Dogs of Munselle Vineyards, Alexander Valley, Sonoma
Dogs of Munselle Vineyards, Alexander Valley, Sonoma
If you missed my column last week in the Village Voice, here’s a second chance to read about Austrian white wines:
It’s mid-summer, we’re steeping in city heat, and thus reaching for a bottle of chilled wine when evening refreshment hour rolls around (which seems to creep up earlier in the day as the season stretches on). By now, you’ve probably guzzled the last of your Wölffer rosé allotment, dumped out enough wretched Pinot Grigio to fill a kiddie pool, or developed the Sauvignon Blanc overdose blues. The antidote for such vinous malaise: Austrian wines.
The country is home to a wonderland of unusual, high-quality grapes; the whites, in particular, offer a diverse array of styles and regional origins. And as New Yorkers with access to the world’s vast wine library, we can track down many of them.
You’ve probably seen Grüner Veltliner hanging out in your local wine shop or offered by the glass at the wine bar, or perhaps you’ve schlepped a 1.5 liter bottle of Grooner to a potluck in Park Slope. Monika Caha of Monika Caha Selections, in conjunction with the Forstreiter family of Kremstal, developed the Grooner brand specifically for the American market, in part to provide our palates training wheels to discovering the country’s more serious wines.
Statistically, Grüner Veltliner dominates Austria’s white grape vineyard acreage and Americans’ knowledge of Austria’s wines. The rise in its popularity, however, has overshadowed the other fascinating grapes that make up the country’s catalogue of wines.
Not to dismiss Grüner Veltliner; the vines share an electric chemistry with the soils of Austria akin to the charged on-screen energy between Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz. It doesn’t taste as profound when grown elsewhere in the world (that’s terroir). I’ve tried Grüner from California (dull), Australia (bland), New Zealand (lacking spice). None come close to the complexity, stony minerality (a debatable term, but with no other descriptor available, I’ll use it), and characteristic white pepper notes that define both outstanding and modest Austrian versions. It’s a bit like Nebbiolo in that respect.
While in Austria’s Wachau region, I drank exceptional terroir-transmitting Riesling. The wines were dry and structured, focused and lively, yet routinely overlooked in favor of neighboring Germany. I came to love, when tended by careful hands, Weissburgunder (Pinot Blanc) and Grauburgunder (Pinot Gris). I’d previously erroneously dismissed these two grapes as bland and neutral when grown outside of Alsace, but they are transformed in Austria, developing rich character and body, and nutty complexity with a few years of age. (They didn’t name Weissburgunder after white Burgundy without reason.)
So far, I’ve only addressed the “international” grapes. To help me track down esoteric varieties like Roter Veltliner, Rotgipfler, and Neuburger, I had dinner at Seäsonal with Austrian native and NYC restaurateur Wolfgang Ban. Co-owner and chef, as well as partner at Edi & the Wolf and cocktail den The Third Man, Ban stocks a lot of the wines I hoped to find back in NYC.
I asked Ban which whites he liked to drink; turns out we both shared a fondness for Gelber Muskateller, a grape that delivers generous, exotic aromatics of flowers and nutmeg. “It’s a light, floral wine that’s easy on the alcohol and easy to drink in the summer,” Ban explained. He recommended chilling a bottle for a picnic, and suggested looking for a Gelber Muskateller produced in storybook-pretty Styria, a region known for the finest versions.
“Gelber Muskateller is one of the rare grapes fortunate enough to see plantings increase with increased consumer appetite for it. Our dollars do vote,” he added, commenting on the trend of converting good land otherwise suited to local grapes into Grüner vineyards. (Wines of Austria estimates Gelber Muskateller has seen a 267 percent rise in vineyard plantings as it has grown in popularity.)
I’d heard about the Grüner takeover while in Austria. Production of grapes like Roter Veltliner (the original variety of the Veltliner group), considered the oldest native variety in Austria, has dwindled because the best soils for the grape grow great Grüner, too. Grüner’s international success has tilted growers’ planting decisions in its favor; winning the economics war, and thus soil war, has ironically led to cannibalization of the wine industry Grüner helped introduce to the world.
The trend is unfortunate, as Roter Veltliner can make elegant, supple wines with great aging potential, and no one else but Austrians will likely plant it. However, California has an interesting historical footnote that mentions the rare grape: In the late 1880s, E.W. Hilgard, charged with determining which vines to plant in California, published a report recognizing Roter Veltliner as highly suitable for the state. Perhaps Roter will have a renaissance — in California. In the meantime, Ban says he likes the grape for its harmony with Viennese dishes, and recommends producer Franz Leth.
Another loser not yet lost is Neuberger (a cross between Roter Veltliner and Sylvaner). Ban keeps this wine on his list because he likes the “robust, full-bodied wines that show spice and flowers in youth, and deep, nutty flavors with age.”
