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Mostviertel rising: a spotlight on Austrian perry

“What the hell are you doing in Amstetten?”

There’s no malice to the question from the man at the late night Saturday bar. Hearing the accent he’s wandered over and nudged my elbow as I nurse a weissbier. He is genuinely bewildered. It’s the third time this evening I’ve been asked the same thing. Amstetten, it seems, is one of those towns you either live in or you work in, or you don’t visit. Yet here I am. So what the hell am I doing here?

Amstetten is about an hour due west of Vienna as the train rides. The railway runs almost parallel to the slaloming, shimmering Danube and pierces the northern states of the Mostviertel region, which is the place I’ve really come for. 

The word that jumps to mind as I gather my first impressions of Mostviertel is ‘striking’. Striking in the intensity of its greenness; in every direction and every shade from the dark, hulking menace of bottle-green mountain forest to the vivid, electric flashes of grassy pasture. A high definition, hyper-real green; I visit Ireland regularly these days, and this place makes it looks washed out. Then there are the cornfields — cornfields everywhere I look, more than I’ve ever seen before and almost all, I later learn, for the feeding of pigs. The Danube, on the region’s northern border, is striking in its turquoise brilliance, and the foothills of the alps, to the south, are striking in their looming, cloud-wreathed vastness.

But nothing in Mostviertel is more striking than the pear trees.

Nothing can quite prepare you for the pear trees of Mostviertel. For the number of them, for the size of them, for the sheer weight of fruit hanging off the largest. Huge, thick-boughed, muscular giants dominating the low cornfields and rolling, Tolkienesque hills of the pitching landscape. Rarely in orchards — pear trees, especially pear trees of this size, don’t always play nicely with each other — more often in single ranks marking the fringe of a field, or simply as sole Goliaths studding a corner alone, spreading their monolithic wings like monuments to their fruit.

They are the reason I’m in Amstetten. There are three places in all the world that can truly describe themselves as ‘perry regions’. The Three Counties and Monmouthshire around the Anglo-Welsh borderlands are one. Normandy, in northern France, is another. And Mostviertel is the third. But Mostviertel stands apart from both of its peers. It is the only region on earth where perry — Birnenmost, in local parlance; ‘Most’ meaning either cider or juice — has earned primacy over cider.

I meet my travelling companions at a hotel with a vast pear for a gatepost. That sets the tone of the visit. Pears are virtually a religion here. There are icons to them everywhere; pears sewn into lace curtains or glued as decorations to the ceilings. Colossal pears the size of large elephants on roundabouts, pears in lampshades or used as placemats, pears as signposts and bars of soap.

The history of the Mostviertel pear stretches back at least seven thousand years. The Romans grew them here too, and probably used them for perry. In 1753 Empress Maria Theresia ordered the planting of pear trees, an incentive supported by her successor, Joseph II. By the 1930s, in the Amstetten district alone, there were over one million of them. Today the estimates I heard ranged from 150,000 to 300,000. Either one would confirm the Moststraße, a two hundred kilometer loop in north-west Mostviertel, as the largest unbroken concentration of pear trees in the world. It is near impossible, looking at them, to imagine a time when they were trebled, perhaps quintupled, in number. Or to imagine the scale of perry drinking that facilitated such growth.

***

We’re here at the auspices of the local tourist board, Mostviertel Tourismus. They feel that the output of the region deserves more international attention than it currently enjoys. All things considered, they are probably right. The average perry lover in the UK is probably aware that the drink is made in France, but I imagine fewer than one in ten could tell you that it is also made, and at significant scale, in Austria. Honestly, had it not been for a five-page chapter in World’s Best Ciders and a tasting of truly revelatory perries at Herefordshire Ciderlands in 2019, I probably wouldn’t have been able to either. You can’t buy Austrian perry in the UK. But then you can’t even buy it in Vienna airport. As national treasures go, Mostviertel’s perry currently sits in the ‘buried’ category.

On our first night we meet the people working hardest to change that.

