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November 10, 2016

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Versatile Austrian wines shine with Chinese food

TRUE wine appreciation necessitates a love of quality and diversity. Imbibers who belly up to a bar and generically order Chardonnay or Merlot are drinkers, not wine connoisseurs.

This isn’t wine snobbery; the love of quality and diversity extends to all cultural and artistic fields including Chinese cuisine.

Today’s iDeal section introduces the world of dried Chinese vegetables and the important role they play in Chinese cuisine. While many wines pair nicely with Chinese dishes featuring dried mushrooms and vegetables, there’s one style of wine that stands out: Gruner Veltliner white wines from Austria.

Austria may not be the first country you think about when considering wines, but wines have been made there for nearly three millenniums. The Celts — or perhaps even their predecessors, the Illyrians — were most likely the first to start cultivating wild vines.

A century before the birth of Christ the Romans planted vines in many parts of modern day Austria.

But even more important than Austria’s long history of making wines is the consistent quality of the country’s wines. By in large, the wineries of Austria are family-owned and very quality conscious.

The unique climates of Austrian regions also positively influence the quality of the wines.

Regional differences exist, but a confluence of cool winds from the north, warm Pannonian influences and temperate Mediterranean effects helps grapes ripen nicely while still retaining good acidity. Even the most dense and weighty Austrian red wines are remarkably fresh.

For a small country, Austria boasts a wide range of varietals and wine styles. There are 35 grape varieties, of which 22 are white.

Wines run the gamut from bracingly dry to hedonistically sweet. But if there’s one grape you must know its Gruner Veltliner.

I’ve been casually familiar with Gruner Veltliner wines from Austria for many years but I only really built an intimacy with the grape during my trip to Austria earlier this year. And I’m not alone. As I travel around the globe participating in wine competitions and exhibitions, I increasingly hear my fellow judges and writers singing the praises of Gruner Veltliner wines.

The trip to Austria cemented in my mind that this wine has great potential in China and specifically is a style of wine that has a unique affinity for Chinese cuisine.

It’s fashionable for representatives of wine regions around the world to come to China and declare that their wines match well with Chinese dishes. The diversity of ingredients and foods included in the eight regional styles of Chinese cuisine mean that usually these claimants are at least partially correct. Some of their wines are bound to go well with select Chinese dishes but that doesn’t mean they go well with many styles of Chinese cooking. Gruner Veltliner does.

What exactly are the qualities that make these wines such great companions to so many Chinese dishes? In short, it’s the lively fresh citrus flavors, minerality and spicy nature of Gruner Veltliner wines. The intriguing notes of white pepper commonly found in the wines also work well with many Chinese dishes. Of course, a perfect wine for all Chinese dishes doesn’t exist, but Austrian Gruner Veltliner wines match well with more styles of Chinese cooking than most.

In addition to Gruner Veltliner there exist several other Austrian wine styles that are well suited for Chinese cooking. Welschriesling and Muller-Thurgau are the second and third most planted white varieties with the former making a range of fresh and fruity whites and the later featuring ripe and mild Muscat-like flavors. Pinot Gris, locally referred to as Weissburgunder, is often used for blending but under the right conditions can make distinguished and age-worthy single variety whites. Riesling, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and other white varieties also thrive in Austria’s cool climates.

Austria also makes some mighty fine reds. Local varieties like Zweigelt, Blaufrankisch, Blauburger and St Laurent are used to make red wines with a range of styles from fresh, fragrant and light to dark, structured and tannic red wines. Austrian winemakers also make lovely wines using international varieties including Pinot Noir, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon.

Whether you choosing a bottle of Gruner Veltliner or other Austrian wine, picking a quality producer is important. The selection of Austrian wines available in Shanghai is improving but still limited. Some good producers with wines available here are Loimer, Wieninger, Gobelsburg and Kaiser. Try wines from these Austrian producers and I’m sure you’ll be in for a host of pleasant new discoveries.

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