John Szabo’s Vintages Preview for June 23rd, 2012
Update on Austria and Life After Grüner, plus Partying on Canada Day, Top Austrian buys and Top Ten Smart Summer Sippers.
Fresh from a stay at the Imperial Residences in magnificent Vienna, and (unofficial) tastings conducted in horse-drawn carriages, I’m pleased to share a few discoveries on the burgeoning Austrian wine scene. I offer a quick look at the challenges and advantages facing Austrian wine, and introduce a few alternative wines to look out for; call it life after grüner veltliner (though life with grüner is still fine by me).
The Vintages theme for the June 23rd release is summer sippers, not a subject you have to ask me twice to look into – I do a lot of it. I’ve dedicated the entire Top Ten to the best, most sippable wines in this release. You’ll find a top notch Pouilly-Fumé, a pair of Marlborough sauvignons above the mean, an intriguingly smoky white from Campania, plus delectable Gavi, pinot grigio, vinho verde and more. And finally, I’ve picked out a pair of biodynamic local wines from a dynamic duo, with which to party on Canada’s birthday.
Who to Party With on Canada Day
Consider these two Niagara wines: 2010 Southbrook Triomphe Chardonnay $21.95, made by Ann Sperling, and the 2010 Ravine Vineyard Meritage $24.95, made by Ann’s husband, Peter Gamble. Both Peter and Ann are fervent believers in the superior results produced by biodynamical farming. Southbrook is Canada’s first Demeter-certified winery, and Ravine will be certified for the 2012 harvest, but has been practicing the methods for almost four years now (Ravine has been organic since the beginning). Ann’s chardonnay is a reflection of the warmer 2010 growing season and the Niagara-on-the-Lake sub-appellation, with it’s rich, soft texture and sweet caramel and baking spice flavour – a more new world style example that will appeal broadly. Peter’s Meritage is a terrifically juicy, vibrant, lively and stylish red blend, with a fine balance of ripe but grippy tannins, juicy acid and modest, sip-all-afternoon 12.5% alcohol. Together they’re a great pair to party with.
Celebrating Austrian Wine at Vie Vinum
Another edition of Vie Vinum, Austria’s bi-annual celebration of Austrian wine wrapped up last week at the magnificent Hofburg in central Vienna. The city itself is a splendid baroque masterpiece, evoking 18th century charm and grandeur –perfect for strolling or horse-drawn carriage rides. But it would be hard to top the setting of the wine fair itself, spread across multiple salons in the former Imperial Residences. The Hofburg is an extensive palatial complex in the heart of the city that was, up until 1918, the seat of political power for the Austro-Hungarian empire. Where the Emperor Franz Joseph once held audiences, now journalists and sommeliers from around the world gathered to swirl and sip their way through the evolving landscape of Austrian wine. I joined a crew of Canadians for the regular pilgrimage to Vienna to check in on what’s happening.
In sum, things are going well for Austrian wine. 2011 saw exports of quality wine reach an all-time high, based principally on the strength of new markets discovering the quality and variety of Austrian wine (Germany, Switzerland and the US are the three largest importers, Canada is a distant 16th). Not just quality, but timing is also at least partly responsible for this success, as world tastes shift slowly but inexorably towards lighter, lower alcohol, fresher, leaner and more minerally styles of wines. Austria is indeed well suited to the production of such wines, though within their typically cool climate range there’s plenty of diversity and nuance to discover. Despite growing commercial success, the structure of the Austrian wine industry remains decidedly small scale with 23,000 registered wine growers cultivating just 46,000 hectares of total vineyard land. Out of these, 6,000 producers bottle wine. Compare this to, say Australia, where just 2,000 bottlers draw from almost four times as much vineyard land (164,000 ha) and you get the picture.
The Challenging Side
As for other wine producing nations with a similar structure, diversity and marked regional character is both the greatest strength and the greatest challenge for Austrian vintners. For such a small country, Austria has a bewildering, highly fractured system of nomenclature for its wines that’s on the path to clarity, but is most definitely still a work in progress. Under the current system, wines are divided, as per standard EU regulatory framework, into wines with and without geographical indications.
The latter, formerly known throughout the EU as simply “table wine”, is insignificant, at least from a Canadian perspective. But under the quality wine category with geographical indication, where all of the fun is, there are four “generic” wine growing regions: Niederösterreich, Burgenland, Steiermark and Vienna, in order of vineyard acreage. And within these, there are no fewer than 16 separate “specific” wine regions. And within some of the regions, there has been further sub-division into specific DACs (Districtus Austriae Controllatus, the equivalent of a French AOC or Italian DOC). Like its European counterparts, each DAC designates the delimited growing area, permitted grape variety(ies) and wine style(s), among other technical details. So already quite a lot to absorb, especially if you were just figuring out where Austria sits on the world map.
But it gets better. Super-imposed on this new regional-based framework is the old framework, which followed the Germanic system of labeling by ripeness at harvest, i.e. kabinett, spätlese, auslese, beerenauslese, ausbruch and trockenbeerenauslese. These terms, especially the lower designations of ripeness are disappearing slowly but surely (the sweeter designations from beerenauslese and up are still firmly entrenched) as the country moves to purely geography-based naming. Yet both systems still coexist. And the confusing situation is further exacerbated within certain regions, where regional associations have devised their own ripeness-at-harvest designations, most notably in the Wachau, where you’ll find mentions on labels of (in increasing degrees of ripeness) steinfeder, federspiel and smaragd. Other associations like the Traditional Wineries of Austria (ÖTW) have special vineyard classifications, “erste lage” or “first growths”, which are not recognized officially within Austrian wine law (and can only be used by association members). And finally, most of the DACs also have separate categories and requirements for “klassik” and “reserve” wines, distinguished mainly by ripeness, alcohol level and ageing parameters. Oh, and did I mention about at least a dozen grapes to consider within all of this?
