Austria Trumps Toronto – By Sara d’Amato
Toronto’s new Trump Tower was home to this year’s Austria Uncorked, the biggest and busiest Austrian wine show to date. All walks of the trade were represented and equally excited about Austria’s fast-paced growth in terms of quality and quantity.
Due to its intrinsic preference for small boutique producers, it is a country that is very much in the eye of enthusiasts.
Unfortunately, I was astounded to find that the large majority of these sensational wines were not available in Ontario. Although they all had representative agents, consumers only have access to these wines by private order. So unless you know exactly what you’re looking for and have a substantial budget, this is not a very accessible means of purchase. Buying them at LCBO stores isn’t much easier, for out of the 27 Austrian wines listed in stores, the inventories are minimal and sell out quickly from major urban centers like Toronto.
Austria Wine’s Rise
The Austria we know today is a relatively new, post-World-War-I formation, as the Austro-Hungarian Empire was fractured in 1919 into what are now Austria and Hungary, and what were then Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia. For most of the 20th century, Austrian wine was rarely seen here in North America. Its bulk-style, high yielding wines were often sold to Germany and there was little interest elsewhere in the world. In fact, there was a sort of commiseration between Germany and Austria during the greater part of the 20th century as they were both subjected to impoverished economic conditions, which lead to inexpensive, innocuous wines exported mainly to one another. Bland, sweet and cheap would describe the great majority of wines being produced, and it got worse.
In 1985, Austrian wine’s reputation hit its lowest point with the Diethylene glycol scandal – known to most as the “antifreeze scandal” – in which a number of Austrian wineries were found to have added diethylene glycol to their wines in order to increase their viscosity and sweetness. The wines were recalled shortly thereafter, and no consumers were known to have been adversely affected. However, it was an incredibly important turning point in the history of Austrian wine in that, for all its tragedy, it spawned a renaissance in Austrian wine culture.
In fact, this whiplash of a change incited both traditional notions of the planting of indigenous varietals to more modern notions of the control of wine laws. Austrian wine regulations are now among the strictest in all of Europe and, like many such regulations, have as their goal to increase the quality of wine produced in Austria as well as to ensure its purity.
Austrian Wine at the Table
It is safe to say that with that goal now happily realized, Austria has begun to position itself as an edgy, modern wine-producing nation whose wines are adaptable to progressive cuisine and have a particular affinity to Asian food. The savvy marketers in Austria are cleverly taking advantage of the globalization of wine and food culture. As sushi has become as commonplace as burgers in most large North American cities, and as the dominant cultural influences shift to the east, Asian food has become a staple to most North American diets and is becoming increasingly popular in Europe. At the same time, our populous neighbors to the East are slowly but inevitably accepting European-style wines onto their dinner tables. At the Austrian Uncorked event, glossy, full colour booklets entitled “Austrian Wine with Asian Cuisine” were distributed to tasters and evocatively describe the synergy between common Asian dishes and an array of Austrian wine.
Smartly, the Austrian Wine Marketing Board also realizes the importance of its own culture and food and has put out another equally glossy booklet full of traditional Austrian recipes with a modern flair, showcasing their compatibility with their own wine. While this suggestive marketing aims to put more Austrian wine on consumers’ dinner tables, unfortunately for Ontarians, I fear the limited access to Austria’s wines in this province means this goal is not really possible in any meaningful way yet.
Some Notable Producers
Now, enough about what Austria is trying to do and attempting to say. Let’s look at several producers who are pushing the boundaries and excelling at their craft. There was certainly no shortage of such producers at last month’s tasting.
Judith Beck, a young winemaker with a passion for tradition, uses her grandfather’s old Acacia wood barrels, top vineyard sites and biodynamic practices to give indigenous varieties new life in Burgenland, one of the most innovative wine growing regions in Austria. Her wines, unfortunately, are not available in Ontario in any way but private order, but are worth keeping an eye out for. Beck’s 2011 Weissburgunder (otherwise knows as pinot blanc) at $19.00 is incredibly sophisticated, floral and elegant with an exotic, underlying spiciness. Another traditional variety, bläufrankisch, (kékfrankos in Hungary) is brought to life by Ms. Beck’s prowess in the 2008 Altenberg at $55 and results in an impressive but deceptively complex wine with exceptional ageability. The late ripening bläufrankisch varietal, when coaxed correctly, has the ability to produce remarkably spicy, intriguing flavours and provides both substantial tannins and acids which are the building blocks of ageability.
Haven’t tasted Austrian sauvignon blanc? It is not that uncommon but it does not find its way into our market that often. Eclipsed by the great grüner veltliner, it is easily overlooked and may be masked under its Austrian name, muskat sylvaner. One of my favourite producers of this varietal at the show was Tement and I was particularly eager for the Grassnitzberg Sauvignon Blanc from Südsteiermark, 2010 at $35.00. A pretty penny to pay for a sauvignon blanc, but it is a highly memorable experience, distinct from the more common New Zealand examples and with a very different character than the traditional Loire styles. The wine had sprite, great verve and considerable depth with a touch of earth, plenty of textual intrigue and an exceptionally long finish. For those who would like to gamble with less money, another sure bet is the “Temento Green”, entry-level blend of sauvignon blanc and welschriesling, 2011, again from Steiermark in southern Austria (bordering Slovenia) is an undeniable treat at $16.
You can’t write about Austria and neglect grüner veltliner, whose characteristic white pepper, bright acids and nutty flavours are sure to engage newcomers to veterans of Austrian wine alike. Rabl’s 80 hectare holdings are located mainly in the prolific and highly successful wine growing region of Lower Austria, which counter-intuitively is located in the northeastern reaches of the country. The nomenclature derives from the path of the Danube River which flows from west to east. From the hot and dry slopes of Kamptal, the family estates of Rabl produce an entry grüner, the Klassik Spiegel, 2011 at $16.95 that possesses all the distinctive character of grüner in addition to an approachable nature, with great weight and concentration. Currently, you can find the Reserve “Vinum Optimum” Grüner Veltliner, Kamptal 2009 $19.95 in Vintages, and it is well worth an experience.
If you are craving a spicy, lush red then Rabl’s Kabinett St. Laurent from Niederösterreich (the most northeasterly region of Austria, bordering both Slovakia and the Czech Republic) is not to be missed. At $18.95, this st. laurent is more concentrated than most, many of which have more of a pinot noir character. However, the flavours in this example are spot on and the density is most welcome on the palate. If you anticipate any similarities in the reds of Austria and those of Germany, this is a terrific example to shatter that misconception.
Given the great array of Austrian wines available in one, relatively small room in downtown Toronto, it is disturbing that the accessibility to the public is so low. The best place to experience the diversity and food-friendly nature of these wines remains in restaurants with extensive lists. It is here that sommeliers selectively purchase interesting and otherwise unreachable offerings from this progressive and stylish country.