Karl-Heinz Pale is practically part of the “inventory” at the legendary Hospiz-Alm in St. Christoph am Arlberg. The top sommelier takes care of the impressive magnum bottle cellar – with lots of experience and passion. LA LOUPE accompanies him on an exciting trip into the world of wine…
What does the Restaurant Hospiz Alm offer its wine-loving guests?
I’ve been working at Arlberg Hospiz Hotel since 1986 and at Hospiz-Alm since 1988 (when it was opened), together with the manager Werner Künstner. Back then the hotel already hosted sophisticated guests who liked to order famous wines. Adi Werner showed a lot of foresight and really learned a lot about Bordeaux wines. Mr Werner asked renowned wine makers like Châteaus Marbuzet, Cheval Blanc and Mouton Rothschild whether they’d be willing to fill their wines into magnum bottles. Mind you, even the Tsars enjoyed their favourite wines from magnum bottles.
And this is how, starting in 1982, Château Marbuzet and later many others, filled their exclusive wines in large bottles holding three to 18 litres that are now available here. Today Hospiz-Alm has the world’s largest magnum bottle cellar for Bordeaux wines. What’s so special about large bottles is the fact that the bottle to cork ratio is better than with smaller bottles, thus giving the wines the chance to age better. Our partner winemakers are even saying that they’re using the best barrel for our wines. And if the wine is left to age for another 10 to 25 years after that, enjoying it really is an experience.
Are there wines that are only available here?
Yes, Château Cheval Blanc exclusively fills six magnum bottles for us per year. Initially those were 15 litre bottles, since 2001 they’re 12 litre bottles and this excellent – and of course highly priced – wine is only available here.
Apart from that our cellar also offers an excellent choice of 10 to 35 year old vintages. One has to add that there hardly are any old wines in large bottles left. Either they’re drunk too young or they disappear in collectors’ cellars. So from this point of view the content of our cellar is something very exclusive.
Does the same wine taste different from a magnum bottle than from a smaller one? How do you store the wines properly? And when is a wine “off”?
That is a question we asked ourselves, too and so we opened two bottles, one holding 0.375 litres and one holding 12 litres from the same chateaus and sent the contents to an institute for analysis. Turns out that the ageing process in the large bottles takes place much more slowly and gently than in small ones. As a result the taste difference was so big they could’ve been two different types.
So yes, the bottle makes a huge difference. In terms of storage you can say that the colder the cellar, the more slowly the wines will age. This knowledge is particularly important for old wines. Some people even store really old wines in the fridge. When a wine has “gone off” it’s become undrinkable. The colour becomes brownish, the water edge at the top of the bottle becomes transparent, the tannins are gone. Finding the right point in time to open a well-aged bottle of Bordeaux is an art in itself.
You have to interpret your products, evaluate them perfectly. How can we imagine such a sales talk?
Well the guests usually inform themselves beforehand, what is the wine like, what’s its score, what is the approximate price. And particularly since the guests are increasingly well informed we sommeliers have to constantly keep our knowledge up to date. I personally prefer to stay at the background and not steal my staff’s joy in selling. When the moment comes when the sale of a precious wine is finalised I like to enter the scene.
I’ve known about 80 percent of the guests that drink the very expensive wines for years. When I sell these wines I try to be discreet and not talk about the prices directly. I prefer using car makes as an analogy. I’m standing in the wine cellar and I explain: “Here we’ve got an Audi A8, this is the Rolls Royce and this is the Ferrari. And if someone decides to have a small Landrover, that’s fine by me.
How often do you go on “wine journeys”? And what is your favourite region?
Usually about twice a year. This year I’ve found the time to do four trips that took me to the Bordeaux region, the Rhône region, Wachau and Tuscany. In our First Austrian Sommelier Club which was founded in 1982 the restaurant owners go on wine journeys together with the sommelier. As a result one is responsible for the other and the mixture of products that are bought is great.
My favourite wine region is Saint Emilion in Bordeaux. The main grape variety there is Merlot/Cf/Pv. In terms of wines this area has recently improved the most, worldwide and thanks to the Châteaus Cheval Blanc, Figeac, Pavie and Peby Faugeres it enjoys great fame. The wines are very approachable and develop their maturity already at 7 or 8 years.
What do you think about biodynamically produced wines?