 

Johannes Scheiblauer and his family run the four-star RelaxResort Kothmüle, a fifteen minute drive from Amstetten. They’re in the heart of Mostviertel; indeed the heart of ancient Austria full stop. A stone’s throw from here is the place Austria’s name was first recorded — Ostarrichi in High German, ‘the Eastern Realm’ — as the designation given to a parcel of one thousand hectares of land granted to the Bishop of Freising by Kaiser Otto III.

Kothmühle embodies Mostviertel’s obsession with pears and perry more completely than anywhere else I will visit. Every conceivable form of pear-shaped ornamentation and decoration is on show here, from door handles to bottle holders to the names of rooms. Johannes tells us his aim is to sell more perry at the bar than he does white wine. He’s getting close, he says, but despite his best efforts it still isn’t quite there.

If beer and cider are the blocks to perry sales for potential customers in the UK, in Austria it is beer and wine. Austria’s wine — particularly white wine — tradition is historic and impressive; their Grüner Veltliners and Rieslings in particular enjoy national and international renown, and are fiercely championed in the bars, restaurants and supermarkets I wander into, where perry is barely to be seen. Johannes is one of the many Mostviertelers I speak to who acknowledges this conundrum — how to bring attention to a particular local, regional product when there is already another so well-established?

The answer, it seems, is ‘if you can’t beat it, align with it’. Of all the perries across all the European cultures that I have tried, Austrian cleaves the closest stylistically to white wine. The majority I try across my three-day trip are dry, still, relatively low in tannin, though boasting a fullness of flavour and sinewy texture which hearkens in no small way to the country’s famous whites. Indeed many of the most common flavours I encounter on the trip, from green citrus to white, blossomy florals, to pronounced slatey minerality are more than a little reminiscent of young Grüner Veltliner.

This is not, we learn, accidental. In the 1990s, as in the other perry regions of the world, the state of Austrian Birnenmost was parlous. Trees had been ripped out on an industrial scale — fewer than a fifth the total of the 1930s were still standing. The thirst for perry had waned significantly following the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian empire; makers were far fewer in number, produced far smaller volumes, and operated at a level of skill and precision far below that of their winemaking compatriots.

Intent on raising the profile and quality of Birnenmost, and preserving the traditions and trees of the region, a group of people banded together as a collective force for perry. Not only makers, but restaurateurs, hoteliers like Johannes and sommeliers. Initially numbering 21, they called themselves the Mostbarons and set about pooling their resources to improve standards across the board. Wine and the practices of winemakers were squarely in their line of vision; a deliberate target for the region’s makers. Cleanliness in the cellar became paramount; stainless steel, anaerobic fermentations, temperature management. Filtration was practiced for clarity, pitched yeasts, generally wine yeasts, for control.

The results are marked. Across the dozens of perries I am able to try, not a single bottled example is suffering from such faults as acetic acid, ethyl acetate or mouse which can so often bedevil perries elsewhere. Every perry is whistle-clean, fresh, poised and speaks eloquently of the varieties in its makeup. 

As we are given a briefing on the geography and history of the region we make our way through a four course dinner, each course paired with its appropriate perry. And it is here that a real point of difference comes to the fore. English and Welsh perry, joined at the hip with cider and forced into an awkward liminal existence between pub and home has never fully been linked with food in the minds of the majority of its drinkers. Domfront, in France, goes a little further, but struggles to shake off its historic reputation as being only a match for crêpes. 

Across the four courses though, it becomes apparent that not only is Austrian Birnenmost indelibly linked with the table, but that it is with food that its true potential is unlocked. Most Austrian pears tend at least partially in an acidic direction; to marry that zing of acidity with the fat and protein of local cold meats and cheeses is to build a platform on which the fragrant fruits and florals tucked behind that nip of acid can dance and strut their fullest. A 2018 Pyrus from Haselberger blooms and billows with lemon curd and passionfruit, whilst a 2013 Exibatur belies its age and fruit to revel in the lime marmalade, kerosene, dried pears and potpourri of a good Clare Valley Riesling.

