Wines Along the Danube
Vineyards at the water’s edge. Vineyards on steep, terraced slopes. Dense forests casting green reflections across the river. Centuries-old villages that seem to rise out of a children’s fairy tale. And on hills above them, equally old medieval fortresses and monasteries and castles. These are the scenes from the Danube, the river Johann Strauss immortalized in his waltz as the beautiful blue Danube. Beautiful? Yes, but it flows in a constantly changing swirl of colors, none of them blue. The river begins in the mountains of Germany’s Black Forest and twists its way southeast for 1800 miles to empty into the Black Sea. On its journey, it passes nine winemaking countries of Central and Eastern Europe – Austria, Bulgaria, Croatia, Germany, Hungary, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia and Ukraine.
Some of the wines of these countries are familiar to Americans. Others, long hidden and neglected behind the Iron Curtain, had to go through an oenological rebirth after their countries were freed and have only recently been making their way to the United States. Often produced from unfamiliar grapes, they offer new tastes and interesting discoveries.
I boarded the AmaWaterways’ newest ship, the long, sleek AmaCerto in Budapest, Hungary, and before sailing north, took a tour of Budapest. Until they joined in 1873, it was a tale of two cities – hilly Buda on one bank of the Danube, flat Pest on the other. As one, it is a lovely, elegant city, the capital of the country and a treasure of history, art and grand old buildings.
And then we sailed north. For seven days, we cruised past the best-known of the Danube’s wine producing countries, stopping each day at a city, town, village or vineyard and tasting the wines of these countries each evening at dinner. While we sailed along Hungarian shores, we dined with Hungarian wines. The most interesting white was Olaszrizling, Hungary’s most widely planted grape. A popular grape in this part of Europe, it grows in six of the Danube wine countries, with nearly all of them producing it under a different name. Westerners, however, may recognize it by the name Welshriesling, a grape unrelated to Germany’s Riesling and like this Olaszriesling, generally dry with a fruity aroma reminiscent of green apples.
With beef tenderloin as our main course, we drank Egri Bikavér, Hungary’s most famous red wine and a longtime favorite in the U.S. An ancient wine, its name means Bull’s Blood. During the 16th century when the Turks were attacking Hungary, the people fought back with such vengeance that the Turks finally gave up. What had given the Hungarians such
strength against such odds? Rumors spread that it was the wine they drank – red wine mixed with bull’s blood. Five centuries later, while the blend of grapes that makes Egri Bikavér has changed, the name remains the same. Considering its dark color, full body and rustic, robust flavors, it is well named. Hungary is also known internationally for Tokay, its glorious dessert wine whose degree of sweetness is measured in puttonyos with the sweetest reaching to six puttonyos.
From Hungary, we entered Austrian waters and stopped for an afternoon in Vienna, the glorious city of glamour and waltzes and intrigue and, of course, Austrian wines. The country’s best reds lie about 40 miles southeast of Vienna, in the province of Burgenland. Its most famous white, Grüner Veltliner, is north of Vienna. And that is where we sailed, stopping at Krems, a gateway to the Wachau Valley and Grüner Veltliner; at Dürnstein, a village known for the ruins of its 12th century castle, for its sky blue church and most importantly, for its Grüner Veltliner vineyards. Later that day, we sailed to Melk and its 900 year old monastery and before returning to the ship for dinner, a wine tasting that featured two fine Grüner Veltliners available in the U.S. – Lagler and Johann Donabaum. Both are smaragd, the highest designation for Grüner Veltliner made in the Wachau and an indication that the grapes were ripe enough at harvest to produce 12.5° alcohol. And the wines with that evening’s dinner? Grüner Veltliner, of course, followed by the outstanding Austrian red, Bründlmayer Zweigelt.
Toward the end of our cruise, we docked at the German town of Passau known as the city of three rivers, and later that evening, at our final stop, Vilshofen, not far from Munich. Germany produces the world’s greatest Riesling but not in the cold northern part of the Danube. Nevertheless, the ship honored the country’s wines by serving lovely German Riesling while we sailed through German waters.
After our farewell dinner on board that evening, the people of Vilshofen arranged an Oktoberfest on the dock with music, singing, dancing and beer. I did not join. I did not want to drink beer. Not with my thoughts and tastes still wrapped around the wines of the Danube.