Cracking the Code to Austria’s Most Distinguished Dessert Wine

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It turns out, Botrytis cinerea, that noble fungus responsible for the prized dessert wines of Sauternes, is a bit of a prima donna. Only under just the right conditions (foggy autumn mornings, usually from a nearby river or lake, followed by sunny afternoons) will it spring to life and perform its artistry. As such, very few grape growing regions are able to produce these magical sweet wines. Sauternes in Bordeaux and the aszú wines of Tokaji in Hungary may get all the attention (such as it is), but the earliest known botryized wines were made in Burgenland Austria, where a barrel dating from 1526 was discovered (and unfortunately consumed in 1852). These days, Austria’s star producer of botrytized wines is Kracher.

The key to Weinleibenhof Kracher’s success lies in its proximity to Neusiedl Lake, whose vast, shallow waters near the Hungarian border reliably blanket the surrounding vineyards with autumnal mists, ensuring a harvest of botrytized grapes year after year. Located near the village of Illmitz on the lake’s eastern shore, the winery was founded by Alois Kracher Sr., who began growing grapes (along with corn and other crops) at the end of WWII as a means of supporting his poverty-stricken family. It wasn’t until the harvest of 1959 that he realized the potential of his wine and began bottling it under his own name instead of selling it off in bulk as he had been doing. It was the efforts of his son, Alois Jr., however, that eventually brought them international attention. In 1988 he audaciously held a tasting that pitted Kracher wines against the ultimate standard: Château d’Yquem, Sauternes’ only Premier Cru Supérieur. Much to everyone’s surprise, the Kracher wines won. It was their Judgment-of-Paris moment and secured their reputation as a producer of world-class wines.

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The winery is currently in the hands of Gerhard Kracher, who took over in 2007 following the death of his father, Alois Jr., from pancreatic cancer at age 48. Gerhard is continuing his father and grandfather’s practices and makes an extensive array of cuvees every year from varieties such as Welschriesling, Chardonnay, Traminer, Muskat Ottonel and Scheurebe. In Austria wines made from botrytized grapes are classified as trockenbeerenauslese (TBA), meaning individually picked, dried, late harvest grapes. Kracher makes a whole host of styles including beerenauslese (which in Austria are usually not affected by botrytis), auslese, spatlese as well as dry whites and reds. The TBA’s, however, are the real stars of the portfolio. Part of what elevates these wines, is how the grapes are handled. Not only is each variety vinified separately, but so are the grapes from each pass through the vineyard. Grapes don’t always develop botrytis at the same rate and thus are picked individually only at the right moment. Keeping everything separate gives Gerhard a freer hand for blending before bottling. To keep the wines straight Alois Jr. devised a numbering system where the higher the number, the more concentrated the wine. Too, the wines are fermented and aged in one of two styles: either in small new oak for the “Nouvelle Vague” (“new wave”) wines, or in large old wood or stainless steel for the more traditional “Zwischen den Seen” (“between the lakes”) wines. Some years will see 15 different cuvees, while in 2003, a very hot year, there was only one: Nouvelle Vague TBA #1, a blend of Welschriesling (70%), Chardonnay (20%) and Pinot Gris (10%). Even with the warm weather, this wine has a firm streak of acidity and is velvety smooth with notes of honey, raisins and orange.


The Sweet Taste of Spring

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Trick your taste buds into thinking it’s warm outside with these three spring desserts and wine pairings

Forget the forecast for snow and bone-chilling temps this week, the calendar says it’s spring. So while we may be still wrapped up in wool sweaters, there is no reason not to, at least culinarily, embrace the new season while we wait for Mother Nature to catch up. (All recipes are at the end).

Moscato d’Asti with Lemon Friands

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With its blend of orange blossom and peach, this bright, refreshing, medium-sweet sparkler from Oddero is like spring itself in a glass. In recent years, Moscato d’Asti has enjoyed a surge in popularity thanks to certain rap artists who took a liking to it. While celebrity-endorsed wines would normally be something I’d steer clear of, Moscato d’Asti from a good producer, served with the right food in the right setting, can be an absolute pleasure. These are crowd-pleasing, uplifting wines perfect for brunch, with appetizers, or a light dessert like these lemon friands.

As its name implies, this semi-sparkling wine hails from the Asti region in northwestern Italy, home to its more famous cousin Asti Spumante. Both are made from the Muscat Bianco grape and fermented in a stainless steel tank under pressure. But whereas spumante is made into a full sparkling wine with alcohol levels of around 7.5%, Moscato is a slightly less bubbly frizzante with a maximum alcohol level of 5.5%. Oddero is a well-known Piedmont producer of traditional, long-lived Barolos, but a small portion of their vineyard is dedicated to Moscat bianco, from which they make small batches of their Moscato d’Asti. 2012 Oddero Moscato d’Asti, (750 mL), $21.99.

Ruster Ausbruch with Frozen Orange Muscat Mousse and Mangos

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Few areas in the world have the right conditions for the growth of Botrytis cinerea, the magically transformative fungus responsible for making luscious dessert wines, such as Sauternes. One of these regions is along the west coast of the Austrian lake Neusiedl near the town of Rust not far from the Hungarian border. Here the shallow waters moisten the western winds off the Pannonian plain, which almost guarantees a yearly harvest of these nobly rotten grapes. Ausbruch means to “break out” and is thought to refer to the fact that only botrytized grapes are picked (i.e. ones that have broken out from the bunch), but etymologically, it is related to the Hungarian word Azsú, which means dried, and is a term used for the Hungary’s sweet, botrytised Tokaji wines. In fact Rust used to belong to Hungary, and it is likely that Tokaji and Ausbruch wines came about around the same time, in the early 1600s.