We are given our first glimpses of the range and playfulness of Birnenmost here, too. Fortified perry from 2011, aged four years in oak — the first such thing I’ve ever tasted — makes a sparring partner for venison of sheer genius; all depth and richness and gloss and gluttony. A light, fruity pudding finds its perfect foil in perry co-fermented with elderflowers, hops and butterfly pea flower; a shockingly purple combination brimming with Beaujolais joyfulness. No pairing seems forced; no perry feels shoehorned into its place. It is a series of easy, natural matches that feels at once like a vision of the future and something that has always belonged.

As a final party-piece of the evening, Toni Distelberger produces a 1992 single variety Schweizer Wasserbirne. Still, dry, bottled under cork in a vessel so crusted with the black mould of damp that he could have pulled it from a pirate ship’s grog cabinet. Schweizer Wasserbirne boasts neither meaningful tannin nor pronounced acidity; it shouldn’t have the structural building blocks to last one decade, never mind three. Yet the fruit is still there; still holding on; still gleaming with soft apple, white grape and petrichor. As a demonstration of perry’s largely untapped ageing potential it is instantly compelling.

The next morning, the flavours of the evening still playing their tunes like an earworm in my brain, I ask our interpreter, Nicolina, whether she’s much of a perry drinker. Nicolina is a Mostvierteler herself, and perhaps a few years younger than I am — her normal gigs are high affairs in Vienna, she doesn’t usually get a chance to work in her home region, and I’m curious as to whether people around my age are tapped into the local specialty. Apparently not. The big drink in the area is Kaiser Pilsner, a beer brand I later learn to be part of the Carlsberg group. In Viennese restaurants, wine has a near-monopoly. I ask if she ever drinks perry. Only on particular occasions, at the heuriger — a sort of local tavern selling only the owner’s own produce, mainly around harvest time. As we work through the trip’s playlist of producers, Nicolina seems to be learning as much as we are. (I’m not sure how often ‘low tannin variety’ or ‘ambient yeast fermentation’ comes up in her day-to-day.) When I coo and jabber about the pear trees out of the minibus window she remarks that it’s nice to watch something she’s always taken for granted seen through fresh eyes and with wonder.

The first producers we meet are the Haselbergers. Peter and Bernadette are not Mostbarons. But they are, perhaps, the makers of the best dry perries I taste on the trip, and in this writer’s opinion among the most exciting perrymakers working anywhere in the world. The night before we had been dazzled not only by their 2018 Pyrus, but by a single variety Landlbirne, a relatively rare pear, that nipped and zipped and stung and trilled with elderflower, lime, gooseberry and all things green and fresh. They meet us with an as-yet-unreleased traditional method perry, which again rivals the best I’ve had in that category from any producer anywhere, easily sitting in the same ranks as the likes of Newton Court’s Black Mountain and Gregg’s Pit’s Champagne Method Thorn

Haselberger is clearly the modern, forward-looking face of Austrian perry. Eschewing the traditional, one-litre, square-cornered bottles modelled on the shape of local farmhouses, they choose elegant, sleek, beautifully-labelled 750ml Burgundy-style wine bottles designed specifically, as Bernadette tells us, with an eye on the Viennese restaurant scene. Each label boasts a poem from Bernadette; as she describes it, her writing is on the bottle’s outside and Peter’s is on the inside. 

The range shows a marked inflection toward single varieties, via their series of ‘Unter der’ (Under the) bottlings. There are well over two hundred varieties of pear grown in Mostviertel, of which around thirty are used for perrymaking, with half a dozen or so appearing most prominently the more we taste. Speckbirne and Stieglbirne, we’re told, are the aromatic varieties. Low in tannin, billowing with florals, honeysuckles, ripe melons and soft pears. Their equivalents, in English perry terms, perhaps the likes of Blakeney Red and Hendre Huffcap.

Brighter, bolder, more acidic, vibrant and full-textured are Dorschbirne and Landlbirne; intense, vivacious, found lending steel, poise and immediacy of flavour to a blend or dazzling as vivid solo acts. Whilst Rote Pichelbirne adds sheer ripe, round juiciness to anything it touches.

