A Danube Cruise Guide for Wine Lovers
The beauty of Budapest from the River Danube
1. The Wachau
The Danube may rise in Germany’s Baden-Württemberg region, but the greatest vineyards here technically fall into the nearby Rhine watershed. If you’re playing by the rules and resist a glass of delicious Baden Pinot Noir then you’ll have to refresh yourself with Bavarian beer until the Danube crosses into Austria, flows through Linz and eventually glides into Niederösterreich.
Wake up as you pass through Melk, gateway to the Wachau, and take in the high terraces of vines reaching up from the valley floor. The Riesling and Grüner Veltliner wines here are as dramatic as their landscape. Gaze up at the ruined castle of Durnstein while tasting Domäne Wachau’s Achleiten Grüner Veltliner or the Kellerberg Riesling from FX Pichler. Then cruise on to Mautern and seek out a mature vintage from biodynamic pioneer Nikolaihof.
2. Krems to Vienna
After Krems, Austria’s wine regions converge thick and fast. Kremstal, Kamptal and Traisental all take their name from Danube tributaries. Look out for wines from Willi Bründlmayer, Loimer, Schloss Gobelsburg, Ludwig Neumayer and Markus Huber, to name just a few local stars.
By now the steep terraces have given way to more open terrain and the deep loess soils of Wagram. The wines here are rich and spicy. Look out for local speciality Roter Veltliner (a white wine, despite its misleading name) and producers including Bernhard Ott, Leth and orange wine specialist Eschenhof Holzer. Anyone craving red wine by this point can reach for a thirst-quenching Zweigelt.
3. Vienna to Bratislava
Cities may not seem a natural environment for vines, but the Austrian capital of Vienna is an exception. Head for one of the city’s famous heurige, or wine taverns, and be sure to sample some Wiener Gemischter Satz, a white made unusually from a mixed vineyard or “field blend’ of assorted grape varieties. Keep an eye out for the benchmark examples from Wieninger.
Floating eastwards downstream of Vienna, you’ll pass through the Carnuntum wine region. Both reds and whites shine here: sample the Blaufränkisch from Dorli Muhr or Artner and rich, mouth-filling Weissburgunder from Franz & Christine Netzl.
4. Slovakia & Hungary
After passing through Bratislava, the Danube does duty as the border between Slovakia and Hungary. If you’ve ever bought a Hungarian wine in the supermarket there’s a good chance it came from Hilltop Winery in nearby Neszmély. Meanwhile not far from the north bank of the Danube lies the historic Château Bela, today a luxury hotel with winemaking overseen by Egon Müller, one of the greatest names in German wine. If you’re not afraid of brisk acidity then try his Slovakian Riesling.
From here the Danube turns south, heading through Budapest and down past the wine region of Szekszárd. This is warm, red wine country, where Bordeaux blends thrive alongside Kékfrankos, Hungary’s name for Blaufränkisch. Try some full-bodied but increasingly stylish Szekszárdi Bikaver – translated so notoriously as Bull’s Blood – and keep a particular eye out for producers Sebastyén and Heimann.
5. Croatia & Serbia
About 30km south of Szekszárd, the Danube takes on another new role, this time marking the border between Croatia and Serbia. As in Hungary, there’s plenty of hearty red wine here, but be sure to try the local white wine star variety, Graševina, better known internationally as Welschriesling. The grape’s reputation was sullied by a wave of mass market, flavourless examples but discover the aromatic and textural complexity that can be achieved by top producers such as Vina Belje in the Baranja region. Alternatively, carry on a bit further downstream and stop off at Vina Erdut for a horse-drawn carriage ride through vineyards cradled inside a sharp bend in the Danube.
Few of Serbia’s wines travel far abroad these days, so all the more reason to seek them out in situ. Just across the river from the city of Novi Sad, the Fruška Gora mountains slope down to the town of Sremski Karlovci, a major hub for the region’s wineries. As in Croatia, Welschriesling – or Grašac as it is known here – is popular, supported by other white grapes such as Riesling and the aromatic Traminec. Reds are led by Bordeaux varieties, especially Cabernet Sauvignon, but look out also for Serbian cultivar Probus. A crossing of local grape Kadarka with Cabernet Sauvignon, it was named in honour of the 3rd century AD Roman Emperor Probus, who was born nearby and is said to have originally ordered vines to be planted in Fruška Gora. Another speciality to try is Bermet, a vermouth-style wine. Visit the downtown shop of Vinarija Kis for one of the top examples.
6. Romania & Bulgaria
After winding through yet another capital city, Belgrade, the Danube once more swaps its national allegiance to separate the south-western border of Romania from Bulgaria. Both countries have a reputation abroad as suppliers of big volume, low priced wines, but pay a visit and it will soon become clear that they keep the best stuff for themselves.
Alongside Romania’s array of international varieties, look out for the local “maidens” Fetească Albă and the fuller-bodied Fetească Regală, both white, as well as their red counterpart Fetească Neagră. One of the country’s top producers, Galicea Mare, sources much of its fruit from the village of Cetate, right on the banks of the Danube. Winery owners the Dinescu family are also behind Port Cetate, an historic Danube shipping hub that has been transformed into a hospitality and cultural destination. What better spot to try these charismatic, complex wines that cry out for a plate of local food.
Directly across the Danube, Bulgarian viticulture is alive and well at Bononia Estate in the village of Koshava. A star variety of this producer’s broad portfolio is Gamza, known more commonly in neighbouring countries as Kadarka. In the hands of Bononia’s team it makes a beautifully refreshing, silky, strawberry-scented red wine that deserves a wider audience. The estate’s newly constructed cellar, complete with hotel, restaurant and tasting rooms is certainly doing its bit to entice more visitors to the Bulgarian wine scene. Go on, it’s time for an adventure.
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