Thursday, November 6, 2014

Austrian Reds in NYC, 15 October 14 at The Modern...

Foto ÖWM here is the little ditty that I wrote for the tasting book of the Austrian Wine Marketing Board’s presentation in New York last month... a sort of an introduction—the only guideline I was given by the AWMB was to concentrate on the themes of ageability and collectability.
...and I would certainly say that this collaborative effort between the AWMB and Wein Burgenland did a better than merely good job of putting a great number of noteworthy examples together, articulating what has truly been a significant achievement that’s taken place over the past couple decades.

—— Versatile, Ageable and Collectible...
One of wine’s greatest 20th-century minds (and palates) wrote:
I know a country where the beneficial effect of wine is well understood.
It is drunk as a tonic, a stimulant, or simply because one is happy.
No, it’s not France; it is Austria...

This observation from Émile Peynaud’s coffee-table tome Le Gout du Vin—written by a Frenchman in 1980, well before “modern” Austrian wine came onto the stage; before there was a Vinea Wachau or a “Red Wine Wonder...”

Austria is a wine-culture. Not for naught does the name of her capital city Wien come close to that of the native beverage Wein. Rather, Austria has several wine-cultures folded in upon one another, its individual components as distinctive as Steiermark and Burgenland, Schilcher and Chardonnay (plus the 1500 acres of vines growing within Vienna’s city limits).

With this: every Austrian wine is a food wine. The flavors of Austrian Red grew up in Burgenland (until 93 years ago German West Hungary), alongside the Mangalitza pig, spicy paprika and Blaukraut. Austria’s contemporary wine culture and her thriving culinary scene have crosspollinated one another as if the very best and busiest of bees were at work in the garden. One significant aspect of the nation’s great wealth lies in her three native red grape varieties: Blaufränkisch, Sankt Laurent and the excellent crossing of those two, Zweigelt. All three are distinctive, and each one is uniquely Austrian.

These wines are to the table born. In the context of complex and complicated flavors, matters of umami or savory, Blaufränkisch will go fearlessly where other red wines fear to tread. The utterly sublime way in which Blaufränkisch insinuates itself among intricate food-flavors offers a challenge to the very finest wines of France, Italy and Spain. Of course there’s also the traditional “red wine with red meat and game,” where the Blaufränkisch also proves sauce for the wild goose as well as for the Gosht Biryani.

Sankt Laurent will behave in many ways like its illustrious relative Pinot Noir, except that the variety is also capable of soaking up a heroic amount of hotpeppery spice—to an extreme where even Zinfandel or Teroldego Rotaliano would beg for mercy—and offers a magnificent outside perspective to the subtle flavors of the sushi bar.

Zweigelt has a wonderful way around the Tandoori spice-box, and is extremely good with high-class Mexican preparations—Molé or Adobo, for example. And then there’s the grill and the barbecue; this variety plays very well alongside heat and zesty seasonings.

Austrian red wines are ready to take their place alongside those of Burgundy, Piedmont & Bordeaux as items to tuck away in the treasured depths of the cellar, awaiting the time when elements of thirst, cuisine and conviviality align themselves to produce that certain moment.

Currently: after having gone through an inevitable period of stylistic internationalism as young winegrowers returned with new techniques from their travels in America and Australia, New Zealand and France, Austria’s estates are now producing red wines that can only be made in Austria, and only from Austria’s native vines. This is a remarkable achievement in a relatively short period of time; what discriminating collector would not wish to have these sophisticated and distinctive bottlings in his/her cellar?

Tasting several dozen 2010 Zweigelts in Vienna two years ago, I realized that I would’ve happily drunk most of them. (In this difficult vintage many growers had expended extra effort getting the most out of their Blaufränkers and cuvées, letting the Zweigelt take care of itself—with delicious results.) Would I cellar them? Good question. I have typically thought Zweigelt more suited to the pantry, although certainly good for a few years. Of course there have always been exceptions like Schwarz Rot or Josef Umathum’s Ried Hallebühl, both from Burgenland’s Neusiedlersee district, which certainly repay patience. 

