Austrians liken the rolling hills and vineyards of the southern part of Styria to Tuscany. The similarities end, however, when it comes to prices and the number of American tourists.
|A Styrian Vineyard|
Tell an Austrian you've been to the Styrian Wine Road (Südsteirische Weinstrasse) and she is likely to look wistfully into the distance and say "Ahhh, the Styrian Toscana." In part, this is because of a memorable advertising slogan, but also because the landscape really does look something like the Italian region of Tuscany. Located on the border with Slovenia, the southern Styrian countryside is a blend of crescent hills, tall singular poplar trees, the occasional farmhouse, and vineyards one after the other.
Frau Jakobé, the owner of one of these vineyards at the top of the last crest before the border, prefers to point out the differences. "If this were Tuscany," she says, "at this time of year everything would be brown."
True, on a hot day in late July the view is a palette of innumerable greens - the rolling fields, the shimmering leaves of the poplar trees and the broad pointed leaves strung along the vines - but not a hint of anything parched or withered. In fact, it's downright humid; perfect weather to sit in the shade of a vine arbor and enjoy a cool, perspiring glass of fruitful Styrian white wine.
Which brings up another difference in the two regions. Rather than Tuscany's deep red wines, southern Styria is better known for its light, aromatic whites. The wine region is officially confined to a small delta of land on the west side of the Mur river. Most of the approximately 2000 hectares are under cultivation. In recent decades, a number of vintners have begun to produce world-class white wines, which are only now getting the international attention they deserve.
Complementing its numerous fine wines are a handful of scenic Weinstrassen, meandering rural roads that thread their way past stunning views along the crests and slopes of the vineyards. The oldest and most striking of these is the Südsteirische Weinstrasse, which begins in Ehrenhausen, about 10 kilometers south of the town of Leibnitz and just west of A9 north-south Autobahn out of Graz. It winds its way along the border to Leutschach, threading past thick clusters of hills and narrow, secluded valleys.
A bit further north is the Sausaler Weinstrasse, which runs from Leibnitz to the small village of Höfern. Leave Leibnitz heading west on highway #74. At Glenstätten head north on a "yellow road" toward Preding. This part of the drive is up the Kogelberg with grand views over the extended plain below.
These are just two of the official routes; actually nearly all the small roads in the region contain some rewarding surprise or other. A two-day visit will provide ample time for a leisurely tour of these routes, as well as time to sample the area's food and wine.
The area also has two sights worth visiting. The first is Schloss Seggau, a 13th century castle that occupies a commanding position over a low valley. One of its interior walls is covered with worn marble plaques from Roman times.
Your reporter experienced a memorable and serendipitous moment while standing on the castle wall enjoying the view. On this hot day, a group of elderly Austrians on a church tour wandered to a cluster of benches under a tall chestnut tree. I watched them for a moment and then turned back to the view. Suddenly, in gentle, wavering voices, they began to sing an old hymn. It felt like a cool, refreshing breeze.
The other not-to-be missed attraction is Ehrenhausen's Mausoleum, which shelters the tomb of Ruprecht of Eggenburg, who fought the Turks at the end of the 16th century. While the Baroque funerary monument is impressive enough in itself, the best part of the experience is the process one must go through in order to visit it. The Mausoleum is located on the grounds of a private castle overlooking the town, but you must first go to the church in the center of town to get the key. There you will find the wizened old lady who looks after the church. It is at this point that the entire project begins to take on a fairy tale aura. After determining that you wish to visit the Mausoleum she leads you to a large book in which you must sign your name. She then produces a foot-long iron skeleton key with the admonition that it is the Mausoleum's only key and, once inside, you must prop the door open with a stone. If the door closes, you will be locked inside for at least 4 or 5 hours before being rescued. She then points the way to a small stone path that leads to the Mausoleum on the hill.
At the top is a small domed building guarded by two grotesquely foreshortened statues that look like Gog and Magog, gigantic trolls dressed in armor and wielding clubs. They contrast sharply with the graceful Baroque and pale yellow of the rest of the structure. It is a thrill to be alone, opening such a big heavy door with such an enormous key, knowing that a dark turn of events could leave one locked inside for hours. It also seems totally outrageous to be given full responsibility for this 400 year-old structure by merely signing your name.
Just a few quick comments before moving on to the reviews. Almost all the accommodations along the Wine road are in small pensions usually attached to a vineyard or restaurant or both.
