Posts on wine
Last week, before a lengthy trip to Canada’s West coast, I was able to attend a great tasting of Austrian reds. While white wines from Austria have made a name in recent years – with a little help from Wine Spectator and such – Austrian whites have been widely disregarded in most parts of Europe and overseas. Undeservedly I think, just like the white, which have shown there strength in both the autochthonous Gruener Veltliner and the more international Riesling, Austrian winemakers have shown that once they sufficiently understood how to make fine red wine, they have fared equally well in local varietals as well as in blends using international varietals.
Regions, varietals, blends
Several varietals are considered autochthonous to Austria, including Blaufraenkisch (which is also grown in Hungary as Kekfrankos or in Germany and abroad as Lemberger), St. Laurent (a distant relative of Pinot Noir), Pinot Noir itself which is locally called Blauburgunder (= blue burgundy) and finally (and truly Austrian) the Zweigelt, named after it’s inventor Prof. Zweigelt who successfully made a hybrid of St. Laurent and Blaufraenkisch. Other local specialties like Blauer Portugieser (mostly grown in Eastern Weinviertel and tending to produce thin acidic wines), Blauer Wildbacher (grown in Styria and most renowned for the rather acidic rose wine named ‘Schilcher’) are of limited local importance.
Four provinces in Austria have mentionable wine producing areas (Styria, Vienna the capital city, Lower Austria, and Burgenland) but only certain regions in the last two yield good to great reds in numbers. In Lower Austria it’s focused around the area South to South-Eastern of Vienna, namely Thermenregion and Carnuntum (both bordering to Northern Burgenland) and to a lesser degree it’s biggest wine growing area, Weinviertel. In Burgenland all four defined regions (Neusiedlersee, Neusiedlersee-Huegelland, Mittelburgenland and Suedburgenland) produce great reds thanks to the more Pannonic climate.
While Thermenregion is specialized in Burgundy varietals and Southern Burgenland is almost exclusively Blaufraenkisch county, the other regions offer an interesting mix of single variety wines and blends. Besides the autochthonous vines, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah and to a lesser amount Cabernet Franc are grown, other international varietals don’t have official status and are grown and used as specialties and experiments.
While some vintners try producing wines made only from one of the internationals varietals, which usually only works in hot years as Cabernet is ripening late, often too late, for Austrian climate, blends mixing autochthonous and international varietals have been vastly successful in recent years starting to turn heads at presentations from Berlin to London. Some of the best names among those ‘blenders’ are Rosi Schuster (famous for CMB, a blend of Blaufraenkisch, Cabernet and Merlot), Kerschbaum (CuvÃ©e Impressario made from Blaufraenkisch, Zweigelt and Cabernet), Albert Gesellmann (Opus Eximium from Blaufraenkisch, St. Laurent and Zweigelt), Feiler Artinger (Solitaire, Blaufraenkisch, Cabernet and Merlot), A. Wendelin (Prophet, a succulent Syrah-blend), Johanneshof Reinisch (Grand CuvÃ©e, a wonderful blend based on St.Laurent), Juris (Ina’mera from Blaufraenkisch, Cabernet and Merlot) or Franz Netzl (CuvÃ©e Anna Christina, Zweigelt with Cabernet and Merlot). Josef Pöckl’s ‘Admiral’, made of 70% Zweigelt with Cabernet, Merlot and Syrah, was selected as wine of the year 05 by Austrian wine mag Falstaff.
Blaufraenkisch uber alles
Blaufraenkisch typically features rich fruity flavors including dark berries and black cherries and some peppery spiciness, with middle strong tannins from thick grape skins. If harvested ripe and of good quality and concentration it can gain a lot from barrique development. Some of the best known names in Blaufraenkisch are ‘ET’ Ernst Triebaumer (famous for Mariental), Josef Leberl (his full-bodied Reisbühel is available in sufficient quantity and at a very affordably price), Paul Kerschbaum (Hochäcker is essential), Weingut Krutzler and Wachter Wiesler from Suedburgenland (Krutzler’s Perwolff is legendary already), Domäne Pöttelsdorf (Baronesse) though today nearly every winery in Burgenland offers decent quality Blaufraenkisch.
