I went out for a reunion meal with some friends and former colleagues at Bristol’s River Station restaurant recently and, inevitably, the wine list was pushed in my direction. Choosing wine for a dozen people is never easy, particularly when, as here, I didn’t know much about the tastes of many of them. I also had to bear in mind that we were there to catch up with each other and to chat, not to taste and appreciate the wine. As a result, my focus was on wines that no-one could really dislike at prices that few could object to. I could have been forgiven for choosing something cheap and bland, but I wanted to do better than that.
The guests were ordering a wide range of different dishes so a white and a red were clearly needed. I love the Spanish variety Albariño and there was a nice example on the list, similarly a Mâcon-Villages caught my eye. But I eventually chose Peter Schweiger’s Grüner Veltliner from Austria (around £30 on the wine list) as the white – fairly rich and full-bodied with plenty of fruit but unoaked; a wine with plenty of character but fresh and harmonious that should pair well with most dishes.
For the red, I was looking at the South American section of the list – a Chilean Merlot or Carmenere or an Argentinian Malbec, perhaps – when our server pointed to Prunus Tinto, a Portuguese wine from the Daô region (also about £30), which was a personal favourite of his and, apparently very popular. I hadn’t initially considered this – although I’m a big fan of Portuguese wines, they can be tough and tannic, which wasn’t the type of wine I wanted for the group. But, he assured me that this was very drinkable and I went along with his recommendation. I’m pleased I did as this proved a real winner: very soft and with lovely black fruits and a slight smoky edge.
My reward for 2 successful choices? I’ll get the job of choosing again next time!
Ask a wine lover about Argentina’s most important grape variety and the answer will, most probably, be Malbec. The same goes for New Zealand and Sauvignon Blanc and Germany and Riesling. Although each of these countries grows other varieties, they are all best known for one grape, which has become a ‘signature’ variety for them. Interestingly, only 1 of these (the Riesling) is actually native to the country concerned. But there’s another pairing of this kind that has attracted increasing interest in recent years: Austria and Grüner Veltliner. Some find the grape name difficult to pronounce and so it sometimes gets shortened to Gru V (groovy!); it should sell well to those who remember the 1960s!
Grüner Veltliner is planted in about a third of Austria’s vineyards, making it easily their most common variety. Given that, it’s inevitable that some examples will be better than others but, in my experience, you rarely find a bad bottle. At the cheaper end, it makes a simple, pleasant everyday drinking white with hints of citrus and, often, an attractive white pepper tang. But, in the hands of a skilled producer, such as Domaine Huber (Waitrose, £10.79), Grüner Veltliner can really shine. Lovely pear flavours and hints of peach make this very moreish and, although only 12.5% alcohol, it has the body and richness to go with a range of dishes – fish, poultry, white meat – particularly those with a light, creamy sauce.
It’s not a variety that’s exclusive to Austria – I’ve seen, but not tasted, bottles from the Czech Republic and Hungary and there’s also a lovely, herby fresh example from Yealands Estate in New Zealand’s Marlborough region (Great Western Wine, £13.95). But, for now, you’ll most frequently see Grüner Veltliner from Austria and, from my experience, it’s a combination you can buy with confidence.
Wine lovers with long memories may be wary of Austrian wine. The so-called ‘anti-freeze’ scandal of the 1980s has cast a long shadow. For those readers who are puzzled by my opening comments, the problem was that a few of that country’s producers illegally added diethylene glycol (not anti-freeze, but with a chemically similar sounding name) to their wines to increase their sweetness. The addition apparently caused no harm to anyone drinking the wines but it shouldn’t have happened and it proved far from harmless to the Austrian wine industry, which was devastated with sales collapsing both at home and abroad.
It has taken decades to rebuild but now, 30 years later and backed by some of the strictest wine laws in the world, Austria is re-emerging as a producer of high quality wines at generally affordable prices. The local speciality is Grüner Veltliner, a grape that is becoming quite fashionable (with good reason) and there are some delicious Rieslings available, too, both dry, in the style of Alsace, and wonderfully sweet. But a combination of changes in consumers’ taste and a bit of global warming has meant that Austrian reds, at one time, a tiny part of their output, have become much more important. And that’s a good thing if a bottle I opened recently is a typical example:
Hans Igler’s Zweigelt Classic (Wine Society, £9.50) is quite light-bodied but full of flavour – blackberries, black pepper and a subtle hint of wood. The Zweigelt grape (another local speciality) gives it good, refreshing acidity and attractive soft tannins. Good for drinking now (decant an hour or so in advance) or keep another couple of years.
As someone who remembers the Austrian wines of the 1980s and the scandal that followed, it’s been good to see their re-emergence onto the international scene over the past few years. Austria today produces a range of reliable, good quality and good values wines – still mainly white but now their reds are clearly worth looking at, too.