Super-size Me

Size matters at large-format wine haven Hospiz Alm in Austria.


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Snuggled beneath 12,000-foot peaks in Austria's Alps, St. Christoph has only 32 inhabitants. However, the wine cellar at Hospiz Alm, the town's leading restaurant, holds more than 12,000 bottles. And most are big. Very, very BIG.

Jeroboams, Methuselahs, Balthazars, Nebuchadnezzars... what sounds like an Old Testament oligarchy reposes on the cellar's shelves. Not only are the bottles super-sized (up to 15 liters), so are the names, which include celebrated crus such as Château Cheval Blanc,Château Figeac, Mouton-Rothschild, Palmer and Pichon-Longueville. It adds up to one of the largest collections of large-format bottles in the world with a value estimated at £4 million ($US 5 million).

"They make the large bottles especially for me," remarks Adolf ("Adi") Werner, Hospiz Alm's 70-year-old owner. "Fine wines age more slowly in the large bottles and stay at their peak longer." Werner began his collection in the 1980s, modeling it after bottlings ordered by 19th-century Russian czars. For his first bottling run, even tools to craft the corks had to be custom-designed. 

Clad in traditional Tyrolean dress, Adi presides over the dining area on Hospiz Alm's balcony—as powerful a force of nature as the blizzards that billow deep snows so coveted by off-piste skiers. "We have the best ribs in the world. Here—try this," he said, swiping a choplet for me from the platter of a nearby, startled diner. "No, you don't want a Grüner Veltliner—I'll bring you something better," fetching instead a Polz 2005 Streirische Classik Sauvignon Blanc. (It was.) 

Hospiz Alm dates to the 14th century when a swineherd humbly named Henry the Foundling built a shelter for travelers crossing the perilous Arlberg Pass. Admittedly, none of Adi's wines are that old. But one of Hospiz Alm's wine-tasting dinners uncorked magnums of Château Lafite Rothschild, Château Margaux, Château Latour, Château Haut Brion and Château Mouton Rothschild...all from 1875.

To reach the cellar secured behind iron-vault doors, you either clomp down the spiral staircase—peskily problematic if you're wearing ski boots—or swoop down the built-in wooden slide. The oldest bottle currently in residence is an 1865 Château d'Yquem priced at £15,000 ($US 19,400). Adi tells me he's saving it for you. For information, go to www.hospiz.com or www.grossflaschen.com. (It means "big bottles." Of course.) 

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