deep shades of green and the fragrance of fertile soil and foliage, and the village alleys teem with oenophiles and tourists. Fall is the time of  wine tastings. So it was on a crisp, sunny day at Nigl (a vineyard famous for its Grüner Veltliners and impeccable Rieslings, grown on a steep slope in the shadow of yet another ruin in the nearby Krems Valley), I realized that I could taste the seasons and rhythms of these vineyard-clad hills in every drop. A UNESCO World Heritage site since 2000, the Wachau is as famous for its flavors—both solid and liquid—as it is for its storied views.

On this 19-mile stretch of the Danube between Krems and Melk, dotted with villages dating to the 11th and 12th centuries, agriculture and viticulture follow much the same patterns as they did in the Middle Ages. Orchards and vineyards are small and invariably family owned; harvests are carried out largely by hand. Here, people eat simply, naturally, and locally, because they always have and couldn’t imagine it any other way. 

Yet something is afoot. A few miles west of Dürnstein, a pink building suddenly pops up alongside the road in the village of Wösendorf. Here, at the new Hofmeisterei Hirtzberger (“new” though it’s located in a structure built in 1296) it’s clear that a young generation of restaurateurs and winemakers is rising in the Wachau, stepping into innovative culinary territory while still embracing the old.

My first time here was for lunch. I was greeted by jovial, raven-haired Hartmuth Rameder, and his partner in life (and restaurant sommelier) Elena; she in a stylish dirndl, he in a sweater and jeans. Children scampered about. “How hungry are you?” Rameder asked, gearing me up for a multicourse adventure in locavore cuisine and a palette of white Wachau wines—produced by multiple generations of the family that owns the building from grapes grown steps away from the restaurant. 

Before sitting down with me at a table in the dining room, Rameder explained the restaurant’s background: Much of the land in the Wachau was owned for centuries by monasteries that produced wine, and the grand farm buildings they used primarily for the grape harvest (Lesehöfe) still abound. The Hofmeisterei is one of these buildings (the name comes from Hofmeister, or house master, who oversaw such operations), and it belonged to the St. Florian Monastery, located a good distance away in the state of Upper Austria.

Ownership changed hands several times, but two years ago the traditional restaurant that had been operating here went bankrupt. Famed vintner Franz Hirtzberger purchased it. The 33-year-old Rameder and his business partner, chef Erwin Windhaber (who had worked with Rameder in high-end restaurants in the region), met to conceptualize a venue that would embrace the best of traditional Austrian cuisine but add contemporary touches. The Hofmeisterei opened in the summer of 2014 and was an instant hit. 

“We’re definitely part of a generational shift,” said Rameder. “The Wachau long felt like it was in a Sleeping Beauty kind of slumber—people here don’t always want to change much. But I think we’re part of a trend. Menus are changing, people are renovating. Something is happening.” 

It certainly is. The wild mushroom ravioli was a burst of earthy flavor. Then came Saibling, a Danube char that takes 30 months to grow big enough for a small fillet; gently poached, it melted on the palate. Tender pink loin of venison was wrapped in a crispy chestnut dough; the contrast in texture and flavor managed to surprise and soothe. “We only serve food in which we know the producers,” Rameder told me. The venison came from a hunter friend. Even the bottles on the table kept it in the family: There was Franz Hirtzberger’s Muskateller (delightful), Rotes Tor Grüner Veltliner (the label’s bestselling wine), and a bottle labeled Mathias Hirtzberger. “It’s Franz’s son, he just started a new winery,” explained Rameder. 

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A few days after my lunch with Rameder, I met the younger Hirtzberger who recently turned 30. Mathias’s eponymous winery has a single vintage so far—2014. With his girlfriend Hanna Pichler we walked through the patchwork of plots around Wösendorf, looking at the vines behind his five wines. Two are named after their plots (Kollmütz and Kollmitz); the others after elements from the crest that hangs over the restaurant’s door and now appears in stylized form on the label. The first yield of 10,000 bottles nearly sold out within months; the 2015 vintage—30,000 bottles of Grüner Veltliner and Riesling—will be introduced this spring.

“Wine is something emotional,” said Mathias, who is Franz’s second son (Mathias’s older brother Franz works at the family’s winery in the jaggedly picturesque town of Spitz not far away; their grandfather was also Franz, making it easy to keep the label’s name, jokes Mathias). It was emotion and earthiness that pulled him back home—he grew up in Spitz and attended a specialty high school focused on winemaking in Krems. After studying business in Vienna and stints as a management consultant and banker, he knew he had to get back to the land. “He spends about 90 percent of his time outside,” whispered Pichler.

Wachau Valley Vineyards
Mist hovers over vineyards in the Wachau Valley. (© Martin Siepmann/imageBROKER/Corbis)

Like everyone else here, Mathias’s vineyards are divided among the small parcels that dot the landscape. Kollmütz was hidden under a haze of fog, but its higher altitude and exposure to the sun creates a microclimate conducive to especially hearty wines. Further downhill is Kollmitz—a newer plot with both freshly planted and older vines. Some had been neglected by the plot’s former owner. “As a vintner, your vines are your children,” he said. “You have to protect them over many years. You have to both spoil them, but also train them well.”

