Worth the Effort: Wachau Riesling

August 13, 2009 at 10:29 am (Our Favorite Things, What we are thinking) (, , , , )

In honor of our Riesling tasting this week, I wanted to talk a little about Austria. Oh, Austria. With your crisp, slatey whites. Your funky, quirky reds. Your adorable red and white striped capsule-tops. And, alas, your confusing label jargon and regulations.

The Austrian system of wine legislation is one of the strictest in Europe, due in large part to a scandal in 1985 involving the addition of dangerous chemicals and toxins by many winemakers. The chemicals — basically derivatives of antifreeze (yikes!) — were added to wine being exported from the country in order to make it seem sweeter and richer. After this story broke, the Austrian government had to come back hard and strict in order to make Austrian wines once again palatable to the rest of the world (and there is still plenty of work to be done). But, ultimately, this has been a good thing for the Austrian wine scene: commercially minded plonk-makers were replaced by a new generation of innovative, progressive winemakers with a focus on quality and terroir. The wines coming out of Austria today are better than they’ve ever been.

Unfortunately, the labels tend to scare most people away. Take, for example, a Austrian Riesling that we will be tasting this coming Sunday at LUSH. These are the words on the front label of the bottle: “Weingut Johann Donabaum. Offenberg. Spitz. Riesling Smaragd. Wachau. Trocken.” Confused?

Well, let’s start at the beginning. The Austrian system of classification is based largely on the German system, which has problems of its own. The main gripe with the German system (besides the decidedly unfriendly nomenclature for non-Germans) is that it is based on the underlying assumption that sweeter and higher alcohol is better. The German system classifies wines into ‘quality categories’ based on the ripeness of the grapes at harvest, which is measured by the must weight of the grape juice. This is a practical and useful system for the winemaker, but helps the consumer little in determining what’s actually in the bottle. 17.1 degrees KMW at harvest you say? Great, but what does that translate to in terms of actual taste? Unfortunately a lot of people equate ripeness at harvest to sweetness in bottle. Kabinett will be less sweet than Spatlese, which will be less sweet than Auslese, which will be less sweet than Beerenauslese, etc. (Yes, these terms are used in Austrian as well as German wine!) And sometimes this is true. But, you can easily have a dry Spatlese, and a super sweet Kabinett…sigh.

This is where a few useful terms come in, which don’t describe the ‘quality category’ of the wine (i.e. its ripeness at harvest), but rather the sweetness of the juice in the bottle:
Trocken – dry! Remember this one word and your Riesling-buying life will be a lot easier. If you see it on a bottle, you know it will have less than 9g of residual sugar (with the total acidity being no more than 2g less per liter). This equates to a fairly DRY tasting wine, with very little perceptible sweetness on the palate.
Halbtrocken – semi-dry (up to 12g per liter of residual sugar)
Lieblich – semi-sweet (up to 45g per liter of residual sugar)
Suss – sweet (over 45g per liter residual sugar)

A few more useful terms, to help us digest this label. Just to throw a wrench in everyone’s wheels, WACHAU, a region in Lower Austria, right off the Danube River, has its own system of classification. Why, you ask? The Wachau indeed is probably the most quality-oriented region in Austria, with a great tradition of winemaking. This separate system of classification is seen as a way to retain that prestige and individuality. There are three ‘quality categories’ (with fun names, to boot!):
Steinfeder (named after a plant that grows in the vineyards) – the simplest, lightest wines with no more than 11 percent alcohol.
Federspiel (named after a device used in falconry to lure the hawk back to the glove) – more substantial wines that require about two years of aging, with a maximum alcohol of 11.9%.
Smaragd (named after the emerald lizards that populate the vineyards of Wachau) – made from the best and ripest grapes, these wines can have considerable alcohol levels, at least 12%, with no maximum. Elsewhere in Austria, these wines would be labeled ‘Auslese’.

So, here we have it: the 2007 Weingut Johann Donabaum Riesling. From Wachau, and specifically a vineyard called Offenberg, right outside the town of Spitz An Der Donau. It is a ‘Smaragd’ (and if we check the back label we can see that, indeed, this wine has 13.5% alcohol), but it is ‘Trocken’ (all together now: ‘DRY!’). That wasn’t so bad! All it takes is a few vocab words and a little practice, then we can move past what’s on the label and get on to the good stuff: the juice in the bottle.

Cheers!

JL.

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