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Here’s Why You Should Care the Lowest pH Riesling in the World Comes From Okanagan Valley, British Columbia

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All Images by Lauren Mowery

If you missed my Village Voice column, here’s a second look…

Acid: wine needs it for balance. It makes your mouth salivate, cuts through fat and cream, keeps wines fresh, especially sweet ones, and helps them age gracefully in the bottle. But too much of it, and the drinking experience mimics sucking a tart, mouth-puckering lemon. Too little of it, and the wine tastes flabby, or flat, or even syrupy like bad, store-bought Margarita mix.

Bright, zesty wines have long been considered the provenance of the Old World. Self-proclaimed “acid freaks” who love the crackling, electric tension (myself included, to the detriment of my teeth), track regions where high-acid levels occur naturally. Chablis, Austria, Germany, and Northern Italy, for example, reliably produce laser-sharp, racy whites. But pH levels taken from a global pool of rieslings uncovered an interesting phenomenon: the semi-desert grape-growing region of the Okanagan Valley in British Columbia, Canada — the New World — delivered some of the lowest numbers ever recorded.

Acid, naturally occurring in grapes, diminishes as they ripen, especially in warm climates. The general backlash against the over-ripening of fruit, and trend towards picking earlier to create wines with “balance” (simplified: less ripeness in grapes means lower sugar levels and higher acid, which makes lower alcohol and higher acid wines) is in full-throttle, but not all growers have the luxury of retaining acid levels naturally after fermentation. Wines from hot zones like South Australia and Central California often require an addition of tartaric acid (which comes as a big bag of white powder, and gets measured and dumped in like sugar in a cake recipe).

Let’s geek out for a moment on pH. This scale from zero to fourteen measures acidity versus alkalinity. A pH of seven is neutral. The higher the number, the more alkaline or basic the substance, like root vegetables. The lower the number, the more acidic the substance is, like apples. Most white wines fall between three to four pH; reds lean a bit higher, depending on the variety.

Riesling specialist Stuart Pigott ran a story on the variety’s range of pH levels in the December 2013 issue of Wine & Spirits. The lowest pH wine he’d ever encountered in the world was “the off-dry 2012 Platinum from Cedar Creek in the Okanagan, with an astonishing pH 2.73.” He noted that “the only wines that sometimes match that figure are chardonnay base wines for Champagne, deliberately picked early to get that acid.”

You might be wondering why anyone would want to drink a wine with such a low pH if high acid levels equate to a jarring tartness. Well, sometimes you wouldn’t. Just as acid can be added to wine, it can also be removed. But the key here is balance; Okanagan rieslings have equilibrium because their fruit expressions soften sharp edges, as do the occasional, small amounts of sugar left in some wines. (Think about lemonade: the synergy of sugar and lemon juice is greater than the sum of its parts.)

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While this isn’t exactly fresh news to the industry, the revelation lacked relevance to the average New York consumer because British Columbia’s wines weren’t available in our market. Until now.

Recently launched on the Wines of B.C. website, an e-commerce platform makes available select bottles from a small portfolio of boutique producers, directly to New York consumers. The selection won’t overwhelm you into indecision, but there’s enough to whet your palate. Plus, shipping costs are relatively nominal (although the wines are rather expensive).

Located a four hour drive east of Vancouver in south central British Columbia, the Okanagan Valley has around 130 producers spread across sub-regions like Kelowna, Naramata, Oliver/Osoyoos, Summerland, and the neighboring Similkameen Valley.
The Okanagan is considered the northernmost fine wine producing region in the world. (Although climate change is pushing the latitudinal reach of vitis vinifera further into Northern Europe).

The lake- and wilderness-dense countryside encompasses a stunning 125-mile swath of patchwork vineyards running south to the border with Washington State. The semi-arid desert climate provides hot, dry summers and long sunlight hours for the ripening of grapes, with cool nights helping to retain fresh acidity.

