By Jenny Ratcliffe-Wright CWM
With the holidays upon us, the topic of food, wine and their symbiotic relationship of pairing, is front of mind. There is often a gentle war between chefs and sommeliers about which comes first: food or wine, while many serious diners agree they are both just as important – as long as they complement each other well.
Andre Simon (1877-1970) is widely considered to be the father of food and wine matching and is known for his contribution to the subject with his book the Art of Good Living.
He is the founder of what is now called the International Wine and Food Society and was instrumental in developing a food and wine pairing culture both in London, starting at the Savoy in 1933, and later in New York in 1934 after Prohibition.
Since then, food and wine pairing has become more mainstream, deviating from the more formal rules of the last century: white wine with fish, red wine with meat.
Willi Klinger, who was the head of the Austrian Wine Marketing Board for many years, worked tirelessly to put Austrian wines on the wine lists of some of the great restaurants of the world, believing them to be great food matches.
“Would you like white, red or green?” he was well known for saying; in reference to the fresh, green, zingy flavours of Gruner Veltliner. The strap line stuck in the heads of sommeliers globally and helped Austrian wines gain the recognition they deserved.
In contrast to countries like Italy and France, which owe some of their success in restaurant wine sales to the popularity of their local and regional food, as well as cultural links of the diners, Austrian wines did not have this luxury. There are so few Austrian restaurants globally, Austrian wine marketers could not rely on this channel of pairing wines with the cuisine of their country, so they paired the wines with the cuisines of others, creating an international fusion of flavours.
Austrian wines, for a long time, were relatively unknown to the regular consumer, so the ease of pairing them with a multitude of styles of food became important. Fresh acidity and a lively structure pair well with many foods, so the interest began to lie in the ranges and ethnicities of the foods, creating a harmonious fusion. Austrian wines quickly became known as food friendly wines that express a unique sense of place and a balance of fresh fruit, alcohol and acidity.
And if anyone has the misconception that Austrian and German wines are similar (only due to their geographic proximity), one can draw the simple line that Austrian wines are almost always dry, except for those where botrytis (often intentionally) occurs. Austrian wines are often compared to those of Alsace, in France. Alsace wines, however, are richer than those from Germany, also heavier than Austrian wines. With similar alcohol levels to Alsatian wine, Austrian wine is more about precision and less about power.
Winzer Krems winery comments about Austrian wine and food pairing saying: “The wine should bring out and support the aromas of the food. It is important that wine and food should complement one another and not compete with each other. Wine should underline the taste of the dish. It is a result of the unique climatic conditions that Austrian wines are compact, elegant and fresh in style, therefore offering the perfect accompaniment to an array of dishes and food styles”.
The diversity of the Austrian wine landscape is reflected in its vast array of wine styles; white, red, sparkling and sweet and many different styles of those in between. Because Austria is considered a cool climate region, the balanced fruit-driven acidity is apparent in all wines drawing a thread of similarity between the styles.
This acidity adds freshness to the wine in a positive way as opposed to making the wine seem acidic. This natural acidity is achieved by the diurnal temperature variation between warm, sunny summer and autumn days and cool nights, creating fresh, aromatic wines with good body and fine character.
Acidity in a wine is one of the building blocks to food and wine pairing and because of this, Austrian wines are a natural fit to pair with our holiday celebration meals. Austria is unique in producing wines that are refreshing, while concentrated, and opulent while still having grace and elegance.
It is a common misconception that Austrian wines are predominantly white, and predominantly Grüner Veltliner. While 36% if the vineyard area in Austria is planted to Grüner Veltliner, a third of Austria’s terroir is planted to red varietals, of which Zweigelt has the largest plantings of 9%.
Zweigelt was developed by Frederich Zweigelt in 1922 and is a crossing of Blaufrankisch and St Laurent. It is a versatile grape that can make simple fruity unoaked styles of wine, and can reach right across the spectrum to full bodied wines matured in barrique.
Blaufrankisch is also popular, making up 5.5% of plantings in Austria, and makes a bold wine with good acidity, prominent tannins and notes of cherries. It has been known to age well when made in a serious style.
Pinot Noir grows very well in the cool Austrian climate and there are many high quality examples.
Pinot Noir’s deeper coloured, beefier cousin St Laurent has similar parentage to Pinot Noir and also originated in France. St Laurent wines have flavours of Morello cherry, anise, raspberries and leather.
There are 26 permitted white grape varieties in Austria and 14 red. It is interesting to note that the number of acres planted to red grape varietals in the past 2 decades has doubled, showing the strong acceptance Austrian red wines have in the global wine market.
Markus Huber from Weingut Huber talks about pairing his wines with food. For him, drinkability and a thirst quenching character are what make Austrian wines so easy to match with food. There is moderate alcohol, so that the wine’s aromas are not dominated, and the flavours are very precise. When asked about his best food match with a Grüner Veltliner, he very quickly mentioned Asian dishes such as sushi and Maki, then also included another favourite pairing of his: charcuterie with grilled vegetables.
“Grüner has a good aromatic profile, but it is not overwhelming. It is moderate with its acidity but not too lush. It has a robust spiciness so it can handle food with lots of spice and flavour.” He says “Grüner is drunk with almost everything, and it is very popular with the nation’s favourite Austrian dish, Weiner Schnitzel. The rich taste of the breadcrumb coating demands a full-bodied wine with freshness and spice”.
While talking about his Huber Riesling Terrassen, he says that it has some similarities to Grüner, although it pairs exceptionally better with seafood.
Winzer Krems, whose Sandgrube 13 Grüner Veltliner is the most popular Grüner in the LCBO, describes the wine as being great on its own or with seafood, salad and pastas, highlighting how generically good it is with most flavours.
With such a vast palette to choose from, pairing Austrian wines with your holiday meal should be fun and not stressful or difficult. According to experts, Austrian wines go with most dishes, because of their clean acidity.
A Grüner would be a great start to the holiday festivities, paired with some elegant appetizers or even just sipped on its own. Prosciutto and fresh Cantaloupe, or Asian spring rolls. Shrimp with a spiced dipping sauce would all make the flavours of lime, lemon, grapefruit and white pepper of Grüner sing. Try the Laurentz V. Friendly Grüner Veltliner ($19.95 at LCBO). It is bone dry, with hints of white peach, green apple and a mineral finish and will leave you palate refreshed.
On to the main meal. Traditional turkey, stuffing and mashed potatoes with gravy: a rich and heavily delicious treat. The Rabl St Laurent ($23.50 from Vintage Trade) has raspberries and vanilla on the palate with soft tannins. The wine has been in 15% new wood barrels with the remainder in larger tonneaux (large older oak barrels) and is the perfect match to a big meal with its delicate flavours and fresh acidity.
Or if you prefer to stay with white wine for your main meal the Winzer Krems Sandgrube 13 Grüner Veltliner ($13.95 at LCBO) is the perfect wine to go with every kind of dish and is an affordable offering.
The message is clear: Austrian wines are food wines. The terroir and climate produce food friendly wines with crisp acidity making them easy and versatile to pair. Breaking with the traditional food pairing rules, and exploring the wines of Austria is bound to be an enlightening journey.
Jenny Ratcliffe-Wright is a Cape Wine Master, the highest qualification in wine education in South Africa. She was born into the wine industry in South Africa where she lived until 2018. She now lives near Toronto with her family and is a freelance writer, international wine judge and educator. You can follow her wine reviews and recommendations @wrightwineblog