But my favourite of all is Grüne Pichelbirne. A spiritual cousin to both England’s Thorn and France’s Plant de Blanc, marrying the former’s triple-bill of flashy green fruit, tannin and racy acidity to the round fullness and complex fruit of the latter and its own searing streak of gunflint minerality. Full bodied, textural and with a seemingly endless ability to speak of the place in which it grows, Grüne Pichelbirne is a late-ripener with an additional, especially handy, trick up its sleeve.

‘Everyone grew a Grüner Pichelbirne near their house,’ Bernadette explains. ‘Because it can clear up a Mostbirne that has started to go cloudy if you add it in later’. I think of all the perrymakers in the Three Counties gnashing their teeth at the drink’s propensity to develop inexplicable hazes out of nowhere, and wonder if I should try smuggling scion wood back.

We walk up to the ancient tree that makes the Haselberger’s flagship bottling — 159 Jahre Grüne Pichelbirne. A commanding presence on a high ridge, light on fruit this year but easily capable, in an on-vintage, of yielding at least a tonne. Mostviertel sits on rich clay marl soil, squashy underfoot, perfect for pear trees. We open the 159 Jahre 2020 vintage and pass it around. The staggering age attained by mature pear trees is always humbling to think of, but drinking single tree perry beneath the branches of the tree that grew it; a tree grafted when my grandparents’ grandparents were born; before Germany was a unified country; feels another level of profound.

***

This tree, like thousands of others, was grafted at a time of unprecedented prosperity for the perrymakers of Mostviertel. A windfall of political and economic change had fallen perfectly into their basket. Revolution in 1848 had proven the final impetus for complete emancipation of the peasant class, giving full property rights and thereby enabling an enlarged class of dedicated farmers. Just as significantly, a new rail link from Vienna to Linz cut directly through the Mostviertel. All of a sudden perry could swiftly reach the capital, and its ever-increasing numbers of potential drinkers, in record time. And from Vienna it could be, and was, shipped to every corner of the Austro-Hungarian empire. 

Perry was made and trees were planted in volumes previously beyond imagination, and the Most farmers enjoyed astonishing prosperity. So much so that large numbers of huge farmhouses were built; the iconic four-cornered Vierkanthöfe, on which the bases of most of today’s Birnenmost bottles are modelled. These lavish buildings with their central courtyards owed so much to the economic boom of the 1850s that the saying in Mostviertel: ‘Most —perry — built these houses’ is still repeated today.

It couldn’t last. Following the collapse of empire and the continued rise of beer and wine, Most fell out of popularity and into a gradual state of disrepair. The million trees of the 1930s were felled in huge numbers to make way for cornfields, producers dwindled and quality slipped. It wasn’t until the rise of the Mostbarons sixty years later that the rot was stopped and the perry of the Mostviertel really began finding its voice again. 

***

If the Haselbergers represent the best of modern, young Mostviertel with an eye on fine dining and rivalling wine in its perception, they are working from a base established in no small part by Toni Distelberger.

Toni is quite simply a force of nature. The chief instigator of the Mostbarons, the most animated at our first night tasting; a visionary in the mould of a Tom Oliver or Jérôme Forget who has seen the potential of his region, fruit and drink and has understood that it can only be met by innovation and collective effort. Though not the current head of the Mostbarons, there seems to be a general deference to him; the godfather of modern Mostviertel.

Our six hour visit is a whirlwind. First to the trees — his own nearby Grüner Pichelbirne and, unusually, a young pear orchard where he talks us through varieties and characteristics. Toni owns 2,000 trees, more than anyone else in the region, and he emphasises the importance not only of planting fruit, but of doing so the right way and in the right places. 

We spend an hour or so being led around his father’s ‘collection’, which rather undersells it, as it in fact represents the largest private museum in Austria. A room full of spinning wheels? Check. Musical instruments? Children’s toys? Ancient distilling equipment? Check, check check. An entire local store, uplifted piece by piece and assembled again in the farmhouse? It even still boasts the original contents of its drawers. Over 22,000 individual pieces all in; the result of fifty years’ compilation. Obsession, it seems, runs deep in the Distelberger family.

