Sunday, June 21, 2009

Food Friendly Wines of Austria Day 3

We next got to visit the single vineyard Singerriedl which is one of the best in the region. Vines here are planted in narrow rows that climb up the mountain in terraces held up by mortarless rock wells many of which are 10 feet tall….all painstakingly built and maintained by generations of winemakers the old fashioned way…by hand. To get a sense of just how difficult it is to grow wine here, a typical vineyard in the Wachau valley floor requires 700 hours of labor per hectare to produce a crop. On the hillsides it’s 2000. And the view! Standing 400 meters above the Danube looking up river as it winds its way down from the Alps, with castles and fortresses dotting the peaks of the steep hills skirted with vineyards, each row separated by 10 foot high stone walls. I’m telling you folks, you can’t make this stuff up…you just have to see it.
We were then treated to a cruise down the Danube from the very west end of where the vineyards are planted in the Wachau while sampling wines served by the vintners as we passed each of their properties in turn…sip, see the vineyards, hear the winemaker, feel the passion. It doesn’t get much better than this.

And then it did! Because as we rounded the last bend we approached the historic village of Dürnstein. Way up at the tippy-top of the tallest, steepest mountain stands Dürnstein Castle where Richard the Lionhearted was imprisoned by King Leopold VI of Austria while being held for ransom back in the 1200’s. It was while Richard was here that his brother, King John signed the Magna Carta…how cool is that! (He ultimately got ransomed which nearly bankrupted Britain and the money was used to build the city walls around Vienna)

We then sauntered along the Danube to a lovely little Gasthouse and noted wine producer named Jamek in Joching. Once again, a family operation with Dad in the kitchen, mom in a Dirndl supervising the service in a flower encircled garden on a lovely spring day with views up through the vineyards. And the food…well, I guess the only word to use is fresh…because everything is and each of the dishes was paired with a selection of single vineyard wines that told the typicity story from the western reaches of the Wachau to the Wienviertel.

Well, we all asked, how are you going to top this. . Willi and his staff organized a party that was truly Imperial. There were three separate groups touring the country. Ours was for Austrian Newbies, and the others went to Styria and Niederosterreich. But for this night, we all gathered together for on e big blowout party.

We went to the Schönbrunn, the palace of the Habsburg emperors which is one of the grandest in Europe. And way up at the top of the hill is a building called the Gloriette, a fabulous Baroque hall that can be seen from every point on the grounds of the palace and itself overlooking the city of Vienna in the distance. A chamber orchestra played Mozart and Strauss while the guests waltzed before dinner. I’m not a dancer, but I couldn’t resist a chance to experience a taste of what life was like for the Emperor of Austria-Hungary by dancing a waltz with Sandra Auernigg of AWMB. We had another fabulous meal with newfound BFFs and sampling another 30 or so wines that showed off the wonderful ability for Austrian wines to pair with such a variety of foods. We were served hors d’ouerves from the countries of many of the guests including Japan, Thailand, Mexico, China and India and saw in one sitting the versatility and creativity of the wines of Austria.

After dinner the music shifted to a jazz band as the wine flowed, the guests danced and talked, and friendships kindled and strengthened. Then, to top off the evening, Willi Klinger
sat down at the piano and rocked the crowd with his unique stylings in three languages including the Beetles and Edit Piaf. We all agreed, Willi has found his calling at the AWMB.

So as I try to distill down the trip to some of its thematic elements, I realized Austrian wines are Wines that define a lifestyle that has developed over a millennium in one of the most beautiful places on earth. And here’s how they’re doing it:
-Grüner Veltliner
-A sense of place
-Beauty Sphere: Related Content

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Food Friendly Wines of Austria, Day 2

From there it was on to the lovely town of Eisenstadt where we sampled the regional specialties of Burgenland at the Palace Esterhazy, the country estate of this noble Austro/Hungarian family.

As we drove through the countryside it was fascinating to see very few power lines, the occasional series of windmills, and fields patterned in strips of corn, wheat, and grape vines. Evidently the inheritance laws in Austria, like in Burgundy, are such that land is divided among the children. The result is long, narrow patches owned by different folks. One particular grower had a plot of land that was one row wide by one kilometer long. The vines themselves are planted right up to the road side and behind and adjacent to the houses. I saw many houses where you could reach your arm out the garage window and pick grapes if you were of a mind.

Then it was on to the Leithaberg area which just received a DAC designation. This is the culmination of a program driven by the AWMB to define a set of standards, production processes and quality level similar to AOC in France. There are currently six, and the AWMB’s goal is 16…and I do believe they’ll get there soon.