Not sold on Wines of B.C., but available in the New York market, are the rieslings of Tantalus. Winemaker David Paterson and vineyard manager Warwick Shaw are experts at transforming the grape into a transparent, piercing expression of their vineyard sites. Tense, almost quivering, lemon-lime notes snap like pop rocks above a chalky, mineral complexion.

Riesling isn’t the only grape to enjoy the favor of the climate and soils. Vivid pinot noir, chiseled syrah, savory cab franc and attractive Bordeaux blends, show promise in the red category. Available on the B.C. site, Meyer Family specializes in pinot, and Black Hills Estate and Painted Rock produce some of the region’s most serious red blends. Until more producers penetrate the competitive NYC market, however, my best advice for exploring Okanagan Valley wines: go there, and bring along a big suitcase.

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Winemaker Interview: Anna and Martin Arndorfer, Kamptal, Austria

 

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Anna and Martin Arndorfer, Owners/Winemakers for Arndorfer Wines

Signature Wines: Grüner Veltliner, Riesling, Neuburger, Chardonnay, Zweigelt; Riesling die Leidenschaft

Importer: Indie Wineries

I first met Anna and Martin Arndorfer in New York. My favorite NYC-based Austrian from the Austrian Wine Commission, Stephanie Artner, hosted a dinner party in Brooklyn to celebrate the Arndorfer’s arrival that day. Naturally, they had a slew of wines with them which kept us tasting and talking late into early morning.

What stood out to me about Anna and Martin was the not just the eagerness with which they poured and discussed their wines, but their inability to stop smiling and giggling all night. It reminded me why I love winemakers who actually love farming and winemaking. They spoke giddily about each bottle as though it were a loved member of their growing family, one not any better than the other, just babies with unique personalities they are only meant to foster not manipulate.

Like hands off parents, each wine picks its future. All juice ferments spontaneously; sometimes it finishes and sometimes it doesn’t. Whatever the wine chooses, the result will be its destiny for that vintage. The Arndorfers won’t force a dress on a little girl who wants to play in the mud.

They happen to also be parents of real children – two small girls, in fact, who help out around the vineyard, in the dirt, back home. I didn’t ask if they wear dresses.  Although the Arndorfers like to speak about themselves as though they are just a pair of aging, old souls who are mere stewards of the land, they have an unusual freshness of spirit; they view the world with wonderment that’s more grade school than grandparent. Jaded New Yorkers could rip a few pages out of their book.

Their winery is located in Kamptal, Lower Austria. It has been family-owned since 1770, and they are the third generation working with wine as a main business. Their first vintage together was in 2002. I attended Vie Vinum in Austria in June where I tracked down their table and tasted through their wines again, including my first ever Zweigelt rosé fermented on Grüner Veltliner skins (they explain why that’s logical, below).

Through an email interview, we touched on a number of topics including the benefits and drawbacks of working and living in Kamptal; whether winemaking in such a historic place can inhibit progress; and where they’d like to be traveling right now (hint: Denmark).

©Arndorfer

What philosophy guides your viticulture?

We think that the most important part of the vineyard is life and balance. Both things are very closely connected with our soils and the work/management we do with the soil. There are lot of little animals and partly very big mycelium in the soil which help the vine to get water and nutrients, but they need their “home” and food. So in our viticulture we try to provide them what they need so they will provide our vines what they need… if we assault our vines (fertilizer and herbicide) we will not have life and balance in our soil.

What philosophy guides your winemaking practices?

We think a lot about our work in the cellar, but at the end of the day, we just press good grapes, ferment the juice, age the wine, bottle it, sell it and get paid for it – usually. We try to give the wines a good environment and home to feel comfortable developing the character of the vineyards. The thing we use most in our winemaking is water to clean, and patience combined with a bit of risk and strong nerves.

What is your biggest challenge as a winemaker (e.g., volatility of Mother Nature, expense to income ratio, having to actually market your wine)?

