High above the Danube river, which snakes its way through Vienna and the valleys lying west of the city, are picturesque vineyard hills, laden with Riesling grapes.
Riesling is made all over the wine-producing world, from its historical origins in Germany to the new world vineyards of Australia and, as the New York Times recently pointed out, it has yet to be criticised for generic homogeneity unlike other whites – Sauvignon Blanc for one.
Instead Riesling is essentially a grape which has the ability to combine the hallmark of a terroir and the grape flavours perfectly together. Yet while many countries are adept at producing great examples of the grape, Austria has started to elbow its way to the foreground of top end Riesling.
These wines are almost exclusively dry, with big, rich flavours, a thick texture and underpinnings of acidity and minerals balanced with splashes of citrus.
While the majority of Austrians almost exclusively drink beer (this is the 2nd country in the world for beer consumption) the north west corner of the country is obsessed by its own vineyards. A drop of Riesling or Grüner Veltliner from regions such as Wachau, Kremstal or Kamptal and you can see why.
Vineyards along the Danube are planted with Grüner Veltliner closest to the villages and banks of the river while the top of the hills is reserved for the Riesling grapes which enjoy and thrive in the tougher soil, digging their roots in deeply to access all those essential nutrients. There’s sunlight aplenty to ripen the vines but cool winds to preserve that wonderful acidity.
“The flavours can be quite shocking, this isn’t the Rieslings English people would have grown up with – there’s richness, ripeness and spice but still with that acidity under what I would call the puppy fat,” says Lance Foyster, Master of Wine and founder of Clark Foyster, specialist wine importers.
When Lance started up his business 15 years ago the UK was buying more Austrian Riesling than the country’s native Grüner Veltliner. Today this has reversed for the bulk of wines, except at the top where the gap is much closer.
It seems we’re willing to pay top price for great Austrian bottlings.
“Austrian Riesling is great with food because it’s dry yet full-bodied, this is not an aperitif. Those which are harvested later have a pronounced viscosity, a thick almost-creamy texture, they smell rich and finish with a long, drawn out acidity. It’s a fantastic match with roast goose,” says Lance.
Now as the younger generation is inheriting vineyards from their parents there’s also a lot of creativity and new developments coming out of the various regions.
The most famous example of this was an experiment called wurzelwerk, or root work which aimed to answer whether the winemaker or the terrior was more important in the final wine.
Two German winemakers – from Mosel and Rheinhessen – and one Austrian winemaker – from Kamptal – all shared their Riesling grapes with each other from the first vintage of 2012. Each of them vinified the three different grapes exactly how they would normally treat their own. At the end there were nine very separate wines.
“Terrior still came through, but then the cellar is important, so too is the cask, the humidity, the bacteria and the winemaker. I suppose the answer was never reached as all the wines were noticeably different,” says Peter Honegger, of New Comer Wines which exclusively imports and sells Austrian wine.
Peter works with producers of all ages and vineyards of all sizes. His store in BoxPark in east London is a testament to the rich diversity of Austrian wine, and it was there we tried some sensational Riesling from Martin Muthenthaler whose vineyard is right at the end of the Wachau region with its rough climate and rocky terrain giving minimal yields. The wine was a 2013 vintage which was vibrant, full of fruit and acidity with a subtle earthiness.
Also imported by New Comer Wines is Clemens Strobl’s Riesling Rosenberg which has only been in production since 2011. It’s lively acidity and elegance are part of a new range of Austrian Rieslings coming into the market.
While the New York Times wrote six months ago “of all the centres for Riesling, perhaps the most overlooked is Austria,” that tide is turning. A trip to Sager+Wilde wine bar will demonstrate the attention Londoners are giving to the category. In fact with several events coming up dedicated to Austrian wines at the venue, this may well be a cusp of a heyday for the beautifully dry, fresh and acidic Austrian Riesling.