One of several prominent Australian sommeliers currently working in London was heard to say at last week's big showing of Austrian wines in London how much better value Austrian Riesling is than Australian Riesling at around eight pounds a bottle. Praise indeed.
But then Austrian wine producers have become rather used to
compliments of late. Fine Austrian Riesling and the native grape Grüner Veltliner have become de rigueur on smart wine lists on both sides of the Atlantic - indeed New York has at least two restaurants, Danube and Wallsé, that manage to be both specifically Austrian and incontrovertibly hip, which seems quite a triumph to European sensibilities.
Austrian wine producers themselves would love us to be as
enthusiastic about their red wines as we are about their whites, and certainly the quality of their various blends of native Zweigelt, Blaufränkisch, Portugieser and St Laurent with more international varieties Pinot, Cabernet and Merlot has been rising dramatically. But wine drinkers outside Austria can choose from such a dazzling array of more obvious red wine sources that, for the moment at least, we will stick with Austria's beautifully pure, full-bodied, food-friendly
dry(ish) whites, thank you very much.
Grüner Veltliner has already proved itself a top quality substitute for white burgundy, notably at a blind taste-off reported in detail on these pages in November 2002.
But this grape with its curiously attractive combination of white
pepper, canned grapefruit and dill pickle flavours with high alcohol can in some cases get so ripe that it loses its refreshing aromas and is just hot and oily.
That successful Grüner Veltliner production is a delicate balancing act was evident in the 60 or so I tasted last week. At one end of the scale are wines such as Schaflerhof's Grüner Veltliner Klassik 2003 Thermenregion with just 11.5 per cent alcohol. It must have
been picked relatively early in this notoriously warm region but, presumably because of this, was rather simple in the middle as well as being bitter on the finish.
At the other end of the Grüner Veltliner spectrum are massive white wines with 14 or even 14.5 per cent alcohol (almost sherry strength) that do not always manage to display any characteristic other than mass. The aromas of Nittnaus's 2002 from the shores of the Neusiedlersee, for example, seemed to have been wrestled into submission by sheer alcoholic muscle.
The famous 2002 Grüner Veltliner v. Chardonnay blind tasting included several Grüners that combined maturity with grace, but I was disappointed at how little a 2001 Schütt Smaragd, even from such an admirable producer as Emmerich Knoll, seemed to have left to give. (I am told that 2002s should have a longer life than the 2001s in the Wachau region.)
All those quibbles apart, however, I would seriously counsel any wine lover looking for well-made, pure-flavoured, full- bodied white wine that is genuinely distinctive to seek out one of the following. Alas, most are likely to cost rather more than the eight pound price point cited by the Australian sommelier, but then they really are dinner table alternatives to fine white burgundy - except that they would not be cowed by heavily spiced food.
Last summer in most of Europe was extraordinarily hot, of course - so hot in many Austrian wine regions that for three weeks at the height of summer the vines simply shut down and stopped ripening at all. In some cases this, fortunately, delayed the harvest so that Prager for instance, in the Wachau, Austria's most famous dry white wine district with its rocky terraces facing south above the Danube, grapes were not picked until the end of October. This meant they were high in both extract and the special, local so-called Bernsteinsaure, literally amber acid called succinic acid in English, which Bodenstein claims imbues the wines with a specially crystalline quality.
Some surefire Grüner Veltliners
Names of producers are given
first, then usually the name of the specific vineyard, except
for Alte Reben which means 'old vines'. Smaragd is the
Wachau's name for wines made from the ripest grapes. Region of
origin is given after the vintage. UK stockists, importers or distributors where applicable are also given.
Bründlmayer's Alte Reben 2002 Kamptal
Full, broad, rich and a bit like a warm embrace.
Transatlantic Wines of Melton Mowbray 01664 565 013
Domäne Wachau's Achleiten Smaragd 2002 Wachau
Competent, easy introduction at a fair price from the Wachau's
Fritsch's Schlossberg 2002 Donauland
Explosively rich then mineral but it works.
Birgit Eichinger's Gaisberg 2003 Kamptal
Pungent and creamy. Big and bold but, fortunately, not as big
as her Goliath (sic) 2001 which, all 15 per cent of it, did
nothing to allay my suspicion of oaked Grüner
Hirtzberger's Axpoint Smaragd 2002 Wachau
Extremely concentrated Grüner Veltliner character.
Dense and tense. Bravo!
Fortnum & Mason £20.95
Jurtschitsch's Spiegel Reserve 2001 Kamptal
One of the most successful older examples I tried, still
holding on to a mysteriously smoky nose, a honeyed finish and
Van Duuren Wines of London W7 £24.65
Knoll's Vinotheksfüllung 2002 Wachau
Lots of alcohol and spice. Not shy. This one should run and
run. And Knoll's 2002 Schütt seems much livelier than
Noel Young of Trumpington £26.99
Loimer's Spiegel 2002 Kamptal
This example, from a warm loess vineyard and one of Austria's
most talented young winemakers, manages to be both smoky and
creamy at the same time. The 2001 was oaked, quite
successfully, even I have to admit.
Noel Young of Trumpington £19.99
Nigl's Alte Reben 2002 Kremstal
Beautifully balanced with a creamy texture. Very confident and
well-integrated. A bargain to be enjoyed any time over the
next three years.
Gauntleys of Nottingham £13.40
Ott's Rosenberg Reserve 2002 Donauland
Some of wine's most distinctive (woodcut) labels and some
excitingly rich wine too.
Savage Selection of Cheltenham £16.54
Pfaffl's Goldjoch 2002 Weinviertel
This was a revelation for me since the only producer in this
large, less-than-glamorous wine region to have set my pulse
racing recently was Graf Hardegg (who makes a surprisingly good
Viognier). This was rich and distinctive with something of a
green fruit flavour about it and lovely refreshing acidity.
F X Pichler's Kellerberg Smaragd 2002 Wachau
The celebrated F X did not disappoint with this extremely
youthful, tightly-furled example from Durnstein. Perhaps one
of the truest expressions of Grüner Veltliner. Needs
at least a year more in bottle. The von den Terrassen 2002 is
really exciting too, and more open.
Transatlantic Wines of Melton Mowbray 01664 565 013
Rudi Pichler's Kollwentz Smaragd 2002 Wachau
This would be great with Thai food. Very tense and impressive
with good acidity, giving the impression of a bone dry wine
which it is, nearly. The Hochrain Smaragd 2002 is perhaps just
a bit too oily.
Gauntleys of Nottingham £18.30
Prager's Weitenberg Smaragd 2002 Wachau
Full, rich and dramatic from clay soils. Very concentrated and
persistent. The Achleiten 2002, a vineyard that miraculously
imparts a distinctly mineral aroma known in German as
stinkerl to any wine grown there, is livelier and
Morris & Verdin of London SE1 not yet available
Salomon's Wieden 2003 Kremstal
Already admirably complete and full for a 2003 - a real
bargain. (The Reserve von Stein 2002 at £14.95 is also
very good, and spicy, for the price.)
Lea & Sandeman of London £8.95
Schloss Gobelsburg's Lamm 2002 Kamptal
Very mineral yet honeyed. A nervy, exciting drink with great
balance. This producer is on a roll.
Pont de la Tour of London SE1 £20
Tegernseerhof's Höhereck 2002 Wachau
Particularly racy with good definition and acidity. Drink over
the next three years.