Wednesday, 10 February 2010

What have the Austrians ever done to us?

Author:  Heather D

Well, OK, if you're being picky, there were on the "other side" in the last two world wars, but, leaving those worldwide conflagrations aside for a moment to concentrate on wine....just what do we have against Austrian wines?
The thorny old issue of anti-freeze never takes long to rear its ugly head when I introduce an Austrian wine to a tasting.  Yes, it did happen.  Yes, it was downright dangerous.  Yes, it was a long time ago.  Now, can we move on?

The next problem that stops us from buying Austrian wines is that they don't have a clear identity of their own.  For most wine drinkers tend to lump them together, mentally at least, with German wines.  Anyone in the wine trade is happy to bang on at length about how undervalued sweet German Rieslings are, with their light alcohol, delicious floral-fruity characters and their ability to age.  Most UK wine drinkers, however, pay no attention and carry on drinking fruity, off-dry New World wines instead.  Being associated with a country which is commercial poison in this country is never going to work in Austria's favour.

I also think we have a problem putting Austrian wine in its context, with food.   Compare it with Italy, for example.  It's easy to imagine a simple, juicy red Italian wine going with your pizza or plate of pasta - we've all eaten it at Pizza Express often enough.  There isn't a chain of Austrian restaurants (Dumpling Express?  Schnitzels R Us?) pairing the country's food with its wines.  Culturally, Austria is an unknown quantity for us, other than oompah bands, Lederhosen and yodelling.

The mountain that Austrian wines have to climb is a steep one, but they do have some delicious wines to help them in their cause.  Here are some of the highlights of yesterday's annual Wines of Austria tasting in London.

Polz "Therese" Sauvignon Blanc 2008 - £15.75 from
No oak , so the grapes themselves are responsible for all the deeply mineral flavours found here, allied to a lively herbal and lightly floral nose.

Domaene Wachau Riesling Smaragd Singerriedel 2007 -  distributed by Alliance Wine and seemingly hard to find, but list other wines from this estate
"Smaragd", meaning emerald green, denotes a higher level of ripeness than the lighter category of "Federspiel"  (meaning falcon or bird of prey).  The Smaragd in question refers not to the gem, but to an emerald green lizard found in the area - it's amazing what you can learn at these events.  To the wine:  this single vineyard riesling has great purity of aromas and flavours and is beginning to flesh out with time in bottle.  Like most Austrian whites it is dry, with a lovely long, juicy finish.  

Machherndl Gruener Veltliner Smaragd 2008 Kollmitz - £12.50  from
Gruener Veltliner is Austria's unique grape variety and is beginning to become better known.  We're drinking more white than red wine nowadays in the UK, so maybe Gruener could do for Austria what Malbec has done for Argentina?  This wine has lovely ripeness, but remains dry, with a twist of grapefruit zest, even a hint of the bitter pith on the finish.

Feiler-Artinger Blaufraenkisch 2007 Umriss - £15.75 from
It might come as a surprise to find that Austria makes rather a lot of red wine.  While you won't find much syrah or cabernet (yet...) they have a trio of varieties which suit their climate:  Zwigelt, St Laurent and Blaufraenkisch.  Never blockbuster wines, there are nevertheless some serious examples, such as this, which has spent 13 months in (mostly old, large) oak barrels.  It combines black-fruited fleshiness with enough structure to give an elegant mouthful.

And I haven't even mentioned any of the delicious sweet wines yet!  That will have to be a whole new post methinks.

Thursday, 4 February 2010

Learning to love Muscadet

Fashion is a fickle thing. Pinot grigio and sauvignon blanc are currently the UK drinker's white wines of choice. Sancerre and Pouilly Fumé have spawned a thousand sauvignon blancs from New Zealand to Chile, via South Africa and Eastern Europe. And Italy's GDP figures would surely be severely dented if we stopped glugging their crisp, vaguely fruity pinot grigios at every available opportunity.

But here's a question: when was the last time you drank a Muscadet?

Muscadet used to be oh so chic, but now the only time you're likely to drink it is at an eighties themed evening, when it might be served alongside a prawn cocktail, before the beef stroganoff and the black forest gateau.

There is nothing intrinsically bad about Muscadet – indeed the crisp, fresh, lightly fruity flavours are not a million miles away in style from pinot grigio. It's simply that wine fashion has moved on and poor old Muscadet is one of its victims.

Generally we think of Muscadet as being one of those wines that you should treat as DYA (drink youngest available) and not keep for a minute longer than necessary. And in general, this holds true for the Muscadets we see on the supermarket shelves at around the £5 mark.

Pierre and Marie at Domaine Luneau-Papin, however, take pride in making Muscadet that ages amazingly well. I tasted a vertical of their L d'Or Muscadets from 2008 back to 1989. As we got to the 2003, I wrote: “Now this is getting interesting”. All vintages of the wine had plenty of life in them and retained a characteristic freshness, with increasing complexity and depth of flavour as we went back in time to the earlier vintages. 

UK importer Les Caves de Pyrène has L d'Or 1999 for £13.59. Buy a bottle, serve it blind to some friends and marvel at the rich, yet dry, flavours that unfold. But not with a prawn cocktail please.