Toni’s Birnenmost range is so vast as to be almost bewildering. There are single varieties and blends, stills and sparklings, dry and ‘halbtrockens’ whose fermentation has been arrested for a touch of sweetness. There are co-fermentations and flavoured perries; lavender, hops, a mint-perry combination that smells of after eights and tastes of the first summer lick of mint choc chip ice cream. But then there are the ways he pushes the boat beyond anyone in the region; his bright, joyful traditional method, for instance, and the only ice perry I taste on the trip — as complex and indulgent as any great Sauternes, a glass full of marmalade and magic.

What is striking though, is that the perries Toni pours us most enthusiastically, and which he takes greatest pains to extol, are not his solo creations, but the collaborative work of the Mostbarons. Every year the producers among the group come together to create a trio of flagships. Brous — from the ancient word for ‘blossom’ — a light, floral blend of Speck and Stiglebirne. Preh, the happy middle ground and the ideal food match — a mélange of Speck, Stiegl, Dorsch and Grüne Pichelbirne. Biggest, stateliest and fullest of all, Exibatur — Dorsch and Grüne Pichelbirne. Still vivid and flashing its youth at a mighty nine years old; a Grand Cru of Mostviertel itself. These perries aren’t the work of one sole Möstbaron, rather they are blends of the very best work from that year across the group. The idea is to trumpet quality across the region; that the whole can be greater than the sum of its parts. It is clear that Toni is a driving force behind this idea, and he speaks animatedly — the only way Toni speaks, it seems to me — of the difference it has made to Birnenmost’s perception. 

The 2021s are superb. Taut, poised, supremely elegant and astonishingly concentrated. The Preh and Exibatur seem very much in their infancy though, and Toni comments that Birnenmost, particularly that made from the fuller pear varieties, often benefits from a few years of ageing. I think on the 2013 we tasted the night before and the 2018 Pyrus from Haselberger, and am inclined to agree. Whether this can be fully communicated when bottles are released the year after vintage is another matter, and Toni admits that the general tradition is to drink perry at its very youngest. This seems something of a shame to my mind and palate, and I wonder if it is an area on which the region’s producers can collectively work. The potential rewards for the drinker are self-evident.

***

The more time we spend in Mostviertel the more apparent it becomes that perry here is not only something that dazzles in its own right but is, more importantly, an essential cog within a broader wheel of gastonomy. We see it in the mindboggling, savoury, spicy perry soup with perry pear dumpling. In the by-the-jug pub pairings with schnitzel and goulash. In the boards of cold meat with accompanying perry spritzers — the classic way to drink Birnenmost, so Toni tells us.

Perhaps most clearly of all, we see it on our visit to Reikersdorfer.

Leopold Reikersdorfer is the current head of the Mostbarons. He has the chain and the ceremonial pipette to prove it; a long, elegant, sword-shaped glass affair with a gorgeous glass pear carved within it. A former car salesman and footballer now working with his wife and fellow Mostbaron Michaela on the family farm.

Perry is central here, and they make around 20,000 litres of it a year, from rare barrel-aged Urmost exalting in peach, melon and the oak-tinted lactones of vanilla and coconut, to zippy, fresh, off-dry Speckbirne, piercingly aromatic blends of green pears and a soft, perfumed Stieglbirne. But perhaps more than anywhere else we visit, Leopold and Michaela show us the full spectrum of Mostviertel produce. 

The orchard in front of their house holds a few pears, but is home mainly to plums and apples. Michaela spends hours each day preparing, stemming and skinning the fruit to be dried, baked into cakes or bread or chocolate bars, or simply sold as a snack. Eighty kilograms of pears shrinks into just eight kilograms of dried fruit, she tells us. She tried strawberries once but the returns were even more meagre. As we taste the dried pear, Nicolina tells me that her family does the same thing with plums and that dried fruit is central to the traditional Mostviertel diet. 

In a room walled off from the cidery, Leopold shows us his vinegar production. Makers all over the region sell vinegar, but Leopold is one of the very few who makes it himself; the largest vinegar producer in the region. Others are worried that the vinegar will taint their cider and perry production, he says, but by keeping things clean, sterile and — crucially — separate, he doesn’t have any issue himself.

