The best way to think about Austrian (and German) wine labels is to see them as like nesting dolls. Utterly confusing at first blush,if you take a few minutes to get down the basics, everything falls into place rather quickly and an understanding emerges. In fact, in many ways, you'll know tons more about what's in the bottle of an Austrian wine when you read the label compared to, say, a Napa cab, particularly with rieslings and grüner veltliners from the Wachau region in Austria. You'll know the weight, sweetness level, alcohol, all that goodness. Like 'em light, racy and easy? Get a bottle that says steinfeder on the label. Enjoy something with elegance, a little more body and just a touch of sweetness? Federspiel is your bag. How about something more sweetly ripe, powerful and age-worthy? Smaragd is the name. Show me a Napa cab wine label that does that for you.
But those words - steinfeder, federspiel and smaragd (think of it as "STOP FEEDING SMILIA!" from light to ripe) - only apply to the Wachau region, nowhere else in Austria. In the other regions in Austria, especially since the new 2007 classification system went into place, reading an Austrian wine label has gotten easier without compromising the specificity of what's in the bottle.
Take today's focus, the Kremstal, a region just to the east of the aforementioned Wachau. Here's a lot of words on a wine label from the region:
2011 Weingut Stift Göttweig Grüner Veltliner Niederösterreich Kremstal DAC Reserve Gottschelle
Weingut: just means wine house, winery, estate
Stift Göttweig: name of the winery
Grüner Veltliner: grape
Niederösterreich: the general wine region in the northeast of Austria where the three best-known appellations - the Wachau, Kremstal and Kamptal - are located. Sorta like saying Willamette Valley with Dundee Hills, Eola-Amity, etc. being the more specific appellations. Niederösterreich isn't written on a bottle that would say Kremstal, like a Dundee Hills wine wouldn't have to say Willamette Valley. It's assumed. If a bottle says Niederösterreich, it's a wine from the general, un-designated region.
Kremstal: the specific appellation. Grows mostly grüner veltliner and riesling but it's a touch warmer here than Wachau so some red in the form of zweigelt, blaufrankisch, even some cabernet and merlot make an appearance.
DAC Reserve (used for whites only): the DAC part is just like AOC and DOC in France, Spain and Italy. Just started in 2007. The reserve part is the bigger wine style of a two-part system. If it says "klassik," it means the wine is all about its dry, light, fruity, minerally style with an alcohol level under 12.5%. "Reserve" means the alcohol is 13% and above with a dry style, fuller fruit, bigger minerals and even some barrel notes and botrytis.
Gottschelle: name of the single vineyard and typically put last on the label. Like in Burgundy and elsewhere, one vineyard has tons of plots inside it owned by different winemakers.
So that's not so bad. Sure, it's a bucketful of foreign words but fairly simple if you break it down.
What's going on in Kremstal then? Everything's relative, really. Kremstal wines are inevitably compared to the wines of the Wachau to the west, which is known for its maybe more prestigious, age-worthy rieslings and grüner veltliners. In fact, switch those grapes because grüner veltliner is by far the most-grown grape in Austria (37% for grüner veltliner compared to only 4% riesling) and the Kremstal is no exception. It's a touch warmer than the Wachau, as noted above, and a bit more flat and rolling, leading to wines that are more approachable, softer and more friendly early on, but sacrificing their age-worthiness for the most part. If you drink a Kremstal white wine, you're going to get something easier, maybe more delicate, even a bit ethereal but with a solid backbone.
For food pairing with Kremstal whites, think the same thing, just remember that this is a slightly softer style. Play the complement angle instead of the contrasting one. If it's a grüner veltliner, which already has some root vegetable and spice notes wrapped in citrus, think along the same lines with something vegetable-heavy with a big herbal component and maybe a citrus or anchovy vinaigrette to draw out some deeper nuggets buried in the wine. If you have it fresh and new showing more of its early acid, something Thai with the tiniest of spicy kick should be quite nice. Hot Asian surprise won't be the play here. Take it down a notch.
Like this meal with a Kremstal grüner veltliner that was on its last legs but gave all it had at the end of its life in order to pair quite nicely with the food.
Food: Michael Symon roasted chicken, salsa verde and a fava bean, corn, tomato, avocado salad
Chicken and salsa verde recipe here. Fava bean, corn, tomato and avocado salad with grated Idiazabal cheese on top. Top-three meal in this house with two tuna meals being the other two. Not corn season. Not fava season. Tomatoes are looking better right now but they're not totally there. We didn't care. It's Happy Food to the nth degree.
Wine: 2006 Stift Göttweig Grüner Veltliner Kremstal Gottschelle ($15 - Wine Discount Center)
Loved this wine for a time 3-4 years ago. Mixed results with food but chicken piccata had its number in 2010 due to the capers and citrus in the food prying open the deeper notes in the wine. Now, it's all older vegetables and white pepper with barely a fruit note to be found. Maybe some pear skin. There's a lot of wine in this house that has to be drunk. This was exhibit A but things worked here.
Pairing: Tons of dying complexity to be found in the wine with the vegetables and herbs on the plate
Deepish, surprisingly broad and expansive, particularly with the fava beans, showing a basket of old green and root vegetables and white pepper and barely just enough acid to keep everything in line. It was old, a bit bottom-heavy, but the fun part of the pairing came in watching the old dog, this seven year-old grüner veltliner meant to be drunk earlier than this, display a few more back-flips. We brought a Crémant du Jura to the table as well, thinking the grüner veltliner was going to hold up, but the Stift Gottweig did just fine, revealing a different order and different types of vegetables with a different bite of food. Tasted like a strange garden that was left unattended for years. This pairing has that pause to it that tells you things are mingling well.
A 2006 Wachau grüner veltliner would have just been opening up. This Kempstal has brought us a nice amount of goodness at a good price over the last few years, giving us a earlier, shorter window but an entirely different expression throughout the six bottles or so that we've had. Shorter life but nice arc, like many Kremstals. Maybe not the 10-20-30 years of great Wachau wines, but nearly seven years here and still some good life.
Stift Göttweig, a former Benedictine monastery that's been making wine for a thousand years in some form, is a good representation of Kremstal wines in our limited Kremstal drinking experience. "Friendly" is the word because friendly is what they are.
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