Virtual Austrian Wine Summit
Tasting Event April 21, 2011:
I was privileged to attend the Virtual Austrian Wine Summit, held at e11even Restaurant in Toronto. The event was organized by Birgitta Samavarchian of the Consulate General of Austria, in cooperation with the Austrian Wine Marketing Board. John Szabo, MS led the proceedings with a presentation and wine tasting, which was followed by a delicious lunch and walk about tasting.
Of course the most important element of the event was the wonderful wine itself, which I will get to in due course, but there were several other aspects of the presentation that I found very significant and thought-provoking.
One initial theme was that Austria has harmonized its wine laws with the European system, making the designation of origin a key legal component. At first glance the system seems complicated, since many of the old Germanic terms can still be used. But as I thought it through I realized that the Austrians have used the system in a very intelligent way.
European wines are regulated into three levels: What used to be called Table Wine is now "Wine Without Geographical Indication", or just Wein or Wine. The second level, Landwein, is now "Wine with Protected Geographical Indication" ("PGI" in English, similar to Italian IGT). From what I can tell, we will see very few examples of wine from these two categories in Canada, even though some countries such as Italy use the second level for high quality blends and wine from non-traditional varieties.
The third level, replacing Qualitätswein, is the source for most exported wines, and the classification that will concern us most outside of Austria. These are "Wine with Protected Designation of Origin" (PDO in English). This classification is divided into two, and here I think is the interesting wrinkle. The "Generic Quality Wines" come from one of four broad regions which are Federal States, while there are now sixteen more specific areas within the regions of which seven have the highest "Districtus Austriae Controlatus" or DAC status.
DAC's severely limit grape varieties, as do French AOC's and Italian DOC's. For example, Weinviertel DAC allows only Grüner Veltliner, three more DAC's allow only Grüner and Riesling, two allow only Blaufrânkisch, and just one, Leithaberg DAC, allows both white and red, including four white varieties and blends and red blends based on Blaufrânkisch. But the Generic Quality Wine designation allows for a wide array of grape varieties and blends, including many local as well as popular international varieties.
Think about it: DAC's allow the Austrian wine industry to focus on and promote their most important traditional world-class varieties: Grüner Veltliner, Riesling, and Blaufrânkisch, while still allowing innovation and diversity within the sphere of Generic Quality Wines.
I can't think of a single globally important wine exporting region that hasn't championed a very small number of identifiable varieties or styles. Yet within modern nontraditional markets we can't imagine restricting our growers and winemakers to just two or three varieties. Austria may have hit on a great solution here, supporting and promoting a clear focus through DAC's on the one hand, while allowing and supporting diversity through the broader Generic Quality Wine designation on the other.
But this isn't all. Austria allows for the inclusion of the traditional Germanic classification of the sweetness levels of white grapes at harvest, if desired. Thus a producer may choose to label a Quality wine of either level as Kabinett, Spâtlese, etc. if it qualifies. Think of this as describing the input to the wine.
As well, there is a system of legislated descriptions of the wine at bottling (the output), including Klassic (slightly less alcohol, younger) versus Reserve (slightly more alcohol, more mature), as well as a system of defined sweetness categories starting with Dry, Medium Dry, and so on, based on residual sugar and (in some cases) acidity. To give just one example, reds or whites are dry if they have less than 4 grams/litre of residual sugar. If they have between 4 and 9 g/l of residual sugar they are still dry as long as Total Acidity is within 2 g/l of the sugar level. Thus a Riesling with 9 g/l of RS and a TA of 7 g/l or more will be classified as dry.
The point of this is that the winemaker and producer have a set of tools that allow them to describe their wines in various ways. The Germanic "input" descriptions will be used for sweet whites, where the system is largely understood, but the "output" descriptions will also be of use to global consumers. Despite all of the seeming complexity, you will see that the front labels below are very clean, elegant and modern.