And what vinegars. A wall in the shop testifies to the mind-boggling range. Not just perry vinegar, but perry vinegar fragrant with garden herbs, with cucumber, with everything I can think of that might grow on the farm. Vinegars for chips and stews; vinegars for salads. A balsamic vinegar aged for five years with the luscious, raisiny sweetness of Pedro Ximenez sherry.

As a traditional Heuriger, the Reikersdorfers can only sell their own produce, and only at certain times of the year. Their shop, the little restaurant, the orchards, perry cellars and cow-sheds all constitute their own little ecosystem; a contained gastronomic world with perry as its nucleus, but not its sole raison d’être. A one-producer encapsulation of Mostviertel altogether. 

***

If Reikersdorfer is a layline to Mostviertel’s ancient tradition, our last producer, Destillerie Farthofer, is something different entirely. And it is here that I run out of superlatives.

Joseph and Doris Farthofer are also Mostbarons, and have farmed organically since 2003. But don’t come here looking for the classic perries so abundant across the rest of the region. As the name suggests, Destillerie Farthofer is a distillery, and one with a prodigious range. Whisky made from resurrected heritage grains, all propagated by the Farthofers themselves. Rum that is a dead ringer for some of the high-ester marques of Jamaica; flavours I have never tasted from a European rum producer before. An eye-popping range of eau de vie, from every conceivable variety of pear and every manner of fruit.

But their ace in the hole is Mostello.

Mostello is their own creation. In fact I’m not entirely sure such a thing exists anywhere else in the world. The only example of fortified perry this writer has ever encountered.

Don’t confuse Mostello for the pommeaux of Normandy, or Pomona from the likes of Somerset Cider Brandy. Where those drinks — gorgeous, opulent things in their own right — are mistelles; blends of brandy with unfermented juice, the Mostellos are the only ciders and perries I’ve found where fermentation has begun (and, in some cases concluded) before the addition of fortifying spirit.

The Farthofers make their Mostello in two ways. Through arrested fermentation, as practiced by Port producers, where still-sweet fermenting perry is fortified with pear brandy to around 19% abv, killing remaining yeasts and thereby retaining natural sugars. And through fortification post-fermentation, when the perry is already dry, in the manner of Oloroso sherry. Most of the Farthofer’s Mostello spends at least four years in cask; three of them inside, the fourth outside, exposed to the vagaries and extremes of the Austrian elements. Then there are the bright, decadently fruited, golden melon and syrup tones of their unoaked ‘eau de vie Mostello’, tailor made for pear tart, for any fruited pudding, for frivolous glassfuls on lazy summer afternoons.

The flavours of their creations are hard to put into words, but if ice cider, as Pete Brown has it, is like drinking starlight, then Mostello is drinking the crackling red-gold blaze of an autumn hearth. The port-style Süss is all raisins and currents and dark honeys and burnt sugars, rich as gold and sweet as nectar. The dry whisks me to a Jerez bodega with the savoury umami of soy and balsamic, the dark chopped walnuts of Oloroso, the depth and poise of Palo Cortado. In their intensity, their hugeness, their force of character and the balance of flavour and structure they somehow find amidst it all, they are like no other drinks I have tasted; the most memorable things I try on the trip and amongst the best and most compelling cider and perry products made anywhere in the world. We try bottles from 2005, 2009, 2011 and 2014 and it is my profound regret that we can’t try the other vintages besides. They are that rarest of things; something utterly, unmistakably singular. As we take our leave and wind our way back to the hotel along the green, rolling roads of Mostviertel, there is no doubt in my mind that I will remember them forever.

***

I’m not sure it’s possible to sum up a region, or even a brief three-day experience of a region, in a single article. There’s so much more to tell you; the surprising primacy of perry cat over cider dog, the red waistcoats and feathered hats of the Mostbarons, the Most Birn Haus, a centrepoint of the region since the mid-noughties, a spiritual cousin to Hereford’s Cider Museum, that tells Birnenmost’s story so much more fully than this piece could ever aspire to. In any case, I had wanted to visit Mostviertel for years, was emotionally invested before I went, and was paid for throughout my trip besides. So my vision and opinions may well be tinted, never mind incomplete.