More delicious oddities include Zierfandler (aka Spätrot), the yin to Rotgipfler’s yang. These grapes grow almost exclusively in Austria’s Thermenregion, as it has the magical balance of climate and calcareous soils for them to excel. They often combine for a happier marriage than as single varietals; Rotgipfler brings the weight and aromatics, and Ziefandler the tart citrus and acid structure, to create the fun-to-pronounce Spätrot-Rotgipfler. Stadlman, a small producer represented by Monika Caha Selections, produces happy expressions of all three.
Austria runs a small risk of being pigeonholed as a country of Grüner growers, which can be a double-edged sword; just ask non-Sauvignon Blanc producers in New Zealand about the shackles of consumer thirst for the gooseberry- and sweat-stinking grape, and you’ll likely get a long rant.
However, the difference that may preserve Austria’s indigenous varieties lies in the fact that they not only have them, but that most producers and estates own very small parcels of land — the large, commercial wineries found in New World regions don’t really exist here. For now, however, take a break from Grüner — and ubiquitous, international whites — and try something as fun to drink as it is to pronounce three times: Spätrot-Rotgipfler.
No time is a bad time for a glass full of bubbly wine (ok, maybe when operating heavy machinery). Two weeks ago, Williamsburg wine shop Vine Wine, known for its carefully selected natural, organic, and biodynamic wines, dedicated five days to celebrating a niche category of fizz owner Talitha Whidbee believes deserves more consumer recognition: Pet Nat. Although the official celebration has concluded, she keeps shelves stocked year-round with a slew of bubbly options. (See suggestions below).
Pet Nat is short for Pétillant Naturel, and refers to a rustic style of sparkling wine made in the Methode Ancestrale, a term that pretty much sums up the history of the technique: it’s old. Used centuries ago in Europe, the method was nearly abandoned with the advent of commercial yeast, refrigeration, and the pursuit of aesthetics, i.e., crystal clear wines. But modern winemakers with an experimental streak and natural winemaking tendencies have resurrected the practice, applying it to a range of varieties from Chardonnay to Gamay.
To make traditional method sparkling wine such as Champagne, a producer begins by bottling a base wine that has been fermented fully dry. To kick off a second fermentation in the bottle, sugar and yeast are added, and the formation of tiny, prized bubbles begins. Once the yeast have finished working, the dead cells, or lees, are removed from the bottle through the process of riddling and disgorgement, after which a dosage (sugar and wine) may be added to sweeten it to the house style or winemaker’s taste, before closing again with cork and a wire cage.
Pet Nat, on the other hand, generally doesn’t utilize any additions to the wine, thus its appeal to natural winemakers. The fermentation of the wine starts in a tank with native yeast (as opposed to the addition of commercial yeast); before all the natural sugars have been converted into alcohol, however, the juice is transferred to a bottle to finish fermentation. The lees may be left inside rather than disgorged, so the resulting wines are softly fizzy, tend to be lower in alcohol, frequently have residual sugar, and if the spent yeast is left behind, cloudy.
Although the production method sounds rudimentary, Pet Nat is not the kind of wine a commercially-minded producer makes because results are too unpredictable for the mainstream market. Pet Nat’s become the darling of sommeliers looking for new things to saber and adventurous drinkers who find beauty, akin to a snowflake, in the variability that comes with each bottle.
To talk Pet Net, we tracked down owner of Vine Wine and founder of Pet Nat Week Talitha Whidbee (this year was its second season), to find out why she loves this style of sparkling and which producers really dazzle her palate.
How did you come to dedicate a week of tastings to Pet Nat?
I have always felt that Pet Nat is both underexposed and a much larger category than the consumer thinks. By holding a weeklong tasting event, Vine is able to showcase all of the various styles that are made. I also happen to be a fan of Bastille Day and what better way to celebrate that holiday than with low alcohol sparkling wine?
Who are some of your favorite producers and why?
Every year my list of favorite producers changes since there is such a difference in the wines from year to year. Consistently I have found myself drinking Pascal Pibaleau’s La Perlette — this is probably the first Pet Nat I ever tried. Made from Gamay and Grolleau, this wine is earthy and full of wild strawberries, and the most delightful pink color. Les Capriades is another favorite of mine, this year they have released a Pet-Sec which is almost all Chenin Blanc and is dry and focused with an almost salty quality that is sooooo refreshing this time of year. I am a huge fan of Pet Nat made from Ploussard and currently am enjoying the Noct’en Bulles from La Combe aux Reves: it is under 10% alcohol, has tons of bright fruit, and just enough funk to make it interesting. Finally, I have to mention that for the first time in the history of Vine, we will have two Pet Nats from the Finger Lakes and a total of six from America. When I started Pet Nat week, I don’t think we had one from America. It is really exciting to see more American winemakers making Pet Nat.
Why should consumers consider this alternative style of sparkling?
Aside from the obvious reason that it is always the right time to drink sparkling wine, the joy of Pet Nat is that you really get a chance to taste something that is made from passion to express the winemaker’s style. Given how difficult it is to bottle, and the risk involved in making something as unstable as Pet Nat, it seems to me a great way to get to “know” a winemaker. I think there is something also inherently joyous about drinking it, and since it comes in so many styles there really is one for every consumer.
