Sung in English, Spanish, French and its native German, performed by choirs, orchestras and even Jamaican steel bands, “Silent Night, Holy Night” is the world’s most recorded Christmas carol. This year, the song celebrates its 200th birthday.
The words were written in 1816 by village curate Joseph Mohr in Salzburg , Austria. In 1818 it was set to music by his friend, local teacher Franz Gruber. Since the singing was accompanied by a guitar, a nonliturgical instrument, Gruber and Mohr first performed it after the Christmas Eve mass of 1818 in the village of Oberndorf, just north of Salzburg.
The simplicity of the song, intended as a lullaby for the baby Jesus, was part of its huge appeal. It spread via touring singers to Germany and beyond. It was first performed in New York in 1839 and has been an integral part of the holiday season ever since. Austrian tradition dictates that it should only be sung after 5pm on Christmas Eve.
To celebrate the carol’s bicentennial in true Austrian style, what could be more fitting than toasting it with a glass of sweet Austrian wine, especially from the spectacular 2015 vintage? Gerhard Kracher, director/winemaker of Weinlaubenhof Kracher, sweet wine specialist from Illmitz in Burgenland, Austria, explains why this was such a special year for sweet wines.
“2015 was exceptional and rare. All year it was warm and dry which usually is not conducive to the development of botrytis,” says Kracher. “But rain arrived in October followed by a gorgeous Indian summer. Botrytis spread quickly and evenly, and we could make sweet wines of exquisite concentration and harmony.”
For an even more Austrian experience, try baking Vanillekipferl, a simple but delicious hazelnut and vanilla crescent-shaped Christmas cookie. Kipferl and a Trockenbeerenauslese (TBA) from Kracher with Silent Night playing in the background are bound to put you in a festive mood.
Recommended Austrian sweet wines
Heidi Schröck 2015 Ruster Ausbruch Auf den Flügeln der Morgenröte Welschriesling (Burgenland); $80, 100 points. On the nose, a hint of dark fir honey shows with a streak of its pleasant bitterness. Fresh notes of apple and lemon zest mix with the earthy notes of botrytis. On the palate, this zestiness unfolds completely, crashing with the full force of its fruit like roaring surf against a rock. That lovely element of noble bitterness still holds sway, creating a sensation of the most intense but also precise sweetness. Drink until 2040, at least. Skurnik Wines, Inc. Cellar Selection.
Kracher 2015 Zwischen den Seen Trockenbeerenauslese Nummer 8 Muscat Ottonel (Burgenland); $130, 100 points. Damask rose, honeysuckle and blood orange peel unite in an almost otherworldly headiness. The palate keeps shimmering with these floral overtones while a solid wave of sweetness assails the taste buds with an insisting urgency, only to follow this with a sharp, welcome smack of pure lemon freshness. These notions alternate and fill the head with the pleasure of their tension. Sublime. Drink until 2040, at least. Terlato Wines International. Cellar Selection.
Gunter Triebaumer 2015 Ruster Ausbruch Welschriesling (Burgenland); $45, 97 points. Citrus richness sprays from the glass: Sunny, ripe lemon and zesty tangerine are edged with the earthy tang of botrytis and honey. Luscious sweetness and concentrated acidity appear at full tilt on the tangy palate, but it is the lemon that lasts on the finish, leaving this incredible richness and a fresh aftertaste. Drink until 2035. Magellan Wine Imports. Editors’ Choice.
H.& C. Nittnaus 2015 Beerenauslese Exquisit White (Burgenland); $19, 96 points. Caramelized lemon takes turns with candied lemon to entice the nose. The concentrations of both sweetness and acidity seem to potentiate each other, creating an increasing sense of joy, drama and thrill. The citrus and passion fruit flavors are of immense precision, and one drop on the tongue makes all the taste buds tingle with excitement. This is compact and impactful in all its sweet and tart glory. GD Imports. Editors’ Choice.
Rosenhof 2015 Trockenbeerenauslese Chardonnay (Burgenland); $29, 96 points. A smokiness lies thickly above the apple fruit notes of this heady TBA, glossing everything with a darker, brooding presence. That same smoky darkness hovers on the palate, but here the spiky, bright spur of lemon freshness breaks through triumphantly, lending drive and precision to the apricot and Mirabelle plum fruit that spreads its lusciousness across the tongue. This is rich, concentrated, intense and beautifully unusual. Drink until 2040, at least. Blue Danube Wine Co.