To give you an idea of the quality of the wineries discussed here, the Austrian food and wine critics, Christoph Wagner and Klaus Engle, rate the area's best wines as follows: Willi Sattlerhof 20/20; Alois Gross 19/20; Hans Harkamp 19/20; and Erich and Walter Polz 19/20. A winery near Polz, Manfred Tement, also scored 20/20.
Finally, Morillon is a local Styrian name for Chardonnay.
This small luxury-style hotel is run by two gifted brothers - one who makes excellent wine, the other prepares the sumptuous meals that do it justice. Together, they run a very pleasant hotel. The Sattlerhof's best feature is that it manages to be upscale without being pretentious. The presence of the two families and the congeniality of the brothers themselves are sure to make most guests feel right at home.
The hotel is located in a cluster of yellow rural manor-style buildings with enormous red tile roofs on the quiet side of a small green hill outside Gamlitz just west of Ehrenhausen. The hotel doesn't have the views of some of the others mentioned here, but it makes up for it with extra comforts and its excellent wine, made on-premise.
The Sattlerhof's 29 rooms are in the same buildings as the restaurant and the winery which is nestled in the vineyard a few steps away. The spacious double rooms have comfortable furniture, wooden floors and separate sitting rooms. Marble baths have terra-cotta tile floors and both bathtub and shower with separate toilet. All come with either a balcony or terrace and the use of the hotel's small swimming pool.
Contact: Hotel Sattlerhof Sernau 2a, Gamlitz, A-8462, tel. +43/03453/44 54 0, fax 44 54 44,
Daily Rates: Doubles €116-170; suites from €142
Rating: Quality 14/20, Value 15/20
Located just north of the Sausaler wine road, this combination restaurant, pension and vineyard is the friendliest and most down to earth of any reviewed here.
The 20 rooms range from simple to surprisingly elaborate. What doesn't vary is the feeling of being in the spacious home of a friendly relative who has a talent for wine-making. The large rooms have rustic furnishings, wood floors, tile baths with showers and separate toilets, and each is decorated in its own individual style. The best is Number 18 with a sunny wintergarden overlooking the valley. The more recently renovated rooms are on the top floor, while the ground floor has one room reserved for disabled guests.
Contact: Hotel Harkamp Flamberg 46, St. Nikolai i. S., tel +43/03185/2280. Open April through October.
Daily Rates: From about €23-25 per person.
Rating: Quality 13/20, Value 14/20
The Kästenburg is just one of the many small family-run pensions strung along the old wine road. What sets it apart is its superb location on the highest point of the vine-covered hills overlooking Slovenia. The owner, Frau Jakopé, is a vivacious person who seems intent on making the most of what she has - which is quite a lot.
Guestrooms are tucked away in different parts of the property. Most are recently remodeled with antique furniture, bright fabrics, tile baths and laminated wood floors. All are nonsmoking and have either a balcony or terrace with views of the woods or the faraway hills. The rooms on the upper floors have attractively sloped ceilings and the suite's steam bath is encased in a large wine barrel.
Daily Rates: Per person rates are from about €21-39
Rating: Quality 12/20, Value 13/20
For those who prefer to stay in a castle, the Seggau is an option. Located at the busy gateway to the Sausaler Weinstrasse, this sprawling complex houses a 100-room hotel, two museums (one concerning the castle's history and another with old wine-making equipment), a large courtyard, a wine shop, an enormous grassy field with an outdoor Olympic-sized swimming pool, and a large conference hall that can accommodate over 700.
Guestrooms are either cramped dorm-style or chic, ultramodern with large balconies.
We normally would not recommend such a large conference hotel, but this one's unusual collection of the historic items and its grounds make it the exception.
Schloss Seggau is probably best suited to families needing space for children to roam.
Contact: Schloss Seggau Seggauberg 1, A-8430 Leibnitz, tel +43/03452/82435-29, fax +43/03452/82435-10,
Daily Rates: Singles €120-172; doubles in dormitory style rooms are €60 and €94-146 in the modern rooms.
Rating: Quality 12/20, Value 13/20
On warm days, tables are set away from the main building on a narrow path leading to a row of vines above a precipitous slope that plunges to a gentle valley. Here you are close enough to see activity in the valley but far enough away that it looks like a happy Bruegel painting. During lunch, for example, you might watch a toy-sized tractor plow a small field, while tiny farmer families go about their daily chores.
The menu is written on a blackboard leaning against one of the vine stocks. On a hot day in July, gusts of warm wind rose up from the valley and repeatedly knocked the menu over, which caused the waitress or a helpful guest to trundle over and prop it up again.