The Professor and his creature
The situation is slightly different for Zweigelt, the one variety that is also grown in parts of Austria less supportive for red wine. Zweigelt is very fruity, with red fruit aroma, cherry, sour cherries, though thin skins don’t contribute a lot of body, structure or tannin. Only the best Zweigelt will be able to sustain wood support and barrique aging. Those who do can be great while the others are best as lighter, fruity wines for younger consumption. Dependable names include Paul Triebaumer, Rosi Schuster, Josef Pöckl, Marko Markowitsch, Paul Achs and a few dozen others. One of those others should be mentioned separately: while most reds from Styria are Zweigelt and most of them tend to be thin and slightly sour, there is one to exempt: Schloss Winkler-Hermaden is producing a wonderful, though high-priced Zweigelt called ‘Olivin’, after a common mineral in this area.
From Burgundy with love
The Burgundy varietals show similar and still different characteristics. While Pinot Noir offers red fruity aromas with noticeable fruit tannins and at times hints of orange and bitter almonds, St.Laurent reminds of sour cherry, sometimes paired with smokiness or frankincense. Both, if well made, tend to be a little reclusive when young and need to develop to open up. Both are very successfully grown in all of the regions with a especially high density in Thermenregion, South of Vienna. Two groups of Winemakers there have been set up to further quality in this area, on called the Burgundermacher, the other the Thermenwinzer. Other wineries offering great Pinot Noir and/or St. Laurent wines include Josef Umathum, Sodlawirt, Helmut Lang, Hardegg, Schloss Halbthurm, Hannes Schuster, Weingut Rommer and Silvia Prieler (better known for great Chardonnay). Juris is offering a brilliant CuvÃ©e of St. Laurent and Pinot Noir called St.Georg. Heribert Bayer isn’t growing his own grapes but still manages to make one of the most interesting Pinots, In Signo Tauri.
More to discover
Further information on Austrian wines can be found at the website of Austrian Wine Marketing. Many of the best Austrian winemakers have organized themselves into marketing organizations and quality clubs (see list below). For information on special wineries or wines mentioned please refer to the following link list of winery web sites:
Marketing Groups and Quality Clubs:
RWB – Rennomierte Weingüter Burggenland
Verband Blaufraenkisch Mittelburgenland
Vereinte Winzer Blaufraenkischland
Websites of the Wineries mentioned:
All pictures © ÖWM
A lot of people are intimidated by wine tastings and ask me why I do it. The answer to why I do it might be slightly different than the average person’s reason, but one thing should be consistent to all is that the main reason should be pleasure. The actual goal of a tasting might vary greatly between individuals, and I normally separate the tasters in two main categories. The professionals who do this for business and the rest of the world who should be doing it for the pleasure of discovering new wines or of revisiting old friends.
The approach of each individual varies greatly and the pros tend to take standardized notes that can be revisited years later to follow vintage trends, or the development of specific wines. Of course those who attend tastings strictly for pleasure can also take copious notes, as they are very useful, but note taking and using esoteric terms is not a prerequisite for enjoyment. Trying to find out what you like in a wine and enjoying the experience should be the main goal. If you do not like a particular type or style of wine, why go to a tasting of those wines? Of course, as a professional, you might be called in to taste and evaluate types of wines you are not too fond of, or at times or locations not conductive to tasting. I remember that 20 years ago I was attending lots of tastings to blend some wines in Eastern Europe and the managers of the estate insisted that we met at 7am to do the work as later in the day they were too busy. 7am after a long night of meetings is not a fun tasting experience, but it is part of the routine of a pro. We will not emphasize this side of the business here, as we will concentrate in the hedonistic aspects instead.
In the coming weeks I will start going through the basics on how to approach wine tasting and get the most information and pleasure out of them. I will also go through the mechanics of it and explain some simple terminology. As with any human endeavor wine tasting has its own jargon that can seem off-putting to people new to the field, but there is actually a good reason to some of it as you need to standardize you vocabulary so that you are able to describe a sensory experience consistently enough that other people can relate to it, and so you can also go back through your notes and revisit tasted wines so that they have a meaning for you even years later.
As mentioned above the main reason one should be formally tasting wines is for pleasure, and also to find the wines that you like best. Other reasons are only ancillary to the process, but for some people they could be the most important aspect. Like a lot of things in life relating to sensory experiences, there is no good or bad ways and reasons to do things.
