Low prices, an unpretentious village atmosphere, and a great mix of skiing for both beginners and intermediates, if you’re happy to commute. Those are the three main attractions that have brought British skiers to the Wildschonau in large numbers over the years.
But let me now add a fourth to that list: schnapps.
I’ve just spent three days in the laid-back and friendly village of Niederau, and one of the revelations has been the quality and variety of its favourite distillate. Here are 20 reasons why it ranks as a highlight of this immensely likeable ski region.
Reasons no. 1-17: Schnaps vom Zwecklhof
Okay, okay – so my 20 reasons are a bit of a cheat. Because the first 17 of them are down to this man, Siegfried Kistl, who lives half-way up a mountain, above the town of Oberau. It’s not, in the Alpine scheme of things, a very big mountain. But on a glowering afternoon, with heavy snow making the switchback road skiddy, it can feel the farmhouse at the end of the universe.
Sigi’s farm – called the Zwecklhof – has a schnapps licence dating back to the time of the Empress Maria-Theresia, and for the last 20-odd years he’s been perfecting his craft, in partnership with a beautiful copper still. Quite frankly, the man’s a genius. If it hangs off a fruit tree or grows on a bush, he can distill it, and the range of flavours on offer is mind-boggling. He had 17 different bottles to sample when I went there for a tasting.
The most popular is apricot – Marille – which has a direct and uncomplicated flavour. Drinking it is rather like being slapped round the face by a giant drunken apricot. I also tried Vogelbeer, which requires 40 kilos of rowan berries to make single litre of schnapps (and tastes, weirdly, of marzipan); and a smokey apple schnapps aged in oak barrels which you could probably sell to the Chinese as single malt whisky.
Best of all, however, was the Herzstück Williams, made from pears. This is Sigi’s speciality and it’s rich, complex and delicious. At 42% alcohol by volume it’s also very strong. This is smooth drinking stuff, but all the same there’s an almost instantaneous warming sensation in the brain after you’ve had a slug: followed by – surprise, surprise – a sudden cheerfulness.
You can buy Sigi’s schnapps in the in the farm shop – the Bauernladl – in Oberau. But if I were you, I’d make an appointment to go up to the Zwecklhof for a tasting. It’s a great experience: provided you book a taxi for the journey back to the hotel…
Reason #18: Krautinger
Sigi’s range feels like a complete A-Z of schnapps. But it’s not: because there’s a funny little schnappsy subculture unique to the Wildschonau which also demands your attention. It also dates back to the time of Maria-Theresia, and it’s built around the most unlikely of ingredients: the turnip.
Yes, your read that correctly. The Wildschonau is a hard place to farm, and one of the few crops which traditionally did well here was the turnip. So, back in the 18th century the Kaiserin gave the locals here special permission to make schnapps from it – and Krautinger Schnaps (there’s only one p in German) became a speciality.
It takes 70-80 kilos to make a single litre of Krautinger, and the end result is…well, it’s interesting. Sip it and the first impression is overwhelmingly of alcohol, which is no surprise given its 43% ABV. Then you get a hit of pure Sauerkraut, which tales off into something weird which reminded me of pair of training shoes I once owned. Some people love it. Many swear by it as medicine for an upset stomach (and take a bottle whenever they go travelling India or Africa). Others aren’t quite so sure. “Drink too much of it and you’ll taste it every time you burp for the next two days,” one British ski instructor in Niederau told me.
You can sample Krautinger in most hotel bars: or pick up a bottle at the Steinerhof – home to the Thaler family. But I think I’ll stick with Sigi’s Herzstück Williams, thanks very much.
Reason #19: The Kellerwirt
One of the best places to sample a range of Wildschonau schnapps is in the Kellerwirt in Oberau, which dates back to the 12th century, and is infused with a weird and wonderful atmosphere. There are just two little round tables in the bar, and everyone squeezes in together whether they’re a local, a Californian, a honeymooning Namibian couple or a Brit. In an age when everyone likes to shut themselves off with their smartphones, the social electricity is unexpected and rather beautiful.
Reason #20: The Schnapshütte in Niederau
Finally, don’t forget Tuesday nights at the Schnapshütte, at the bottom of the lifts in Niederau. It’s the rallying point for the many Dutch ski instructors and holidaymakers in the village, and they’re perpetually up for a party. Tuesday night is the big one, and you want to be there with a ready smile between 5pm and 7pm. Just remember, don’t make too many detailed plans for the hours afterwards.