Time is probably the biggest challenge. If some wines need longer to develop because of a slow fermentation, it would be nice to have more time. The problem is if your customers and partners need/want the wine. You see that you could be selling it right now, except that it is still fermenting in barrels. The situation does not help your expense to income ratio – especially in “expense-intense” seasons like summer and harvest. It would be very nice to get in the situation where you don’t have to worry about the market and we could just be worried about our vines and wines.

Next to time are two more things which are not really nice: lack of water and hail. All the other things are more or less manageable but if we/our vines don’t have water we are not very happy. If hail goes over our vineyards it is not nice either – of course you know why…

Describe some of the unique wines/projects you are working on?

Since vintage 2012, we have produced a Zweigelt rosé fermented on Grüner Veltliner skins. Why? To get a rosé with more structure, complexity and expression… sounds pretty logical, no?

There are centuries and generations of winemaking history in the Kamptal, and Austria in general. How do you feel that history impedes your progress, if it does? How does it help?

We’re absolutely proud to live and work in Kamptal, especially in Strass im Strassertale. There is a very long history of winemaking and viticulture, but we don’t feel it creates problems for our personal work. Talking with the older generation provides a way of learning and understanding about the vineyards of our village; to see pictures of the vineyards from the past is very inspiring.

For example, why was the vintage 1947 so outstanding? Maybe the sun, maybe the small crop, maybe the pruning, maybe the” trellising system”, maybe crushing the grapes in the vineyard, maybe not having a tractor, nor herbicides and fertilizers, or maybe a little bit from everything. Anyway, I think it is good to learn from our history and use the experience from older generations, but combine it with the knowledge of the present time. The cheapest thing we can do is keep thinking about our work and our decisions…History gives us a bigger background for this idea…

Is the region, or perhaps other winemakers, ever resistant to change or new ideas?

The question is: what are new ideas or changes? Most of the wineries want to produce wines that show the character of the origin – village or single vineyard – to show a very typical wine from the region. Sometimes people call it traditional. We have these kinds of winemakers in the region, which is good.

The region itself is not resistant to new ideas (we can’t avoid them). It would be a pity if it were like this, because of all the diversity of soil, microclimate, varieties, and individuals, it would be a loss of resources if we just did the same thing forever. It is necessary to have new ideas and changes…

What are the benefits and drawbacks of grapegrowing/winemaking in your region?

At the moment, Kamptal is a really nice region in which to work with vines and wines. Climate, soil, varieties…nothing to complain about! One little thing is that we can’t write on most of our wines Kamptal even if they all grow in Kamptal, in Strass im Strassertale. They don’t fit into the “system” or model expected from Kamptal DAC wines… It is nothing to complain about really, because it is our decision that our wines should taste like they do!

What excites you most about Austrian wines right now?

Thanks to the work of a few very intelligent people Austrian wine has become known and now we can go to the “next” level. There is still big potential in our vineyards and it will be very exciting to see/taste/enjoy these wines.

Which wine or grape (in the world) is the least understood or respected?

Neuburger.

What do you drink at home when relaxing?

Wines with personality, preferably a little bit cloudy. It does not matter from where or from whom.

How do you spend your free time (if you have any)?

I spend it with my family. Work and free time are always very closely associated. It is a question of definition, really. Is it work if our daughters join us for a little vineyard tour?  For us it doesn’t matter if you call it free time or work, it is something we enjoy!

If you could be traveling somewhere else right now, where would you be?

Copenhagen.

Give one surprising fact about yourself.

We have never been to Jura!

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The Austrian Cure for Vinous Discontent

Selection of Austrian Whites. All Images by Lauren Mowery.

Selection of Austrian Whites. All Images by Lauren Mowery.

It’s mid-summer, I’m 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, most New Yorkers have probably guzzled the last of their 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 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.

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Wachau Region of Austria

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.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.)

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.

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Hammocks in the Vineyards of Krems

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.

WienVineyards

View of Vienna from Nearby Vineyards.

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