Sankt Laurent lives by a learning curve similar to Pinot Noir. A 2003er from Hannes Schuster drunk two years ago in a swish downtown Vienna restaurant not only handled the great ripeness of that hot vintage very well, but was also developing its secondaries with charm and style. No longer dwindling in acreage, more growers—especially in Northern Burgenland and the Thermenregion—have become convinced that this variety is indeed worth the trouble (considerable) involved in its cultivation and vinification.

Of course the star of the show as far as ageability goes is Blaufränkisch and the cuvées based on it. Wines from the 1999 vintage are becoming harder to find, but one taste of a 99er Kollwentz Steinzeiler or Paul Achs Ungerberg will convince even the most recalcitrant skeptic. Weingut Prieler’s Goldberg 2002 is just heavenly these days. 2002 Moric Alte Reben Lutzmannburg (a significantly less aggressive style) has developed equally well, with no sign of tiring. Perhaps in ageing these wines one might think of them in the way we do Loire Valley reds—great fun to drink while they are still young, but when we come across an old Chinon “Les Picasses” from Olga Raffault, oh what a treat that is!

From the Spitzerberg in Carnuntum down the length of Burgenland southward, from Gols to Leithaberg, Mittelburgenland and Eisenberg, excellent acidity and refined tannins recur as common themes in the current batch of Blaufränkisch. These factors are sure to promote ageability and prolonged development; the current trend away from new oak is a positive influence. The deep and compelling flavors of this noble grape become more readily apparent, now that the fruit is no longer so frequently lost in the lumber. Growers who produce monovarietal Blaufränkisch often have their eye on the Côte d’Or and Piemonte—and while the variety’s intrinsic characteristics differ from those of Pinot Noir and Nebbiolo, Blaufränkisch shows a similar propensity for transmitting the message of the soils in which it was grown to the taster as do its venerable cousins from France and Italy. As those wines grow more (and more) expensive for the collector, Austrian Blaufränkisch will seem a very wise choice.                

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Mistresses of Wine?

congratulations to all who earned this tough honour!

among these new Masters of Wine, four out of six persons are female...

only problem here is that – like a couple years back, when two African-American head coaches faced each other in the NFL Super Bowl – we notice this.


Monday, September 8, 2014

wine is...

 is that magickal substance, which possesses the uncanny ability to find the least possible residue of detergent clinging to a seemingly pure and pristine piece of crystal —

Friday, June 27, 2014

falling asleep…

and now the day has had its way with me
so all desire and yearning redeploy
and friendly I receive the starry night
like welcome to a weary boy

hands, no more these occupations;
brow, leave off your wrinkled thinking—
all my senses inward folded
safely into slumber sinking

allow my soul without constraint
to hover freely in its flight
to deeply live—and in one thousand ways—
within the magic circle of the night

Hermann Hesse

from Richard Strauss,
Four Last Songs
            trans. © James Oliver Wright
            QM2 06.14

Monday, June 23, 2014

Purely Purbach, Beautifully Burgenland...

