I've been told that most Austrian wine is consumed at home in Austria, and that most of this is consumed while still young. Whether or not this is true I do not know. But I've noticed that there is never any old Austrian wine included in the offers that flood our in-boxes selling great wines from back vintages. I almost never see back vintages on the shelves at good wine stores, and the only people I know who have old Austrian wines are serious collectors who have been following these wines for some time.
So, it is a rare opportunity to drink a mature Austrian wine. To drink a large sample in one evening, with friends and a lovely dinner - this is something that I've done on only one prior occasion. But Jamie Wolff, a partner at Chambers Street Wines, saved a number of bottles from a cellar that the store purchased back in 2007. There are many great wine producers in Austria, but Leo (and now also his son Leo) Alzinger is unquestionably one of the very finest. It is Alzinger wines from the 1980's and 1990's that Jamie held onto. He decided to invite some local Austrian wine lovers, who of course also brought along some great bottles, and to share everything over dinner at Trestle on Tenth.
Austria's Wachau wine region is rather warm in general and the wines, particularly the Smaragds, the wines made from the ripest and highest quality grapes, can be big and rich with alcohol that regularly hits 14%. Some of Austria's greatest producers, Hirtzberger for example make wines in that style, and they are great. Alzinger is known as a producer whose wines show less muscle. The wines come from some of the very finest vineyards in the Wachau, and thrive on their clarity and precision. In my rather limited experience with Austrian wine Alzinger is already a favorite (if not the favorite) and so I was more than a little bit excited to have the opportunity to drink these old wines on this night.
---People like to say that Burgundy is a crap-shoot. The more wine I drink, the more I understand that this notion is utter malarkey. Or at least, that Burgundy in particular produces wines that do not provide the pleasure that is to be expected. If you sit down with 10 tightly grouped vintages of most of the world's great wines, some will deliver and other will disappoint. I think that's just part of the game.
--We drank 4 wines from the 1980's. One, the 1987 Riesling Kabinett Trocken Loibenberg, was corked. The other three were fantastic.
One was the 1985 Riesling Loiben (not sure what that means actually - maybe a blend of different vineyards in that village?). This wine was so satisfying and delicious. I loved its full, honeyed and mineral nose - so complex and harmonious, just gorgeous. The palate was all rock. Lovely, but not with the same sensuality as the nose. Still, this was quite the advertisement for cellaring Austrian Riesling.
Another was the 1989 Riesling Smaragd Loibenberg. This was even better, I thought, a more complete wine. The nose again was glorious - rich, honeyed, and very complex, and showing more finesse, more lightness and lift relative to the 1985. The palate was bone dry and intensely mineral, very expressive and long. This was a profound wine, and something to hope for in cellaring current Alzinger vintages.
--I learned a little bit about the differences between the various Wachau vineyards. We drank wines from Loibenberg, Hollerin, and Steinertal (and one wine from Hohereck). Hollerin seems to give wines whose overall impression is bigger in body and richness than either of Loibenberg or Steinertal. There is a striking and unadorned beauty of fruit in some of the Hollerin wines. Loibernberg seemed to achieve the same degree of richness and power but also a certain precision that is not part of the Hollerin package. The best Loibernberg wines, for me 1989 and 1995, achieved a gorgeous harmony between richness and delicacy. I don't even know what to say about Steinertal. It gave the finest wines, I thought. As good as some of the others were, the best Steinertals were just better.
--Vintages...1994 seems not to have held up well for the Alzinger wines. 2001 also - I found those wines to be oxidized and problematic (others liked them). 1999 was uclear - we drank Liebenberg and Steinertal Gruner Veltliner and if the Liebenberg was representative then it was not terribly successful. Steinertal was good but felt a little heavy and showed a bit of heat. Perhaps the warmer vintages are not the best ones at Alzinger? 1995 seems to be a great vintage for these wines. Vintage charts should probably not be treated as gospel when thinking about Alzinger wines.
--Although there were some disappointing wines, those that were good were so good! This evening renewed my commitment to buy and cellar some of the great Austrian Rieslings each year.
1993 Alzinger Riesling Smaragd Hollerin - Fuller and richer on the nose than the 1993 Loibenberg. The fruit feels riper, heavier. But the wine is balanced and ultimately lovely and quite complex. The fruit here is beautiful.
1995 Alzinger Riesling Smaragd Hollerin - The most balanced and compelling of the Hollerin wines. Still shows that bigness, but also a more perfect sense of harmony. Wonderful wine and if there weren't 23 other wines on the table this would have been the superstar of any evening.
1994 Alzinger Gruner Veltliner Smaragd Steinertal - the best of the 1994 wines, I thought, with an intriguing nose of lemongrass and fresh herbs like tarragon and anise. The nose had a delicate side and required some attention. The palate was not as interesting, however, and showed a bit bigger and with less detail than I expected based on the nose. Still, a win worthy of the name.
1995 Alzinger Riesling Smaragd Steinertal - Gorgeous nose, airy, fresh, and harmonious. Such complex and precise detail too. I was smelling tomato plants (I've been doing some gardening lately and I recognized the smell), pungent and almost stinky floral tones, and vivid minerals. The acidity in this wine was so beautifully integrated, present everywhere but never jutting out. Beautiful wine.
1995 Alzinger Riesling Smaragd Loibenberg - Clear as a bell, perfect harmony of smoky minerals, ripe and lovely fruit, and something like green peas. Subtle and graceful for all of its power. The palate is mouth-filling and intense but not overdone, and yet in contrast with the delicate aspects of the nose. Between this wine and the 1989 Loibenberg I learned that Loibenberg is something special (I thought it was all about the Steinertal).