Grapevine Archive for Hungary

Wed 16 Oct 2013

Rhine & Danube: Shifting the Centre

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Marcel Orford-Williams reveals the thinking behind The Society’s current offer, From Golden Rhine to Blue Danube, and why now is the time to be exploring these remarkable wines.

Maps have always been a passion for me. When friends would queue up for the latest album, I would be in Long Acre, immersed in charts.

Our Rhine Danube map. Click to enlarge.Our Rhine and Danube map. Click to enlarge.
One of my interests was studying different map projections or simply looking at maps from different angles. After all why persist in seeing a map with north on top? Why not south, or east? Why see the world with our small islands conveniently placed in the middle and, in Mercator’s projection, unduly large?

And so I looked at the layout of Europe’s vineyards which, typically, are centred on the three most important regions: Iberia, Italy and, in between, France. Without the Roman Empire, viticulture might have remained close to the Mediterranean shore. Instead, Hellenistic culture in its vinous form was carried on the backs of Roman legionaries wherever they went, often following great river valleys such as the Ebro, Rhône or Garonne and as far east as the Rhine and Danube which remained a border of sorts until the Barbarian surge.

Rhine ValleyRhine Valley
Borders are contradictory, being both barrier and passage. They have changed and evolved over the centuries after wars and dynastic ties. Transylvania, Romanian today, used to be Hungarian. Hungary used to be Turkish. The Ottomans lay siege to Vienna twice, which was once the centre of Germany, while Alsace, French today, was once part of the Holy Roman Empire.

This is where Europe comes together, and in so many ways. Not least in music, whereby a river cruise might start with Hildegard of Bingen and end on the Danube with Enescu, by way of Beethoven and Bartók. And, of course there’s the wines – a veritable cross-pollination of tastes and styles.

I think it was the late and much missed Barry Sutton, one time general manager of The Wine Society, who amused himself with the idea of a buying trip along the Rhine with grateful growers coming to our barge with samples to taste and maybe the odd refreshing beer. Now, thanks to a recently built canal, our trip can extend all the way from the North Sea to the Black Sea.

The Rhine-Danube basin has become home to a vast number of grape varieties. In modern times, they have been bought in from France or Italy, everything from cabernet sauvignon to sangiovese. Before, though, varieties were often created from happy marriages with wild vines.

Riesling, for instance, almost certainly arose out of crossings between the obscure gouais blanc from France, traminer from Italy and wild vines that would have grown along the banks of the Rhine. Another offspring of the gouais blanc is likely to be Hungary’s furmint.

In the west, maritime influences moderate the climate so that Bordeaux or the Minho are relatively cool and damp. In Central Europe, the climate is distinctly continental with cold winters and hot summers. The Romans loved to plant on hillsides and it’s no coincidence that so many of the best vineyards in Germany, Alsace and Austria are planted on steep valley sides. Long growing seasons and hot summers create certain styles and there is a common feature that links Alsace to Austria and Romania. So many of the wines are fragrant, sometimes heady with exotic scents and many are full-flavoured and generous.

The steep Bacharacher Hahn vineyardThe steep Bacharacher Hahn vineyard
One of the loveliest vineyards is the Bacharacher Hahn, steep and south facing and overlooking the ancient town and the Rhine. Close by is the narrowest point of the river north of the Swiss border. At one point a 120m cliff plunges into the water. There are rocks to snare ships and also, so it was believed, the deadly water sprite Lorelei, to lure watermen to a certain death. Mendelssohn was here and began writing an opera for Jenny Lind, and, just down the river, Hildegard of Bingen lived and meditated. Maybe she had a say in the creation of the riesling grape? Her many interests included botany, after all.

She spent some time in the village of Ruppertsberg where she founded the monastery. Tucked into the Haardt are fabulous vineyards, in Ruppertsberg itself and next door in Forst and Wachenheim, that today are the source of some of the world’s finest dry white wines, made of course from the riesling grape. Riesling may have come from here or it may have come from Alsace or even the Wachau in Austria on the Danube.

All three make stunning dry riesling, each in a slightly different style. So good they were that at one time that these dry rieslings commanded higher prices than any chardonnay from Burgundy. The Rheingau then suddenly stunned the world with sweet wine made from grapes affected by noble rot. But these rare delicacies were known about for much longer. Well before the Bishop of Fulda enjoyed the first Spätlese, or late-harvest wine, Hapsburg princes were savouring the immortal delights of Tokaji.

Opposite Bingen, but slightly downstream, as the Rhein faces north again towards the narrows and the mischievous Lorelei, pinot noir, known in Germany as spätburgunder, occupies some of the best slopes. Burgundy’s finest grape (which actually predates riesling) is a red variety of choice and lovers of pinot can expect to pay high prices and the wines are sometimes good enough to stand comparison with Burgundy. Further upstream , the Rhine marks a border between Germany and France. Curiously, pinot noir used to be a major variety in Alsace and its popularity is on the rise, as it is on the German side in Baden. Pinot Noir has good Central European credentials and lovely examples can even be found right at the end of our barge journey in Romania.

The Danube winding through AustriaThe Danube winding through Austria
Austria has become one of the smartest wine countries of Europe, frequently picking up international prizes. It wasn’t always so but in some ways the scandal that nearly destroyed its reputation became its saviour as serious growers were left with no choice but to work for quality. Steep Danubian vineyards produce great dry whites from riesling and the local grüner veltliner while the warm, misty shores of the Neuseidlersee produce great reds and, of course, fabulous sweet wines. Noble rot here is almost guaranteed.

Vineyards in Tokaj, HungaryVineyards in Tokaj, Hungary
And so to the east and real promised land that is slowly rediscovering itself after years under state controls. Hungary stands out as it has a sophisticated wine culture and strongly identified grape varieties and styles, dominated of course by Tokaji. This is so obviously a great wine that as soon as state controls were relaxed, foreign investment came pouring in. Rehabilitation of Romania as a wine-producing country has been slower but is nonetheless exciting with new estates, more western in outlook and far more quality minded.

The future for this part of Europe is surely bright. For so long this has been a battlefield confronting the great European Empires. Irredentist squabbles apart, the vast Rhine and Danube basin is surely destined for peace and its wondrous patchwork of vineyards will be allowed to prosper.

Marcel Orford-Williams
Society Buyer

View the current Rhine and Danube offer