photo by Lauren Mowery ©

‘twas one of those magickal evenings that sometimes fall in the traveller’s lap—thousands of miles away from home one ends up in the perfect place with exactly the right people…
to this we add a magnificent dinner—this evening unfolded at one of the region’s top culinary addresses, Gut Purbach – and some of the region’s (the entire nation’s) finest and most expressive wines, brought personally by four of Burgenland’s best growers:
Kurt Feiler, from Weingut Feiler-Artinger in Rust
Hannes Schuster, Weingut Rosi Schuster in St Margarethen
Josef Umathum from Frauenkirchen
Roland Velich from the Moric Estate in Großhöflein…
the New York contingent was a veritable rogues’ gallery: meself, journalist Gregory Dal Piaz, wine-director Matt Stinton from Hearth & Terroir, PR-flack Constance Chamberlain, sommelière Sabra Lewis, EaterNY wine-laddie Levi Dalton and reporter Lauren Mowery from the Village Voice, plus Wolfgang Ban and Stephanie Artner (these latter two actually Burgenländer(in), perhaps the two most important people for Austrian wine on the East Coast—Stephanie for her tireless and imaginative work at the Austrian Trade Commission, and Wolfgang with his splendid Michelin-starred restaurant Seasonal on W 58th St [not to mention his involvement with gastro-pub Edi & the Wolf in Alphabet City and the Paulaner beer-hall in the Bowery]) —plus Winemonger Imports proprietors Emily and Stephan Schindler with their guests from California, at least one Canadian and one Quebecoise, and the rather animated Jeanie Lea from South Korea. Surely I’ve left somebody out…sorry!
we were hosted by the head of the regional organisation Wein Burgenland, Christian Zechmeister, and Marie-Sophie Lodron from the Austrian Wine Marketing Board along with chef Max Stiegl, who opened the restaurant on what’s normally his day off. Special thanks to them!
the first cork was popped (or rather the neck of the first Stelvin was wrung) by the Agricultural Minister for Burgenland, Andreas Liegenfeld, the Grüner Veltliner Bergweingarten from his estate in nearby Donnerskirchen.
and here I should make one important observation: Burgenland is a different culture from the rest of Austria – a different food-culture, a different wine-culture, and a different culture-culture for that matter. The region was part of Hungary – German West Hungary ­– until 1921 when it became the last state added to Austria.
the cuisine of Max Stiegl at Gut Purbach retains more than a hint of this Hungarian heritage, and highlights a factor that I find eminently praiseworthy about modern Austrian cuisine in general: it has two faces like the god Janus, looking both ways, steadily true to its traditions while at the same time consistently inventive and lively…
and now to table!
the Schmalz that came with freshly baked bread at the beginning had a spicy overtone to it that I don’t normally associate with Lower Austrian Schmalz. And the bread came accompanied by Ajvar as well, a Serbian relish concoction made from red bell peppers that I’d just had on my Pljeskavica for lunch at favourite Balkan resto Café Nepomuk in the 7th District of Vienna. So we’ve already come a ways from Schnitzeldorf…

Smoked eel, goat-cheese and kohlrabi—a piquant interplay of flavours and textures…
Weingut Liegenfeld Grüner Veltliner Himmelreich 2013
Feiler-Artinger Neuburger Gustav 2013
the first of these markedly different from GVs out of the Traisental, Kremstal, Wachau, Weinviertel, Wagram or Kamptal. More along the profile of the Pinot types, not so citric as a young Poysdorfer, for example; nicely textured, firm and lively.
Neuburger is a story of its own. One of the three bastard children of old goat Roter Veltliner, in this case sired upon Señora Silvaner, Neuburger’s got a way of meeting even the most severe culinary challenges, like artichoke or asparagus. It’s stylistically adaptable, holds his liquor well as a Wachau Smaragd, can be agile and deft out of the Thermenregion, and quite delicious here in Burgenland. One highlight of the past was a 1983 Neuburger from Hans and Anita Nittnaus in Gols that John opened for me and Schildknecht some ten years ago… The Feiler was a picturebook Burgenländer, lightly-spiced nut aromas, plenty of texture and pearsy fruit on the palate; nicely strung together along an animated acid interplay.