After that we did a tasting of sweet wines at the Nationalparkzentrum Neusiedlersee in Ilmitz which is dedicated to the natural history and ornithology of this special place which is unique in Europe. This type of area is known as a Steppe Lake and is the home for some 300 species of birds.

Dinner that night was in Neuseidel am See where I was taught how to say cheers in Japanese, Korean, Chinese and Malay at the fabulous Nyikospark Restaurant.

Thursday began with a lecture and guided tasting by Suzanne Staggl of AWMB on the wines of Niederosterreich (Lower Austria). The tasting was in a spectacular setting…the banquet hall of the Schloss Hof which is the summer palace build by Prinz Eugen who also built the spectacular Belvedere Palace in Vienna. There we sampled the wines of this region and I had the opportunity to meet Heidemarie Fischer of Pfaffl who is just beginning to import her family’s wines to America through Palm Bay. We also were treated to a short course in how to make Wiener Schnitzel by Suzanne Staggl and Barbara Arbeithuber (who was the guiding hand making the trip such a success) and got to dine on our own creations. This was followed by a tour of the palace and stroll around the fabulous seven levels of gardens which have recently been restored to their 18th century glory

On to the Kremstal, and the city of Krems, in the center of the lower Austria (Niederösterreich region which is Austria’s version of Napa Valley…well, except for the fact that the Wachau part of the region is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site. Krems has a beautifully preserved old town (Altstadt) with historic churches dating back to the 1200’s and delightfully decorated homes and a village lifestyle that apparently hasn’t changed for centuries. Winding staircases, buildings at crazy angles, all accented by window boxes full of geraniums, cafes serving mélange (Austrian Cappuccino) and strudel, and some of the most pleasant people I’ve met in Europe.

We were then taken up to one of the literal and figurative highlights of the trip…a visit to Stift Göttweig, an 11th century monastery that has the most spectacular view of the entire Danube valley and prime wine regions. From there you can see the whole valley and get a sense of what makes the wines from there so special that maps can only hint at. From the Pannonian Plain and Vienna to the east and south the Danube winds its way up the foothills of the Alps. Each of the wine regions in turn get more mountainous as you go west from Kamptal to Kremstal to Wachau with the vines being planted right up the slopes.

At the monastery we had the opportunity to sample another 20 wines served by the winemakers themselves and get a first hand sense of the passion they put into their product. We tasted Grüners and Rieslings from Kremstal, Kamptal, and Traisental DAC’s and tasted the fruits of the AWMB’s collaborative push with the producers to create regional standards that will define quality for this area long into the future. Of particular note to me was meeting Huber, which is one of the better distributed wines in the U.S. The tasting was held in a fabulous hall with cathedral ceilings painted with frescos from the 1700’s and a view of the Danube Valley that was nothing short of awe-inspiring.

We moved on from there to the town of Mautern in the Wachau for a dinner that my words here simply can’t describe. The proprietor/chef Lisl Wagner-Bacher runs a Michelin Two Star and Gault Millau Three Toque temple to gastronomy, and our group took over the entire restaurant for the night. Every dish left us speechless as they came in course after course of creative reinterpretations of Viennese classics from Tafelspitz Raviolini, Perch dumplings and a raspberry tart fresh from the oven that was to die for. All of course were paired with wines carefully selected by the AWMB and the Bacher’s 5 person sommelier staff to enhance the culinary creations. Turns out Willi used to be Managing Director of Domäne Wachau and had squirreled away 500 bottles of the 99 Loibenberg Riesling. There are now only 489 left! The evening finished with a special treat of fresh local cherry juice topped with an almond meringue…Yowza! Sphere: Related Content

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Austrian Wine Tour Day 1

Our trip began with a visit to a classic Heuriger, or local winery/restaurant where they serve the wine the make. So we got to visit with the winemaker and his family who also served as chef, waiter and host for the entourage. The warm welcoming atmosphere of the Heuriger typifies what the Austrian’s call Gemütlichkeit, loosely translated (by me) as meaning: we may not know you, but we’re happy you’re here, you’re welcome and you’re our new best friend…come, let’s eat and drink and talk together!

We sampled a range of classic Austrian dishes from Wiener Schnitzel to Tafelspitz and a bunch of other fabulous foods with names I can’t pronounce or spell. But it doesn’t matter…just point, eat and enjoy. Heuriger have institutionalized the concept of terroir and hospitality…you can only experience it by being there.

