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Wednesday, June 10, 2009 09:05 pm

For some fine Austrian wine, say “groo-vy”

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When you think of Austria, what comes to mind? Beautiful mountains and picturesque valleys? Strauss waltzes? Wienerschnitzel? Mozart? Pastries? (what we call “Danish” are known in Denmark as weinerbrød – “Vienna bread”) Maria and the Von Trapp kids singing “Do-Re-Mi”? The pristine white stallions of Vienna’s Spanish Riding School performing their “airs above the ground” leaps and ballet-esque movements?

How about wine? If not, then you might want to add it to the list, because Austria produces some of the finest, most food-friendly wines in the world.

Grüner Veltliner is Austria’s best known, best loved wine, made from grapes of the same name. (Most new world wines — those from America, South America, Australia, etc., are labeled by their predominant or sole grape variety as in Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, etc. European wine labels often refer to a region rather to a grape variety, such as Chianti, Burgundy, Champagne, etc., even though each region usually utilizes a specific grape variety, varieties, or blend.)

The name Grüner Veltliner can be a mouthful for those unacquainted with the German language, and in the U.S. is often referred to as Grü-V (groovy). Until fairly recently it was almost unknown in the U.S., but is becoming increasingly popular here. In the book What to Drink With What You Eat, by Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg, top American sommeliers offer advice and opinions about food and drinks, ranging from wine and beer to coffee and other non-alcoholic beverages. They’re enthusiastic about Grü-V: “When in doubt, get Grüner Veltliner and you’ll be OK,” says one. Others comment, “Chefs that care about food and like wine like Grüner Veltliner and will recommend it.”; and “Once you get people to taste it, they find they love it!”

Getting people to taste it is indeed the key. “It’s a hard sell,” says the Corkscrew’s Michael DeBeaulieu, meaning that it’s a wine that folks need to have described before they buy. DeBeaulieu says that many people have the misconception that all German or Germanic wines are cloyingly sweet and have little depth of flavor. Nothing could be further from cloyingly sweet that Grü-V. “It’s a racy dry white with pinpoint precision and jazzy acidity that has great finesse,” says DeBeaulieu. “It awakens the palate.” Not that all Grü-Vs are exactly alike. There are entry-level (usually inexpensive) light-bodied versions, and others with richness and a long finish. But all have a high acid content, giving Grü-V a much longer shelf life than many whites — it can drink well for as long as 10 to 20 years, all the while developing flavor and golden hues.

“Made for food pairing” and “food-friendly” are phrases often heard in connection with Grü-V. And indeed it is. It’s one of the few (some say the only) wines that pair well with asparagus and artichokes, two of the most notoriously difficult foods to match with wine. It’s great with spicy ethnic cuisines, seafood, chicken — in fact, almost everything, although it wouldn’t be my first choice with, say, a grilled steak, braised lamb shanks, or beef stew. But I’d happily drink it with barbequed ribs or chicken.

Grüner Veltliner predominates, but Austria has other smaller production wines as well, including two notable reds, Zweigelt and Blaufrankisch. Both are as food friendly as Grü-V, with “gentle notes of cherry and pepper” according to DeBeaulieu. They’re best served slightly cool and are as versatile as their white compatriot. The Corkscrew is so enthusiastic about Austrian wines that they devote an entire row to them.

Austria doesn’t just have wonderful wines, it has a unique wine tradition as well. Heurige are small vineyards (many within Vienna’s city limits) that display a wreath of straw or evergreens each spring and summer to announce that their new wine is ready for drinking (wine made from grapes harvested the previous fall). The custom originated as a means to avoid taxes; only bottled wine was taxed, so the more wine the vintners could sell straight from the cask, the less taxes they paid. Today Austrians and tourists alike still flock to vineyards where rustic tables are set out among the vines and gardens and everyone congregates to enjoy the wine, special foods (often including Liptauer cheese) and gemütlichkeit, an ephemeral term that loosely translates as a social comfortable ambience where everyone is welcome.

I don’t remember when or how I stumbled upon Grü-V in America — perhaps because the label Glatzer, one of the major producers, caught my eye, perhaps because of memories of the Heuriges from my student days. Regardless, my husband and I enjoy Grü-V and other Austrian wines throughout the year, especially in summer.

Give Grüner Veltliner and other Austrian wines a try. I’ll bet you find them, as I do, truly groovy!

Contact Julianne Glatz at realcuisine.jg@gmail.com.

Austrian cuisine is a rich amalgamation of its native culinary heritage as well as influences from countries that were a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Touches of the Middle East can be found — not surprising, since the empire had its beginning with the defeat of the Ottoman Turks in the 1683 Battle of Vienna. Austria’s ruling dynasty, the Hapsburgs, then began conquering many Central and East European countries the Ottomans had controlled for centuries. The Austro-Hungarian Empire extended over much of Central and Eastern Europe until the assassination of the Hapsburg Archduke Franz Ferdinand precipitated World War I and, ultimately, the end of the empire. Wealthy and aristocratic Viennese enjoyed food as elaborate and sophisticated as any in the world, including France’s — especially those pastries.

Liptauer has influences from Hungary (paprika) and the Mediterranean/Middle East (capers). It’s a staple in many Viennese Heurige, but also perfect for American cookouts of grilled bratwurst and sausages. Making Liptauer takes only minutes to make and it can be served in a bowl or mounded on a plate. For a gorgeous presentation worthy of those sophisticated Viennese of yesteryear, try the method below. I don’t normally use dried chives — in fact, this is the only dish in which I use them — but here they make the garnishing easy.

LIPTAUER CHEESE

2 C. cream cheese or fresh goat cheese or a combination, softened

2 T. prepared mustard such as Düsseldorf, Dijon, or whole grain

(Do not use “ballpark” type mustard)

2 T. Hungarian sweet paprika

1 tsp. freshly ground pepper

3 T. drained and finely minced capers

1 tsp. ground caraway seed, optional

Optional garnish

Sweet Hungarian paprika

Freeze-dried chives

Mix all ingredients in a medium bowl. Serve with thinly sliced dark pumpernickel (such as cocktail pumpernickel.) It’s best to let it stand for at least an hour (overnight is even better) for the flavors to meld.

For an especially attractive presentation:

Put the cheese on a small serving platter and mound into a round dome. Stick pieces of waxed or parchment paper around the bottom to facilitate cleanup. Lightly score the mound into 6 sections. Put the chives on a small plate or in a bowl. Moisten your (clean) index finger with water and blot it on a towel. Gently put the tip of your index finger into the chives. Gently press the chives that adhere to your finger onto the top of the mound. Repeat to make a small circle at the tip of the mound, then follow the scored lines down the sides, flaring the chives a little as you go downwards. Finish by pressing chives into an inch-deep border around the bottom. Now take the tip of a sharp knife and pick up a little paprika. Carefully sprinkle the paprika over the areas covered by the chives.

Liptauer can also be served on cucumber slices, spread on thinly sliced ham rolled up and sliced into pinwheels, or as a topping or stuffing for pork chops.

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