Mount up for a tour de plonk

DAVID WHITLEY
Last updated 05:00 14/03/2014
Wachau Valley
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NO OTHER WILL DO: The wine's grapes must be grown within Wachau Valley.

Red wine
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ANOTHER PLEASE: Available, good quality wines are relatively inexpensive.

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Endre is well prepared. "I have some plastic cups," he says as he allocates the bikes. "So if we buy some wine, we can drink it on the way back." Such heady ambivalence towards drink-cycling legislation seems strangely out of place in the prim, carefully maintained surroundings of the Wachau Valley.

In many ways, this gentle meander through handsome hillsides and cobbled villages is perfect for cycling. The land running alongside the fast-flowing Danube is almost entirely flat; the hills provide a scenic backdrop rather than a series of sweat-inducing obstacles.

The twist is that most of them are taken over by the methodical green stripes of the region's vineyards. Slightly wobbly pedalling, therefore, is par for the course. To not stop for a tasting or three would be to miss the point entirely.

The first port of call is the relative big boy. Of the 1200 hectares under vine in the valley, Domane Wachau is responsible for 400 of them. Inside, it looks as much slick showroom as cellar door.

We're told about the strict regulations applied to Wachau Valley wines. All the grapes must be grown within the valley, while bottles are divided up into three categories according to the alcohol percentage. Each bottle is labelled with the hill the grapes were grown on, and the only ingredients allowed are yeast and the grapes themselves.

Such prissiness is almost a requirement here. In 1985, Austrian wine received a body blow that it has never quite recovered from. One unscrupulous winemaker was caught putting the primary ingredient of antifreeze into vintages to make up for poor weather during the late harvest season. Hundreds of years of oenological history were instantly cast aside; a new laughing stock was born.

Good quality wines, therefore, sell for surprisingly low prices. The export market isn't big enough to command higher prices. And the wineries, it seems, are happy to pour out tasting samples that would skirt close to the "large glass" category in restaurants. By the time the fourth one - a frankly delicious, full-bodied and tangibly spicy Gruner Veltliner - is down the hatch, the world seems a rather wonderful place.

A 10-minute pedal along the banks of the Danube later, and the tourist trap village of Durnstein comes into view. It's a classically cute place of brightly painted houses, narrow streets and trinket shops. But it initially came to prominence because of its castle. The ruins of Castle Durnstein - where English king Richard the Lionheart was once imprisoned - loom above on a rocky outcrop.

Durnstein also has a borderline obsession with apricots. They're unavoidable. Every shop or cafe will serve up apricot cakes, apricot jam or apricot mustard, each competing to prove their strength of devotion to the area's most prominent fruit crop.

This also means, as we discover when Endre emerges with a tray of shot glasses, apricot brandy and apricot liqueurs.

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It's not just the drink making things look funny as we head to the second winery in Weissenkirchen. Coming the other way is carnival parade of oddities.

A woman and child are sitting in a trailer attached to the back of a miniature tractor; a rotund gentleman is pedalling along shirtless, his beer gut bouncing over the top of his unfortunately tight Speedos; another couple are dressed for the Tour de France, but are carrying caseloads of equipment on the backs of their bikes. They may have come a long way - the trail we're on is part of EuroVelo Route 6, a continuous cycling route that stretches all the way from the Atlantic Ocean to the Black Sea.

The Mang winery is more notable for its location than its wines. The riverside garden's egalitarian long benches feel like church pews framing the Danube's fast-flowing altar. The pours, again, are exceedingly generous. It's over the 30-degree mark, I'm feeling all warm and fuzzy, and I'd quite like to stay in this spot for the duration of the afternoon.

But we have to go back. The 12-kilometre return journey, however, will be made along the other side of the river. How we're going to get across the river is another matter. It suddenly strikes that something has been missing since we left Krems - bridges. Apparently, there are none in the 36-kilometre stretch between Krems and Melk, a deliberate measure to keep traffic out of the valley. The only way of getting across is by an ingenious cable ferry. It's as green a mode of transport as you can get. A cable crosses high above the river, the ferry is attached to it, and the ferryman uses the river current and a rudder to navigate across

The other side is even quieter - probably a good thing given the amount of wine consumed - and we end up cycling through what may as well be the dictionary definition of idyllic countryside. We pull over opposite Durnstein, which looks marvellously picturesque from afar. On our side of the river is a muddy approximation of a beach. It's a murky brown rather than a blue Danube, but a combination of air temperature and wine-fuelled infallibility makes it look hugely inviting.

It quickly becomes clear why most people are sat on the banks. Plunging into the water elicits a yelp that can probably be heard at every hilltop monastery in the valley. A more effective way of sobering up for the rest of the ride would be difficult to imagine.

TRIP NOTES

STAYING THERE The Altstadt is a gorgeous converted apartment building, where each room looks distinctively different and original artworks are out in force. Incredibly friendly staff add to the charm. Doubles cost from €145 a night (NZ$236). See hotel-altstadt-vienna.com.

CYCLING THERE Krems is a one-hour train journey from Vienna's Spittelau station. The one-day Vienna Explorer cycling and wine-tasting tour, including return train tickets, sampling, bikes and helmets, costs from $98 through Viator. See Viator.com.

MORE INFORMATION Vienna.infoAustria.info.

- Sydney Morning Herald

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