Barrique: All you ever wanted to know about Austria, but were afraid to ask…

My first encounter with Austrian wine came when I was finishing college.  I was a frequent customer at a major local wine shop; in those days I slurped down plenty of good, if relatively commercial, Bordeaux and Rioja, and occasionally would splurge on a Burgundy from one of the better negociants. But what really did it for me was the German Rieslings.  Noting my early fixation on German wines, one of the owners of the shop asked me one day:

“How much Austrian wine have you had?”

”Well… none!”, I replied.

Whereupon a bottle of Salomon Undhof was pressed into my hand.  Man, it was delicious.  It hit me at a completely different level from my favorite Mosel and Saar wines.  There was just as much aesthetic beauty, but while the German wines were intensely cerebral, this Austrian bottle was deeply satisfying on an emotional level,  gouleyant, as the French might say.

The most important thing to remember about Austrian wine is that, with the exception of a few precious dessert wines, the wines are all dry.

The second most important thing to remember is that Austria is both the youngest wine culture in Europe, and one of the oldest.  The Celts brought viticulture here some 3,000 years ago, and Austria’s vineyards survived the Romans’ ban on provincial winemaking in the 1st century AD.  Some of Austria’s best estates, such as Schloss Gobelsburg, Stift Göttweig, and Nikolaihof, trace their origins back to this era.  But by the late 20th century, the focus had shifted to bulk wine for export (largely to neighboring Germany), and it took a major scandal in the early 1980s for the Austrians to realize that something was amiss.   In 1985, Austria enacted the strictest wine law in the world, and essentially rebooted its wine culture overnight.

Virtually all Austria’s vineyards are in the four eastern states, an area that shares at least as much of its cultural heritage and physical geography with Hungary, Italy, and Slavic Europe as with Germany.  Many people, places, and wineries bear names like Czerny (Polish), Moric (Croatian), or Szemes (Hungarian).  In the words of Philipp Blom, one of the premier English-language writers on Austrian wine, “Road signs in the centre of Vienna point to Prague, Budapest, and Brno, not to Munich or Berlin.  [...]the frontiers of the Habsburg Empire are, understandably, still important for wine traditions in areas with historically fluid borders, such as the Burgenland and Styria.”

wachauLower Austria (Niederösterreich) is arguably the most important wine region, and is most people’s introduction to Austria.  The most famous wines are the whites of the Wachau, Kremstal, and Kamptal.  These areas account for the vast preponderance of Austria’s Riesling, but also is the spiritual heartland of Austria’s iconic grape, Grüner Veltliner.  Excellent wines are also made from Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, and the indigenous Neuburger.  These are dry, full-bodied, and display a very Burgundian tension and focus.  The Wachau wines are more linear, while the Kremstal and Kamptal wines are rounder and broader.

 

Wachau wines fall into three principal categories based on alcohol content.  Steinfeder (under 11.5%), Federspiel (11.5-12.5%), and Smaragd (over 12.5%).  In the rest of Austria, the corresponding categories to the last two are Classic (or Klassik) and Reserve.  The lighter Classic wines must not have overt wood influences, while the more substantial Reserve wines (with the exception of Riesling) can.

 

Grüner Veltliner is most people’s initial introduction to Austrian wine.  It’s a good place to start because it feels familiar to most people but it is also distinctive and recognizable.  It also works well in a variety of styles, from refreshing wines in liter bottles for uncomplicated enjoyment, to dense, rich wines suitable for decades of cellaring and can range in flavor profile from herbaceous and peppery to broad and melon-laden.    The best Grüner Veltliners from the Wachau or Kamptal can age just as long (if not longer) than the top Rieslings.

The Rieslings are powerful, dry, and eminently ageworthy.  The aromatic spectrum ranges from stone fruit to borderline tropical, but with wonderful mineral definition.  A top producer’s Riesling Smaragd from a great primary rock site is one of the premier expressions of this grape in the world, and thus one of the world’s great white wines.

The Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris wines tend to be creamy and medium- to full bodied, with nice acidity, and can be a nice alternative to oaky German or flamboyant Alsatian examples.

neusiedlBurgenland forms the country’s border with Hungary and in fact was formerly known as Deutsch-Westungarn (German-West Hungary).  Even today, public signs are often in Hungarian (or Croatian) as well as German.  The main specialties of the area are red wines and white dessert wines.   The red wines tend to be medium-bodied, spicy, and judiciously oaked.  If you like cru Beaujolais, Northern Rhône wines, or some of the meatier reds from the Loire, these will definitely be your thing.  Blaufränkisch is quickly emerging as the consensus pick as Austria’s noble red grape, but some excellent wines are also made from Sankt-Laurent (a local grape believed to be related to Pinot Noir), and Zweigelt (a crossing of the aforementioned two varieties and Austria’s most common red grape).

