Today’s Austrian wines can be teamed with a surprisingly wide range of dishes. NATASHA HUGHES asks three top chefs and sommeliers to recommend their favourite pairings
We all know that Austria’s winemakers have found it a struggle to gain international recognition in the past couple of decades, and yet the astonishingly diverse range of wines the country produces has long been a success on restaurant wine lists around the world. Sommeliers and chefs in many of the most respected restaurants are convinced that Austrian wines are tailor-made to be teamed with food.
’Like most people, I was most aware of the sweet Austrian wines to begin with,’ explains Loic Mallet, sommelier at the Great Eastern Hotel’s flagship restaurant Aurora. ‘But then I discovered that there were lots of other styles, many of which go very well with the dishes we cook here.’
All other considerations aside, in a world dominated by such global grapes as Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Syrah, Austria offers enthusiasts the opportunity to experiment with some unusual varietals, including Grüner Veltliner, Blaufränkisch, Muskat Ottonel and St Laurent.
’I find the indigenous varieties interesting,’ says Mallet, ‘and so do many of our customers – once they try them. I’m particularly fond of a glass of Muskat Ottonel as an aperitif – it’s very exotic.’
Even some of the more widely known grapes provide pleasant surprises when transmuted by the Austrian terroir. ‘Take Riesling, for instance,’ says Ronan Sayburn, Gordon Ramsay’s sommelier. ‘You find that some are light in style, with an incredibly mineral, stony palate, whereas others are full of tropical fruit and ginger, with loads of weighty alcohol. The latter tend to work particularly well with seafood in heavy sauces.’
Martin Lam, chef and owner of Ransome’s Dock in London, is also enthusiastic about Austria’s whites, and is particularly attracted to Grüner Veltliner, a grape that offers Riesling a run for its money in terms of diversity of style.
’It’s a variety that makes a great aperitif, particularly those wines with good levels of acidity,’ he says. ‘The current vintage is very fine, with a mineral quality, making it wonderful with creamy sauces, whether you’re talking about meat or fish. It’s also got what it takes to stand up to oily smoked fish, and washed-rind cheeses. The richer, more aromatic style works well with Asian food. It’s a bit like the Rieslings: when you find one that’s lacking a bit in acidity, but has that almost late-harvest richness, it’s best with quite spicy flavours.’
None of this is news to the Americans. ‘If you go back 10 years or so, in some people’s minds Austrian wine was still ensnared in that scandal,’ says Paul Grieco, beverage director of New York’s Gramercy Tavern, referring to the incident in 1985 when some producers were found to be adulterating wines to adjust viscosity and sweetness. ‘You’d have been hard pressed to find one on a list. Now, no self-respecting sommelier would be without Grüner, Riesling, Blaufränkisch and, arguably, some of the dessert wines.’
Grieco is particularly impressed by the balance of some of the Grüner Veltliners and Rieslings. ‘I don’t even mind if they have a touch of residual sweetness,’ he explains, ‘as it helps to balance that mineral quality that many of the Austrian wines have. They work across the board. For instance, if you go to a sushi restaurant, or eat shellfish, the cleanness of the wines complements the purity of the fish.’
Mallet believes that some of the Grüners are so full-bodied they can even complement meat dishes. ‘There was one Grüner Veltliner from the Wachau we used to have on our list that worked well with white meat – I’d often match it to a dish of pork poached in milk with lemon. It’s even robust enough to stand up to the stronger flavours of lamb, though I’d say the lamb would have to be fairly well done. It wouldn’t work well with rare meat at all.’
Austria’s reds, while even less well known than their white counterparts, are also winning plaudits for their versatility. ‘Varieties like Blaufränkisch and St Laurent are not intensely tannic, but have lots of acidity, fruit and structure,’ says Sayburn. ‘You can pair them with quite heavy meat dishes, but because the levels of tannin are low, you can also go for fish dishes.’
Grieco agrees. ‘Huge strides have been made in the quality of these wines, and the good ones are not over-extracted and have great balance. They work well with fish dishes with an earthy element – lentils or mushrooms, for instance. In particular, if you want to address the issue of teaming reds with fish, I’d go for a Blaufränkisch. Like Pinot Noir, it tends to have very bright acidity and a light-to-medium weight on the palate, but it tends to have more dark berry fruit and a little more oomph.’
Lam compares some Austrian reds to those of Italy – hardly surprising when the two countries share a border. ‘I recently tasted the wines of Paul Achs and I was very impressed. The wines were elegant and soft in tannins but, without a shadow of a doubt, they were food wines. One in particular, the 1999 Ungerberg, a blend of Merlot, Syrah and Blaufränkisch would be a good partner to any wintery game dish or ragout as well as simple grilled meat.’
Mallet cites Solitaire, a full-bodied red from Feiler-Artinger, as a match for a hearty dish of venison in a sauce made from reduced red wine, port and cacao powder. ‘Lighter reds, such as Pittnauer’s St Laurent, work better with slightly lighter meats, like duck breast.’
Finally, of course, the sweets come into their own with the dessert course. ‘When you’re matching sweet wines with desserts, the wine has to be sweeter or the match will flop,’ says Grieco.
’These days a lot of pastry chefs are adding a savoury element to desserts in order to bring the sweetness down a touch, but even classic desserts can be matched.
’In particular, Kracher’s wines are not cloyingly sweet or flabby. The lighter ones are brilliant with a tarte tatin and, if you go up the scale of sweetness, there are even wines with enough balance of sugar and acidity to take on ingredients like milk chocolate.
’When I buy wine for the restaurant,’ he continues, ‘it has to meet three criteria: I want a sense of fruit, a sense of place and a sense of man. Austrian wines meet these criteria in spades.’
With innovative restaurateurs and sommeliers leading the way, it’s time for those who haven’t yet caught on to embrace the potential of Austrian wine as the ideal, if somewhat unusual, match for many of our favourite foods – be it Blaufränkisch with fish or lighter sweet wines with tarte tatin.
Written by Natasha Hughes