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Friday, May 7, 2010

Austria Uncorked 5-3-2010

If you like your whites minerally and your reds on the delicate side, Austria is for you. Villainized in 1985 for yet another anti-freeze sweetening scandal (it wasn't actually ethylene glycol that was used), Austria's wine industry really tightened the belt and set up a rigid quality control system. Like Germany, Austria measures sugar ripeness as means of categorizing their wines, and they share the same terms such as Kabinett, Spätlese, Auslese, etc. to indicate the oeschsle (brix) level at harvest. Being South of Germany, the minimum levels of ripeness in each category are generally higher than the equivalent German sugar levels, placing the wines somewhat between those of Alsace (not as unctuous though) and Germany (not as rigid or austere). Botrytis is extremely common in some areas, leading to some fantastic dessert winemaking. One other thing that Austria does well for consumers is that like Alsace, they label their wines varietally, making consumer selection that much easier.

The poster child for Austrian wine right now is Grüner Veltliner, and with good reason. G.V., if you are unfamiliar, is an extremely minerally wine, very angular and structured in a pleasing way that tends to be a little light on fruit with a nice white pepper finish, in other words it makes a tremendous food wine. Modern versions are moving into green apple territory with slightly later harvesting that produces a more accessible wine that still retains acid and structure. And you can find very good ones in the $15 category. Also of note are the Rieslings, several Muskatellers (Muscat) and Pinot Blancs that are very nice, as well as some dry Gewurztraminer, and then of course are the stickies and ice wines.

The red I really enjoyed is from the St. Laurent grape (although Austria is famous for their Blaufränkish/Lemberger that produces a slightly darker and fruitier wine that did not move me quite as much.) It is generally believed to be a Pinot Noir descendant with an unknown cross that has some undeniable similarities, but it ripens earlier, and has thicker skin that helps prevent the perpetual rot problem. With careful vineyard management it can actually take oak nicely and remain terroir driven. It could also be compared to a very well made Passe-Tout-Grains (a Pinot/Gamay blend) in that it retains a fruit character in addition to the Pinot-like element. Pricing is not as friendly or as easily available as the Grüner Veltliner, but a restaurant wine list might feature one at a reasonable price when no one orders this obscure varietal!

Because tasting notes are painful and boring, and I already recommend that you go out and buy just about any Austrian white you find in the $15-20 range, just a brief note on one producer is reasonable. Weingut Neumeister was pick of the day for me, and you won't find it on the West Coast and he doesn't make very much for export. They are located in Styria at the Slovenian border, famous for huge rainfall and warm summers. Their basic bottling was great, and it all improved from there. Christoph Neumeister's approach is that his wines are so structured that he can add extra skin contact (36 hours), barrel fermentation (in 2000 liter barrels, not the little standard guys), and year-long lees contact and still have a rigidly structured wine. His Sauvignon Blancs are fantastic, fat and lean at the same time, incredibly structured with no flavor of oak, something that blows away most any Fume Blanc. The fat is not oak, but fleshy grape with a very strong spine. We finished with his Gewurztraminer - a barrel ferment with 18 months lees contact - and it was fantastic. It had the best palate ever. It was the opposite of an Alto Adige Gewurz., which generally have the most phenomenal noses but the palate is flat and can not deliver. This one was the opposite with a delicate, subdued lychee aroma, and then flavors and texture just exploded in length. Just really beautiful and quite dry for Gewurz. Hopefully some of his production will make it out here in the future.

All  in all, an exceptional tasting, and very nice, hospitable people as well eager to talk details openly - very cool.


Wine Gift Basket said...

Austria is becoming an increasingly important wine-producing country in central Europe with an annual production of about 30 million cases, 30% more than Germany. The wines themselves are fuller bodied than the Germans and generally drier. Like Germany, Austria produces primarily white wines, however their success with certain reds, particularly because of the warmer climate, is much greater than Germany's.

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