Nor do I think that the collective perries of Mostviertel are in any way the finished article. To raise a very minor observation on the region, there is a general level of caution evident across much of what we tried. A restaurateur on the last evening commented on how unusual it is to find wild fermentation practiced in the area for instance; filtration can be, I think, a shade on the heavy side — though it’s worth noting that certain producers like Haselberger are beginning to move in a more adventurous direction. The lessons of Mostviertel’s wilderness years were hard-learned, I feel, and the onus on cleanliness, and a scrupulously fault-free product, has bred an understandably no-risk approach whose perries, however clean, may in some cases have sacrificed a little fullness of character because of it. When I think of Mostviertel’s rivals — the Three Counties and Domfront — England’s breadth of flavour is comfortably the broadest, whilst France tops the table in across-the-board excellence.

The story of cider and perry the world over is that people living in the great regions often don’t know quite what they have, and that’s certainly echoed here. The bars in Amstetten, at the heart of the Moststraße, didn’t serve perry, the signs outside pubs were for beer and the shops that I noticed only seemed to promote wine. When I told the man nudging my elbow that I was here for Birnenmost he looked confused and asked why. The pears and the pear trees of the region might well be iconic, but the drink they produce, though it forms part of Mostviertel’s very name, is not yet given the limelight that could raise it to the tier it aspires to. A maker just across the border commented on how strange it is that Austrian perry is almost unknown outside its own country; the truth is that even within Austria it seems to be treated with a certain level of insouciance.

And yet. There may, for the time being, be more range to English perry and more technical expertise in France, but neither offers as much of both as the makers of Austria. There is nothing to be found here which doesn’t hit a minimum level of good, tasty and accessible, and the peaks, in the many instances they are found, in the likes of the ‘Unter der’ series, the Exibaturs, the ice perries, Urmosts and Mostellos, are dizzying evidence of Austria’s mouthwatering potential. There is no maker in the world who wouldn’t want access to the pear trees in this region, nor any region in which such a range of the best varieties are so universally championed. 

There is something, I think, astonishingly brave in those producers of the 1990s recognising that the reset button needed to be pressed. In pooling collective wisdom and experience and in setting a baseline of quality that meant no new drinker would find anything less than acceptable. It has given the Mostviertel a magnificent base to forge forward from, and if the four producers I visited are evidence of anything, it is of the vigour, inventiveness and skill with which Austria’s perrymakers are beginning to push themselves and the possibilities of their perry. It is exhilarating to think of the level they might collectively reach. In fact it’s my opinion that the likes of Haselberger, Distelberger, Reikersdorfer and Farthofer could make Mostviertel the most exciting perry region in the world. What’s more I wouldn’t bet against them doing so within the next five to ten years.

If Devon is the sleeping giant of English cider, Mostviertel is the equivalent for world perry. There may be three global perry regions, but none celebrate and revel in the pear like this place in Lower Austria. It was my pleasure and my privilege to visit, and I desperately hope that I’ll be back again many times to come. There is a culture and an energy here that is utterly compelling; a gastronomic world, uniquely, with pears at its heart and perry in its blood, and if you love perry as I do, and if you get the chance, you should go there. Fly to Vienna, take the train west to Amstetten, to that sea of greenness, to those pine-scruffled mountains, those undulant hills studded and lined with pear trees. Taste still, dry, dew-shimmering Birnenmost, deep, unctuous Mostello from oak casks and flickering cellars, thrilling champagne methods coursing with life, single varieties from single ancient trees; taste this whole, hidden, spellbinding world that exists for and sprang from the world’s most underrated drink.

And if someone taps your arm at a bar one night and asks what you’re doing in Amstetten, tell them I sent you for perry.

Many thanks to Andreas and Gudrun of Mostviertel Tourismus for bringing me out to Austria at their expense (which doesn’t affect editorial content or control). Also to Haritz of Ciderzale who organised the trip, to the Haselbergers, Distelbergers, Reikersdorfers and Farthofers for their time and generosity, to my travelling companions Justine, Marco and Marius, and to Nicolina, without whom none of us would have understood a thing.

3 Comments

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