Pannonische Kaltschale, Gazpacho Burgenland, nice and spicy!
Moric Grüner Veltliner 2009, from a magnum…
Umathum Rosa 2013
the nicely matured Moric is showing a kinship with the other Burgenland GV. And here confirming that we’re not in Lower Austria any more; that the variety in this part of the world has aromatics and textures that are not that far off from being reminiscent of the Pinot family – and here it blends beautifully with chardonnay, btw ­– So it was a good chance to ask grower Roland Velich about the characteristic ‘Pfefferl’ snap that we have come to expect from many of the Danubian Grüners. Roland explained that this was simply an expression of unripe fruit, which had become ingrained in the expectations of many drinkers, and really shouldn’t be considered a positive element. Interestingly enough, I asked old pal Ludwig Neumayer, from the Traisental in Lower Austria, about this a couple days later, found him totally in agreement with his Burgenländer colleague.
Umathum Rosa is a cuvée, comprised of equal parts Blaufränkisch, St Laurent and Zweigelt – saignée, a wine that always shows the variability of the vintage; in this case almost a red wine in flavour, though tending towards white in body. Beautiful deep pink colour, cherry and redcurrant flavours, bright acidity and firm tannins.

Halászlé von Huchen with Saffron, Ginger and Lentils (Hungarian fish soup made from Danube salmon and hot paprika)
Rosi Schuster Sankt Laurent 2012
Rosi Schuster Sankt Laurent Zagersdorf 2007
as much as I adore the two Moric old vines Blaufs that would shortly appear on the groaning board, this grape and this grower are near and dear to my palate and heart. Hannes Schuster has a way with SL that has few peers; Rheinisch in the Thermenregion, Schloss Gobelsburg from Kamptal, Umathum from across the lake...
Pinot Noir’s kinky cousin, here – a grape that’s equally frustrating to grow, demands the same soils and the same attentive noninterventionist cellar techniques, will show a lot of pinot character while being able to cope with an incendiary level of spice that would kill even a Zinfandel or a Teroldego Rotaliano. ...the characteristic aromatix of Weichsel, a sharp and sour autochthonous cherry similar to the Burgundian griotte, along with scents of spice, dried fruit and smoked meats… here no new wood and no small wood. The 12er from young vines, around Z’dorf and St Margarethen, finely textured, and not as lactic as many… while the magisterial 07er Zagersdorf adds the weight of years plus a plummy sense of depth, along with a profound minerality from the older vines digging deeper into the limestony soils. (and it’s difficult at this point to line up the wines and the dishes exactly…)

Frogs legs……were not on the menu, but they hopped onto the table anyway, accompanied by a gentle purée
Umathum Blaufränkisch ‘Edition 1214’ 2012
Moric Blaufränkisch Lutzmannsburg Alte Reben 2007
Umathum’s ‘1214,’ from a pure limestone soil – a rather densely woven web of blackberry and blackcurrant and and more blackberry, aromatix of dark cherries, ultimately rather elegant and spicy, but retaining a nice bit of freshness. Roland Velich’s Lutz AR showed lovely depth and fine texture, rather expansive with dark cherries and blackberries, dried plums and blackcurrants; elegant and very long.

and then came This Little Piggy:
Whole Rack of Turopolje Pork in Juniper Jus
not the densely-marbled Mangalitza, at home here in the neighbourhood, but rather a leaner sort of fellow with splendid cracklings. Turopolje is a Croatian breed of swine named for his hometown, a very ancient bloodline and grown rather rare these days. He graced the table accompanied by little satellite dishes of glazed onions, potatoes au gratin and chanterelles.
Umathum Blaufränkisch Kirschgarten 2004 Magnum
Moric Blaufränkisch Neckenmarkt Alte Reben 2004 Magnum

one element that characterises all the growers who are currently putting Burgenland in the Big Picture is their methodical dedication and consistent effort. The 2004 Blaufränkisch Kirschgarten from Josef Umathum comes from a vineyard that Pepi replanted in Jois after painstakingly rebuilding the only terrace in Burgenland. This took six months, and some fifteen thousand man-hours of labour. These grapes came from the second harvest after replanting, and though it is a wine I have never truly loved, I must admire the way it’s developed over the course of ten years. Plenty of spice, and prominent minerality.
of course a stark contrast to this was provided by the 2004 Blaufränkisch Neckenmarkt Alte Reben from Moric. Ancient vines some eighty years old, meagre soils and very little ‘winemaking.’ Not everybody’s cup of tea, some prefer Roland’s meatier Lutzmannburg; rather lean with significant elements of minerality right on the face of it, Darjeeling and cedar, black cherries ultimately revealing a sweet core of deep fruit and a firm acidic structure and finely interwoven tannins before singing a lovely long and lingering sayonara…

