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Vintage of the Century?

By Michael Schiaparelli · September 12th, 2007 · Fermentations
We're only about seven years into this millennium, and yet some enthusiastic wine rags and hyperbolic marketers have already hailed certain vintages as the Best of the Century: 2000 Napa Cabs, 2001 German Rieslings, 2005 Bordeaux and now 2006 Austrian wines.

Austria? Many Americans have never even tried an Austrian wine. Their reputation took a huge hit 20 years ago when a handful of deceitful winemakers added diethylene glycol (an antifreeze component) to sweeten their products for export. It's said that this repugnant adulteration was uncovered when one of them filed a tax deduction for the chemicals. (Talk about chutzpah!)

Since then, a new generation of Austrian winemakers has rededicated itself to producing quality wines -- often using organic and biodynamic methods. For example, Hans Setzer, whose family has been making wine since 1705, is committed to crafting wines that express the terroir of his organic vineyards.

"We use no oak at all," he says. "All stainless steel, so that the wines show the purity of our fruit."

And in a year like 2006, with its warm, dry harvest, that fruit often reached optimal ripeness, perfectly balancing sugars and acidity to assure long-lived wines of the highest quality. Ask your local retailer to order Hans' bargain-priced, well-balanced 2006 Setzer Gruner Veltliner "Vesper" (distributed by Vanguard Wines; $13). Super-dry, its distinct minerality is balanced by flavors of firm white peaches and finishes with the subtle spice of white pepper.

Unlike neighboring Germany, Austria's wines tend to be bone-dry creations that rely on clarity and precision rather than lush, sweet fruit to impress. In fact, classic Gruner Veltliner, the county's most widely planted white grape, is often described using words such as lentils, flowers, herbs and stones.

Occasionally, these wines will show some sweetness and might even be affected by botrytis, a beneficial mold that, under the best circumstances, dries the grapes, increasing sugars, intensifying flavors and adding a beguiling smokiness to the mix. For an irresistible example of this style, try the 2006 Hiedler Gruner Veltliner Thal (also from Vanguard; $22).

So, vintage of the century? Peter Schleimer, editor of Austria's Vinaria wine magazine, is slightly more reserved in his assessment. "It is truly a great vintage," he tells me. "Certainly the best since 1999. These wines have so much intensity and are yet so well-balanced that they will easily last for 20, 30 years."

And they definitely deserve space in your cellar.

CONTACT MICHAEL SCHIAPARELLI: letters(at)citybeat.com. His column appears here once a month.


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