Welcoming Austrian Wine Month
the official tasting itinerary, with a few extras included along the way
Austrian Wine Month began last week with a series of focused lunch and dinner “Master Classes.” The meals brought together Importers, Retailers, and a few writers in discussion of Austria’s wine regions, terroir, and food pairings. The purpose is to bring attention to wine retail, with the goal of extending enjoyment of Austrian wines at home. To do so, shops across the United States (and elsewhere) have organized tastings integrated with wine education.
I was lucky enough to attend one such lunch at San Francisco’s The Slanted Door restaurant, affording the opportunity to witness the brilliance of Austrian wines with Vietnamese food. It was delicious. Willi Klinger, the head of Austrian Wine Marketing, facilitated discussion throughout.
The Austrian Wine Marketing Board operates as an umbrella group, not promoting any one wine or label, but instead working to increase awareness of Austrian wine in general. Klinger speaks passionately about his work, with a commitment to not just spread the word but “connect with people and share what wine is and can be.”
one of my top favorites, the Sattlerhof Sudsteiermark 2010 Sernauberg, rich and fresh aromatics, brilliantly textural with vibrant acidity, and rich, fresh flavors of citrus and blossom
Klinger wants to increase the accessibility to Austrian wine on a day to day basis, as well as overall interest. But the country is also small, with small volume produced. The reality, then, must keep Austrian wine focused not on expanding everywhere, but only in viable markets. Wine education, then, becomes a central goal.
In considering wine education, Klinger comments, “We don’t want to simplify wine too much.” He continues, “Great wine can never be simplistic. Like Classical music, you have to dive in and you have to work to understand it. It is not just an easy going category.” Asking Klinger the best means to shift public understanding of either a challenged, or underrepresented wine category he responds, “First you must give dignity to the grape itself.”
With Austrian wine in general now being a recognized source of quality wine, the shift of attention can turn to sharing particular regions in Austria, as well as consideration of its particular terroir. As discussion moves through lunch, focus turns from the grapes unique to the country, to International varieties.
Bill Mayer, Importer for The Age of Riesling/Valley View, turns to Riesling as an example. In Mayer’s view, Riesling gives terroir’s most transparent presentation among white grapes. In comparing Rieslings of Germany, Alsace, and Austria, not to mention Australia or the United States, distinctive character presents region to region. The distinctions grow complicated when the question of sweetness is also layered into the equation.
Klinger agrees. He describes the particular characteristics that Austria has to offer. He first emphasizes the significant diurnal shift the country carries. “We have cool wines, in cool climate viticulture, but with good grapes,” he says. The temperature shifts “allow maturity of grapes without getting wines too heavy.” Multiple growing regions are established within the country. Steiermark he presents as an example.
In Klinger’s view, Steiermark offers a unique microclimate that is good for cooler climate grapes, and sparkling wines. But, he explains, it also banks steep hills of limestone that generate precise linear wines, and great fragrance. The Sernauberg from Sudsteiermark, a wine we drink alongside fresh yellowtail, and cabbage-grapefruit salad, is my favorite wine of the meal. It’s a Sauvignon Blanc that must be named by region rather than grape, as it bears no obvious resemblance to the New Zealand or French examples that dominate the fruit’s stereotype.
Claiming the Sernauberg wins my favorite is no small feat, as each of the wines presented are pleasing. Austrian whites consistently show me a textural complexity I appreciate. We enjoyed too several examples of the country’s classic, Gruner Veltliner, including a sparkling version that was wonderfully fresh and crisp. The most surprising wine of the afternoon was a 2009 Nikolaihof Gewurztraminer, a wine so rare many of the other attendees had not seen it before. It is imported exclusively for The Slanted Door, and Gus offered it as an apt (though unusual) pairing for our final lunch course before dessert, un-spiced, ultra lean, red meat. (I like meat.) We enjoyed too here two reds. The reds gave a pleasing mid-weight with a focus on freshness. They were a nice affirmation of Austria’s relationship to red wine improving, as it has perhaps struggled with oak in the past.
Klinger discusses Gruner Veltliner briefly, pointing out its incredible flexibility in food pairings. But he then turns to considering the current state (success with quality whites) and next step (continuing to grow the reds) for Austrian wine. “It is important to think of established wine culture as a process,” he says. In succeeding at one step, you must still be striving for the next. “This is a process that never ends. If it ends, we have lost.”
Thank you to Willi Klinger.
Thank you to Chaylee Priete and Gus Vahlkamp. Thank you to Michael.
Thank you to Dan Fredman.
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