The Austrian Cure for Vinous Discontent
It's mid-summer, we're steeping in city heat, and thus reaching for a bottle of chilled wine when evening refreshment hour rolls around (which seems to creep up earlier in the day as the season stretches on). By now, you've probably guzzled the last of your Wölffer rosé allotment, dumped out enough wretched Pinot Grigio to fill a kiddie pool, or developed the Sauvignon Blanc overdose blues. The antidote for such vinous malaise: Austrian wines.
The country is home to a wonderland of unusual, high-quality grapes; the whites, in particular, offer a diverse array of styles and regional origins. And as New Yorkers with access to the world's vast wine library, we can track down many of them.
You've probably seen Grüner Veltliner hanging out in your local wine shop or offered by the glass at the wine bar, or perhaps you've schlepped a few bottles of Grooner to a potluck in Park Slope. Monika Caha of Monika Caha Selections, in conjunction with the Forstreiter family of Kremstal, developed the Grooner brand specifically for the American market, in part to provide our palates training wheels to discovering the country's more serious wines.
Statistically, Grüner Veltliner dominates Austria's white grape vineyard acreage and Americans' knowledge of Austria's wines. The rise in its popularity, however, has overshadowed the other fascinating grapes that make up the country's catalogue of wines.
Not to dismiss Grüner Veltliner; the vines share an electric chemistry with the soils of Austria akin to the charged on-screen energy between Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz. It doesn't taste as profound when grown elsewhere in the world (that's terroir). I've tried Grüner from California (dull), Australia (bland), New Zealand (lacking spice). None come close to the complexity, stony minerality (a debatable term, but with no other descriptor available, I'll use it), and characteristic white pepper notes that define both outstanding and modest Austrian versions. It's a bit like Nebbiolo in that respect.
While in Austria's Wachau region, I drank exceptional terroir-transmitting Riesling. The wines were dry and structured, focused and lively, yet routinely overlooked in favor of neighboring Germany. I came to love, when tended by careful hands, Weissburgunder (Pinot Blanc) and Grauburgunder (Pinot Gris). I'd previously erroneously dismissed these two grapes as bland and neutral when grown outside of Alsace, but they are transformed in Austria, developing rich character and body, and nutty complexity with a few years of age. (They didn't name Weissburgunder after white Burgundy without reason.)
So far, I've only addressed the "international" grapes. To help me track down esoteric varieties like Roter Veltliner, Rotgipfler, and Neuburger, I had dinner at Seäsonal with Austrian native and NYC restaurateur Wolfgang Ban. Co-owner and chef, as well as partner at Edi & the Wolf and cocktail den The Third Man, Ban stocks a lot of the wines I hoped to find back in NYC.
I asked Ban which whites he liked to drink; turns out we both shared a fondness for Gelber Muskateller, a grape that delivers generous, exotic aromatics of flowers and nutmeg. "It's a light, floral wine that's easy on the alcohol and easy to drink in the summer," Ban explained. He recommended chilling a bottle for a picnic, and suggested looking for a Gelber Muskateller produced in storybook-pretty Styria, a region known for the finest versions.
"Gelber Muskateller is one of the rare grapes fortunate enough to see plantings increase with increased consumer appetite for it. Our dollars do vote," he added, commenting on the trend of converting good land otherwise suited to local grapes into Grüner vineyards. (Wines of Austria estimates Gelber Muskateller has seen a 267 percent rise in vineyard plantings as it has grown in popularity.)
I'd heard about the Grüner takeover while in Austria. Production of grapes like Roter Veltliner (the original variety of the Veltliner group), considered the oldest native variety in Austria, has dwindled because the best soils for the grape grow great Grüner, too. Grüner's international success has tilted growers' planting decisions in its favor; winning the economics war, and thus soil war, has ironically led to cannibalization of the wine industry Grüner helped introduce to the world.
The trend is unfortunate, as Roter Veltliner can make elegant, supple wines with great aging potential, and no one else but Austrians will likely plant it. However, California has an interesting historical footnote that mentions the rare grape: In the late 1880s, E.W. Hilgard, charged with determining which vines to plant in California, published a report recognizing Roter Veltliner as highly suitable for the state. Perhaps Roter will have a renaissance -- in California. In the meantime, Ban says he likes the grape for its harmony with Viennese dishes, and recommends producer Franz Leth.
Another loser not yet lost is Neuberger (a cross between Roter Veltliner and Sylvaner). Ban keeps this wine on his list because he likes the "robust, full-bodied wines that show spice and flowers in youth, and deep, nutty flavors with age."
More delicious oddities include Zierfandler (aka Spätrot), the yin to Rotgipfler's yang. These grapes grow almost exclusively in Austria's Thermenregion, as it has the magical balance of climate and calcareous soils for them to excel. They often combine for a happier marriage than as single varietals; Rotgipfler brings the weight and aromatics, and Ziefandler the tart citrus and acid structure, to create the fun-to-pronounce Spätrot-Rotgipfler. Stadlman, a small producer represented by Monika Caha Selections, produces happy expressions of all three.
Austria runs a small risk of being pigeonholed as a country of Grüner growers, which can be a double-edged sword; just ask non-Sauvignon Blanc producers in New Zealand about the shackles of consumer thirst for the gooseberry- and sweat-stinking grape, and you'll likely get a long rant.
However, the difference that may preserve Austria's indigenous varieties lies in the fact that they not only have them, but that most producers and estates own very small parcels of land -- the large, commercial wineries found in New World regions don't really exist here. For now, however, take a break from Grüner -- and ubiquitous, international whites -- and try something as fun to drink as it is to pronounce three times: Spätrot-Rotgipfler.