It’s big, it’s fat, it’s clever and I’ve yearned in vain for it ever since my first encounter a few years back some 2,000 metres above sea level. I was by the town of Sölden, an Alpine ski resort in the Austrian state of Tyrol where women wear dirndls. No reason, they just wear them.
The big, fat and clever thing was a magnum of Ott, a large bottle of grüner veltliner produced by the similarly generously formed Bernhard Ott. Bernhard is of the fourth generation of his family, who have been making wine in Wagram in Lower Austria since 1889. He took over the vineyard in 1993 in his early 20s and became obsessed with making the best possible grüner veltliner that grew on fine, silty loess soil.
He ditched the oak casks, believing in the virtue of steel, ferried organic manure from a neighbouring farm, switched to biodynamic viticulture (an intense form of organic production where the cycles of the moon are as important as irrigation), insisted that his grapes were harvested by hand, crushed the stems as well as the grapes (“You get more sweetness,” he said) and then designed a big, fat bottle and a wood-block-print-style label for some of the best juice he produced.
That’s where I came in. It was at a big bottle party one evening in Sölden, in a restaurant at 2,000m. It was a party, but it was also a conference of Austrian wine producers where, for this climactic event, they brought out their big guns. I circled the room, getting sips from various magnums, but I was constantly drawn back to Bernhard and his bottle of Ott.
That the grüner veltliner grape became a wine fashion a couple of years ago seems almost an insult when you sip Ott. It had a freshness, an aroma, a minerality, a life-giving aura that made cheap grüners in UK supermarkets seem like pathetic impostors. Bernard’s grüner was a newly discovered pearl among GV thieves.
Then, the next day I was lured into being part of an experiment. I was given a schedule that demanded my presence at various points on the Sölden ski map. Those points would become hastily built bars of compacted snow.
So at 10am, then 10.45am, 11.30am and so on I would ski from one bar to the next. They were a mere traverse across, or a small ski down from the top of a chair lift. And there the wine makers would offer a glass of their juice. The experiment: to see how wines tasted at different altitudes, from 1,300m, to 2,000m, to 2,200m to 3,000m.
With some fellow travellers we skied, stopped, sniffed, sipped, pondered, then moved on to the next rendezvous. The wine makers would talk about their wines, while we would be encouraged to compare, contrast and then murmur things like, “Yes, there’s an intense, fresh acidity to this pinot blanc from Winkler-Hermaden at 3,000m that I didn’t quite get at 2,200.”
We might have been talking nonsense, and invariably we were, but it was fun. And while skiing now is a tortuous, improbable dream, the idea of sipping beautiful wine at high altitude is like being put on the rack.
Sölden is an easy drive from Innsbruck airport, where the plane glides down through a long valley before landing. Then, based at the glorious Das Central hotel, where a stay is worth it just for the breakfast bar (a global journey of every meat, pastry, cheese, cereal, granola and juice imaginable), I was lucky enough to have as my ski guide Frank Wörndl, who is famed as a national slalom champion as well as having a name that rhymes with Austria’s national (and my favourite) dress.
His rock’n’roll banter I remember well. But it’s the Ott memory that gets me. Ever since I came down that slope and flew back to England, I have searched for that wine and that sublime taste. I have leapt on every grüner I’ve come across but I’ve never found it or anything similar. Maybe it was the altitude, the vibes of Sölden, the slopes and the sunny weather. But isn’t that the point of travel? You have to make the journey and get there. Here’s hoping…