 

wien2In addition to being the capital city, Vienna (Wien) is home to 621 hectares of vineyards, mostly in the green belt that surrounds the city’s historic core.  Its specialty is called Gemischter Satz (German for ‘mixed set’), a field blend of at least three varieties, planted, harvested, and pressed together.  This practice started as a hedge against viticultural hazards that affected one particular variety but evolved into a unique specialty that is the perfect complement to the city’s hearty yet refined cuisine.

Styria (Steiermark) is probably the least-known area among American consumers.  Styria, like Burgenland, is considered something of a backwater. The local dialect is quite hard to understand, even for other Austrians, and it is spoken with a very distinctive and recognizable accent (think Arnold Schwarzenegger). Unlike Lower Austria, which is so dry that it is one of the few European wine regions to allow drip irrigation, Styria is cold, damp, and rainy.  The most common grape here is Welschriesling (no relation to Riesling proper), but it is best known for full-bodied Sauvignon Blancs that many consider among the finest in the world.  The best growers also do impressive things with Weissburgunder, Morillon (local name for Chardonnay) and Muskateller.

steiermarkToday’s Austrian wine landcape is essentially a pastiche of ancient customs and the best modern techniques.   Austria’s wine culture is rich, mature, and pluralistic.  Production is dominated by small, family estates,   the benchmark for quality is remarkably high and just keeps getting better; and the wines are shockingly easy to grasp for those more familiar with French or Italian wines.  Austria, at its best, combines a Germanic intellectual rigor with Burgundian self-assuredness and aesthetic sensibility.  There has never been a better time to indulge in these wonderful treats.  Prost!

 

Quick Reference guide to Austrian wines:

Wachau

Medium to full-bodied Rieslings and Grüner Veltliners with tremendous mineral definition and aging potential

Kremstal, Kamptal

Similar to Wachau, but rounder and more voluptuous.  Also good Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris

Thermenregion

Poweful, fleshy whites from the hills south of Vienna.  Typically a blend of Rotgipfler and Zierfandler, but also some very good Chardonnay and Riesling

Weinviertel

Spicy, crisp Grüner Veltliner.  Also good sparkling wines.

Wien

Famous for Gemischter Satz (field blend).  Also good Riesling and Pinot Blanc.

Steiermark

Best known for full-bodied Sauvignon blanc.  Excellent Chardonnay and Muskateller.

Burgenland

Red wines (Blaufränkisch, Sankt-Laurent, Zweigelt).  Also excellent dessert wines (Ruster Ausbruch).

Raise a Glass with Legras & Haas!

“In Success you deserve it and in defeat, you need it,”

Winston Churchill

legras

It is a marvelous era for Champagne.  Small, family owned domains who, in previous generations, would have sold on their grapes to the large Maisons have been striking out on to make Champagne under their own steam.  Strange as it is to believe, it wasn’t so long ago there was a drastic separation between the people who grew the grapes and those who made the wine.  Terroir was subsumed in favor of a house style which would stay constant, bottle to bottle, year to year, century to century.  But now, the farmers are taking charge.

People like Francois Legras, whose family has been growing grapes in the region for two hundred years but hadn’t made a bottle until 1991, are changing the way the world sips Champagne.

We are avid supports of Grower Champagne and with La Fête du Champagne this weekend, we wanted to make it easy to give the little guy a chance so we’re offering the Legras & Haas Brut NV at the lowest price in the country!

Legras & Haas Brut NV  

$30.00

“Light gold. Mineral-driven aromas of lime, lemongrass, chalk and honeysuckle. Fresh citrus and orchard fruit flavors are complemented by deeper notes of smoky lees and sweet butter. Seems like there’s more chardonnay in here than 60%. A racy, finely etched Champagne.” 

Josh Raynolds, International Wine Cellar

Cheer up your Fall like the Viennese!

Vienna is the only capital city in Europe with bona fide vineyards within the city limits, some six hundred hectares divided among hundreds of small, family owned plots.   Historically contained within the city walls (some of Europe’s first vineyards) the vine has since been pushed to the outskirts of town, finding safe haven in the green belt established at the end of the 19th century by visionary mayor Karl Lueger.

Today’s wine culture in Vienna is inextricably bound up with the city’s Heuriger or wine taverns.  Each fall most wineries open a seasonal wine bar where patrons enjoy local specialties along with copious quantities of the house wines, specifically the Heuriger (German for “of this year”, referring to both the establishment and the wine).  The tradition is at its heart a celebration of the harvest as well as an opportunity for locals and tourists alike to enjoy food, drink, companionship and good cheer (Gemütlichkeit in German).

The city’s specialty is something called Gemischter Satz (German for ‘mixed set’), a field blend of at least three varieties but often as many as twenty, planted, harvested, and pressed together.  Generally a mixture of aromatic and non-aromatic grapes as well as early- and late-ripening varieties, the averaging out of each vine’s varietal character results in a wine where the terroir of Vienna’s outlying hills takes center stage.

Bern564reiter Wiener Gemischter Satz 2013 – $16.99

The Bernreiter family has been farming grapes here since 1848. The winery is currently run by Peter, who serves as a mentor to Vienna’s younger generation of quality-oriented winegrowers and farms 8.5 hectares of sandy loess on the south slope of the Bisamberg hill overlooking the city center.   This wine consists primarily of Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, Grüner Veltliner, Chardonnay, and Riesling, aged in stainless steel.  As one might expect of a disparate grape blend, this wine presents a spectrum of bright, juicy fruit, from meyer lemon and sweet orange to apricot and white cherry.  But the real star here is the texture: crisp and well-defined but substantial, with refreshing mineral character and juicy, food-friendly acidity.  Imagine the best Pinot Grigio you’ve ever had, turned up to 11.

–Duncan

The Barolo of the South

Aglianico has been popping up all over my world lately.  It’s as if the Universe is trying to remind me of this tremendous Southern Italian varietal which I’ve long loved but lately neglected.

“Deep in colour with aromas suggestive of the volcanic origins of the vineyards or of chocolate and plum.  They have fine grained tannins and marked acidity on the palate, becoming more subtle and tarry as they mature.  The high levels of tannin and acidity have earned this varietal the sobriquet of “Barolo of the South”.  Jancis Robinson

In the hills of Taurasi is where Aglianico scales its greatest heights.  As a grape, Aglianico requires a tremendous amount of time to ripen fully thus it’s not uncommon for the vineyards in Taurasi to have snow on the ground during harvest.  This is a serious wine with tremendous cellar potential.  Personally, I’ve had Taurasi going back to the 1980s but it’s not uncommon to hear stories of great bottles with nearly a century of age.

And one of the greatest is undoubtedly Mastroberadino’s Radici Taurasi.

“Mastroberardino is the royal family of Campania. The estate’s Taurasi, first produced in 1928, is a legendary wine that can rival the best from any region. Although many of today’s leading producers in Campania have chosen to pursue a more modern approach, there is little question that Mastroberardino paved the way for all important wines in Campania.”  Antonio Galloni

It’s a hard thing to offer young Taurasi.  In its youth, it is often so dense and tannic as to be practically mute.  Fortunately, Mastroberadino occasionally releases older vintages from their cellar straight into the market thus I was lucky enough to come across a 2006.  With 8 years of bottle age, it is just starting to show itself, though don’t hesitate to put some away and enjoy over the next 10-25 years.

Mastroberadino Radici Taurasi 2006 ($75.00)

Wine Advocate #195
Jun 2011

Antonio Galloni

95

Drink: 2016 – 2046

radici

The 2006 Taurasi Radici hits the palate with masses of blueberries, black berries, flowers and spices. The 2006 is a big, explosive wine in need of considerable cellaring. That said, it is remarkably accessible for a young Taurasi from this historic property. Layers of fruit continue to build towards the exotic, concentrated finish. This is a marvelous wine in the making. The 2006 spent two years in a combination of casks and smaller French oak barrels. Anticipated maturity: 2016-2046. 

–JT

 

 

 

 

 

Yann Bertrand Fleurie “Cuvée du Chaos”

Fleurie might just be the most exciting, dynamic cru in Beaujolais these days.   The personality of this terroir shines through all the best wines despite the multiplicity of styles.  The wines are exceptionally elegant, but with the structure and intensity to potentially age a very long time.  And on top of all that, there’s several energetic young producers continuing to bring attention to the area as a place capable of producing some quite serious wines.  When we tasted these, I went over to the Beaujolais section to look at the shelf.  Do we have space?  No?  Oh well, we’ll take them anyway!

