Spring Wine Picks: Austria's Hopler Vineyards, Gruner Veltliner +

Emma Jane-Doody Stetson

It seems as though everyone loves a good Riesling for springtime and summer sipping.  Last year, New York City was just one of the regions to participate in a “Summer of Rieslings” with a number of selections on the High Line and in restaurants. Germany is revered for its remarkable versions of the varietal.

However, a lesser-celebrated varietal promises to satisfy all of your desires as the warmer weather approaches.  Gruner Veltliner, a national grape of Austria, shares Riesling characteristics, but has lighter, crisper, and fresher tones than its counterpart.  On Friday March 28, Fairfield County hosted Christof Hopler, a respected winemaker and owner of Hopler vineyards in Austria.  He presented a selection of his delicious wines to an eager room of wine enthusiasts at South End Restaurant in New Canaan.

The Hopler site seems less vineyard and more CIA training facility.  Christof described how the winery has 5 sections designed to stimulate each of the five senses as they teach you how wines are made.  Christof then gave us “a little geography lesson” on what makes Austria so unique.  He explained that Austria, though already a small country, only grows grapes in a small portion- the East.  The Alps pose a daunting barrier that limit viniculture.  The area’s soil is rich with slates, stone, sand, and chalk, which adds a unique minerality to the wines.

“It’s similar to Burgundy,” Hopler explains. “It’s the same latitude too.”

The Hopler vineyard itself encompasses 111 acres.  It lies adjacent to the 2nd largest “step lake” in Austria, aptly named because it is so shallow that people can “step” all the way across it.  The lake provides the perfect climate for grapes to flourish.  Hopler produces white, red, and dessert wines.

The tasting began with the signature Gruner Veltliner.   This bottle proved a wonderful representation of the varietal.  Christof highlighted its “white peppery elements,” which the room detected and enjoyed whole-heartedly.  He also pointed out that Gruner Veltliner has amazing potential for wine pairing.  It compliments foods like oysters and sushi, but also goes perfectly with food that is harder to match like asparagus.  To prove it, South End served us their signature fried artichoke appetizer.  As promised, the fresh, effervescent white blended wonderfully with the vegetal notes of the dish.

The Gruner retails for approximately $16.  It can be found at Fairfield Wine & Spirits, 99 Bottles in Norwalk, Fairway in Stamford, and other stores in Connecticut.

Next, Christof presented us with his version of a Riesling.  While many Rieslings on the market are decidedly sweet, this one was not.  Its medium body and dry finish pleased me immensely.  It harmonized with food and did not overwhelm my palate with sugar.  We enjoyed this wine with scallop ceviche, tuna tartare, and more of the fried artichokes.  Again, the bottle seemed crafted to bring out the flavors of seafood and ripe produce.

“Chefs love to cook with our wine,” Christof told us.

Other whites included a Pinot Blanc and a second Gruner- a “Guttenburg Gruner Veltliner.”  All of the grapes in this Gruner herald from a single vineyard.  The vines are over 45 years old.  The age combined with a later harvest date makes it particularly rich and flavorful.  Harry’s in Fairfield and Dan’s Liquor in Westport both carry the Pinot Blanc.

We then shifted our focus to Austrian reds.  I confess that mention of “Pinot Noir” does not conjure up an association with Austria for me, but tasting Hopler’s wines gave me a whole new appreciation for Austria’s influence on this varietal.  Christof filled our glasses with a 2008 and 2009 Pinot Noir.  He encouraged us to taste them alongside one another to understand the subtle differences- something known as a “vertical tasting” in the wine world.  The 2008 seemed more earthy to me with notes of pepper and soil.  The 2009 seemed brighter and younger.  Both proved exceptional and were immediate favorites in the room. The 2009 is available now and retails for about $20. 

Cellar IX in Ridgefield carries the Hopler Pinot Noirs while South End in New Canaan pours it by the glass.

Afterward, we received a 2008 Zweigelt.  Like Gruner Veltliner, Zweigelt is a national grape in Austria.  Rich, vegetal, and bright, the wine won me over immediately.

“Hoplers 2008 Zweigelt is a dark ruby red wine with tinges of purple,” Hopler describes. “With its spicy character and plum aromas, the Zweigelt also contains notes of dark berries, nougat and delicate tannins on the long finish.”

You can find the Zweigelt at Wineport in Darien and Cellar IX in Ridgefield.

The last of the reds was a 2009 Blaufrankisch.  Blaufränkisch is the second most widely planted red grape in Austria.  Hopler ferments his in steel tanks to allow the fruit notes to shine through.

“This is a geeky wine!” one of my friends laughed… and I had to agree.  Beautifully esoteric, I loved grappling with the fruity, citric, earthy, and smoky flavors woven together.  The vineyard says that is has “aromas of elegant cherry fruit and tangy blood orange characters… flavors of juicy blackberries and currents, balanced with nice acidity and soft tannins.”  It is a wine lovers wine: original, distinct, and oddly lovely.  It retails for about $20.

The red wines were paired with a pasta course: bolognese and cavatelli.  The rich profiles of the red wines played nicely with the hearty meat sauce of the Bolognese and sausage in the cavatelli.  At the same time, the wines showed off their versatility by matching the vegetables- particularly the greens in the cavatelli.  The pastas came family style, so guests could mingle and enjoy the vino as if they were long-time friends sharing a casual afternoon meal.  Conversation flowed as plates were passed.

The final course- a cheese plate for the table to share- came with Hopler’s Trockenbeerenauslese 2008.  The wine was visually stunning- the golden yellow color danced across my face as I lifted the glass.  It proved equally remarkable in taste.  It was deliciously sweet without being syrupy or saccharine.  It was indulgent, but artistic and refined at the same time- a difficult balance to master.  Careful methods allow Hopler to achieve this.

“Only the ripest grapes are allowed to remain on the stocks until the fruit nectar has developed into a gooey concentrate and is botrytis-affected,” the vineyard explains. “The result is a rich, concentrated, dessert wine.”

By the time the final drops of wine disappeared from glasses, everyone had fallen into easy conversation, laughter, and friendship.  Though rain fell from the skies outside, we all felt comfy and at home surrounded by delicious food, vino, and each other.

For more information on Hopler, visit their website: http://hoepler.at/en .