If you have managed to follow down to this point, without going away in despair or boredom, you will be interested in what I saw as a second very important theme. John Szabo began his presentation with the following slide as a bit of a joke, but the underlying point resonated strongly with me as I tasted the wines.
What I picked up in listening to the presentation, but more importantly in tasting the wines, was a strong desire to feature and promote what is uniquely Austrian. These are wines with acidity, minerality and along with fruit some significant savoury and spicy components. These are far from being generic international-style wines, and will not necessarily appeal to the broad market for those wines.
I was at another tasting last year with wines from a small satellite European country, where along with some older traditional wines, some new fruit-forward and heavily oaked "international" style wines were shown. I was horrified by the encouragement given to this approach by some of the critics and writers in the room, and I am happy that from the evidence of this presentation and tasting, Austria is avoiding that trap.
On that note, here are several of my highlights from the tasting.
2008 Willi Bründlmayer, Kamptal DAC, Steinmassel Riesling, 12.3% abv. H.H.D. Imports (price for previous vintage was $29.00).
The wine (label on the right) had a vibrant nose with citrus, peach and some minerality. The palate showed medium-plus acidity and body, with the flavours moving towards the peach and riper fruit spectrum. The finish was long and very dry.
While there were several other Rieslings, the focus was more on Grüner Veltliner, and I will mention several here.
2009 Rabl, Kamptal DAC, Kâferberg Grüner Veltliner Reserve, 13% abv. Imported by Thompson Vintage Trade, $24.95.
The wine (label on the right) had aromas of peach and lime, minerality, and a hint of spicy pepper. It was dry, with a medium body and medium-plus acidity. The aromas were reflected on the palate and the finish was long.
2007 Schloss Gobelsburg, Kamptal DAC, Kamerner Lamm Grüner Veltliner, 13.5% abv. Imported by Andrews Group, $45.00.
This intriguing wine (not pictured) was matured in old oak vats, and in addition to apple and spicy notes showed hints of vanilla, along with a savoury note. Dry, with good acidity but very round and somewhat creamy, there were murmurs of "white Burgundy", and I had to agree. I really enjoyed this wine!
2006 Salomon Undhof, Kamptal DAC, Von Stein Grüner Veltliner Reserve, 13.8% abv. Imported by Lamprecht International Ltd. $39.00.
The wine (not pictured) had floral and apple aromas, and was dry, with medium-plus acidity, a dense and rich mouthfeel with lots of minerality. Very elegant, with a long drying finish.
The range of styles of Grüner was intriguing, and I'm looking forward to delving much deeper soon!
There were a number of reds, including St. Laurent and Pinot Noir, though I only made notes on one of the Blaufrânkisch wines, a variety I enjoy immensely.
2007 Judith Beck Burgenland, Altenberg Blaufrâkisch, 13% abv. Imported by Violet Hill Wine Imports, $55.
This wine had a peppery and dark berry nose, with overtones of oak. It was dry, with good acidity, fine and firm tannins, and showed lots of minerality on the long finish. This had enough fruit and acidity that a year or two of aging might subdue the oak edges, though I quite enjoyed it in its current state.
I only tried one sweet wine, and it was very unusual but interesting:
2000 Kracher, Bugenland, Chardonnay Trockenbeerenauslese, 12.5% abv. Imported by H.H.D. Imports, $79.00.
This wine was made from totally botrytised grapes, with aromas suggesting that it was aged in oak. Any fruit notes were swamped by the oak and botrytis. To me it suggested savoury rather than sweet, though it was packed with residual sugar. I "forced" myself to eat several bites of the luscious key lime pie to test-drive the Chardonnay, and it worked well. However the savoury notes of the botrytis suggested hearty hard and nutty cheese, and I would have enjoyed trying that combination even more.
In sum this was a stunningly good tasting, made more impressive with a thought-provoking approach to marketing wine from a unique though (on a world scale) relatively small producer.