The Lighter Side of Wine
As we sweat through a blazing Vienna summer, I thought it pertinent to raise one of the hottest topics in wine at the moment, the "heat" or level of alcohol, in the wine.
Obviously, wine wouldn’t be wine without the alcohol, and the buzz it delivers is part of the pleasure. But alcohol levels have been climbing, much to the chagrin of some oenophiles, who find higher-octane wines overbearing and exhausting to drink.
This palate much prefers wines that keep their distance from schnapps, where the polishing off of one glass is not met with a need to doze off at the dinner table. But I also humbly respect consumer choice.
All this ferment has its roots in the fermentation process. As grapes ripen, they accumulate sugar, which is converted to alcohol during the fermentation process. The higher the sugar, the higher the potential alcohol of the wine. While certain grape varieties are naturally higher in sugar than others and some places ripen grapes more easily than others (Burgenland versus The Wachau), it's safe to say that in the world overall, wine alcohol levels are on their way up.
There is no one thing to blame (or thank) for this "spike". We can look to climate change, and considering the summer this year, be inclined to accept that with increased temperatures and more erratic rainfalls, it’s possible that the grapes’ potential for sugar accumulation is on the rise. Viticultural practices are also liable, with more efficient pruning and sun exposure set-ups, so too has the efficacy of industrial grade dry yeasts, that do not stop performing at 13%, but are able to keep gobbling up the sugar until 15-16% levels are reached.
A family winery bucks the trend
It is however, market forces, that I feel has had the most influence over wine’s direction. Austrian wine has been riding a wave of increased popularity on the international circuit, which is wonderful news. But what comes with this is the doubtful benefit, market-driven pressure, to be influenced by critics and consumer palates, pushing a trend for "super-sized wines".
The danger is to steer towards the unnatural. The Austrian wine industry has become established over many years with a selection of grape varieties in specific regions and vineyard sites that have proven over time to complement nature’s variables.
But what happens if we start to muscle our way into this delicate equilibrium? How far can a Grüner Veltliner migrate from the cool slopes along the Donau, or an elegant St Laurent from sheltered valleys? How far can either go past its natural state of balance before it starts to resemble something else from some place else entirely?
Luckily, there are some wine makers in Austria who have seen the light, literally.
Gerhard and Brigitte Schaller from The Schaller Wine Estate in Podersdorf, within a sea breeze of the shores along Neusiedlersee, have forged an already growing customer base for their newly released 2012 Schaller vom See wines. A white and red cuvée are presented in snappy fresh packaging that embodies their philosophy to produce relaxed, refreshing wines that do not sacrifice flavour and layers of interest, but do put a stop sign on too much alcohol.
The two wines – the white being a blend of Welschriesling and Grüner Veltiner, spiced with a small proportion of Gelber Muskateller, and the red, a cuvée of Zweigelt and St. Laurent – come in at 11% and 11.5%
Fresh fruits... herbs and fresh violets
The most immediate sensory experience one usually has when tasting these wines is the initial palate weight. Alcohol is heavy, and with wines pushing past 14%, the glycerol of the alcohol almost coats the mouth like an oil slick. Not so with Schaller’s wines.
The white is so juicy and vibrant that it hints at crushing handfuls of fresh fruits and gobbling the pulp down, while being cleaned up by a vibrant acidity. Each sip is ultimately enjoyable, and the time between them
The red cuvée was always going to be the clincher for me. We have come to expect a level of alcohol in a red wine, and rightly so, as the structure of reds have enough edge to underplay even the most ferocious heat.
The Schaller vom See, though, is a player with oodles of black currants and cherries, a hint of liquorice, but an unmistakable lift of herbs and fresh violets, that is a pleasure to drink.
My visit with Gerhard and Brigitte demonstrated their love for what they do. Humble, almost shy on arrival, they were genuinely welcoming. With each moment that passed, more about their lives and ambitions in wine were revealed, while wines were sipped without fuss or fanfare.
They say wine is the reflection of the grower. Well if you are someone who relishes the relaxation of days along the beach, loose clothing and a cooling breeze in your hair, then you will embrace these wines from the Schaller Estate, and rethink how much "heat" you are willing to accept.