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Uma 2

Nothing against Austrian wines, but I rarely drink them when I am not working—the restaurant post or slinging Weingut Salomon on the streets of Southern California. If I do, generally, it’s to have a glass of groo-ve (Grüner Veltliner) or Riesling when I’m in a ramen mood, but however much Austrian white wine I may taste, experience tells me it’s best to keep my eyes trained on the less celebrated red wines. As a birthday gift I received a bottle that would help maintain the balance, red versus white.

I uncorked the seven-fifty of 2006 Umathum “Vom Stein” St. Laurent with the friend who gave it. A wine that he and his family had enjoyed many times while visiting the estate in Austria. I was unfamiliar with Umathum, the eponymous family that began focusing on wine production in the early 80’s after years of cultivating vines. Under the direction of Josef Umathum, in the mid 80’s, the wines transitioned to organics under the tenets of Biodynamics and their reputation for excellent red wines has been growing ever since.

The Vom Stein (from stone) vineyard is an older and warmer site where St. Laurent grows in gravelly soils that are rich in quartz. The wine was vibrant, with developing scents redolent of dried red flowers, dark cherries, blackberries and wet forest floor. Flush medium-body with round, fine tannins, pert acidity and a long, expressive finish of mixed berries, plum, subtle spice, and coffee grounds.

St. Laurent is often compared to Pinot Noir, though there is no genetic link between the two red grapes, however this wine shared a lot of the same pleasing flavors while adding a bit of weight to the mid-palate. It was in a class of its own and every sip was better than the one before.

The complexity and velvety texture of Umathum’s St. Laurent were eye opening, I couldn’t really tell you if it was a value, because it was a gift (and it’s impossible to find on wine-searcher), but it was certainly delicious. It will definitely make me rethink my Austrian white wine bent, and I will be scouring the wine shops for more of it.

Last week, on a Tuesday with the distinct flavor of summer I had plans to attend one of the most anticipated tastings on my calendar year—the Terry Theise portfolio tasting—unveiling the 2011 vintage offerings of Germany and Austria. This marked one year since I last stepped foot in Hatfield’s on Melrose. The distributors—Winewise—had traded settings, exchanging 90038 for the high profile 90211 zip code that encompassed Red Medicine, current vanguard of the Los Angeles culinary scene and event headquarters, to showcase the magnificent collection of wines.

Bearable traffic and parking relatively close at a metered spot, there was hardly any delay in my arrival. Coins to buy three hours worth of parking allowed me to trot down to the corner where South Gale Drive intersected with Wilshire Boulevard, arriving in my restaurant-best-duds and my camera slung tautly over my shoulder ready to check in. I grabbed a glass and entered a kinetic buzz. There was a healthy turnout, sommeliers, restaurant and retail buyers, bloggers and fellow tradesmen stood shoulder to shoulder huddled over bantam tables bearing ice troughs that held dozens of Rieslings, in the hopes of assessing the newest vintage.

German wines may not be consumer-friendly, with difficult names and even more confusing ripeness scales; it would be an understatement to say that these wines were not fully understood. I study German and Austrian wines regularly and I am still perplexed by their individuality. The difference between three separate Spätlese Rieslings, all hailing from the same blue slate soils and sharing an identical birth year can be staggering. What could I do to share my passion with the consumer? I made the rounds looking to answer that question.

Beginning at the first table, I tasted through twenty-four different trocken Rieslings, bereft of residual sugars, leaving only minerals and the essence of stone fruits in their wake. I rounded thirty-seven wines in a heartbeat, trying my best to keep in line with the wine buyers of the Wine Exchange who tasted with celerity.

I sojourned to the Rüdesheim vineyards, of the Rhinegau, where Tobias Fiebrandt poured eight variations under the Leitz label. I drafted behind the swift pace of my running mates (those two buyers) and tasted the delectable lineup at my own leisure. My palate was pleasantly shocked to a variance of dry to off-dry levels of fruits, minerals and faint herbal notes. My deference for Riesling, no matter how commercially unsuccessful, was dwarfed by our German liaison, inked earnestly with his Riesling tattoo.

From the Leitz table, I transitioned into a heavy assortment of Kabinett wines. With mouth-searing acidity I was particularly drawn to the Jakob Schneider Kabinett Riesling, along with the softer and more attractive Spreitzer Oestricher Lechen Riesling Kabinett (I wasn’t kidding about the difficulty of the names).

