Austrian wines, dry and fine, return to states

VINTAGE POINT

August 03, 1994|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,Sun Staff Writer

Most Americans didn't know anything about Austrian wine until they learned it was toxic.

It isn't, of course. For the most part it never was. But for almost a decade Austrian wine might as well have carried a skull and crossbones on the label. To the marketplace it was pure poison.

The destruction of the export market for Austrian wines came suddenly in 1985, when a small number of unscrupulous wine shippers were found to have sweetened their wines with diethylene glycol, a coolant used in air conditioners.

At the time it was a big deal. The Food and Drug Administration issued warnings that made Page 1 of newspapers and led local news broadcasts. Stores pulled what few Austrian wines they had off their shelves.

As it turned out, other countries were involved in the incident. By the time that came out, however, the scandal was firmly fixed in the public's eye as an Austrian affair. Tainted wine became the best known Austrian import since Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The fact that most Austrian wines were perfectly sound mattered little. Nobody wanted to buy them. Importers stopped trying to sell them. The tiny toehold they had in the American market was lost.

But after 10 years of exile, Austrian wines have found a new American champion. Terry Theise, the talented importer who led the way in restoring German wine to its proper place in the American marketplace, has taken on Austrian wines as a cause.

It's a monumental challenge. Not only does Mr. Theise have to reassure merchants and consumers that Austria's are not dangerous, he has to persuade them that they are not German.

It is an assignment Mr. Theise has undertaken with gusto. Earlier this year he released a passionately written catalog that provided both a ringing defense and an aesthetic analysis of Austrian wine.

According to Mr. Theise, the 1985 scandal was the greatest thing that ever happened to the Austrian wine industry. Without any loss of life (something that is frequently forgotten), the merchant class that dominated Austria's wine exports was crushed like grapes. Many innocent people suffered, but growers who previously had to strain their vineyards for maximum quantity couldnow concentrate on quality.

Austrian wine producers now operate under some of the strictest wine laws on the planet. To earn the designation of "Qualitatswein" (quality wine), an Austrian wine must be made from grapes 40 percent riper than its German counterpart. And if there is any residual sugar left in the wine, it must be indicated on the label.

You aren't likely to see many high residual sugar numbers on the wines Mr. Theise is bringing to the United States. His message -- which he is seeking to pound into the collective head of the trade -- is that Austrian wines are "dry, dry, dry." The language on the labels might be the same as in Germany, but the wine styles are as different as Mozart is from Wagner.

As in Germany, most Austrian wines are white. There are some reds, more highly regarded than Germany's, but they are likely to remain a curiosity.

The two most important varieties are riesling, the noble white wine grape of Germany and Alsace, and gruner veltliner, an exceptionally fine varietal that is little-known outside Austria. Other leading varieties include weissburgunder (pinot blanc) and rulander (pinot gris), also well-known to German wine consumers.

The tastes won't be familiar, however. A dry German riesling can have less than 10 percent alcohol, but Austria's warmer climate ensures that alcohol levels will reach 12 percent or 13 percent before the wines are fully dry.

So far, Mr. Theise's Austrian wines are just starting to trickle into the market. Only six are available in Maryland now, but more are expected to come this fall.

The three gruner veltliners I tasted were sufficient to persuade me that this is a fascinating varietal. With its lime, herb and mineral flavors, it calls to mind a number of other fine varietals, but it duplicates none of them. There's a hint of sauvignon blanc, a suggestion of dry muscat, a smidgen of semillon, but ultimately it stands very much on its own.

The best of the gruner veltliners was the 1992 Brundlmayer Langenlois Berg Vogelsang, a multi-layered wine of tremendous length, complexity and intensity. In structure, it resembled a fine Alsace pinot gris; in flavor, a top-notch white Bordeaux. Will people pay $15 for a gruner veltliner? That's questionable, but the wine compares well with other $15 whites.

The other two were priced and styled for more casual drinking. The 1992 Glatzer Dornenvogel Gruner Veltliner ($8.49) is a stylish, crisp wine with crisp lime-herb flavors. The 1993 Winzerhaus Gruner Veltliner ($6.49) is a wonderfully fruity, refreshing wine that is made to be drunk young. Ideally, it should be finished off this summer.

The two rieslings were nothing short of astonishing -- combining extraordinary power and touching delicacy.

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