Deep in Austria’s Alpine region, Adi Werner sits atop one of the world’s greatest private collections of Bordeaux wine. Eva-Luise Schwarz speaks to the man about his treasured Bordeaux.
Somewhere in the mountains, far away from the hectic hustle and bustle of the cities, a gourmet heaven opens its gates to reveal what makes wine connoisseurs go weak at the knees.
Adi Werner treasures wine, but not just any wine: Bordeaux is his passion. It was in 1978 when his serious interest in Bordeaux began. At the 5-star Arlberg Hospiz Hotel, now managed by his son Florian, the call for vintage wine grew louder and louder. And so the mother of all wine cellars was born. But what makes Werner’s wine cellar truly extraordinary is not only his remarkable collection of Bordeaux, but his large bottles. He explains enthusiastically: “Back when I first started trading wines, I read in an old book that in 1870, Russia’s tsars had big bottles – 12, 15 and 18 litres – and stored them underneath the winter palace in St Petersburg in a famous Bordeaux cellar.
“With the revolution in 1916 the Communists smashed all bottles in the cellar and from then on no large bottles have been produced anymore. The difficult time after World War I with the inflation and the stock market crash had something to do with it. But in 1978 I managed to convince the first chateau – Hâut-Marbuzet in Bordeaux – to fill six large bottles for me.”
An idea was born that advanced Werner to become the wine king of the Arlberg and put his Arlberg Hospiz Hotel on the international map. The stone cellar was built in 1386 by Heinrich, the founder of the Brotherhood of St Christopher, and today houses 60-year-old wine jewels, that guests are invited to enjoy. The wine king himself will be happy to welcome you and share his profound world of his precious bottles. Adi Werner’s passion and in-depth knowledge are so infectious it will make even the biggest layman appreciative of the wealth of history behind each draught.
Bordeaux, contrary to many other wine regions in the world, prohibits artificial irrigation. It is possible that during some vintages, such as in 2003, not a single drop of rain has fallen for four months in the Bordeaux region. This makes the roots grow deeper into the soil than during ordinary vintages. Adi Werner explains: “New World wines such as in Chile, Argentina, America, Australia or New Zealand, no matter where, will always have artificial irrigation and plenty of sunshine. The result? The wine is always good, but never exceptional. In Bordeaux you get fluctuations due to weather conditions. Not only do they get exceptional vintages, but unbelievable ones, such as in 2009. Yet 2007 was another weak vintage. And that’s what makes it so interesting; the potential for the exceptional.”
What makes a good vintage?
Being shown around Werner’s wine cellar and soaking up the atmosphere is a privilege and special experience. During the latest inventory, more than 65,000 bottles of Bordeaux were counted. There may well be bigger Bordeaux cellars in the world, and those with large bottles – magnum or double magnum – but nowhere in the world will you find a wine cellar that houses 2,900 large bottles.
A standard bottle can hold 0.75 litres of wine, a magnum 3 litres, imperials 12 litres, methuselah 15 litres and nebuchadnezzars 18 litres. What difference does the bottle size make? Let’s take, for example, a good vintage from Saint Émilion, a vineyard east of the town of Bordeaux. The 1998 vintage is available in half a bottle, a standard bottle and a magnum. Let’s imagine you have the great pleasure to open all three bottles and try them. You will notice that the half bottle tastes excellent and is completely mature, the standard bottle is enjoyable to drink, and the magnum bottle doesn’t taste good at all. This comes down to the bottle size, according to Werner. All three bottles contain the same amount of air between the cork and the surface of the wine. Wine needs oxygen to breathe and to develop. And of course, the less oxygen it has, the slower it develops. Werner explains: “A large bottle contains 24 times as much wine as a standard bottle, and that’s why they also take more time to mature. Standard bottles keep for about 20-30 years, a magnum bottle 30-50 years, and the large bottles – fourfold, sixfold, eightfold etc from a good vintage and with a modern cork – easily keep 100-150 years.”
Why is it that these jumbo bottles do not exist anymore? Large bottle are extremely rare for the simple reason that chateau owners don’t want to make the extra effort. The bottles have to be filled by hand, and every chateau relies on its cellar master, who would have to decant 200-300 of these bottles himself. He would need to disinfect, decant by hand, smell the cork and beat it in. No wonder then, that the cellar master isn’t crazy about this additional work. Moreover, a boom in large bottles in the 1990s led to speculations. As soon as the merchant got hold of a bottle, he was able to sell it only a week later for 30-50 per cent more. The chateau owners put their foot down, which put an end to it.
But Werner knows a way – he visits the cellar masters on a regular basis, flattering them and entreating them to decant six bottles for him. If you can be friendly with a chateau owner you’re in with a chance, but sought-after chateaus are exceedingly selective.
Werner is selective, too, but for him wine is still for drinking: “I would advise a wine collector not only to collect wine but to buy it and wait for it to be mature. When the time has come, he should drink the wine and not just store and treasure it. Because you can always buy replacements.” To the question whether there is a wine that he would never open, Werner replies: “Yes, there is a wine bottle from 1865, a Chateau D’Yquem, where you have to think very carefully if you want to open it or keep it closed. I had three of these and in the last 20 years I have opened two of them and tasted them with friends. It was superb, and now I only have one left. At auction it would surely make €15-20,000, so I better leave it closed for now.”
The best vintages in the past few years, according to Werner, were 2008 and 2009. Robert M. Parker Jr., leading U.S. wine critic, has only recently reviewed these vintages again, and gave 17 chateaus the maximum rating of 100 points on his scale – a record. Parker also gave other Chateaus an exceptionally high point rating and announced that 2009 is an outstanding vintage, at least as good as 1959 or 1961. Werner agrees: “2009 is definitely a vintage in which you should invest, although now it’s a bit late because after Parker’s announcement of this very high rating, the prices soared up the same day by about 30-50 per cent.”
You can usually only buy Bordeaux for the purchase price once. Already two or three years later the price increases by half or doubles.
A love of Bordeaux
Adi Werner delves into Bordeaux wines almost on a daily basis, and has specialised in this particular wine region. He says there are about 20-30 top wine regions in the world, but for him it has to be Bordeaux exclusively. Bordeaux has the tradition and the know-how, which reaches back to the 1780s. On top of the tradition, it also has the brand awareness. Like other products, wine often relies on its brand. Werner explains: “Take for example Cheval-Blanc – there are about five to 10 wines that have a similarly fine taste, but they don’t have the brand Cheval-Blanc, in which money was invested for the past 120 years. No one can claim that a vineyard which borders the next vineyard, like for example in 2009 Muton Rothschild, Cheval-Blanc or Lafite Rothschild, that these wines are less good than their more prominent neighbours. These wines are sold for €900, while the vineyard next to it only gets €150. The vine grows in the same soil in the same climate – everything is the same, but if it’s not well known, there is no demand.”
Yet the Arlberg Hospiz Hotel is also offering wines from the New World in their restaurant. The Werners don’t only collect, they also deal with wine and have a working business. “These wines that we bought 30 years ago, they are mature now and superb to drink,” says Werner. “And the 2009 vintages that we have bought now, they will be ready to drink in 2040. Then they will be 40-years-old – and I am over 100, and it would be nice, if we could drink them together.”
If you want to take a tour through Werner’s wine cellar sooner than that, take a trip to Arlberg at the outermost west of Tyrol, Austria. Guests have the opportunity to not only visit the wine cellar, but also to take part in private wine tasting sessions with the sommeliers of the house, or with Werner himself. To your health! For further information, visit Hospiz’s website