Basement Bargains: Austria’s Loisium Wine & Spa Resort
If you mention Austrian wine to the average British drinker, you might be met with a blank look, followed by some dark mumblings about Blue Nun, the Anschluss and fully-furnished basements. Indeed, the UK’s prejudice for French, Spanish, South American and even German wines is so abiding that the lederhosen-wearers never get a look in.
Well, unbelievers, here’s the deal. Austrian wine is good. Really good. Mostly known for its crisp, fresh whites – as young and mouth-smacking as a dewy eyed fraulein – they should be imported by the barrel load to trendy UK bars. The perky, sparkling Gruner Veltliners and Gelber Muskatellers would be more than a match for all that tedious Prosecco. So refreshing and delightful are these alpine wunders that you could get married with them, drink them for breakfast, or even bathe in them..
Which brings me (with delicate step and n’er a stumble) to the flagship Loisium Wine and Spa Resort in Langenlois. 50 minutes from Vienna, this fusion of grape and pampering offers a range of sweet-smelling Vinoble spa treatments inspired by Austrian wine – including a relaxing soak in a barrel. Designed by New York architect Steven Holl and opened in 2006, the 82 room hotel is a big, boxy, broad stroke of modernity set in the rolling landscape of the Kamptal region. It’s the kind of free-flowing, multi-purpose place that’s referred to as an ‘experience,’ and Holl has been given free rein to be as bonkers and futurist as he likes – right down to the Frog lamps at the bar and the acid yellow coated steel of the balconies.
The lattice metalwork might not be to everyone’s taste, or the porous walls that are intended to symbolise cork, but bring to mind polystyrene. However, everything is so meticulously geared towards alcoholic relaxation that even staunch traditionalists will fall in love. Especially when wallowing in the David Hockney-esque heated outdoor pool, which acts as a bridge between the hotel and the adjoining vineyards. Or doing even more wallowing in the 1400 square foot Aveda spa, recovering from a zingy facial made from Reisling grapes.
The 4-star Loisium, owned by the Design Hotels chain, is also a very stylish introduction to the world of Austro oenology. Well-heeled Viennese weekend visitors browse the wine library, and their choices are carefully matched to dishes in the restaurant, which is – as we never tire of hearing – strict about using the freshest local ingredients. As you wander about in your bathrobe, pleasantly half-cut on vintages from the Kamptal and nearby Wachau region, you’re also only a few steps away from an underground network of 900 year-old cellars.
On top of 1.5km of connecting tunnels, Holl has once again gone to town with a cutting edge wine museum and Vinotheque, a few minutes’ stroll from the hotel. It’s heavy on the symbolism (some of it – like a dramatic musical water feature with a weird head coming out of it like a scene from the Man With Two Brains – is rather baffling). But deep inside the museum, beavering away like Willy Wonka, is Karl Steininger and his family, who own the land on which the Loisium is built, along with two other local winemakers. The Loisium’s 90-minute audio tour passes through the heart of the operation: wines breathing in acacia barrels and soon-to-be sparkling Gruner Veltliners lining up in racks to be turned every three hours by ‘riddlers’, who apparently titivate up to 50,000 bottles a day. It’s fascinating stuff, with a nice cottage industry feel that is a refreshing counterpoint to Holl’s snazzy modernity. The results are pleasing, too. When you taste their 2011 sparkling Traminer, with its playful rose garden bouquet, you’ll probably wonder why Austrian wine hasn’t been making you sing ‘Edelweiss’, your whole drinking life.
Loisium’s second hotel will make you like Austria even more. Situated in South Styria, close to the Slovenian border, it’s a two and-a-half hour schlep from Vienna, but if you’re a oenophile – or simply a fan of calm, serenity and understated luxury – you should make the effort to go there. Often referred to as the ‘Tuscany of Austria’, South Styria is where the natives go to do their version of a Napa Valley/Sideways pilgrimage. And where there is wine, there is Loisium – or at least that’s what they’re planning. (Another Steven Holl designed hotel is scheduled to open in Alsace in 2016/7).
The South Styria hotel is more low key, but no less impressive. The modern wood-clad structure, designed by Graz-based architect Peter Zinganel, blurs the line between a conference centre and a retreat. There’s that Aveda spa again, and the Hockney pool, and the restaurant, this time showcasing South Styrian delicacies like boiled beef, which is melting and delicious. Rooms are light, white, and supremely calm. This time there’s less architectural showboating, with nice understated use of traditional Austrian design in the lobby’s bottle green tiles and touches of copper.
Outside, there’s a glorious view, and they’re not wrong about the Tuscany similarities. South Styria is Room With A View, Austrian style – undulating hills dotted with cypresses, but also featuring A-frame houses in bright yellows and pinks and village shops selling Dirndls. The ravishingly picturesque route takes in over 400 small wineries, each boasting their own tiny Buchenschank, an informal café where you can sample the spoils of the cellar with bread and cold cuts. One such winery is owned by young vintner Hannes Sabathi, whose suave Sauvignon Blancs have won him international recognition. As he welcomes you to his simple 25 hectare estate at the top of the steep winding hillside, it’s so pretty you’ll want to yodel with joy.
Austrians have a reputation for being as chilly as their excellent dry white. Yet in the winemaking regions I travelled in, everyone had the satisfied inner glow and cheerful smile of people who drink great wine every day and know how to live the good life. At Loisium, you can put on your bathrobe, take in the clean air and live life, Austro-style. And the cellars contain great vino. Phew.
Visit www.loisium.at for more info on the Loisium Wine & Spa resort.