Saturday, 2 July 2011
Austrian Riesling - the Great Food Wine
Travelling on my own, with time to spare in the evening and just a newspaper for company, I decided to give some of Vienna's better, more progressive restaurants a whirl and ended up being a regular at a number of very good places indeed.
All served local wines by the glass and if they did not have a specific food and wine matching menu, the staff were knowledgeable enough for me to be able to ask confidently "Can you bring me a glass of something to match with this ?" and know it would be good.
The restaurants I frequented most were the Meinl am Graben, Plachutta, Indochine 21 and Steirereck (the latter was voted #22 in the world's top 50 restaurants this year, here, but on a good day, they were all pretty much equally good, I think).
Each has its own style, but the food in all was superb - as was the service, decor and ambiance; Meinl am Graben is modern international with an edgy interior, Plachutta is traditional Austrian, but fresh, light and from top-quality ingredients, Steirereck is somewhere between the two (modern Viennese ?) and Indochine is a chi-chi French-Vietnamese fusion.
Riesling is probably - almost certainly - the wine I drank most frequently with my various meals and I think it is worthwhile to consider the reasons why it is such a versatile food match.
Austria's Rieslings are mostly in style ripe-yet-dry, mouthfilling, medium-to-full bodied and technically very well made with a clean, crisp feel - certainly the good ones are.
They are very different to Germany's delicate, low-alcohol off-dry Rieslings and the fully-dry, food-friendly southern Alsace versions are perhaps the nearest European match.
Given that heavily-seasoned food does not match well with tannic red wines, whites have a bit of a head start in this area; a white wine with good acidity will feel refreshing when paired with well-seasoned food.
Austrian Rieslings, moreover, have the body to stand up to quite meaty dishes, such as chicken, pork and fish. I have even successfully paired a ripe-yet-dry Riesling with rare steak with herb butter - it has the body for the meat and the acidity to cut through the melted, herby butter.
Another advantage of Riesling is that it does not have too much aromatic fruit complexity, compared to say Sauvignon or Muscat.
Fruit flavours in a Riesling are generally limited to focused apples-and-pears, citrus or liminess. As a result, it does not overpower the strong flavours of restaurant foods, but rather supports them.
Modern Austrian cuisine (and the entire country itself, to some extent) is in part inspired by Italy to the south and as I have delved increasingly into Italian wines, I can see a similarity between the two.
Food wines need good, prominent, rounded acidity to cut though the robust flavours of peasanty foods like pasta, fish and poultry that are the staple of many a restaurant, along with richly intense, reduced sauces or well-flavoured vegetables.
The Italian attitude to food and wine matching is that the wine is just another part of the meal - hence, Italian reds often tend to focus on the quality of the acidity with simple fruit (often cherry), rather than a complexity of flavours and aromas.
Austria, for various reasons, has pretty much followed this approach with its whites (the reds, whilst gaining a reputation still lag behind somewhat).
The best Rieslings are full-bodied, with good but straightforward fruit, crisply structured acidity and a long, finish - they are as poised, muscular and taught as an Olympic sprinter in the blocks, as smooth and precise as a BMW engine.
Having been brought up, as it were, on Austrian Rieslings, I rather found those of other countries initially a little disappointing and have had to learn to appreciate their finer qualities.
Austrian Rieslings, by contrast, were something that didn't need explaining to me - I just got them and loved their thrilling, mouthfilling zippiness from the start. I did, of course, try Grüner Veltliner regularly as well, but somehow found it less of an easy food match.
Grüner Veltliner is Austria's signature grape and it has many things in common with Riesling - a similarly focused acidity and balanced finish. It is, however, rather more aromatic, with typical aromas of white pepper, lentils and celery and (under certain conditions) more intense minerality on the finish which makes it a slightly less versatile food match compared to Riesling as it has more of its own distinct personality and less of a broad, everyman appeal.
That's not to say it's a lesser wine - it can be every bit as good, and in some ways more interesting, than a Riesling - it just needs a little more careful matching with food.
Austria's top region, for both Riesling and Gruner Veltliner, is the beautiful, UNESCO-protected Wachau valley - a meandering stretch of the Danube 80km up-river from Vienna. There are around 100 producers in the Wachau and most of the top ones (FX Pichler, Knoll, Prager, Domaene Wachau) are reviewed elsewhere here on my blog.
Nearby Kamptal and Kremstal also have their superstars, such as Kurt Angerer and wunderkind Markus Huber.
Austria's cuisine is traditionally somewhat heavy, stodgy and hearty - but, like its new generation of winemakers, it is quietly reinventing itself as something much more modern and sophisticated, but still distinctly Austrian.
With a starter or for an aperitif, I would often have a crisp, linear Sauvignon or unoaked Chardonnay from Styria, and, once the main course is over, Austria's dessert wines provide an excellent match for the sweet course, but that's a whole other story ...
Meinl Am Graben - http://www.meinlamgraben.at/Page.aspx?target=229088&l=2&
Plachutta - http://www.plachutta.at/
Indochine 21 - http://www.franks.at/yohm_franks/home.nsf/frame_indochine?OpenPage
Steirereck - http://www.steirereck.at/wien/restaurant/
FX Pichler - http://www.fx-pichler.at/html/english/dasbuch.htm
Knoll - http://www.loibnerhof.at/
Prager - http://www.weingutprager.at/
Domaene Wachau - http://www.domaene-wachau.at/
Angerer - http://www.kurt-angerer.at/
Huber - http://www.weingut-huber.at/