On a recent Monday night, 26 Memphis wine aficionados came together for a night of food and wine at Tsunami. The reason? Austrian wine.
Austrian wine and Chef Ben Smith's Pacific Rim cuisine might not be easily connected in most people's minds. More than likely, Austria doesn't cross people's minds at all when it comes to wine. But after that dinner, every single person was a convert.
Austria produces less than 1 percent of the world's total yearly wine output. That beautiful trickle is finally making its way down to Memphis thanks to Chicago-based importer VinDiVino. Known more for their Italian portfolio, VinDiVino only recently began importing Austrian wines. Back in 1993, they started with only one, the dessert-wine superstar Alois Kracher. Today, they import wines from 28 different Austrian wineries.
Prager, one of Austria's best-known wineries, has taken Riesling's sullied reputation as a cloying, syrupy wine and transformed it into something astonishing. Credit master winemaker Toni Bodenstein, who handcrafts fruit from the Wachau district into the purest dry Rieslings in the world.
"We are blessed with three distinct climates within the Wachau region," Bodenstein says. "The steep hills, nearly 1,000 meters high, provide different sun exposures and micro-climates. [Also] in the '80s, the Austrian government adopted strict wine laws, which forced winemakers to cut yields. These laws forced the level of quality up considerably."
Prager wines offer a bounty of citrus and stone fruit flavors and aromas, along with vibrant minerality and racy, mouthwatering acidity. Those who fancy full-bodied whites will be blown away by the weight and texture of Bodenstein's Rieslings. Tasting one that has been left out on the counter for two hours is eye-opening. Never before has a room-temperature white wine been so beautifully alive, balanced, and beckoning. Pork, something most Memphians are religious about, is a wonderful match for Prager Rieslings.
The Achleiten vineyard in Central Wachau is a steep, sloped vineyard, terraced with ancient stonework that dates back to medieval times. Kersten Klamm of Freie Weingartner Wachau coaxes very modern, rich Grüner Veltliner and Riesling from this historical vineyard.
"It's the specific soil climate and the steep terraced vineyards that determine the unique style of our wines," Klamm says. "Wachau wines are always very mineralic with lots of finesse and a great aging potential. Our main white grape, Grüner Veltliner, combines the finesse and elegance of a Riesling with the structure and complexity of a Burgundy."
In the Wachau, there are three distinctive levels of ripeness. Steinfeder wines, named after an indigenous grass, are fairly light in alcohol and very fresh and fruity. Wines with the Federspiel designation are fuller in body and ripeness with an alcohol level between 11 and 12.5 percent. The term "Federspiel" was the name of the leather whip used to call back falcons in the old days. Smaragd, named after a lizard that lives in the vineyards, is the designation given to the ripest and most precious wines.
The important thing to remember is that no matter how ripe the wines, they are always dry.
Whether quenching a thirst induced by triple-digit heat or pairing an incredible meal with a perfect wine, Memphis wine drinkers should look to the small country of Austria to provide wines for both occasions.
FWW Domane Wachau Federspiel Terrassen Grüner Veltliner 2006, $16.99
FWW Domane Wachau Smaragd Achleiten Riesling 2005, $35.99
Weingut Stadt Krems Sandgrube Grüner Veltliner 2006, $17.99
Loimer Kamptal Grüner Veltliner 2005, $19.99
Prager Federspiel "Steinriegl" Riesling 2005, $30.99