A Cape Austrian Adventure...

Thursday, 11 March, 2004
Melvyn Minnaar
Getting to know grüner veltliner and friends
It was a scene set up for discovery: Few people in the room at Caroline's tasting venue could claim that they knew Austrian wine; afterwards there were plenty of fans.

Of course, Cape wine master Tim James, editor of Grape, and leader of this unusual expedition had an idea about the tasting treasures to be discovered. He is an enthusiast who had undertaken the journey to those distant vineyards - now so hot in the international spotlight. But even he, faced with a line-up of ten wines on his wish list that made it to Cape Town in a remarkable odyssey, was in for a surprise or two.

The group was a gathering of wine writers, sommeliers and restaurateurs. Invited winemakers with a special interest in these wines couldn't make it due to the pressures of harvest.

Providing gravitas to the unusual tasting was a collection of important Austrian diplomats. They filled in some of the romantic and other details about a selection of wines - wines which have adventurous wine fans around the world, ever on the hunt for the extraordinary, drooling.

The event was a tasting of ten top grüner veltliners and rieslings from a number of famous Austrian producers. They had been selected to showcase not only the specifics, character and ageability of the lesser-know grüner veltliner varietal and typical elegant Austrian rieslings, but also to put up for discussion how respectful modern wine making can elevate identity and culture.

For locals the implications and inferences were significant. The 'reinvention' of Austria's 'workhorse' grüner veltliner to high status could find a parallel in handling of our own Chenin Blanc, even Pinotage. The secret seems to be in dedication - and, interestingly enough, the strictest regulation of its production.

Prestige was provided by the presence of the Austrian ambassador Kurt Spallinger and his wife Ellen, the new trade commissioner Manfred Banholzer and Cape Town consul Christine Kivinen.

It was an adventure that started at the 2003 London International Wine Trade Fair where the well-organised Wines from Austria pavilion and a host of hospitable young, dynamic Austrian winemakers charmed the crowds. Visitors from South Africans fell under the spell of bottlings that tasted so extraordinarily different and great, that we started talking about getting a taste of it down here.

Susanne Staggl and Herta Wallner of the Austrian Wine Marketing Board in Vienna undertook the venture of tracing the requested wines and getting them to South Africa.

In Cape Town, grüner veltliner’s public debut revealed a flavour profile unlike any other grape, obviously challenging both winemakers and winelovers. For yonks a workhorse grape in Austria, a new generation of winemakers has elevated it to near superstar status. Like their rare rieslings - none of them like the German, Alsatian or New World - most speak exuberantly and most elegantly in the glass about heritage, identity, terroir, the integrity of the grapes and, importantly, of winemaking of the highest order.

The line-up ranged from a 1990 Nikolaihof Grüner Veltliner Smaragd from the famous Wachau region to a frisky 2002 FX Pichler Riesling Kellerberg. All the wines seem to share a sensual gentleness and tasters were seduced by perfect balance of crisp acid in harmony with delicate sugars, each leading to more complexity. It was obvious that many can age and improve for years. The wines seemed to be modern and yet fully respectful of tradition.

For those fortunate enough to taste, the experience was one to compliment forward-thinking in Cape wine culture.