In short, it takes a bit of background research to fully understand the Austrian wine scene, enough in fact to drive sommelier students (and teachers) crazy. Thankfully, the Austrian Wine Marketing Board is also among the most organized associations in the wine world, and their website is an absolute wealth of useful information. If you’re detail oriented, check it out: www.austrianwine.com. If not, let’s just get on to what matters most: great wine.
The Good Side: What to Look For
The positive side is that all of this confusion translates to marvelous diversity and so much to discover. Regular WineAlign readers and avid wine consumers will already be familiar with grüner veltliner, Austria’s flagship white grape, which accounts for about 1/3 of the country’s vineyard acreage. It has long been the darling variety of switched-on sommeliers around the world, not least for its astonishing capacity to pair seamlessly with a myriad of different food flavours and textures. And while I could go on about the nuances of flavour profile between grüners grown on the primary rock terraces of the Wachau vs. the deep loess soils of the Kamptal or the Traisental, for example, I’d like to bring your attention instead to a few new Austrian wines worth discovering, the future darling wines.
Austrian Reds: Fashionably Middleweight
Yes, Austria makes fine red wine. Although the country is unquestionably better suited in most regions for white wine production, certain areas, more specifically the warmer eastern region of Burgenland along the Hungarian border, is where you’ll find the majority of fine red wine action. Red grapes share equal vineyard acreage here with whites (whites dominate by far in every other Austrian region). Headline local varieties are blaufränkisch, St. Laurent, and zweigelt, along with a mixture of international varieties such as cabernet sauvignon, merlot and pinot noir that were brought into Austria in the 1980s and 1990s when nobody believed that local grapes could make top kit.
In my view, of these, blaufränkisch is the most interesting (full disclosure – I also grow blaufränkisch in my vineyard in Hungary), followed closely behind by St. Laurent, a descendant of pinot noir believed to have been brought by Cistercian monks to the Danube valley in the 11th century. On a pre Vie Vinum side trip to the Neusiedlersee area of Burgenland, I was treated to some remarkable blaufränkisch tastings at Henrich, Wenzell and Feiler-Artinger that firmly underscored my view that the grape is extremely sensitive to site and soil, and delivers nuanced, vineyard specific expressions when allowed to do so, much like pinot noir is capable of (my preference is for blaufränkisch grown on limestone, aged in old, large, 500l barrels, for the record). Stylistically, blaufränkisch is firm, fashionably medium-bodied with juicy acids, more red than black fruit and dense, tightly knit tannins that make the best highly age worthy. Leithaberg, Mittleburgenland and Eisenberg are the principal DACs. The names to seek out are the three mentioned above, plus Moric, Uwe Schiefer, Kollwentz, Anita & Hans Nittnaus, and Judith Beck.
Riesling: The Essence of Primary Rock
Grüner gets the airtime, but Austria makes some of the world’s greatest riesling. The grape is not widely planted (just 1,600ha compared to grüner’s 17,400ha), which explains why it’s known only to the lucky few who can get their hands on the better bottles. It reaches its maximum expression in the Danube Valley, in the regions of Wachau, Kamptal and Kremstal, especially in vineyards planted on hard, primary rock where the mineral flavours literally scream at you from the glass. At its best, it is extraordinarily age worthy, as a tasting some years ago of wines going back to the early 1950s comfortably demonstrated. Names to look for: Nikolaihof, Hirztberger, Knoll, Rudi Pichler, F.X. Pichler, Domäne Wachau, Jäger, Lengsteiner, Prager, Alzinger, Loimer, Bründlemayer, Gobelsburg, Jurtschitsch.
Steiermark’s Intense Sauvignon Blanc
In Steiermark (Styria), the vine-covered rolling hills of southern Austria, sauvignon blanc reigns supreme. It’s not the historic variety of the region – that honour goes to the unusually tart but tasty blauer wildbacher grape made into a type of rosé called schilcher that rarely leaves the region. But for fans of sauvignon, especially the great examples from neighboring Friuli in northern Italy, this area is worth checking out. The breakthrough for sauvignon in Steiermark came in 1990, when the Tement Winery’s “Klassik” and Zieregg vineyard sauvignons took first and second place out of nowhere in an international sauvignon blanc competition. Today, virtually every winery in the region grows sauvignon. The style is indeed midway between the steeliness of the Loire and the exuberant, passion fruit and guava of the new world, with more than a dash of minerality thrown in. Look for: Tement, Sattlerhof, Polz.
Thermenregion’s Smoky Rotgipfler
From the southern edge of the Vienna Woods to south of the town of Baden, the Thermenregion is a thermal water rich region (hence the name) where the vine has been cultivated since Roman times. Two white grapes, zierfandler and rotgipfler are regional specialties, and it was the latter that captured my attention while tasting wines from the region. The grape is an old cross between roter veltliner and traminer that bears the exotic aromatics of its parentage, but on a tighter, leaner frame with an inviting, salty, smoky mineral edge. Names to look for: Stadlmann, Freigut Thallern, Alphart.
Click here for Austrian wines currently available (either consignment or LCBO), which are worth tracking down.
From the June 23, 2012 Vintages release:
John Szabo, Master Sommelier