Editor's Note: A few weeks ago, I traveled to Austrian wine country with a group of restaurant wine directors and trade folks, hosted by Michael Skurnik Wines, who bring in the selections from Terry Theise (you've seen that guy around these pages before.) Here, a few snapshots and wine recommendations from my journey.
You may have noticed a moment when Gruner Veltliner was as trendy as wine can be, showing up suddenly on wine lists and t-shirts (ok, maybe only I hang out with the wine-shirt-wearing crowd.) And riesling has never been hotter—especially when the weather is warm and Paul Grieco's merry band of acid-lovers has taken over every restaurant in town. But Austria—where you'll find both of these grapes—is not a new wine region. Vines were planted during the Roman Empire and even before...there's deep history here.
A journey to Austria isn't complete without a monster schnitzel (daily), and at least one stop at Vienna's käsekrainer stands—nothing caps off a festive evening better than a few cheese-stuffed sausages enjoyed outdoors. But I went to Austria to explore the drinks, and while there were more than a few crisp, refreshing beers, I was focused on Riesling and Gruner Veltliner, plus a few other types of wine.
At the most affordable level, wines made from gruner veltliner are peppery and bright, with flavors that hint at canary melon and lettuce, with a spritz of lemony mineral water. But older-vine gruner, harvested a bit later and given a little time to mature, can also be rich and creamy, more like Chardonnay than you might expect, with the fennely, sagey side bulked out with apricot and sweet corn flavors. It's sometimes matured in huge acacia-wood casks, sourced from local forests.
The gruner tends to grow in richer soils toward the bottom of the hills (which retain water better), but up on the terraces as you gain elevation, there's more primary rock, mica, and gravel, and you'll see riesling. 2011 was a sunnier, warmer year than the previous vintage, yielding lusher riesling with a bit more yellow-fruit flavor (ripe pears and juicy peaches) and richness (like thyme and bay leaves soaked in gingery chicken broth) along with its stony mineral side. But there's tartness, too, don't worry: think white grapefruit, lemon, and lime piercing through.
As long as you're not afraid to pronounce the names wrong (and who cares? Go for it!) there's more to Austrian wine than those two. One of my favorites is Gelber Muskateller, an aromatic, refreshing wine with a floral side that might remind you of St. Germain liqueur. It's lovely stuff, perfect for afternoon drinking. (Ahem...not that we did any of that.) As we traveled away from Vienna toward the Hungarian border, we encountered some lovely red wines as well, including mineral-rich Blaufränkish and easy-drinking Zweigelt.
Check out the slideshow for snapshots from Austria, snippets of winemaker-conversation, and a peek at some of the food we tried.
Getting thirsty? Here are my wine recommendations—the most impressive bottles we sampled during our winery visits.
Gruner Veltliner to Seek Out
Hofer Gruner Veltliner Freiberg 2010: This winery is organic and all the grapes are harvested by hand. The wine is rich and pretty, thick in your mouth, with hints of fresh green pea shoots and apricots (with the pits.) (around $21)
Hiedler Gruner Veltliner Thal 2011 A lovely creamy and fresh easy-drinking wine, full of preserved lemons and Asian pear. Made from 60-year old vines. (around $24)
Ecker Gruner Veltliner Mordthal 2011: this deliciously rich wine made from 50-year old vines matures after fermentation in 1700 liter neutral acacia casks. Hints of zucchini and fennel make it super food-friendly. (around $32)
Hirsch Gruner Veltliner Lamm 2010: Here's the wine I'd pour for Thanksgiving this year. It's a deep straw color, elegant, nearly salty and savory, like spiced apples served along side a homemade chicken broth. (around $50)
Ott Gruner Veltliner Rosenberg 2011: We tasted a series of stunning wines from this winery—you really can't go wrong here, but this one stood out, very mineral and almost chewy, with a little apricot and cream of wheat flavor. The acidity leaves your mouth tingling. (around $60)
Really Delicious Riesling
Bründlmayer Riesling 'Kamptaler Terrassen' 2011: A bright and zingy riesling—it'll wake you up. Fresh, crisp, and delicious. It sells for around $24. (Those with bigger budgets should investigate the lush, full-fruited Bründlmayer Riesling Zöbinger Heiligenstein 'Lyra'.)
Nigl Riesling Dornleiten 2011 This wine has a mouthwatering peachy scent and great acidity swirling throughout. Lively, herbal, detailed, and thirst-quenching for around $28. I also absolutely loved the 2011 Riesling 'Privat', which practically glowed with minerals.
Schloss Gobelsburg Riesling Tradition 2010: A personal favorite. The 'Tradition' series (there's an excellent Gruner Veltliner as well) came out of an interest in how wines used to be made before the advent of modern winemaking practices, without temperature-controlled fermentation and with frequent racking from cask to cask. The wine is rich with flavors of Golden Delicious apple, ginger, and cinnamon, with a mouthwatering lemony acidity and glistening minerals that wash over the finish. It sells around $51—if you're looking for something more affordable, the Gobelsburger riesling is delicious, too, and about $19.
Alzinger Riesling Steinertal Smaragd 2011: Leo Alzinger's bottles aren't easy to find, his rieslings are all gorgeous. The Höhereck has amazing clarity with a film of rich ginger and cornbread over the top, while the Loibenberg is even spicier, balancing freshness and richness. Both are more powerful than this wine, from a cool, shaded vineyard, which has more acid and mineral, like apricots echoed in spring water. (Around $66)
Stellar Gelber Muskateller and Blaufränkish
Schwarzböck Gelber Muskateller 2011: these grapes were planted in a field blend (mixed among other grapes such as Roter Veltliner and Gruner Veltliner) and they decided to separate them to make a varietal wine—good thing, since this stuff is delicious. Both fragrant and refreshing, full of elderflower and tart starfruit flavors. (Around $21)
Heidi Schröck Gelber Muskateller 2011: I loved this wine in 2009, and then found the 2010 tauter and tighter and tarter. This one makes me happy again, intensely aromatic, gorgeous and supple, with a beautiful floral side. Heidi recommends serving it with asparagus. She also makes glorious dessert wine, Rüster Ausbruch. Seek out the 'Turner' made with 100% Furmint. It's tart and fresh and complex, perfect for serving with cheese or even roast chicken or turkey. (Around $25)
Prieler Blaufränkish Leithaberg 2009: My favorite red wines of the trip were from Famille Prieler. This Blaufrankish is very mineral, peppery, and minty—balanced beautifully. "We believe that great wines around the world don't have alcohol too high," said Georg Prieler during the tasting. "When you have acidity and you pick before the alcohol is too high, you also get freshness in the wine." It sells for around $29. I also liked their lean-and-fresh Blaufrankish Johanneshöhe. ($22)
Want to see where these wines come from and the people who make them? Check out the slideshow above.