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Austria meets Asia

Dining and DrinkingCookingRestaurantsBill DaleyChicago Tribune

The full-page advertisement on the back cover of the August issue of Sommelier Journal is strikingly simple. A glass of golden white wine sits against a white background above a piece of fish roe-coated California inside-out sushi roll.

"Taste Culture," the ad reads in large letters. "Austrian Wine."

"Young gruner veltliners are vivacious aperitifs, and a can't-put-down food match with tempura, dim sum, pakora and sushi," says Ch'ng Poh Tiong, founder of the International Congress of Chinese Cuisine and Wine, in the ad.

For the wine professionals who subscribe to this magazine, the message is as brilliantly clear as the gruner itself: Make Austrian wine the go-to choice for Asian food pairings at your restaurant.

The crisp stylings of Austrian wines do make them useful for the growing roster of fiery Asian foods we enjoy. They also pair well with the chili-kissed dishes of Mexico and the imaginative fusion fare of California. Even the old dishes of San Francisco, the sand dabs and the petrale sole, the dungeness crab and the shrimp Louis, always seem to taste better with Austrian gruner than California chardonnay.

"Grape names like gruner veltliner may not roll off the tongue as easily as chardonnay, but in the glass the wines can be just as rewarding, or more so," said Tyler Colman, the New York-based author of "A Year of Wine: Perfect Pairings, Great Buys, and What to Sip With Each Season."

"Be the first on your block to toss around such exotic grape names as zierfandler and zweigelt," quipped Colman.

The Austrian wine campaign aims to get that word about food compatibility out to wine lovers, also making the case in a 12-page pamphlet offering detailed matches between Austrian wines and some of the most popular Asian dishes.

"Austria has about 120,000 acres of vineyards, Australia over 400,000," explained Willi Klinger, the director of the Austrian Wine Marketing Board, in an e-mail from Vienna. "They are making at least five times as much wine as Austria. But Australia has only about 2,200 bottling estates, Austria about 9,000. So we have to emphasize our authentic, artisanal, individual and natural wines made by families versus the world trend of commercial, industrial, uniform and technical wines made by big trusts."

The work Klinger's board does is based on three basic messages: Austria has a great culinary tradition; Austria makes authentic wines; Austria has a dynamic and innovative wine scene.

Klinger said the Austrians are focused on working with individual wine shops and restaurants because Austrian wine will not "conquer the supermarkets like Yellow Tail," that Australian line of inexpensive wines.

Clearly the effort is bearing fruit. Austrian wines were all but unknown in the United States 10 years ago. Now it seems Austrian wines, particularly gruner, are showing up everywhere.

The Austrians are pushing into an economic market where people are "retrenching and saying 'bargain, bargain, bargain,' " said Dan Fredman, owner of a wine public relations agency based in Malibu, Calif. "They (the Austrians) are saying you can enjoy a wine and you don't have to spend a zillion dollars."

Yet, Colman said, the higher-end Austrian winemakers are raising prices because of all the attention.

"Unfortunately, word has gotten out."

More pairing ideas

--The Austria Wine Marketing Board has done a good job matching its wines to a wide variety of Asian dishes, from Japanese sushi to tandoori chicken from India to spicy Sichuan beef. Download the handy pocket guide from the board's Web site: winesfromaustria.com/ adventuretour/ asiancuisine.html.

--Don't worry about how to say some of these grape varieties, the Web site has a "live" glossary where you can listen to these German words being spoken by a native speaker.

--While the Austrians, naturally, focus on their wines in this guide, realize the flavor profiles listed for these specific Austrian wines can apply to other wines from other wine regions around the world. So don't worry if you can't find that one Austrian wine at your store, especially the more obscure ones. Don't be afraid to experiment.

Pairing suggestions
--Fried spring rolls and riesling. Other choices: sauvignon blanc, rosé, weissburgunder.
--Tandoori chicken and roter veltliner. Alternative: gruner veltliner.
--Thai curry and zierfandler or rotgipfler (white wine grapes). Alternatives: Chardonnay, riesling, sauvignon blanc.
--Sichuan beef and blaufrankisch (red wine grape). Alternatives: Cabernet sauvignon, merlot.

By the numbers

Statistics tell the Austrian wine story -- and the challenges still to be faced.

122: Percentage increase in Austrian wine sales in the U.S. as measured in dollars, from August 2007 to August 2008.

7: Percentage increase from August 2008 to August 2009.

8.8 million: Number of cases of wine that Australia sold in the U.S. during the year ending Aug. 25.

8,979: Number of cases Austria sold in the same period.

Source: The Nielsen Co.

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wdaley@trbune.com

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