Yesterday I hinted at the topic I will to discuss today. What kind of wines should somebody, who does not want to invest a lot of money into a wine cellar, keep at home for regular consumption and for culinary emergencies? There is no unique answer to the question as it depends on individual tastes and on where each and every one of you is located. One thing to first look into is what is readily available where you live. There is no need to find a special wine for daily consumption and having no ready supply nearby. If you have to drive across town to get a few bottles of your favorite wine, then you might be better off to buy a few cases and cellar it and this is another story entirely.
I am talking here of having a ready supply of wine at hand to drink occasionally and to help if you have unannounced guests coming in at the last minute. Let’s put an upper limit to our fictitious kitchen cache at about a dozen bottles, what most small wine racks or built-in wine storage areas would hold. We will talk about cellaring another day, but today let’s focus on what those dozen bottles should be.
First, think about what you like to drink yourself and also about the taste of the people in your social group. Do you prefer red or white wines? Is your taste for the more robust styles, or for the light and fruity? This should point you to the types of wines you should keep at hand. Remember we are talking here of wines for daily consumption, so lets not concentrate for now on those special bottles that we keep for special occasions. We want to look at wines that are good to drink now and that you will need to drink in the coming year for them to be at their peak.
The first thing we need to look into is price. I cannot quote a specific price as each geographical market play by its own rules. There are some general rules of thumbs, in most markets, that we will look into that will help in making the right choices. In most markets there are the low end wines. We are talking here about the price range of the cheapest wines available locally. In some markets they are predominately screw top bottles or bulk packaging like wine-in-the-bag, or TetraPack. Strangely enough, in our neighborhood of Mexico City, the low end is almost entirely populated by cheap Spanish or Chilean wines in regular corked bottles. The new packagings are almost non-existent. For example, those wines are in the USD$2-4 range here. With the exception of a few wines in the high end of this price range, I tend to stay away completely from them. Let’s call that category the ‘Cheap And Awfuls’ (CAA) and try to forget about them for now.
The second category is what I call the ‘Cheap And Decents’ (CAD). The first category we looked at are normally not numerous, but the CAD are normally populated by a huge variety of wines. They are normally more geographically diverse, and also more diverse in the varietals types available. In our neighborhood their price tend to go from USD$5 to USD$8. This is the category where we will concentrate our search in.
The third category is what we will call the ‘Cheap And Premiums’ (CAP). There is normally a price gap between the CAD and the CAP wines, and normally they are less numerous in most stores. In our local market we are talking about wines in the USD$10-15 range. A lot of time they can be premium bottlings from the same producer as the CAD.
Of course there is a lot more wines available at higher price, but let’s not look at them for now. Instead let’s look at the CAD wines where you will normally find the most value for your money. Once you have figured out what price are the CAD wines in your neighborhood, look around if there are any that you like in the lot from past experience. You can ask for advices if your store has properly trained staff that will know their products instead of just point you to what management wants them to push at the time you ask. If not on both counts, then pick some bottles at random. You will never know what they taste if you do not try them.
Based on your personal taste, and since the prices of those wines are pretty low, select a few different bottles to try. Over the next days try the bottles you brought back home and see if there is one that stands out, and that you like a lot. If so note it down. The following week pick up a few new ones and one of your favorites from the previous tasting. After some weeks of doing this you will be able to find some wines that you like, and those will be the ones that you should use for your kitchen cache.
As you can see this type of wine tasting will not break your budget, and can be real fun to do. We are not talking here about taking extensive tasting notes using esoteric terms, but in finding which wines you drink you like the best and want to drink again. This is the core of what tasting wine should be. Pleasure is at the forefront of the experience.
After a few months of fun tasting what is available locally, select a variety of wines for you kitchen cache to suit your needs. If you are like me and have a very eclectic palate and normally like most types of wines, you should try to select various wines to match different situations. As a rule of thumb I would keep in the kitchen a few bottles each of robust red wine, lighter-fruiter style red wine, sharp and acidic white wine, and of fuller and fruiter style white wine. Add to that a couple bottles of dry sparkling wine, a bottle of sweet fortified wine like port for after dinner, and maybe a bottle of cooking sherry and you have a perfect and useful kitchen cache that can provide wine for daily drinking and to cover most needs. Don’t forget to replenish your cache whenever you open a bottle, and you will never have a wine emergency again.
Later we will discuss some suggestions for the various categories and styles of wines and start discussing wine selection in more details. In the meantime enjoy your weekly wine tasting and the pleasures of setting up your kitchen wine cache.