I whipped through seventy-four wines before I landed at the manned tables of two different Mosel producers, with German representatives behind the brand standing by to acquaint me with their unique offerings. Selbach-Oster bowled me over with more than one example but I nerded out over the halbtrocken, or officially, the Zeltlinger Himmelreich Riesling Kabinett halbtrocken. Affording a blend of summer stone fruits that had been rinsed in a zesty lemon juice and spearmint cocktail that was balanced by a nice weight in the mouth and an unrelenting finish. Next door, it was time to taste Meulenhof before departing for the wines of Saar and concluding with the Nahe.

There were too many sterling examples, in all ranges, starring my pricelist repeatedly since there was nearly a winner in every third bottle. After about one hundred and forty Rieslings I took a break, excusing myself from the tight gauntlet of Rieslings. I snacked on a smattering of treats and slugged some water to alleviate the palate before I would even entertain the Austrian flight.

My tongue recovered and I turned the page in my packet (pricelist) ready to begin sifting through the assorted Grüner Veltliner. Unlike the German portion of the tasting, by the time I made it to Austria the crowd was thinning and I found more elbowroom to swig, spit and note comfortably. I would unscrew the majority of the tops, pouring through the miscellaneous wines. Among the similar characteristics there were a few clear favorites; those Austrian whites that showed more finesse in the palate, with notes of celery and cabbage leaves, aspirin and hints of green fruits as they sloshed over my tongue. Between Kremstal and Kamptal I found my favorites, with producers like Nigl and Hirsch surging ahead of their brethren for their drinkability and definition.

After roughly twenty Grüner, I continued to the following stations, each representing three individual producers, two more from Kamptal—Schloss Gobelsburg and Willi Bründlmayer—and the last, for my purposes was Nikolaihof from Wachau. In addition to Grüner Veltliner each of the three producers were showing their Austrian Rieslings—those lithe beauties.

A memory came fleeting when I tasted the Willi Bründlmayer lineup. I had served older vintages of those wines  at the restaurant for a foie festival at the hest of my superiors at Wilshire. It all made sense to me when I put the stemware to my lips.

Palate fatigue had set in around 180 wines, so any tasting notes I scribbled after that would be dubious. I was impressed with the Austrian leg of the tasting this year, something that failed to grab my attention last time… perhaps I wasn’t in the right frame of mind then. I closed my price guide, trying best to remember the question I had asked myself before I had entered at the head of the queue. After seeing a man literally wearing a tattoo that read Riesling, someone with a serious conviction for the grape, I knew that there was a lot more that I could do. The easiest thing though, would be to let people taste them—the rest would naturally fall in place. I thanked the host and my rep, departing for my metered spot before time expired and I journeyed home with flavors that were still sounding loudly, replete with everything I love about summer.

Looking through the aisles of my favorite wine shops I spied an intriguing green one-liter package, dressed simply, with an informative but unassuming label. It was a Grüner Veltliner, a category of wine, not a private label, I was guilty of not tasting often enough. I was drawn to it and became increasingly interested in making this Grüner Veltliner my homework, wanting to know more about the winemaker and bottle’s contents.

Berger—the producer—boldly marked in forty-eight-point font across the poster-esque label was not initially familiar to me. Just south of the dwarfed graphic and varietal name there was the trademarked tattoo of a “Terry Theise Selection, ” an importer responsible for some of my favorite French (mostly sparkling), German and Austrian white wines. It was enough to know two things: The wine would be available through Winewise Distributors for my own wine shop, and the importer read as a guarantee of quality. I purchased a bottle for no more than fourteen dollars, to support the shop and to continue my research.

I chilled the vessel down and pulled up a website where I could glean a little bit more before I tasted. I also selected an album in the interim I thought would be complimentary to the zesty Austrian wine—Lionel Hampton’s Decca Recordings.

So… by the Austrian numbers… when cold enough, I uncapped the crown top, eagerly pouring my first glass, gave my Reidel Overture series wineglass a few revolutions to release more esters, brought the stemware to my nose. I inhaled deeply, picking up a lot of citrus fruits and something reminiscent of Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray soda, and drank a sip. Like most of the information I found on Erich and Michaela Berger’s entry level 2010 Grüner Veltliner it wasn’t loaded with complexity but then that misses the point. From nose to mouth, I sipped, closing my eyes, while the vibes sounded in the background; I tasted a melody of fresh Meyer lemon, light minerals and a slightly herbaceous note that reaffirmed that Cel-Ray perfume.

My first Grüner in a while was a great experience, fit for the oncoming inferno of July and August—in Los Angeles—but I wouldn’t relegate the crisp and vibrant Austrian white wine just to the pool or the beach. I thought instantly of its pairing prowess—bevy of dishes like flaky white sea bass or some savory mushroom and herb pastas came springing to mind. For a simple white wine it afforded bounteous opportunities, whetting my appetite for more experimentation with the Austrian varietal and bookmarking it as a candidate for an everyday sipper.

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