25 Wines in 25 Years: 1997 – Austrian Wines in a Historical Context

In the spring of 1997, Terry Thiese invited me to join him on one of his annual producer trips to Austria. It could not have come at a better time. I needed to get away and clear my head, and the group Terry assembled of buyers, mostly from the northeast who knew how to work hard and play hard, as well as the assiduous, generous winemakers, helped restore my faith in humanity, at least for a few weeks.

After the wine scandal of 1985, when some unscrupulous producers added diethylene glycol before bottling, Austria instituted the strictest wine laws in Europe. There were a lot of up and coming producers in the mid 90’s, especially in Terry’s portfolio, who were drawing worldwide attention to the Tyrolean vineyards. Heidi Schrock in Rust made people realize that sensational dry wines could be made in Neusiedlersee. Schloss Gobelsburg, a property used by the Nazis and then the Russians during and after WWII, was revived under the guidance of Willie Bründlmayer, whose own wines were in ascension. Even Nikolaihof, the oldest winery in Austria, was treated like the new kid on the block by American buyers. It was an exciting time for the Austrian winemakers and their enthusiasm was contagious.

I don’t drink Austrian wines as much as I used to but when they were first introduced to the San Francisco market, it was a revelation. The Rieslings were so different from the Germans I used to suck down like water and Grüner Veltliner was its own animal. There were several days when we tasted over 100 wines and combining that with two large, rich meals plus more wine is a recipe for palate fatigue, not to mention indigestion. I went running on the Danube when we were in the Wachau but even back then, there was a point when this delicate flower needed a break.

However, just as I was about to call “uncle” and wilt, we found ourselves at Salomon Undhof, an estate in the Kremstal that was founded at the end of the 18th century. In addition to his responsibilities at the winery, Bert Salomon was also the head of the Austrian Wine Bureau so we saw him a few other times. On this occasion, though, he was wearing the hat of gentry winemaker and this historical property no doubt could tell many stories.

After tasting through the current releases and some wines with a few years of age, he asked if we wanted to try something a bit older. It’s only polite to oblige the host so of course we responded with a resounding, “yes.” He went to the cellar and came back a few minutes later holding two bottles that looked as if they had seen their fair share of dust. This is where it gets hazy. One was definitely Grüner but I can’t remember if the other was as well or if it was Riesling. At any rate, what I do remember is that one of the wines was from the 40’s and the other, which was definitely Grüner Veltliner, was made in the 30’s.

Other than Madeira, I had never tried anything that old. I knew Riesling was able to age for several decades but had no idea that Grüner Veltliner could as well. Neither was fresh as a daisy but both retained character beyond oxidative notes and when I thought about what was happening in Europe at the time and the how the Nazis pillaged cellars throughout the continent, it blew my mind that these bottles even existed.

The book, Wine and War, by Donald and Petie Kladstrup, is a superb read on how the French attempted to protect their wine from the Nazis. Yet, there is not much information about what happened to the German and Austrian wineries and vineyards during the Third Reich. I was a history major in college, with a concentration in 20th century Europe, but this specific aspect of WWII and the pre-war era didn’t occur to me until later on when I started working in the wine industry. Also, as a lapsed Jew, I’m very curious about which wineries and winemakers resisted the Nazis, in their own little way.

So, the significance of these two wines is not just that they demonstrated the remarkable ability of Grüner Veltliner to age, but also, that they really got me thinking about Austrian wines in a more historical context. I know a bit more now than I did 19 years ago but many questions still remain.

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