The beautiful sunny day started out propitiously but devolved into ominous rumblings turning to crashing thunder and then a steady rain. It didn’t dampen the groups’ spirits as we boarded the boat to take us across the Neuseidlersee, a reed-encircled shallow lake that is the center of the sweet wine region of Austria. The marshy environment is a haven for an incredible diversity of birdlife…and the humid conditions are perfect for the formation of Botrytis cinerea or noble rot. Notably around Rust on the western side of the lake, and Ilmitz on the east, it is the special fungus that is the necessary ingredient to making the classic sweet wines. Not being confined to the restrictive rules of an archaic regulatory system, the Austrians have been able to experiment and apply new ideas to the concept of classic sweet wines. I had had the pleasure of meeting Gerhard Kracher when he visited NY this past winter, and tasting his wines in their village of origin was a special treat.

Rust is a beautiful old city known for the storks nesting on practically every chimney. We visited the Wine Academy of Austria there, housed in a 400 year old tower and gatehouse and stable that defended the city in earlier times and has been refitted as center of wine teaching. Willi Klinger, the Managing Director of the Austrian Wine Marketing Board gave us a very comprehensive and entertaining overview of Austrian wines and the history of production and the innovation that has taken place over the last 30 years.

Then we heard from Christian Zechmeister, one of the more knowledgeable and passionate academy staffers who gave us an in-depth profile of the diversity of wines from Styria (aka Steiermark, the southern province of Austria), and of Burgenland.

All told we tasted 67 different wines today, and we worked our way through indigenous varietals including Grüner Veltliner, Blaufrankisch, Zweigelt, Saint Laurent, and Austria’s own names for Chardonnay (Morillon), Pinot Blanc (Weissburgunder) and Pinot Noir (Blauburgunder). What came out very clearly to me was a “national style”. Most of the wines including the reds are vinified in stainless steel and never see any oak. The result is very fresh wines balanced with distinctive racy acidity. So I could sense a common character across all the varietals and regions… wines of elegance that express a “sense of place” that are the perfect complement to a wide variety of foods, but particularly the new fusion cuisine. There’s a peppery note that defines Grüner, but I felt it was common in many of the other varietals as well. And I think that’s one element that makes Austrian wines so food-friendly.

And since almost all the wineries are family owned, not part of large companies, the innovation, creativity and passion of the producers comes through loud and clear. Two Grüners from neighboring winemakers share the common characteristics of the grape, but take advantage of the unique microclimate and soils to express a typicity of that place. Sphere: Related Content

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Red, White or Green? Discovering the Food-Friendly Wines of Austria

I visited Austria as part of a group of approx. 100 writers, sommeliers and restaurateurs from some 35 countries who were brought together by the Austrian Wine Marketing Board for a total immersion in the state of the wine industry here. (That's me, Willi Klinger the MD of the AWMB and Laurie Tadayon, BAT's social media marketing manager for wine at the Schlosshof.) We all shared an interest in the business of wine and an ability to speak English. Beyond that the diversity of accents and footwear underscored the internationalization of the wine industry.

Relatively unknown in America as a wine producing country, Austria is being recognized by the wine cognoscenti as on being on the cusp of being discovered... A new generation of winemakers is creating wines for a new generation of consumers. Both the wineries and consumers are all looking for the same thing…food friendly wines that express the uniqueness of the place they are made…what the French call “terroir”

And these guys know what they’re doing. Austria has developed a wine industry where it seems everyone has a practical if not academic Masters in Geology with a minor in knowledge of soils, rocks, terrain and weather patterns and their combined impact on making wine.

And because they’re reinventing the industry, they’re doing it with an eye for the future. Fully 16% of Austria’s wine is certified organic and most of the rest (excluding bulk wine) is made with an eye toward limited and minimal intervention. In fact, a growers' group called Vinea Wachau has set standards for its members wines called the Codex Wachau. It strictly (and I mean that in the full Austrian interpretation of “STRICT”) ensures all the wines which carry the Wachau label and the designations of Steinfeder, Federspiel and Smaragd come from very defined geographies and soil and absolutely no manipulation with technology such as microoxygenation, fractionation, chaptalization, concentration or aromatization or the like.

But no story about Austrian wine can be told without beginning and ending with the indigenous varietal that defines the country, Grüner Veltliner. Grüner means Green, and it is one of the most versatile varietals of Vitis vinifera. It represents the largest percentage of production in the country…some 33% of vines. But its personality is very much determined by factors such as the soil it’s grown on, the altitude, and how long it’s left to ripen. Most producers now vinify in stainless and the wine rarely sees oak and it’s these two things that result in the one common element that defines Grüner…the balance of fresh fruit, alcohol and acidity. That’s what makes the wine so food-friendly and prompted one sommelier to ask his customers… “What kind of wine would you like, Red, White or Green?” Sphere: Related Content