2013 has now begun in earnest, and for the Wine Rambler that means it is time to start regular service again and write about wine. With our focus on Germany you would naturally expect the first bottle of the year to be of Teutonic origin - but, behold!, it is not. Geographically and linguistically Austria may not be far away, but even if some see the Austrians as Bavarians with charm, the Austrians themselves insist on their independence. Every single screw cap or capsule of Austrian wine says so in proud colours.
So why not pick a German wine as the first in 2013 on this (mostly) German wine blog? Well, first of all because we are not *that* German, but more importantly because of: tradition, quality and availability.
Seven years is not a biblical age for a bottle serious red wine, but the Austrian wine scene being obsessed with youth and each new vintage, it is not quite so easy to find older bottles of interesting Austrian reds. Except if you manage to navigate this Wine Rambler's tiny cramped cellar. Recently, I got lucky down there, and found this. Upon seeing the label and suddenly remembering having bought it all those years ago, I made the executive decision that its time had come. It had that in common with the goose who had lost her life for Martinmas and was about to be cooked with some apples and red cabbage.
The Leithaberg is a range of low hills northwest of Lake Neusiedl that a few winemakers from Austria's Burgenland region discovered for its cooler, steeper vineyards after they had become bored by the powerfully fruity, but somewhat complacent wines to be made from their lakeside plots.
One of the glories of being a wine amateur without an ounce of professionalism is the childish pleasure you can take in things that more knowledgeable folk take for granted. Recently for instance, I rediscovered decanting. Now, of course I do know what pouring a wine into a larger carafe for greater air exposure does in theory, but somehow, I had let the habit slip. After all, there isn't always time for these kitchen rituals. But the exceptionally rewarding Grüner Veltliner on review today showed me what I may have been missing, as decanting did it a world of good.
The first swigs of this very young wine straight out of the bottle were not promising: A heavy, awkward and withdrawn wine. After two hours in the wide-bottom decanter, out on the cool balcony, we found something very different indeed:
Another Austrian wine on the Wine Rambler? Really? Can our national pride and the expectations of our Germanophile readership sustain this Austrian double whammy? They will have to, because the world needs to know about this, the best rosé I've had for months, no make that years, straight away. The way things are going, lives could be lost to summery languor otherwise.
Ever heard of Schilcher? You have now. Schilcher  is a regional speciality of Austria's Steiermark region. Rosés made exclusively from the indigenous Blauer Wildbacher grape, these wines are distinguished by prominent acidity and unusually intensive red and black berry fruit. They are never particularly subtle and they can be rustic to the point of rudeness, but they are rarely bland.
My love of German Riesling clearly has crossed the fine line that separates "famous" from "infamous": earlier this week a wine acquaintance on Twitter apologised to me for looking forward to having an Australian Riesling! To improve my image I decided there had to be a token non-German Riesling review on the Wine Rambler asap to hide that fact the deep down we do of course believe that the only good Riesling is a German Riesling.
So what better country to turn to than Austria, a country that like Germany has a range of confusing quality levels for wine, that features labels of a similar style and that, if it was not for the Austrian colours on the cap of every bottle, would on account of the language probably be mistaken for German by most international customers anyway. Selecting an Austrian Riesling will surely boost our post-nationalist credentials!
While German wineries, even quite good ones, can seem unduly modest about their own accomplishments and shy about marketing to new groups of consumers, no such light treading for our southern neighbour, Austria. Austria's wine reputation was all but shattered by the dramatic adulterated wine scandal of 1985. From this low point, Austrian wine has - and here, the tired metaphor makes sense for once - pullet itself up by its own bootstraps, and wineries are rightly and vocally proud of their successes. Austrians themselves have fuelled the growth of a new wine scene with all but insatiable home demand. That, too, makes a great difference from Germany, where wine patriotism was lukewarm for the longest time and has only really taken off in the wake of the Große Gewächse (great growth/grand cru) campaign.
The Thermenregion south of Vienna is one of those success stories, as it supplies the ever-thirsty throats of Vienna with original whites from indigenous grapes such as Zierfandler and Rotgipfler. The Schellmann winery, run as a side project by the Kamptal winemaker Fred Loimer and some partners, is one of those confident establishments, as you can tell by the label: Love me or leave me, it seems to say, and I don't think you're going to leave me, are you now?