and the dining wound down with one of those transparent desserts that take up the whole plate but somehow go weightless down the gullet.
Somlauer Nockerl
Feiler-Artinger Ruster Ausbruch 2006 Magnum
the wine that came with this was a meal in itself,  the 2006 Ausbruch Pinot cuvée from Feiler-Artinger. Ausbruch is the German word for a jailbreak, but in this case refers to the outbreak of botrytis, which the proximity of Lake Neusiedl guarantees in most vintages. Marzipan, apricot, honey, brown sugar, poached pears and peaches and walnuts and cream—a magnificent ending to the selection of wines.

so what do we come away with?
regarding Blaufränkisch it’s become abundantly clear that the world of wine has another great red variety on its hands. Sankt Laurent? We’ll see – most likely he’ll remain a specialty, offering the occasional treasure.
and everybody who’s anybody seems to have recently given a red card to the cooper—none of the wines are so heavily burdened with oak as they were ten or even five years previously. Growers have become far more self-confident, and have more confidence in the validity and expressiveness of the native material, which they no longer feel obliged to put an international polish upon before taking it to market.

— hats off, gentlemen and ladies; there’s a great deal for these winegrowers to be proud of here.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

a couple thoughts about the hometown hero...

Zinfandel is the great American success story. It is a versatile performer capable of wearing many masks, of playing many roles in the drama of modern wine—or is it a comedy? Jury is still out...

my favorite Zinfandel moments include a dinner with a noted (very, and for that reason anonymous in this instance) American importer of fine wines from France and elsewhere in the Old World. Among other foolishness, I had concealed a bottle of 1973 Ridge Geyserville in a paper bag, and soon had the fellow swirling the wine in his glass and trying his damndest to guess which château in Pauillac the wine had come from. Oh dear…

Ridge will figure prominently in any story about Zinfandel—nearly twenty years ago I had invited a couple topnotch German winegrowers from the Pfalz to dine with me in Los Angeles at my favorite haunt, and spared no resource in digging out some extraordinarily good California wines for them to enjoy—very fine examples: 1978 Chateau Montelena Cabernet Sauvignon, 1978 Diamond Creek Volcanic Hill Cabernet Sauvignon—but the one wine that took the cake, not to mention making the braised lamb-shank bleat out of sheer ecstasy was the 1970 Jimsomare Zinfandel from Ridge. Still a baby at twenty-five years of age, a subsequent bottle ten years later was approaching perfection. 

and lest one infer that I'm just reciting ancient history, not too long ago I had taken a group of colleagues and customers on my Different Germany tour, which ended up in Siebeldingen in the Pfalz, where we came to roost in the Hotel Sonnenhof, and had a wonderful dinner in their restaurant. Top wine of the night? 1994 Ridge Geyserville — which during its rather fast half-life in decanter and glasses managed to hover weightlessly—not a bad trick at 14.3° alcohol—between Bordeaux and the Veneto. And had cost the princely sum of  24€ on the Sonnenhof's wine list.

and we want to get to know this versatile fellow just a little better. Every few years a new theory has been hatched concerning the origin of Zinfandel, and its relationship (very close) to the Italian variety Primitivo along with is relationship (close) to the Plavac Mali from Croatia. But now the mystery has been solved once and for all, by Californian vine-geneticist Carole Merideth, who has identified the original Zinfandel—Tribidrag—in an obscure vineyard on the Dalmatian coast of Croatia, where it is known as Crljenak Kastelanski. And what's more, there are historical records of the Tribidrag being traded —and mentioned by name—across the Adriatic Sea to Venice in the early 1400s. One excellent appreciation of the variety was published by David Darlington in 1991; his Angels' Visits remained one of my favorite wine-books for quite some time. Darlington places Zinfandel's initial American appearance made in the1820s, brought over from the Imperial collection in Vienna, Austria. In the 1830s it was offered for sale by a Boston nursery, and became a popular table grape—grown under glass—in New England. In the 1850s Zinfandel was introduced to California, where it became a mainstay of the burgeoning viticulture that developed after the gold rush, and was widely planted during the wine-boom of the 1880s.