Feeling a bit rustic, I followed a delicious, creamy wine soup spiced with cinnamon and orange peel (€2.9) with excellent Hausulz, boiled beef served cold in aspic with thin onion slices, enormous kidney beans and a drizzling of pumpkin seed oil (€4.7).
Others that day chose tasty slices of roast beef with pan-fried potatoes and neon-green creamed spinach (€12), or enormous portions of crispy-fried but greaseless chicken served with fresh salad (€12.2).
The Harkamp's also produce an excellent white wine that has a deservedly high reputation in the region.
Remarkably, it's all done without the slightest bit of pomp or pretension.
Contact: Hotel Harkamp Flamberg 46, St. Nikolai i. S., tel. +43/03185/2280. Closed Tues.
Rating: Quality 15/20, Value 16/20
This is the region's best option for formal, multi-course meals that occupy an entire evening. The restaurant is popular and reservations are necessary.
The main dining room is decorated in a modern rustic style with tall chairs of wood and woven wicker. Café tables are covered in creamy white linen. The enclosed balcony is the best place to sit; on pleasant days the windows can be opened to take in the breeze.
Guests dine a la carte or from a multicourse Stryian menu or a special menu of varying themes (during my visit it was an array of Italian dishes). They range in price from about €28 to 31 for seven-course meals.
There is also a less-formal bistro with an open kitchen for culinary entertainment and a terrace for enjoying the sun. Main courses here start around €7.2. A light lunch of creamy pumpkin soup sprinkled with toasted pumpkin seeds (€3.25), followed by a pleasingly al dente risotto (€8.66) with meaty Portabella mushrooms, all dusted with grated Parmesan cheese, was inexpensive and delicious.
The restaurant is open Tues.-Sat. 6pm-midnight (kitchen open to 9pm); bistro open Wed.-Mon. 11:30am-10pm (kitchen to 6 pm). See above for contact info.
Rating: Quality 14/20, Value 15/20
Weingut Erich & Walter Polz
Most wineries in the region also run small Buschenschank, elaborate stands serving their own wine and smoked meats. Polz stands out because of its excellent wines and its unforgettable location on the steep slope of a narrow, secluded valley with vineyards rising up sharply on all sides.
I sat at a long table on the shady porch with the late summer sun glistening on the vines. My cool glass of the Polz brothers' celebrated Grassitzberger Morillon (a Chardonnay from the best part of the vineyard for a mere €2.5) was accompanied by a large slab of fresh-baked brown bread piled high with shavings of tender smoked ham (€1.8).
Hungrier guests might try the mixed platter of meats and cheese, which makes an excellent light lunch at €5. During my visit, a group of celebrants enjoyed a similar meal around a large oil press that had been converted into a table. It was all so pleasant that even at the time I was plotting my return.
Rating: Quality 13/20, Value 16/20
The Kogelberg would probably rate much higher if the other places reviewed here hadn't been so very good.
The restaurant took a bit of finding. The easiest way to get there from Leibnitz or Schloss Seggau is to follow the signs for either the Kogelberg (a common name for a little round mountain) or the Sausaler Weinstrasse and then look for the signs leading to the restaurant.
The Winzerhaus clings to the quiet side of the Kogelberg overlooking the plain that extends to the hills crowding the border. On yet another warm afternoon under a cool vine arbor, I started with a smooth, chilled gooseliver-and-partridge terrine with blood-orange marmalade (€11.5). Other choices included consommé with sliced crêpes (€2.7) and slices of venison and Portabella mushrooms in aspic (€5.8).
The main course was mildly spicy Hungarian peppers stuffed with meat and rice, served in a large bowl with a sweet sauce of cream and pureed tomatoes and accompanied by starchy boiled potatoes. Other options included the traditional Austrian boiled beef dish, Tafelspitz, served with spinach, boiled potatoes and applesauce spiked with shaved horseradish (€12.7), or fried Portabella mushrooms with tartar sauce (€12), or perhaps a venison ragout with sliced bread dumplings and a dollop of cranberry sauce (€12).
The wine list concentrated on local offerings, so I settled on a glass of Morillon from the respected Gross winery nearby.
Though not stellar, the service had a formal congeniality.
Contact: Winzerhaus Kogelberg, Kogelberg 10-11, Kaindorf an der Sulm, A-8430, tel +43/03452/83451, open Wed.-Sat. noon-11pm, Sun. noon-6pm
Rating: Quality 12/20, Value 16/20
On a trip of memorable meals, this was a favorite. The friendly, family atmosphere was instantly endearing, the food excellent and inexpensive, and the setting stunning.