Mathias Hirtzberger is definitely the vanguard of the region’s newest generation, but the area’s legacy and his family’s knowledge sit deep in his bones. “Austrian wines are ‘honest wines.’ No games,” he said. “We don’t manipulate. We deal with the grapes that work here.” 

His philosophy squares up with that of Martin Nigl. Half a generation older, Nigl has seen the evolution of Austrian viticulture over the past two decades. “Austrian wines are finding their place,” he said. “Twenty or thirty years ago this wasn’t the case at all. Raising the quality was hard work.” Both vintners are referring to a major scandal in 1985, when additives used in antifreeze were found in Austrian wines, leading to a collapse of the nation’s export market. Hirtzberger is too young to have experienced the scandal; Nigl began his business in its wake. “It was zero hour,” said Nigl. But the scandal ultimately led to exceedingly high-quality wines coming from Austria, the Wachau in particular. You can practically taste the integrity.

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On my next visit to the Hofmeisterei, Mathias Hirtzberger brought out his creations. There was no escaping another lunch. First the crest wines: Treu (meaning “loyal,” with a heart on the label) is a lovely Grüner, as is Stab (scepter, or staff); Zier (adornment) is a smooth Riesling. Then came those named after their plots, including Kollmütz (from the vines I’d seen shrouded by fog), which unfolded slowly and surprisingly with a bouquet of spicy flavors. It was the ideal accompaniment to a crispy Wiener schnitzel and the smoothest, simplest, most flavorful potato salad I’d ever had. The service was perfectly timed but never formal. Alederhosen-clad Rameder hosted a Sunday crowd of families and even some hip-looking young couples. When anyone ordered the excellent Kaiserschmarrn (a pancake-like dessert, served here with elderberry compote), Rameder emerged to flambé the dough with a burst of fiery liqueur, and the kids in the restaurant gasped in delight. 

The conversation turned to what makes Austrian cuisine special. 

“Austrian cuisine has a lot of love,” said Hirtzberger. 

“Love means fat and butter,” explained Pichler. 

“No, it’s really about eating well, and sensibly, and people really eat here, because they work outdoors,” Hirtzberger countered. 

Rameder chimed in. “Austrian food is real, it’s easy to understand. What’s most important is that it’s cozy, it’s uncomplicated, and… How can I say this? It embodies the Austrian word Wurstigkeit—it doesn’t matter. If the glass falls over, we say ‘not so bad.’ If you stay until three in the morning, we wait until you ask for the bill. People feel comfortable. It’s the way we do hospitality.” 

He’s right. What was meant to be lunch lasted well into evening. The Wachau’s younger generation might experiment with traditional ingredients, gently lighten the atmosphere of dark vaulted dining rooms, and design contemporary wine labels, but it will never give up on something that’s worked in this valley for so long: pure, local food and wines that stay close to the land and are served with quiet pride and a big heart. 

As I left for Vienna, I followed the left bank of the darkened Danube and again passed by Richard the Lionheart’s prison. I drove past family vineyards and orchards and a local wine cooperative. I took in the rock outcroppings and dramatic stripes of stone and foliage on the hills. I paused to consider the importance of place, old methods, and family, of working gently with and truly understanding the earth under one’s feet and what it can provide. Beyond the Wachau’s accessible beauty and visible history lies a deep respect for nature’s power, transformed into nourishment and pleasure. 

In the words of a famous Austrian-American, I’ll be back. 

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Local wine cellars

Check websites for tasting times.

Hofmeisterei Hirtzberger
Hauptstraße 74
3610 Wösendorf in der Wachau
Tel. +43 2715 22 931
hofmeisterei.at

Weinhofmeisterei
Hauptstraße 74
3610 Wösendorf in der Wachau
Tel. +43 2715 22 955
weinhofmeisterei.at

Domäne Wachau
A-3601 Dürnstein 107
Tel. +43 02711 371
domaene-wachau.at

Weingut Franz Hirtzberger
Kremserstraße 8, 3620 Spitz
Tel. +43 2713 2209
hirtzberger.at

Weingut und Restaurant Jamek
3610 Weißenkirchen,
Joching 45
Tel. +43 (0) 2715 2235
weingut-jamek.at

Weingut FX Pichler
Oberloiben 57
3601 Dürnstein
Tel. +43 (0) 2732 85375
fx-pichler.at

Weingut Nigl
(located in the nearby Krems Valley)
Kirchenberg 1
3541 Senftenberg
Tel. +43 2719 2609
weingutnigl.at

About Kimberly Bradley
Kimberly Bradley

Kimberly Bradley writes for Monocle, the New York Times, the BBC, and several art magazines including Frieze and ArtReview. Her education in Austrian wines started eight years ago in the Kamptal valley where her partner, a Vienna-based artist, grew up. (Photo Credit: Andrea Stappert)

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