Kelly J. Hayes: WineInk
August 15, 2008
If you looked at a wine list and saw the words “Grüner Veltliner” and “Neuburger” under the white wines and then, under the reds, “Zweigelt” and “Blaufränkisch,” where would you be?
Well, you might be in Vienna at an impossibly modern restaurant housed in a 16th-century abbey that is a paragon of Austrian cooking or ” if the euro has got you down ” you could be in any one of the restaurants at the Sonnenalp resort in Vail.
You see, the Sonnenalp, the Vail outpost of an exquisitely beautiful Bavarian hotel and resort, has made a commitment to serving wines from Austria to complement the regional cuisine that it specializes in. The move to offer guests wines from a region that is lesser known to most Americans reflects the passion of sommelier Jamie Garrett, who, since taking the position last November of overseeing the resort’s 700-selection wine list, has become nearly fanatical about creating one of the best Austrian wine selections in the state.
While the list is available in each of the resorts’ five dining establishments, as well as on the room-service menu, it is in the authentic Swiss Chalet, which specializes in the fondues and raclette dishes of the Alps, that the Austrian wines have found their real niche. “People come for a taste of the region” said Garrett, “and it is our goal to have the broadest representation of Bavarian wines possible.”
Wines have been made in Austria for centuries, and as recently as the mid-1900s, the country was one of the world’s largest wine producers. But in 1985 a scandal rocked the Austrian wine world. It was revealed that some bulk producers had added diethylene glycol to their wines to enhance flavor. Diethylene glycol, an active ingredient in antifreeze, froze the Austrian wine industry in its tracks as many countries banned the wines and sales plummeted.
As a result, over the last 25 years the Austrians have gotten their act together by severely tightening regulatory controls and moving from an industry that was built on quantity to one grounded in quality. “If there is one thing people should know about Austrian wines, it is that they are of extremely high quality” said Garrett. “And the reds may be the most surprising to people.”
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Over the past few years Grüner Veltliner has become one of the hottest white wine grapes for smart sommeliers. The most planted grape in Austria, Grüner Veltliner produces wines that are crisp, dry and very food friendly. Wine writer Jancis Robinson once noted the trendy nature of “Grüner” on her website, labeling it “the distinctly groovy grape.”
Garrett refers to Grüner Veltliner as “the magic wine” because of its versatility. “It can go with asparagus and artichokes, two of the most difficult foods that you can think of to pair a wine with,” he noted.
Perhaps the most prominent red wine from Austria is Zwiegelt. Second to Grüner Veltliner in plantings, Zweigelt, according to Garrett, is “kind of like a spicy pinot noir, perhaps a little fuller in body and maybe not with the same bright cherry flavors.”
The grape was created in a laboratory in 1922 by a scientist named Fritz Zweigelt, who crossed the aforementioned Blaufränkisch grape with one called St. Laurent. The result has become the basis of Austria’s most widely exported red wine.
Space does not permit a fuller review of all the grapes from Austria, and this paper likely would not be big enough to present the complicated and very rigid structure of Austrian wine laws, regulations and classifications. The revision of this structure, however, provides fabulous fodder for wine geeks and can be found in all its glorious minutiae at http://www.winesfromaustria.com.
In the meantime, if you want to try some of these surprising wines look for producers like Knoll, Rudi Pichler, Josef Pöckl and Fred Loimer. They may be hard to find now, but they will be appearing with greater regularity on fine wine lists in the future.
Or you can make a date to go to the Swiss Chalet in Vail and try the Älper Fondue with one of Jamie Garrett’s versatile Grüner Veltliners or the Raclette Matterhorn with a spicy Zweigelt.
It will be like a trip to the Alps.