Vine Wine, 616 Lorimer Street, 718-349-1718
View from the apple drier cottage at Goldeneye Winery, Anderson Valley, Mendocino, CA
Brazil. Quick: what springs to mind first?
FIFA World Cup, Rio Carnival, postcard-pretty beaches, oversized rainforest insects, and unlimited amounts of sizzling skewered meat served tableside? Or perhaps caipirinhas and cachaça, Capoeira, or the upcoming 2016 Olympics?
Of the hundreds of thought permutations possible, few likely included Brazilian wines. That is slated to change.
Last year, Wine Enthusiast declared Brazil a top wine destination for travelers. This year, the World Cup has helped spotlight the Brazilian wine industry. According to Cassie Hitchner of Countertop Wine Collection, an NYC wine importer and distributor who carries Brazilian producer Vinicola Salton in her portfolio, her clients have exhibited greater interest in Brazil than wines from classic European regions. “Everyone wants to taste Brazilian wines right now,” she said.
World Cup attendees can sip on Brazilian wine while watching the fútbol matches, too. Lidio Carraroa, a respected producer of still and sparkling wines, beat out larger rivals for the coveted opportunity to be the official wine supplier of the Cup. Curiously, the brand characterizes itself as “boutique” and espouses dedication to “preserve [sic] the authenticity of each grape variety, each terroir” but then doubled its production to meet the demand requirements of the event, including creating a new line of easy, approachable wines with “global appeal,” as reported in Decanter.
Where do Brazil’s wines come from? Most of the country’s viticultural pursuits occur near the Argentinean border in the southern state of Rio Grande do Sul; the area accounts for nearly 90 percent of the country’s production. Within Rio Grande do Sul, the most developed and important region is Serra Gaúcha within which lies the country’s first Denominación de Origen, the sub-region of Vale dos Vinhedos, awarded in 2001 for Merlot and Chardonnay. (The system of Origin Indication is modeled off of Europe and imposes restrictions on yields and grape varieties within a notable, delimited geographical area).
Despite Brazil’s deep Portuguese heritage, Italian immigrants who settled in the region in the 1800s founded the wine industry. True modernization and expansion started in the 1970s, particularly with the arrival of Moët et Chandon upon its recognition of the area’s potential for sparkling wine. The company built its own facility to produce fizz from Pinot Noir and Chardonnay for the local market. Other important names have invested in the region, and famed “flying winemaker” Michele Rolland has been retained by the Miolo Wine Group to produce high-quality still and sparkling wines.
Although Brazil’s core wine production has been in Serra Gaúcha, acclaimed wine journalist Jancis Robinson and co-author of World Atlas of Wine, 7th Edition, Hugh Johnson, question whether the soil and climate are optimal for the finest expression of vitis vinifera. They observe that “rainfall is exceptionally and inconveniently high and soils tend to drain poorly,” explaining why a preponderance of rot and mildew resistant hybrid grapes, like Isabel, are grown. They note that important producers “have been moving south, developing the Campanha region on the Uruguayan border and neighboring Serra do Sudeste with their drier climate, longer days, and less fertile granite and limestone soils.” Sounds like a promising region to follow over the next several years.
Although the U.S. is an important and leading export market for Brazil, and the last two years saw slight export growth; the wines still remain elusive to consumers (and wine journalists hoping to review them). Fortunately, I was introduced to Ms. Hitchner, who provided samples of her Vinicola Salton collection, which are available in NYC.
Vinicola Salton proclaims to be the first winery in Brazil, celebrating over 100 years of continuous production since the company was officially established in 1910, by…Italian immigrants. Brothers Paulo, Ângelo, João, José, Cézar, Luiz, and Antônio formalized the business started by their father, Antonio Domenico Salton, an amateur winemaker (like most Italian immigrants who arrived at the time).
I received four samples: a dry sparkler; a semi-sweet white blend of Gewürztraminer, Malvasia, and Moscato; a Pinot Noir; and an older 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot/Tannat blend.
For those who don’t mind — or prefer — a touch of residual sugar in their wine, the 11.3 percent alcohol NV Salton Flowers makes a lovely, summer aperitif with aromatics of a blooming garden and warm baked peaches.
However, of the four wines, the NV Traditional Salton Brut sparkling for $15, a blend of Chardonnay and Riesling, surprised me most with its satisfying, consistent bubbles (despite being made in the charmat method) and attractive, crisp flavors of green apple and citrus.
It’s a fine effort that I would be pleased to bring to a party — or the next World Cup match. Fortunately, both the U.S. and Brazil squeaked into the next round of play, so I’ll be watching with a glass of Brazilian bubbles in hand.
Where to Buy:
Alphabet City Wine Co. (carries all four wines),100 Avenue C, 212-505-9463
Astor Wines 399 Lafayette Street, 212-674-7500
Where to Try:
Fogo de Chao 40 West 53rd Street, 212-969-9980
Calle Ocho 45 West 81st Street, 212-873-5025
The Fourth 132 Fourth Avenue 212-432-1324