Stefan Neumann MS is one of only three Austrian Master Sommeliers and the only one living and working in the UK. His journey into and love for Austrian wine isn’t as straightforward as some might think. He left Austria in 2008 with the intention of wanting to see what the world of wine had to offer and to not solely work with Austrian wine. Over a decade later, he finds he now looks at the wines of his homeland from a much more international point of view. His love of them remains undimmed.
Trying to get hold of an Austrian wine abroad 20 years ago was quite a challenge, let alone trying to find one which wasn’t white. How the world of wine has changed is remarkable, yet the success of Austrian wine abroad has had many reasons. Before I elaborate on this in greater detail, one important question should be answered first.
Why should you try Austrian wine?
The secret for me has always been approachability, food-friendliness and the sound belief in indigenous varieties like grüner or roter veltliner for whites and blaufränkisch and St Laurent for reds. Bear in mind there are many more to discover. Austrian wine is generally focused on freshness, drinkability and gets ‘just enough’ intervention in the cellar by winemakers. You hardly find over-oaked or over-extracted styles as in all honesty we made those mistakes before and have learned from them. Since the 2000s we value much more our local varieties and proudly pair them with the world’s cuisine.
So why does Austrian wine work so well across the board?
I have worked in restaurants for the majority of my career to date and have had many conversations with my peers around finding the ‘perfect’ pairing with specific dishes, whether they be simple or highly technically prepared ones. The opinion is often the same; if you are stuck finding something that not only works but also surprises, get yourself a glass of grüner veltliner. Many different styles are found but all of them have a common thread – freshness. The lighter styles in particular can be compared with Sancerre, not as high in acidity yet equally crisp and often showing a wonderful textural element.
This is the moment to put my international hat on and pair Austrian wine with world cuisine rather than sticking to the home turf, as delicious as Austrian cuisine can be.
Some classic and not-so-classic perfect pairings
Grüner veltliner comes in different styles from lighter to richer versions and from a citrusy zesty profile to riper, white-fleshed fruit like pear, peaches and even apricots. Lighter interpretations like Steinfeder (literally, ‘stone feather’) in Wachau work very well with fish like cod, seabass, or trout. My initial thoughts go to Central and South America and something like ceviche – a dish composed of raw fish marinated with lemon/lime juice, onions, pepper, and chili. It is simply prepared and works wonders with a light, zesty and refreshing grüner veltliner like the Gneis + Löss by Domäne Wachau. The low alcohol content (limited to 11.5% abv) gives the opportunity for the fish to be star of the show and the similarity of citrusy elements in the wine and dish creates a harmonious picture and a balanced mouthfeel.
I have had some stunning Cantonese dim sum and totally understand the hype. It’s a traditional meal containing several different types of dumpling and often complemented with either turnip cake or Loh Mai Gai (a lotus leaf filled with rice, sausages and pork meat). Grüner veltliner proves to be the ultimate allrounder to pair with this variety of culinary delights. Try Har Gow (shrimp dumpling), Siu Mai (pork and shrimp) and Cheung Fun (rice rolls) and you will know why I am always so thrilled to enjoy this with my family. Once again, it’s the similarity of flavours that make it really work; grüner often has a slight turnip-like vegetal quality, paired with an intriguing floral note and a white or green tea-like flavour. An umami firework at its finest, especially when Rainer Wess’s Grüner Veltliner, Kremstal 2020 is in your glass. Good dim sum needs time and real skill to prepare at home; alternatively, it’s often just a few clicks away on good takeaway menus!
Experiencing the love of different pasta dishes in Italy has most likely impressed many of us whilst on holiday. For me pasta remains one of the easiest dishes to cook yet a hard one to fully master. Find your favourite pasta, mine is the orecchiette (or ‘little ears’) with tomato sauce. Having tried to perfect my own tomato sauce recipe over the years (lockdowns certainly helped), I fell in love with blaufränkisch as a match. This typical Austrian variety often has a primary aroma which is dark fruit-scented with some floral elements and hints of olive tapenade; its tannins are present but fine grained. Think of a Chianti Classico with a modern twist.
If you want to pair it with a bit of protein, a classic French cassoulet would be fine choice as blaufränkisch always carries its weight and intensity gracefully but has a good level of acidity to cut through the richness of the dish. Try The Society’s Blaufränkisch which is crafted by Hans Igler, a true master of its craft.
St Laurent as a variety is often overlooked, even within Austria, but remains one of my firm favourites. Genetically closely related to pinot noir, it needs some tender loving care in the vineyard but can express greatness early in its life. I always think of it as a powered-up version of pinot noir showing a bit more spice and earthy elements. Pairing it with roast duck breast is a solid choice and something like the French classic Canard aux cerises would be perfect. The cerises (cherries) are often cooked in the duck juice giving a wonderful sweet, and at the same time, tart taste to the dish. Stifts Klosterneuburg’s St Laurent 2019, an elegant and classic example is also bursting with cherry flavours making it naturally a good match.
And to finish, let me tell you a little secret. Zweigelt as a red grape variety is having a real revival right now. The most planted red variety in Austria often sits stylistically between gamay and syrah so convinces with a smooth, velvety tannin structure and a sublime red-fruit spectrum. Neusiedlersee DAC as a region leads the way but watch Carnuntum closely, a region just south of Vienna. If you are looking for something more exotic in terms of location, Hokkaido in Japan produces some delicious zweigelt too but that’s a story for another day.
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