Organic wines are very popular. When someone works with nature in a sustainable way, only good things can come of it. During my last journey I took note of one winemaker who really doesn’t treat the wine at all before he lets it age. He even says that his wines are not sulphured. And the success is great – he earns good money with high-quality products. My only fear would be that the wines could not survive being stored for a longer period of time because no measures are taken to conserve them.
What’s your definition of a “good bottle of wine”? And how much is it worth?
What’s important for me is that the quality justifies the price. The tannins should be nicely balanced with the acidity and the body of the wine. And when it starts “flowing” in the sense that after having one glass you’d like a second or third or more, the quality is good. How much a wine is worth is a hot topic. Maybe you could say that the price people are willing to pay determines the value.
Would you say that the guests of the Arlberg are great epicures?
The Arlberg does have an extraordinarily large number of wine lovers among its guests. And not just older ones – young people increasingly discover their passion for wine, too. I’m sure that nature has a part in this, too. After an active day on the mountain people simply like to enjoy a nice glass. That’s part of being on holiday. With spirits it’s a little more complicated though. People always used to have a round of liquor after the meal.
Today people may only enjoy a shot when you suggest it to them, in a nice and unobtrusive way. I’ve been working here for more than 30 years and some guests have become my friends. I even like to invite them to my house for a nice wine tasting and I go and visit them in Europe’s cities.
What sort of training do the staff at Hospiz Resort get?
We start the season with our traditional Christmas party where people get to know each other. And then there are different ways for different personalities. Some people lack self confidence, others may be too impressionable when it comes to popular names and brands. We try to make sure that the staff learn how to conduct sales talks well and how to properly celebrate them. Sometimes I send my colleagues on wine journeys.
And there’s a nice game: one person goes down to the cellar to get a bottle of wine. We do a blind tasting and the person who does not recognise the wine after seven questions has to pay for it. During those kinds of activities you see right away what someone is made of. With the right motivation one can learn a lot about wine here. And all those who are interested can also learn about cigars and bar culture from me. Unfortunately there are few young people who are interested in this.
How important is the right glass for enjoying a wine? Can the aromas be different, depending on the glass?
A well-aged wine in a beautiful glass is something special. Of course in a restaurant with around 170 seats it’s not always easy to find the perfect glass for the wine. Particularly in case of high-quality wines one definitely has to find a way to go beyond the glass though. What’s very special here are our 3-litre glasses. A big wine needs a big glass in order to ensure that the aromas can develop perfectly.
The 3 litre glasses are produced especially for us and they can be bought only at Arlberg Hospiz Resort and Hospiz Alm. With a glass like this you hope it won’t break every time you use it. We even have 5 personalised glasses that have the names of the guests that they belong to engraved in them.
The right wine with the meal or the right meal with the wine?
On that you’ll find 14 different people with 14 different opinions. You’re taught that the wine has to go well with the food. But actually that’s humbug because the wine is ordered first. And the wine doesn’t necessarily have to go with the food. But of course, goose liver or blue cheese with a sweet wine or oysters with a white wine as dry as bone is delicious.
Karl-Heinz Pale’s Wordrap
Red, white or rosé?
The magic of a good wine is…
enjoying an aged wine at the right time.
In St. Christoph I feel…
What I enjoy most is…
cigar and red wine in front of an open fire.
I would one day like to stay in this hotel:
I haven’t found one yet.
Sophisticated table culture and alpine lifestyle are what guests can expect behind the traditional ski hut’s facade; after all it’s a part of the legendary Arlberg Hospiz Hotel. Chef de cuisine Daniel Rauter transforms lobster, scallops and much more into exclusive delicacies. With a glass of wine from the Grand Seigneur Adi Werner’s cellar one can enjoy Austrian hospitality at a high level.
Open daily from 11 am – 10 pm.
For more information visit: www.arlberghospiz.at
Wine cellar at Hospiz Alm
The Hospiz-Alm’s cellar holds the world’s largest collection of wines in magnum bottles. In the large bottles the wine ages particularly gently and more slowly than in standard bottles. As a result the wines’ durability is increased making them a special delicacy. The wonderful wines at Hospiz Alm are precious rarities where there are only few bottles of each vintage. Large bottles from more recent vintages can be purchased as decorative items for private wine cellars.