It's nearly time to end my self-imposed quasi-lent (punctured as it was by a Wine Rambler committee meeting and its inevitable by-effects), and to get myself back in the mood for wine (as if that needed any extra effort), so let me report on an enjoyable discovery from last autumn: From Austria's southern Steiermark region, to be precise, a lovely corner of Europe with rolling green hills and scattered villages. It is predominantly a white wine producer, with emphasis on Sauvignon Blanc, which they do excellently, and aromatic varieties like Muscat and Traminer. But there is also red, and some of it is seriously good.
This basic red blend from the Winkler-Hemaden winery takes its name from the Castle where they reside. It's made up of Blaufränkisch and St. Laurent, two more or less indigenous grapes, and some Merlot for the ladies and the more internationally trained palates. Good mixture?
FX - for most people these letters stands for excitement, explosions and all sorts of sparkles. The same is true for fans of Austrian wine, just that they don't think of digital visual or sound effects, they think of Franz Xaver (Pichler)'s Wachau wines. On 16ha of vineyard land in what to me is one of the underrated wine regions in Europe, the Pichlers grow Grüner Veltliner and Riesling (plus a little Sauvignon Blanc), and over the years have managed to build up an excellent reputation.
Because of all the praise for the Pichler wines, I was confident I would not just get fancy special effects from their 2003 Smaragd Riesling - or would I?
Here's a story of youthful adventure: In my last year of school, I went for a week of hiking in the Scottish Highlands with three friends. Among many glorious things and brave deeds, it was also a time of spectacularly soggy hiking boots and mad scrambling for overbooked accommodation, us German school boys never having heard of such a thing as a bank holiday. One late afternoon we stumbled into the village of Crianlarich after a day's quasi-amphibious hike and made for the hostel where we had secured beds for the night, when the menu of the local takeaway caught our eye: Fish and Chips up there, of course, and a good variety of other deep-fried fare. But did it really say "fried black pudding and chips"? Dessert was provided for by fried chocolate bars.
This culinary cornucopia seemed outlandish, if strangely appealing, to us, and we mentioned this to our landlord when we checked into our bothy bedrooms. "Och ay", he said, "they fry ****ing everything". All right, I made the och ay-part up, but he did have the Scots accent that gave us such trouble, and I also seem to remember a distinctly north-of-the-border expletive in there. He also said this with a look that seemed to say "You boys think you can handle it?" It was a dare.
Among the trusted recommendations you will get when asking for a wine to go with Wiener Schnitzel (breaded veal escalope) and potato salad is Grüner Veltliner, Austria's signature white wine. A little while ago I was browsing the wine selection in one of Munich's more upmarket department stores, looking for a wine to bring to a Schnitzel dinner, when something green got my attention.
Green, with a clean and minimalistic design, the Grüner Veltliner "Green" seemed to promise exactly what I was looking for - a clean, minimalistic but very fresh wine.
If the wine world were a fair place, I would not have to draw your attention to what should by rights be an iconic bottle of Austrian red wine. But I'm happy to: Anita and Hans Nittnaus are founding members of the Pannobile group of wine growers - the name is a combination of "Pannonia" (the historical and geographical name of the east Austrian and Hungarian plain) and the Latin word for "noble". When Austria was first working her way out of the hole it had dug herself with the infamous 1985 adulterated wine scandal with a whole new generation of wines, Hans Nittnaus's reds were hailed as revelations. Then, since the late 1990s, they were increasingly eclipsed by bolder, bigger, heavier-hitting bottles.
This gave him some pause, naturally, and eventually made him adjust his style. Not, however, and to his everlasting credit, in the direction that the wind seemed to be blowing, towards more oak that is, more concentration, and all the latest blinking cellar technology. Instead, Nittnaus went back to the future, towards purity of fruit, drinkability and precise varietal character. A case in point - the 2006 Leithaberg:
Grüner Veltliner, also known as GruVe and often pronounced "Grooner" by Anglo-Saxons, is certainly hot property these days. Austria's signature white grape has won much critical acclaim and is now seen as cool and trendy. Most of it is consumed in Austria, and - even though Grüner can age very well - traditionally as a young, fresh wine that does not need much ageworthy complexity. Potato salad and Wiener Schnitzel (a breaded veal escalope) is one of the dishes the Austrians serve with it.
