When a bottle of wine shares the same name as a monarchy, you know it's probably not your everyday imbibe. For 600 years, the princes of Liechtenstein have made wine in Austria's northern Weinvietel region and for 400 years in their own principality at Vaduz. Now the Princely cellars are managed by Prince Constantin von Liechtenstein and his wife Princess Marie, a certified sommelier and marketing specialist — she used to work for the Austrian Broadcasting Corporation and Bismarck Media in New York — who has in recent years, helped transformed the wine holdings into a much sought-after commodity.
The family owns two vineyards. One in Vaduz, Liechtenstein and a larger property in Wilfersdorf, Austria. What are the vineyards' distinguishing factors?
They are completely different in size, soil and climate. The major one is Wilfersdorf, 40km north of Vienna and we plant the typical Austrian varietals: Grüner Veltliner, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot and Zweigelt. We have very cold winters and hot dry summers, so it's a good area for cool climate wines. And 900km away in Vaduz, it's a Burgundy-style climate because of the summer winds, so we make Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. We only have four hectares in Vaduz and we make 20,000 bottles. It's very rare! And until last year, we didn't export anything. Also, 95 percent is still sold in Liechtenstein. Whereas in Austria, our production is 200,000 bottles.
Historically, the wine was never intended for sale, was it?
Historically, yes. We have the oldest privately owned vineyard in Austria. It's been in the family for almost 600 years. Only Klosterneuburg is older than us, but we're too different for comparison. Our wine, in the beginning, was for private consumption and for payment to our workers. Centuries ago, a barrel of wine was like money we would pay our winery, farm and agricultural workers with. In the 1950s, the family started working more closely with the vineyard and by the 1960s, we had started exporting, mainly to Liechtenstein and Switzerland.
Here in Asia, we're not as familiar with Austrian wine as we maybe are with French or Italian, let alone Liechtenstein-made wine. Do you see yourself as a wine educator?
Yes, totally. In size and quantity, we are less than France or Italy, but quality-wise, Austrian wines can definitely keep up with grand crus in France. And for us, it's exciting to be one of the first from Austria to educate [the public] about our wines and to also discover how well Asian food goes with Austrian cool climate wines. Merlot with pork belly is wonderful and our Grüner Veltliner Reserve with fried rice works beautifully. Like today, I had [Hainanese-style] chicken rice, which was a little spicy and I thought it would be very nice to have it with a little Riesling.
Do people think too much about wine, worrying about whether they are drinking the right ones?
Nobody should get stressed out about wine. Wine is a great product. In our culture, it's been there forever. But I do think we've become too focused about sticking to rules and wanting only the best of the best. It's a product that can be high-end, but you can also drink it every day. You come home after a stressful day, it's warm and you have a beautiful Liesecco [a Frizzante] it's nice — it goes a long way.
I've read that the family has the most amazing collection of wines. Is it true?
We have a nice selection of wines, but we also like to drink them! I don't believe in collecting wines to be honest. It's sad when you see these old bottles that nobody can drink. I just had this conversation yesterday. Someone had brought this bottle from the beginning of the last century and for sure, it wasn't drinkable anymore. But, on the other hand, I do think we nowadays drink wines too young, especially in Europe. We should wait two to three vintages and give the wine the time it deserves to age and mature. I also like to keep a few aside because it's always fun to see how a wine does 10 years on.
Did wine always feature on your dining table as a child? Is that where your love for it started?
My parents always had a glass with dinner and to educate us, they always gave us a sip in little dollhouse-sized glasses. They don't overdo it. It's just for a taste and smell. Later, my sister got married and her husband owned a vineyard in South Tyrol, Italy. After my studies, I went there and I helped him with the Vernatsch harvest. Every day, the grapes would come in and we would press the wine. It was hard work. We had to get up at 5am for the harvest and you think to yourself: Why am I doing this? But you go out into the field and it's just beautiful. You are alone in nature; it's cold, the sun is coming out and it's the best. That's when I started to love it.
In 2014, after having overseen the revamp of the Liechtenstein cellars, you acquired your sommelier certification. Was it as difficult as in the film?
It was difficult because I hadn't studied in a really long time. And I didn't want to fail because I've always told my children [now 12, 10 and seven] that they needed to study and pass their exams. So there I was, studying and thinking to myself that I needed to pass because otherwise it would be very embarrassing. And I passed, thank God! It's hard, but it's fun. You learn so much about explaining the wines, feeling the flavours and trying to express yourself.
Do you still get out to the vineyards and cellars much?
I still do, but I don't have much time these days. From what we saw at harvest, 2015 will be an amazing year for both Austrian and Liechtenstein wine. We have old vines, which didn't suffer too much from the heat. It will be really exciting working next year with the new vintage. It's always fun working in the cellar. We did release a blend I worked on: The 2014 Quartett — a Sauvignon Blanc, Muskat Ottonel, Grüner Veltliner and Riesling blend. It has a nice acidity; it's dry but not bone dry and with a nice fruitiness to it. It's perfect for hot weather. We had it at home the whole summer with fish and rice dinners.