Drinking Up a "Sturm" in Austria

Because of the unpredictable weather, fall is a tricky time to travel. Forget the Caribbean where hurricanes can wipe out beach dreams. And in Europe it can get chilly in autumn, so when my sister invited me to Vienna, Austria, for a long weekend I packed lots of sweaters and read up on the museums and coffeehouses to visit.

To my great surprise, the sun was out and, with the wine harvest going strong, we headed to the Viennese countryside to hike and bike -- with more than water available to quench our thirst.

Using Vienna as a base, over the course of three days we ventured out beyond the city's limits to Grinzing; to the villages along the Danube in the Wachau valley; and to the north by the Czech Republic -- all perfect day trips packing in exercise, sightseeing and tasty treats.

A Pine-Wreath Welcome

The wonderful thing about vacations is that you don't feel any urgency. Touring around the verdant vineyards with the smell of grapes sweetening the crisp autumn air crystallized that feeling. It also helped that I had knowledgeable guides at my side.

My sister and her husband live in Vienna, so these day trips ranked among their favorite outings. On the first day we ventured to the city's northern limits among the rolling hills, just beyond the traditional village of Grinzing.

For centuries Grinzing has been an important center for Austrian winemaking and because of its proximity to the city (just a tram ride away), the wine taverns tend to be fancier, but you can still get a taste of the local wines in a quaint setting. Look for a bunch of pine branches hanging over the heavy wooden doors of certain establishments, an indication that it's a heuriger, a tavern featuring new wine. A law dating back to 1784 allowed Viennese wine growers the privilege of selling their wine and home-cooked food 300 days out of the year without paying exorbitant taxes. The modern-day "open" sign never replaced the branch-like wreath and to this day, heurigers doll up their entrances with bows, branches, and berries to welcome patrons.

We had gotten a late start on the first day so we had lunch before walking around. Going beyond Grinzing up the steep hill, we settled at the sturdy wooden tables on the terrace of a small cottage-like heuriger abutting their vineyard. My sister and her husband ordered a round of sturm, telling me that this was an Austrian tradition that I couldn't pass up. Out came thick beer glasses filled with a yellow, milky concoction looking like a pilsner gone very wrong.

I should have ordered a glass of wine, I thought. It didn't take long for me to change my mind.

Sturm is actually semi-fermented grape juice from the first grape harvest of the season. It's low in alcohol and marks the official start of autumn for many locals. It comes in red or white and acts as a perfect accompaniment to the traditional sausage-heavy, carb-packed meals.

I noticed that plenty of Austrians drink the slightly-sweet carbonated liquid at either lunch or dinner. And I now understand why busloads of German tourists opt out of the crowded Munich Oktoberfest and come to Austria to imbibe gallons of the stuff.

We didn't drink up a storm, so we could make the climb to the overlook and admire the Viennese cityscape.

Cellar Lane

The following day, my sister and her husband suggested a more challenging outing: an eight-mile walk through vineyards and a wine town in the northern part of the country. We drove 50 miles north of the city and parked the car near Falkenstein, located in the Wienviertel, Austria's largest wine-growing area.

We walked through apple groves, pumpkin fields and well-tended vineyards. As we approached Falkenstein, we stopped to take in the breathtaking view. In the distance stood the ruins of Falkenstein castle (a walled fortress of which not much remains) with the sleepy village and its towering church dominating the area. Upon entering the village, rows of windowless cabins carved into the stone lined the street. I couldn't figure out what purpose these closet-like structures served until my guides informed me that these were actually century-old cellars.

Suddenly, a tractor lugging a full load of plump, green grapes careened past us and parked in front of a fancy cellar with grape decorations etched in the heavy wooden door. After making our way to the ruins of the castle, where goats rule the lower "garden," it was time to actually get a sneak peek at this year's vintage with a taste of the local Riesling. After all, plenty of heurigers had their pine branch sign beckoning us to come in. We rested at a sun-drenched table outside and ordered paté sandwiches along with wine -- and as a starter, none other than a sturm. We weren't the only ones trying to catch the last warm rays of the season despite the cool air, all the more reason to sip crisp white wine to warm the blood.

Danube's Twist and Turns

My Austrian hosts couldn't believe my luck with the weather, so on the last day of my visit, they suggested visiting the Wachau, designated a UNESCO World Heritage site due to its medieval heritage. I must admit I had no idea what to expect and made sure my sister could guarantee that we would enjoy a last sturm together as a parting drink.

I could tell she had led countless guests to the Wachau valley, 40 miles west of Vienna, because she didn't hesitate once with the directions.

The Wachau is a curvy, 25-mile stretch along the Danube, Europe's second-largest river, flowing southeast from Germany to empty itself in the Black Sea. We drove past Krems, Wachau's largest town with well-preserved medieval city gates and baroque churches, and stopped in one of the neighboring towns, Unterloiben, where we rented bikes. What makes this particular stretch of the river so stunning is the combination of terraced hillsides gracing the valley interspersed with villages strung one after the other like beads on a necklace.

I highly recommend touring the valley by bike (most inns and guesthouses rent them at the bargain price of $5 a day.) The well-maintained Donauradweg (that's Donau = Danube + Rad = cycle + Weg = path) is clearly marked and follows the river banks, taking you from Krems, past Stein, to the breathtaking Durnstein, ending with Melk, a Benedictine abbey that inspired Umberto Eco's novel "The Name of the Rose."

Definitely stop in Durnstein with its pastel stucco houses and Baroque church.

Restaurants, bars and guesthouses dot the villages, so you will never go thirsty or hungry. Along the winding roads you will see signs everywhere for "Gasthaus," small, usually family-owned hotels. Not only does visiting Austria in the fall mean you can partake in the wine harvests, you also avoid the throngs of tourists. It's best to reserve a room in advance if you visit the region during the busy summer season. My sister recounted a time when her then-boyfriend had once surprised her with an outing along the romantic river, hoping to stay the night, only to find themselves driving home because the guesthouses were all booked.

As for our final drink, my sister and I got to enjoy one of the region's best, a dry white Gruner Veltliner.

And yes, we kicked back a sturm too. After all, you can't find the sweet elixir outside Austria so you might as well live up the glorious fall in local style.