Uncorking the Inner Critic
Wein & Co. in the 1st District brings the DAC regions home: Tasting your way through the fine wines of Lower Austria
Directly opposite Stephansdom, down the oddly quiet Jasomirgottstraße, the Wein & Co. wine bar was brimming with patrons on a Wednesday evening around 19:00. The elegant crowd, wreathed in a thin cigarette cloud, looked fresh from work in the surrounding 1st District. Primed to attend a wine tasting of Lower Austrian wines, I practised my olfactory analysis on the scene: full-bodied, with a smokey bouquet, and undertones of cologne and hair gel. No dregs in here.
Downstairs, in the crypt-like meeting room, stood a long table suitable for the Last Supper. Instead of someone’s only begotten son, we were welcomed by the smart and sociable Hans-Martin Gesellmann, sommelier of Wein & Co., and moderator for this final tasting in a series focusing on Austria’s wine regions. Fourteen participants sat around the table in awkward hushed silence. Gesellmann wasted no time in uncorking, or unscrewing rather, a bottle and explaining the characteristics of Lower Austrian wines.
Blessed with warm, dry days and cool nights, the region surrounding Vienna is ideal for crisp white wines that are usually consumed young. Following two lacklustre harvests, the excellent summer of 2011 has vintners excited, with some varieties already on the market and others arriving after 15 Mar. The 2009 and 2010 vintages are better for the cellar.
For this occasion, Gesellmann had organised a horizontal wine tasting featuring a rivalry between Grüner Veltiner and Riesling grapes, followed by a taste of a few others. Nearly 60% of Lower Austrian whites are Grüner Veltliner, according to 2009 statistics, while Riesling is grown in only 13% of the vineyards. The Rieslings may not be the best-known wines from Austria, but they are consistently the best of their type in the world, says Gesellmann, outclassing their counterparts in Germany’s Mosel and Hessen regions, Australia and New York.
We began in the Weinviertel, Austria’s largest wine-growing district, lying north of the Danube stretching to the borders with Slovakia and the Czech Republic. The first region to receive the Districtus Austriae Controllatus (DAC) designation for a specified wine region, the "Wine Quarter" primarily produces the world-famous, crisp Grüner Veltliners, such as ours from Philipp Zull in Schrattenthal.
As the "students" watched and waited, Gesellmann swirled his glass with a flick of his wrist as if he were conducting the Philharmonic. "Fruity, tangy, peppery, with a hint of pear," he judged. "It would accompany a hearty Tafelspitz or Schnitzel."
After two Veltliners from Traisental DAC and Wagram, our host set us up for the best one, a 2010 from Schloss Gobelsburg in the Kamptal DAC. It featured a full, oily body, 13.5% alcohol and an intense pear aroma. Stored in wooden casks instead of steel vats, a Gobelsburg can be kept for up to 20 years, quite a feat for an Austrian wine.
"Where is the Kamptal?" asked one attendee, which proved that a map might have helped even the wine country natives.
Continuing west, we commenced our exploration of Rieslings in the Kremstal DAC, with another strong white from Weingut Salomon. The nose was sweet with hints of pineapple and apricot, and the mouth was salty with a strong attack, but not a long finish.
We continued to the Wachau region for a Tegernseerhof Smaragd from the warmer upper terraces of the Loibenberg. The Wachau association Vinea Wachau determines levels of quality for this region, called Steinfeder (under 11.5% alcohol), and Federspiel (11.5% to 12.5%), and Smaragd (above 12.5%). Although done nearly everywhere else, the Wachau regional regulations don’t allow added sugar. Nonetheless, this 2009 was perhaps too young.
Leaving the banks of the Danube, we headed south of Vienna to the Thermenregion for two more whites. Besides an unimpressive Zierfandler varietal with a weak bouquet, the Thermenregion south of Vienna offered an impressive Rotgipfler from Freigut Thallern, a vineyard formerly owned by the monks of Heiligenkreuz monastery, who have cultivated wine since 1141. Gesellmann pointed out the need to eat something with this wine. The crisp quince and citrus flavours proved that the "Singing Monks" are proficient at more than Gregorian chant.
By now each small portion had begun to add up, and the attendees became more talkative and a tad giddy, and began discussing the wines amongst themselves.
We reached the reds in Carnuntum, with a Rubin Carnuntum containing 90% Zweigelt grapes – which reminded Gesellmann that Dr. Friedrich Zweigelt, the botanist who crossed St. Laurent and Blaufränkisch to make the grape formerly known as Rotburger, was a "fervent member" of the Nazi party. Thus, some categorically refuse to drink Zweigelts, while others figure, as Gesellmann formulated it, "It’s not the grape’s fault he was a Nazi."
By now quite tipsy, we wandered back to the Weinviertel near Retz, a grape’s throw from the Czech border, sipping Christian Jassek’s Schatzberg, a cuvée of Zweigelt, Merlot and Blauburger. Although the dull, grey label was hideous, the wine was divine, the best of the evening. Gesellmann noted the "oily, vanilla, cacao, caramel, and plum" undertones, and spat into the bucket at his side.
Needless to say, very few of the attendees had bothered to use theirs, and the once deferential "students" joined the swirling and chinking upstairs to share their impressions.