This ongoing heat wave calls for refreshing white wines, and you can hardly go wrong by turning to Austria. Even just picturing this little Alpine country makes me feel cooler; centuries-old castles and tidy thick-walled villages watching over steep vineyards, above which the dulcet tones of Julie Andrews float.
In recent years, Austria has become justly famous (at least in some circles) for its high-quality and food-friendly Rieslings and Grüner Veltliners, both of which regularly make appearances on restaurant wine lists. I love these, and I tasted some fantastic examples at a recent tasting of Austrian wines.
But of course, I can’t resist going even deeper into obscurity. If you see a well-priced Austrian Riesling or Grüner, buy it; it will likely be an excellent value. But if you happen to find an Austrian white made with some other variety, grab that sucker and hold on with two fists. Some examples:
Johanneshof Reinisch Rotgipfler, 2011: The late-ripening Rotgipfler variety — the result of a cross between Roter Veltliner and Traminer — flourishes in the Thermenregion’s warm vineyards south of Vienna. This pale straw-colored example had a sweet pineapply aroma and a bit of prickle on the tongue. It turned surprisingly (but not unpleasantly) sour at the end, making it easy to pair with a range of foods.
Sattlerhof Steirische Klassik Gelber Muskateller, 2011: The Sattlerhof estate enjoys a particularly picturesque setting in the hills of the small Südsteiermark region bordering Slovenia. According to The Oxford Companion to Wine, many of the area’s best producers belong to the Steirische Klassik association, which works to ensure that wines represent the local terroir to its full potential. “Gelber Muskateller” is simply Muscat Blanc, one of the oldest known (and to my mind, one of the most delicious) wine grape varieties. It looked almost clear in the glass, with just a hint of yellow, and I loved its exquisitely floral aroma of overripe pineapple and lily-of-the-valley. Its juicy and almost tart flavor profile was not over sweet, and again, it would be sure to work well with all sorts of light summer recipes.
Sattlerhof Trockenbeerenauslese, 2010: Don’t be intimidated by the name (pronounced “Traw-ken-bear-en-owss-lay-seh). This typically German compound word indicates that the fruit used to make this wine is as ripe as ripe can be, with flavors and sugars concentrated by Noble Rot. If you like Sauternes or Tokaji Aszu, this wine is right up your alley. If you don’t like sweet wines, this one might just change your mind. Crafted with Sauvignon Blanc, this deeply golden wine had rich fruit and a lush, luxurious sweetness balanced — perfectly, beautifully, improbably — by a veritable kick line of acids. Sheer, unadulterated delight.
Zantho Muskat Ottonel, 2011: The Oxford Companion takes a dim view of this variety (also simply Muscat Ottonel), calling it “the palest of all the Muscats, both in terms of the color of the wine produced and in terms of its character.” Ouch. Zantho’s version, grown in vineyards squeezed between the marshy Neusiedlersee (Neusiedler Lake) and Hungary, is actually very aromatic, with a perfumy, floral nose. It’s not a wine to contemplate, but its sweet, sprightly, fruity and tart flavors make it a fun wine for summer. And since Zantho is one of Austria’s more well-known producers, with an easily recognizable lizard on the label, you have a fighting chance of finding this in your local wine shop.
Zantho Scheurebe Beerenauslese, 2010: Like a Trockenbeerenauslese, a Beerenauslese makes use of fruit affected by Noble Rot, but it’s not quite as concentrated or ripe. Apparently a different bottling from the one on Zantho’s website (listed as Traminer), this wine is made from Scheurebe, a cross between Riesling and some as-yet undetermined variety. A lovely gold, this wine smelled of green, honeyed apples and had notes of apples, peaches and even passion fruit. Yum.
Tement “Temento Green”, 2011: Set in the Südsteiermark region like Sattlerhof, Tement has a whole range of delicious whites of non-Riesling origin. This blend of Welschriesling (also known as Grasevina) and Sauvignon Blanc had a very green, fruity aroma, a prickle on the tongue and a sweet, rather vegetal flavor profile. It reminded me of a Portuguese Vinho Verde, making it a fine summer quaff.
Tement Steirische Klassik Gelber Muskateller, 2011: Also with a sweet, green nose, this wine morphed from sweet to acidic before tightening into a minerally finish. Very different from the Sattlerhof expression of the variety, but also excellent.
Tement Steirische Klassik Sauvignon Blanc, 2011: Almost clear, with an assertively citrusy and grassy aroma. These smells heralded the flavors to come; a mouthful of juicy grapefruit and grassy green. Bold and fun.
Tement Grassnitzberg Sauvignon Blanc, 2010: This fine single-vineyard Sauvignon Blanc reminded me of a subtler, more elegant version of the Klassik above. It was more refined and appropriate for a dinner party, whereas the Klassik was more of a racy broad more at home at a casual barbeque or picnic.