Like Fermentation and a few other blogs, I was tipped off to an article on Hungarian wine in the current issue of Travel + Leisure. The article is a nice read and reinforces my love of obscure grapes from lesser known areas. The piece communicates an angst about the possible loss of Hungary's unique wine culture to arbiters of the international/modern taste. I agree with the author - the loss of Hungary's native grapes and stylistic traditions would indeed be a detriment to the culture of wine.
Is it possible to have it both ways? If a country or region embraces modern wine in the form of barrel-aged Chardonnay or jammy Syrah, is it a forgone conclusion that its own grape varieties and wine styles are doomed to extinction? I don't know the answer. However, it seems, at least on the surface, that Austria, Hungary's neighbor to the west, has managed to embrace modernity while preserving tradition.
For example, take two of Austria's native grapes: Grüner Veltliner and St. Laurent. Both have names that would make many a wine drinker twitch with confusion. Yet, wine made from these abstract varietals is being embraced in a big way. Zantho's 2003 St. Laurent was blessed with the holy & coveted '90 points' by Robert Parker's Wine Advocate ("What a pleasure to encounter an inexpensive Austrian red so lip-smackingly delicious.."). This all but guarantees international success. And who hasn't heard of (or at least tried to pronounce) Grüner Veltliner? Granted, a garanimals wine drinker may be too busy looking for cuddly critter-bedecked bottles. However, even I, living in the equivalent of wine Timbuktu (i.e. Utah) can waltz down to the state-run wine shop and choose from no fewer than six G.V. selections. How does one explain this?
My preliminary hypothesis is that Austria has preserved its wine traditions while simultaneously embracing innovation and modernity. Austria offers unique, tradition-rich wine from centuries old vineyards in regions like the Wachau and Kremstal. In contrast, Styria, in southern Austria, produces modern wines made from international varietals like Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. In fact, many wines from these regions are made in sleek, ultramodern wineries.
This juxtaposition of tradition with modernity is what intrigues me most about Austrian wine. On the surface, it seems that both traditionalists and the avant garde are coexisting, and, in fact, thriving. Is this the case, or is there a hidden struggle? I'm excited to start looking for the answer on May 15th.
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