Yann Bertrand Fleurie “Cuvée du Chaos” 2013 – $29.00 (pre-arrival)

The150314-FLEURIE CHAOS YANN BERTRAND EXPORT “Cuvée du Chaos” is from the estate’s oldest vines, at least 80 but some over 110 years old.  This wine has wonderful fresh aromas of black tea, violet, licorice, and wet concrete. Cold carbonic maceration followed by aging in old small oak barrels gives the palate a savory component that helps counterbalance the vivid and intense strawberry and red-raspberry fruit.  Clean and linear, with tremendous viniosity.

bojovines

The oldest, gnarliest gamay vines I’ve ever seen

Yann Bertrand never set out to become a winemaker, but when he finally embraced his destiny and settled down at the family farm to learn the craft, he couldn’t have hoped for better teachers; he counts Yvon Metras and Jean Foillard as his mentors (if you’re not familiar with the region’s history, let’s just say these guys really, really know what they’re doing).    All the vines are at least 30 years old (some much, much older) and planted in the pink granitic sand typical of the area.

–Duncan

Old-School Riesling for the Modern Age

Tgroebehe nose is pure & transparent, with trademark Rheinhessen aromas of rose, orange blossom, and grapefruit succade, with hints of petrol-esque minerality and an unusual yet appealing leafy quality.  On the palate, it’s juicy and refreshing, with orchard fruits and lime marmalade fading to a vaguely caramelized quality (think broiled grapefruit) on the finish.   This is not digitally-precise laser-etched Riesling made in a refrigerated tank, but a fleshy, traditionally-produced wine that will pair beautifully with a wide variety of foods.

K.F. Groebe Westhofener Riesling Alte Reben – $24.99

One of the Rheinhessen’s historic estates, scarcely seen on the US market until now, the Groebe family has been making wine in Westhofen since 1763.   This wine represents the approach of a growing cadre of producers who adhere to a more or less traditional approach.    The German wines that attained worldwide renown among connoisseurs and collectors in the 19th and early 20th centuries are often described as dry, but would not have been legally trocken, or dry, by today’s standards.  Rather they were dry in the sense that the residual sugar that was present served to balance the wines’ ample acidity, add a sense of textural fullness, and to give the wines’ flavors a certain presence and vitality.

–Duncan

The Canary Islands: The Forgotten Frontier of Spanish Wine

This wine introduces itself with distinctive black pepper, rosemary, and smoke notes.  Fresh volcanic minerality is evident, framing juicy black cherry and black raspberry fruit, and supple, ripe tannins.  At once reminiscent of Etna reds, Northern California Syrah, and the denser styles of cru Beaujolais, but emphatically could not be mistaken for any of these.

Frontón de Oro Malpais 2012 – $21.99fronton

The Canary Islands may not be the world’s most remote wine region, but they are certainly among the most exotic.  Centuries ago, the islands were a major waypoint on the journey from Spain’s European mainland to her American colonies.   Their location along a major trade route made the local wines an attractive commodity for export not only to Spain and Latin America, but also to English-speaking North America, where it is now thought that most of what was sold and consumed as “Madeira” wine actually originated in the Canaries!

photo2Flash forward to 2014, Spain is no longer a colonial empire, and the Canary Islands have transformed from an important transit point between the Old World and New, to a distant overseas Spanish province (in fact, the most geographically distant part of the European Union).  Wines are not made for commercial export, but for the local market, suited to local tastes and with a keen feel for local terroir, which is some of the most dramatic in the world.

But these islands, nestled against the coast of southern Morocco, belong neither to Europe nor the Americas, but to Africa.  To give you an idea of the geographic distance, New York is about the same latitude as Madrid, while Las Palmas (the major city on Gran Canaria) shares it’s latitude with Orlando, Florida.

The estate of Frontón de Oro was founded in 1977 by Antonio Ramirez, but didn’t start bottling their wines on the estate until 1999. Today his sons Pedro and Antonio run the show, and the wines are just starting to appear on the international market.    The vineyards (pictured) are in the village La Lechuza, near the summit of the extinct volcano that forms the island, about 1000 meters above sea level.   At this elevation the climate is mild all year round,  and the volcanic soils, formed over millions of years, yield wines with an intense personality, but effortless to drink.

 

–Duncan