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The Grapevine

Great gruner, surprising rieslings distinguish Austria

By Lisa Aireythewinekey@aol.com

September 29, 2011

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Just one sip is all it takes. That first swallow explodes with flavors not usually attributed to the grape: Arugula, sugar snap peas, moss, heather, lentils. There is a bracing and refreshing minerality, plus a weight on the palate that belies its flavor profile. The wine is surprisingly dense and chewy for an unoaked white wine.

Just one sip will take you by surprise, but so will its name: gruner veltliner (grooner-velt-leaner). It's a struggle to verbalize, but not to internalize.

The grape grows in Austria, Hungary and the Czech Republic, all former members of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and it smacks of eastern Europe with a sultry exoticism.

It's different enough to be noteworthy and yet not so different as to make it just an occasional quaff. Many upscale restaurants offer gruner by the glass these days because the wine is so charming by itself and yet so incredibly food-friendly.

It's just fabulous with seafood! But it also marries well with challenging vegetables, such as asparagus and artichoke, that tend to skew the flavor profiles of other wines.

Try the Steininger Gruner Veltliner Grand Cru Kamptal Reserve 2009 ($27). It will wow you with its bright chlorophyll aromatics and mouth-filling texture.

Austria grows riesling also, and Austrian riesling has few similarities with its German counterpart.

Terry Theise, an importer of both German and Austrian wine, explains.

"Their [Austrian] wines are much higher in alcohol than German wines. They are also much lower in acidity, higher in glycerin and viscosity and generally more muscular than filigree," Theise says. "German wines are elegant, slender birches, and Austrian wines are big, handsome oaks."

Austrian rieslings are also dry (i.e., no residual sugar). The fruit is steely and stony, and the aromatics are wrapped around a solid core of carbonized minerality. The wines are so chiseled as to be positively diamond-etched, yet there is laughter between the lines.

One of the growing regions, the Wachau, has unique nomenclature to describe its wines. The lightest and daintiest are labeled "Steinfeder" (shtine-fayder), named after a local grass. Next up in the hierarchy is "Federspiel" (fayder-shpeel) which roughly translates as "feather-play." And last, but by no means least, is "Smaragd" (pronounce every letter), referring to the emerald green color of the local lizards that bask in the sun within the vineyards.

Try the Lagler Riesling "Spitzer Setzberg" 2009 ($26). It's a Federspiel. It will certainly dance across the palate with gossamer flavors of peaches and apricot, then crush you with its minerality. It's a monster masquerading as marquise.

Austrian wines are not cheap, but then again, to craft wines of such delicacy and power comes at a price. British wine author Stuart Pigott writes, "in Austrian wines, the body and richness of Alsace is wedded to the fresh fruit typical of Germany and to the crisp dryness of the Loire".

Again, the wines are different enough to make you take notice, but familiar enough to be comfortable as aperitif or table companion. Zum wohl (cheers)!