Some Grüner is made in a different style though, creating complex wines of beauty. Complexity and substance can be a good thing, but did the Jurtschitsch winery go a step too far by creating a Reserve Grüner with astonishing 15% abv?
Last autumn I drank my first Kirchmayr wine. It was a 16 year old Grüner Veltliner, and I was very impressed. Beautiful bottle design, marvellous bouquet and a wine that was focussed, sharp and sophisticated - yet not aged, not even old. It was pure joy. Kirchmayr have a whole range of wines - "Solist" - specifically made to age well and only to be released to market after years of maturing. So I had to get a bottle of Riesling to find out if it would be as good as the Grüner.
When I reviewed the Grüner, I took an excessive amount of photos of the bottle (same beautiful design for both varietals), so please take a look at that post, also for some background on the winery. But now to the Riesling.
This wine is fake. Well, a little. If you understand German, that is - otherwise you wouldn't know that "Fass 4" stands for "Barrel 4". Years ago, wines sold under this label were indeed matured in large wooden barrels, but these times are gone at the Ott winery, and now it is all steel tanks for "Barrel 4".
And out of the tanks at Wagram comes a Grüner Veltliner, Austria's signature white wine, and Bernhard Ott's speciality. Does the wine also taste "fake" - or let's rather call it "historical homage"?
In theory, this wine would have warranted a long review. First of all a twenty year old wine that is still enjoyable should be worth saying something about. Then it was also a gift from a friend who bought it for peanuts from an English wine shop years ago - since then it has lived in his attic until he donated it to a little wine tasting I hosted in August. The reason that I am not inclined to honour it with a long story is that when I emailed the estate to learn more about the wine they didn't even bother with a one line reply. They are of course not obliged to, but then neither am I to spend more time on it.
I love it when a plan comes together. Seriously, I do. Not only because I used to watch way too much A-Team in the late '80s and early '90s, but also because I do love making plans. One of them is to regularly hunt for aged wine (although I do actually prefer the term 'matured wine'), and so far I have not been disappointed with the results. Quite the opposite, in fact, the good ol' boys have been the source of much pleasure. The wine I am reporting about today is no exception, in fact, it is a pure delight. You may have heard of Austria's signature white variety Grüner Veltliner, you may have tasted some, but - like me until very recently - you may not have had the change to see what a really nicely matured Grüner can be like. This baby here is 16 years old, which is the age by which most white wines have passed the zombie stage and hang between decomposition and vinegar. A few, notably Riesling or perhaps Chenin Blanc, make it to or beyond that age. But what about Grüner?
Dessert wine. Think Riesling so thick with sugar that you could grease your bicycle with it. Think Sauternes with even more sugar than the Riesling and twice the level of alcohol. Think Château d'Yquem. Think Austrian red wine. Ah, wait, did he just say 'Austrian red wine'? Yes he did, and he wrote that in a perfectly sober state. So let me start with saying that that there is Austrian red wine (in case you did not know) and that it can be outright fantastic. Most of it is dry, so I got very excited when I saw this sweet, half bottle beauty on the shelves at Harrods. So what is a sweet Austrian red wine like?
In my quest to find interesting German and Austrian wines in UK supermarkets, I recently came across an excellent Austrian Grüner Veltliner, sold in Sainsbury's 'taste the difference' range. I love Grüner, especially with food, and this wine had the added benefit of being made by a well known Austrian winemaker, Markus Huber. When I saw that the 2009 vintage hit the shelves, I had to grab a bottle to see if it would be as good as the 2008.
After several not overly successful ventures into UK supermarket wine I have let my investigation into what is available on the mass market slip. The other day though in Sainsburys I came past an Austrian wine that looked really interesting. And so I grabbed a bottle and was rewarded with one of the best wines I have ever bought from a supermarket. If you are bored by cheap Australian or Italian wines and look for a good refreshing white then look no further and go for Austria this summer.
Both my co-Rambler and I recently came to the conclusion that we had somewhat neglected Austria - a country that makes some truly outstanding wines. So Julian went off to have an afternoon of Austrian wine, during which he was particularly impressed with a Riesling made by the Prager winery. At about the same time I found myself talking Prager with Damian from Fields Morris & Verdin on Twitter. As I had never tried a Prager Riesling, Damian kindly provided me with a tasting sample, the 2006 Steinriegl Smaragd - a Riesling that is more than just a reminder of how good Austrian wine can be.