Thursday, June 30, 2011

Hirtzberger, the Scandal of '85, and an Evening with Peter Liem

My good friend Peter returned from Champagne the other day and to my great happiness, he came for dinner that very night. I love hanging out with Peter because he's a truly remarkable guy, and then there's also the wine thing - spending an evening drinking wine with him is like being in graduate school (but without the annoying homework or the crippling debt). During our conversation on this night I learned a lot about Austrian Riesling and changes in the Austrian wine industry in the 1980's. All of this was new to me, and I found it so interesting that I will try to recreate the conversation here.

It began with lobster bisque that I brought back from Larson's Fish Market in Martha's Vineyard. What to drink with this very rich soup? I was thinking of Champagne, or maybe a Huet demi-sec, but I remembered the 1999 Hirtzberger Riesling Smaragd Singerriedel that I bought about a year ago, on Peter's advice actually. I saw it one day just sitting there for $67 in the cold room at Astor. Curious about Austrian wine, I had asked Peter to recommend a few things to try. He said that the blue-chip wines include Hirtzberger's Singerriedel, Nikolaihof's Steiner Hund, Alzinger's Steinertal, Pichler's Kellerberg and Loibner Berg, and Prager's Achleiten (and more recently Wachstum Bodenstein), and that Singerriedel might be the greatest of the vineyard sites.

We opened and decanted the wine. Peter generally does not decant wine, he prefers to experience its evolution from the bottle and the glass, but he told me always to decant Austrian white wines because they are made in such a reductive style. I thought the wine was gorgeous - rather full in body and quite ripe, but also entirely focused and under control, and as it interacted with air it became more and more detailed. Peter said the wine was great and that it was very modern, a fantastic example of the style.


"What do you mean, modern," I asked.

"Well, the Austrian wine industry completely changed in 1985," he said. "You know about this, right?"

"Nope. Completely ignorant," my vacant expression conveyed.

"Austrian Riesling used to have residual sugar. If you drink wines from the 40's, 50's, and 60's, they all had residual sugar. Now some of the greatest wines are completely dry, but this is a relatively new thing. They were making late harvest wines and doing very well with them in the export markets. But you can't make late harvest Riesling every year, it requires certain climate characteristics. It turns out that when climate didn't cooperate, some producers were adding diethylene glycol (an ingredient in anti-freeze) to the wines to give them the texture resembling the late harvest wines."

"You've got to be kidding me," I said. I thought it was the French who used to add anti-freeze to wine.

Peter just shrugged. "When this was discovered, the Austrian wine industry died, literally overnight," he said. "There were a few growers who decided to change the course, to make great dry wines. They formed a private growers organization called Vinea Wachau, the organization that began using the Federspiel and Smaragd designations. And they weren't always called Smaragd, by the way. It was originally Honifogel but there was a woman whose last name was Honifogel who sued the group and they changed the designation name to Smaragd"

"Who were the growers who started it," I asked.

"It was four of them I think," Peter said. "Hirtzberger, the old Jamek, the old Prager, and FX Pichler. It took a little while, but the scandal was the greatest thing that could have happened for the Austrian wine industry in a Darwinian way - only the best survived. Overall quality is great now, in fact I would say that there is no where else right now where the median wine quality is equal to what it is in Austria."

"Wow, that's a big thing to say," I said. It was at this point when I noticed all of this light, this burst of knowledge, if you will, pouring forth from Peter's head.

"I'd love this to happen elsewhere," Peter said, laughing. "I'd love a scandal in Champagne."

We drank the wine and it was delicious with the lobster bisque. It was delicious on its own. Really a great wine, amazingly graceful and balanced, so expressive, a complete wine. And a great experience drinking it in the company of some one who can speak about it so intelligently and also so conversationally. Here's the wikipedia entry on the Austrian wine scandal, if you're curious.

Anyone out there around and remember interesting details from the Austrian scandal of '85? Fee free to share...


adam said...

I blame The Simpsons for making people believe it was the French adding antifreeze to wine.

Had an '07 Jamek GV Smaragd Ried Achlieten a couple of weeks ago that I would have never pegged as Gruner. They get downright Burgundian.

Anonymous said...

The Vinea Wachau was formed in September 1982 with 25 initial members.

Also I do not think the Austrian Wine Scandal involved the top wineries. It was the wineries in the lesser regions. Not to excuse it in anyway but this never gets mentioned when it is brought up. One can only imagine what Yellow Tail and Charles Shaw wines have in them. I think the scandal should be mentioned in the proper context.

Mark Anisman said...

I plead ignorance Adam, as I have not had much Burgundy lately. But I am not sure what you mean when you say Burgundian, as they seem to be quite different animals (not just the grapes, but the elevage as well).
thanks, Mark

Eric the Red said...

Wait! Austrian rieslings used to be sweet. And German rieslings used to be dry. But now German rieslings are dry again, except when they're sweet. And Champagne used to be sweet. Except now it's ultrabrut. And Napa reds used to be dry, too, but now they're sweet. Say what?

Anonymous said...

what i find fascinating is that no one talks about the fact that during the same time period of the austrian wine scandal (which involved only a handfull of people), the italians were adding stuff to their wine AND 20 PEOPLE DIED. really, enough about the scandal. austria makes world class artisanal wines, and should be recognized as such. if you are going to dredge up the scandal, you should also note that because of it, they have the strictest wine laws in the world. it is a country that has been making beautiful estate wines for thousands of years and should be recognized as such. it is still a niche market in the US, as it is a country of small wineries without the marketing money to make them better known. austria gets virtually no press, so please, we have heard ad nauseum about the scandal. pick on someone else for a change.

Do Bianchi said...

Anonymous, Austria does indeed make great wine and the Italians did indeed host one of the most tragic wine scandals of our lifetime... (forget adding Merlot to Sangiovese)... The scandal that people don't remember (and perhaps more a propos here) was the chapitalization scandal in Piedmont in the same period. One of Italy's marquee names was at the center of the commotion...

BrooklynGuy, always love when you share these evenings with Peter... envious of your friendship with him!

Eric, it's a crazy mixed up world out there, isn't it? Next thing you know, Cirò producers are going to start adding Merlot to their Gaglioppo! G-d forbid!

And lest we ever forget (I know yall get the reference).

Bouzy said...

You should try a Hirtzberger Hochrain Smaragd next time to a dish like lobster bisque, those will marry even more beautiful!

Vino30 said...

Had no idea about the anti-freeze incident in Austria, great post!! Thank you for informing me.

P.S. I have had that Franz Hirtzberger, killer, killer wines!!