i am in the minority among serious wine professionals in not blanketly condemning the phenomenon of White Zinfandel, that wine tailored to the American consumer who’d grown up drinking Kool-Aid (not the metaphorical, but the original) and had a taste for that sort of sweetness. I actually served a bottle once along with Mulligitawny, and it was fine. And it introduced consumers to wine that otherwise would not have dared a step in that direction. But more importantly, it kept some really good old-vines vineyards from either getting hacked-out or budded-over during the 1990s.

zinfandel is rather disease-resistant in the vineyard; it produces generous bunches of grapes, but these will quite have unripe, ripe and over-ripe grapes hanging together. Once in the bottle he holds his liquor rather well. Common characteristics of aroma and flavor include spice-notes; the clove, cinnamon, black pepper and mint. Fruits belong to the dark-berry variety, black currant and black raspberry, black cherry. One notable Zinfandel that has always appealed to me is the gentler style practiced by Doug Nalle, who told me he always tried to get his Zin into the house at or under 24° brix, which meant into the bottle right around fourteen percent alcohol. This is a variety that works and plays well with others. Ridge’s wines can either be primarily zinfandel, like their Lytton Springs, or a field-blend like Geyserville that actually doesn’t have enough Zinf on the lot to wear the name by law—although it certainly wears the heart on its sleeve. Favorite playmates include Carignane, Alicante Bouschet and Petite Sirah.

Joel Peterson and Ravenswood hardly need any introduction, but another estate I greatly admire is Green and Red. Propreitor Jay Heminway was a maverick, who planted Zinfandel on Howell Mountain at a time where anybody with any sense was planting CS & M. His wines buck the general trend toward bubblegumminess in Napa Zinfandel, and manage to show plenty of balance at north of 15% alcohol.

my personal favorite locale for this variety is Sonoma’s Dry Creek Valley. And that means growers like Rafanelli, Quivira, Ridge Lytton and Unti, along with urban pioneers Dashe, who make wines from the ancient vines in Louvau Vineyard and Toll Brothers Ranch. Dry Creek was already overgrown with Zinfandel well before the end of the 19th century, although the growers suffered one significant setback with the pandemic of phylloxera in the early 20th century—which found Zin being replanted on the resistant St George rootstock—and then another with the unmitigated disaster of Prohibition. Fortunately many of these old vineyards survived the 18th Amendment to the US Constitution, and still form a significant part of the 2400 acres of Zinfandel in the AVA.

of course it is important to acknowledge Sonoma Valley's Stellwagen and Old Hill vineyards as well... And then there’s Amador & Shenandoah. Mountain wine. Thicker skins and stewed fruit notes, offering great depth of flavor and sometimes a little heat going down the dolce vita… Lodi, Paso Robles, Contra Costa County—all of these are good Zin territory. 

one excellent tribute to Zinfandel was paid on the public wine forum Wine Berserkers recently, where the members took great pains to compile a list of the venerable sites in the Golden State where Zinfandel is grown. The URL is:

zinfandel is currently enjoying a resurgence on the NYC gastro-scene. Food matching with the variety is eminently rewarding; there are few directions in which this versatile fellow fears to tread, and most of those are better fed with—any culinary manifestations Italianate heritage, most red meat dishes—and lighter Zins will do as nicely as Chianti with seared salmon. Zinfandel likes cheeses like Reggiano, Mimolette and Roomano from Holland; some of the bigger ones will even take on Gorgonzola rather handily.