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Sunday, 28 August 2011

Snooth's Eccentric List of Top 12 Austrian Rieslings

A few weeks ago a "wine friend" of mine, Mark Norman of Cave Nil Vino, sent me a link to a review of 12 Top Austrian Rieslings by Gregory Del Piaz, Editor in Chief of Snooth, and asked my opinion of his picks.

Now, Austria is one of the few areas where I consider myself to have at least a bit of real expertise as I lived there for two years and went back regularly on business for a further five after that, giving plenty of opportunities to visit the beautiful Wachau valley and also sample the great wines of Austria in some of Vienna's better restaurants.

However, I am more than aware that my knowledge is still somewhat patchy and certainly I don't consider myself to be completely authoritative.

These days Austria's wines are deservedly gaining an ever-increasing reputation for themselves - thanks in part to the efforts of the Austrian Wine Marketing Board - but the country still does not seem to garner quite the same number of column inches as "classic" wine countries such as France, Italy, Spain and Australia.

Mainly, I believe, this is due to a focus on quality rather quantity - meaning that Austria simply is not a volume player and its wines are not as easily available as quaffers from inland Spain, southern France or the New World.

Austria's signature white grape is Grüner Veltliner which accounts for around a third of all plantings, and this is the one being promoted heavily these days; however, my first love was always Austrian Riesling which I think is the more versatile food match.

Austria has four distinct wine-producing regions, each with their own characteristics and particular grapes, but for Riesling, we look to lower Austria in general and the Wachau in particular.

Within the Wachau, we then look at the warmer eastern end where the grapes, often picked from late October to early November even for fully dry wines, achieve the intense, Smaragd level of ripeness more reliably.

Two of the top wineries in the Wachau, and therefore Austria generally, are located more or less next to each other on the eastern tip of the Wachau - Knoll and FX Pichler.

Add in Prager just up the river in Weissenkirchen, Rudi Pichler in Wösendorf and the co-op Domäne Wachau in Dürnstein and you have both some of my personal favourites and the beginnings of a list of the greats.

Beyond the narrow confines of the Wachau there is the award-winning Markus Huber in Kamptal and Kurt Angerer in Kremstal, plus Bründlmayer in Langenlois.

Further afield, some Riesling is made in Vienna and it is of more than mere curiosity value or local interest;  however, it is simply not in the same league as the wines from Lower Austria - for either quality or price.

I would not claim that this is a definitive list, but certainly I would expect any list of great Austrian Rieslings to focus heavily on the Wachau and nearby areas.

And this makes Del Piaz's list all the more eccentric-seeming; for a start, he lists just two Wachau producers - Prager and Domäne Wachau; I certainly agree with their inclusion, but I would query having two DW wines yet none from Knoll or FX Pichler.

And the choice of three wines from Vienna-based Jutta Ambrositsch seems downright odd. As does inclusion of Mayer Am Pfarrplatz and Loimer, both respectable if not rather good, but producers of the best Rieslings in Austria ? I don't think so. And I have never heard of Weingut Hajszan.

In short then, what makes this list so eccentric is its excessive focus on Vienna to the almost complete exclusion of the Wachau; as a list of good-value whites from Vienna and elsewhere outside the Wachau, perhaps it has some merit - I cannot say.

But to exclude almost all Wachau producers seems downright misguided and misleading - it's akin to writing about France's best red wines and focusing on the Languedoc with just a couple of Bordeaux or Burgundies added in.

I signed up for Snooth a few years ago - as much out of curiosity as anything - and have long since ticked the box for "no weekly updates or promotional emails" from either Dal Piaz or Lot 18 trying to sell me "exclusive offers" of wines I've never heard of for "just 1c" shipping.

I never found any of the articles that popped up in my in-box from them useful or even particularly interesting.

Maybe it's my "Britishness" but to me they read like somebody with a word-count to fill up who has re-hashed a few ideas and added on a quirky beginning to try and hook you in.

With the opportunity to review their writing in an area I consider myself reasonably knowledgeable about, I now also feel that their information, whilst not misleading or in incorrect, is also not that authoritative.

I also had the chance to compare specifically a tasting note of one of the wines on the list that we have both reviewed, the Riesling Terrassen Smaragd 2009‏ from Domäne Wachau.

Whilst Dal Piaz's review is, in the loosest sense, broadly comparable with mine, the two reviews are very different overall:

I say:

It has a complex but understated nose with hints of cellar mustiness, minerality and some beeswax. On the palate it is mouthwateringly crisp, buzzy, taut and focused, backed up by a smooth, minerally, mouthfilling richness, some hints of honey, elderflower and an acidity that is a mixture of cox's apples, conference pears and pineapple ... superb balance, great length and a minerally finish ... With air and a few more degrees warmth, the honey, beeswax and elderflower all come to the fore along with a slight hint of perfumy, floral, botrytis-like richness and a smokiness; these will presumably show more prominently as the wine ages.

Dal Piaz says:

Gently aromatic with nice layers of spice, pear skin, apricot, lemon drop, rainwater and hot iron all come together on the nose. Almost round on entry, then turning fairly angular quite quickly, with fine acidity jutting out past the transparent and fresh fruit. There’s a lovely spiciness to this that floats above the glassy apricot fruits, accented with lemon and lime zest. The finish shows nice length with the citrus character of the palate framed by quartzy, steely mineral notes. Fine length and really wonderful balance of flavor and texture make this a winner


Gregory Dal Piaz's original article - http://www.snooth.com/articles/austrian-riesling/

Snooth - http://www.snooth.com/

Austrian Wine Marketing Board - http://www.austrianwine.com/

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