Weinfest: Dancing the Night Away in Austria’s Wachau Wine Region

People press and jostle me on every side. Strings of lights span the narrow cobblestone street. To the side, just before the street entrance, a young man in traditional lederhosen twirls a young woman wearing jeans and a tank top to the lively beat provided by the fiddle and accordion. The musty air is full of the smell of old buildings. The rich, pungent scent of wine mingles with the old building smell, creating a sickly sweet aroma that permeates the scene.

Wolfgang, my escort for the evening, draws me into the street throng. Warmth rushes over me. Air, bodies, smells, lights. The rural Austrian town of Rohrendorf is alive with good feeling and jubilation. “What is this?” I ask my companion. He leans down to speak into my ear. “Tonight is the first night of our cellar fest,” he explains in accented English.

Every building on the street is a wine cellar, and each is at least two hundred years old, many even older. The ages of these buildings, built and in use when the United States was just a fledgling nation, awe me. Each cellar is outfitted with a large wooden table thrusting into the smooth cobbled road. I take a seat at a table full of laughing people, most of whom I’ve only met once. At first I feel out of place, but the jollity of the town’s inhabitants soon puts me at ease, despite the fact that I can’t understand more than one in three words of German. And that’s probably best. I’m not sure I want to understand what the locals are saying about the young American in their midst.

Wolfgang joins me a minute later with a Coke and a delicate glass of wine. He swirls the yellow-white liquid about the goblet. Inhaling the liquid’s perfume with a look of pure satisfaction, Wolfgang smiles as he explains the significance of this night. For the people living in the Wachau region of Austria (about an hour to the south of the capital, Vienna), it is the beginning of a season of wine tasting and buying. And every weekend, he explains, a different town will hold a festival – and sometime towns will hold more than one – until the end of September.

Street festivals are not the only things that keep the locals out. Many of them go on tasting tours. Long before (centuries, in fact) they were popular in California, people in the Wachau were following their own wine trail. Biking the trail on an early summer day is a delightful experience. This one takes you down one bank of the Danube River, across the river, and then up the opposite bank. For a real treat, start at the north end of the Wachau and travel south. When it is time to cross the river, you will have to do so on the ferry.

And that is exactly what I did the morning after the street festival. Rode a bike all day (well sort of – there were plenty of stops at cellars and shops). But just as the bike ride was ending, I came upon another wine festival, this time in a different town. And I found that the music pulled me irresistibly into the throng, washing away my fatigue. During wine season there is no such thing as weariness.

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