Traditionally, these wines were made from Fermint grape, but today many of the wines are blends of Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Welschriesling and Traminer.  The grapes are picked individually, which sometimes requires a half a dozen passes through the vineyard. The grapes are then gently pressed and fermented with native yeasts in either stainless steel or oak vat. This can take up to four months. The wine is then aged either in large oak vats (classic) or in small french oak barrels. With such concentrated, complex flavors and a vibrant acidity, these stand among the world’s best and most long-lived wines. You’re unlikely to find any dating from earlier than 1945, however, as the Russians occupied Rust during WWII and drank every last bottle. Feiler-Artinger is one of the region’s top producers. This Pinot Cuvée is made from Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Neuburger and Chardonnay. It was aged in small oak barriques for 18 months and tastes of apricot, honey, and orange zest with slight woody notes. At 16 years old, this wine is still in its youth and would easily keep for your great grandchildren to enjoy. But it’s drinking so well right now that I doubt it would last long in anyone’s cellar. 1998 Feiler-Artinger Ruster Ausbruch Pinot Cuvée, 375 mL, $31.99.

Sparkling Demi-Sec Rosé with Panna Cotta and Balsamic Strawberries

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From the appellation of Bugey in far eastern France comes this unusual sparkling rosé from Lingot-Martin. Gamay and Poulsard grapes are used for these wines, which reflect the area’s proximity to Burgundy to the west and the Jura to the north. The Cerdon vineyard, one of only three named vineyards, consists of two south-facing slopes surrounding the village of Cerdon. A particular feature of this area’s sparkling wines is that they are made using the méthode ancestrale. This process differs slightly from the méthode traditionnelle, which is used to make Champagne, in that following primary fermentation in stainless steel tanks, a second dose of yeast and sugar is not added before bottling. Instead, fermentation is halted before all the sugars have been converted to alcohol, and the wine is then bottled with the remaining yeast. Secondary fermentation still occurs in the bottle, but the resulting sparkling wine is medium sweet. This particular wine was made for this dessert. It’s an ideal match in weight, sweetness (the wine is only just slightly sweeter), and flavors, with the acidity and bubbles providing a perfect foil for the panna cotta’s creaminess. NV Lingot-Martin Cerdon Pinot Cuvée, 750 mL, $18.99.


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Lemon Friands
1 3/4 sticks unsalted butter
1 C + 2 TBSP confectioner’s sugar, sifted
1/3 C all-purpose flour
1 C ground almonds
5 egg whites
1 TBSP finely grated lemon or orange zest

Heat oven to 400° F. Melt butter and allow to cool. Brush muffin pan with melted butter. Sift flour and confectioner’s sugar together. Stir in ground almonds. In a separate bowl, beat egg whites gently until light and frothy. Fold them into dry ingredients. Pour in remaining butter and lemon zest and stir well. Put greased muffin pan on cookie sheet and fill 3/4 full with mixture. Put sheet and muffin pan in center of oven for 10 minutes. Remove and turn out friands onto cookie sheet. Cook for 7 to 10 minutes more. Should be golden on top and firm to the touch in the center. Remove sheet from oven and let stand for 5 minutes. Invert each one onto wire rack. When cool, dust with confectioner’s sugar. Store in airtight container.

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Frozen Orange Muscat Mousse and Mangos (Adapted from the recipe: Almond Cookie Cups with Sauternes-Poached Apples and Frozen Sauternes Mousse (which is also delicious) on Epicurious)
For mousse
3/4 cup sweet dessert wine (such as Sauternes or orange Muscat)
1/2 cup sugar
4 large egg yolks
1 cup chilled whipping cream

For Almond cups
3 tablespoons all purpose flour
2 tablespoons (1/4 stick) unsalted butter, melted
2 tablespoons (packed) golden brown sugar
2 tablespoons light corn syrup
1/4 cup (about 1 ounce) finely chopped toasted almonds

Make mousse:
Whisk wine, sugar and yolks in medium-size stainless steel bowl until well blended. Set bowl over saucepan of simmering water (do not allow bottom to touch water) and whisk until thermometer registers 170°F and mixture is thick enough to fall in heavy ribbon when whisk is lifted, about 5 minutes. Remove from over water; whisk until mixture is cool, about 3 minutes. In another medium bowl, whisk cream until medium-firm peaks form. Fold cream into wine mixture in 2 additions. Cover mousse; freeze until firm, at least 4 hours. (Can be made 4 days ahead; keep frozen.)

Make almond cups:
Preheat oven to 400°F. Line baking sheet with parchment paper. Set 2 small custard cups or ramekins on work surface, bottom side up. Stir first 4 ingredients in small bowl to blend. Mix in almonds. Separately drop 2 level tablespoonfuls batter onto prepared baking sheet, spacing 6 inches apart. Using moistened fingertips, press each to 2-inch round. Bake cookies until deep golden (cookies will spread to about 5-inch diameter), about 7 minutes. Let cool on sheet until set enough to lift without tearing, about 1 minute. Using metal spatula, lift hot cookies 1 at a time and drape over cups, gently pressing to cup shape; cool. Remove from cups. Refrigerate baking sheet 2 minutes to chill quickly. Repeat with remaining batter, making 2 cookies at a time. (Cookies can be made 4 days ahead. Carefully enclose in resealable plastic bags and freeze.) