The Third Man: AWC Vienna 2010

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In late August I spent a few days in Vienna tasting for the AWC (Austrian Wine Challenge) 2010, my second year as its sole UK representative. As always, Michael Edlmoser and Andreas Peschta were charming and amusing hosts. Among my fellow tasters there was the usual motley crew of beer bellies, socks ‘n’ sandals and hairy top lips. Don’t even ask me about the men.

The AWC was first held in 2004 when about 4,000 wines were analysed. This year over 10,000 wines were submitted from more than 30 countries. Three bottles of each wine are sent, so over 30,000 bottles have to be logged, sorted and prepared.

Wines are tasted single-blind in “cabins” (einzelkosterkabinen) with each desk divided by a portable wall. Scores are done on a 100-point scale in which 80-84.9 is “seal”; 85-89.9 a silver medal; and 90+ a gold medal. Faults were noted according to five categories: oxidative, reductive, microbiological, “uncleanliness” and “deficit of the grapes” (the last two are crude translations from the German). Faulty wines are retained at the Federal College to be examined by its boffins and the winemaker is then advised on what might have gone wrong and how to avoid such things in the future.

At the end of each flight there would be one or two wines that had already been tasted; ringers were also occasionally inserted to keep tasters on their toes. I didn’t nail as many wines as last year but I have done it often enough to laugh off when I completely screw it up, like scoring 12-points apart the same wine tasted twice in consecutive glasses. Michael let me get away with that.

During the AWC tastings lunch each day was at the Stiftscafe, cheek by jowl with the Klosterneuburg Monastery. You could eat what you liked as long as it was Wienerschnitzel mit Erdapfelsalat, breaded veal with potato salad. For a change one day I had Berner Würstel mit pommes frites. A Berner Würstel is a Viennese sausage stuffed with cheese and wrapped in bacon. To revive myself after the 50 or so white wines tasted before lunch, a glass of Almdudler was just the thing. This is a fruit juice flavoured with herbs and is massively popular in Austria. Much better than filthy Coke or Pepsi, which I haven’t drunk for over 20 years.

Every evening during August, a music film is shown on the enormous screen erected outside the splendid 19th century rathaus in central Vienna, a brisk 15-minute walk from my hotel. The weather was more typical than 2009’s heatwave, which saw temperatures in the city reach 31 degrees. But it was still pleasant enough to sit outside, watch opera and drink Ottakringer, albeit not so nice to do it in shorts and sandals.

Food and wine are in copious supply of course. I particularly enjoyed gröstl, black pudding with fried potatoes. Probably I enjoyed it too much – during a recent visit to London my sister noted how over-indulgence was showing on my previously slender frame.

Also eaten with pleasure was ananasreis mit tigerschrimps, though I don’t think that rice and tiger shrimps served inside a hollowed-out pineapple is a traditional Viennese dish!

Tasting 100 wines a day is hungry work so I usually had some desert too, like the gut-busting Kaiserschmarren of diced pancake and apple (or whatever) sauce.

Dinner was washed down with half-litre servings of the local Ottakringer beer in proper glasses. The Helles brand is quite light and refreshing; I found the unfiltered Zwickl Rot version heavier and more sullen.

August evenings at the rathaus are extremely civilised. There is no drunkenness, litter or breakages – only people enjoying the food, music and weather.

In a remarkable coincidence, just like last year my beloved Aston Villa played Rapid Vienna in the first leg of a Europa League match. The home fans were surprisingly enthusiastic for what I consider to be the usually even-tempered Austrians. The cigarette smoke was appalling, as was Villa’s defence in the second match in Birmingham, which I didn’t go to. An horrendous start to the season. Let’s see what Monsieur Houllier can do.

During my annual visit to Vienna I always spend an evening at the wonderful Wiener Prater amusement park and go for a ride on the Riesenrad, which appeared in that great film The Third Man.

Vienna is such a beautiful city. I find its “Strauss music, its glamour and easy charm,” as Graham Greene put it, utterly beguiling. But for the daunting prospect of having to learn German and the paucity of cricket grounds I would live in Vienna. The third man for me will always be an off-side fielding position behind the wicket-keeper!

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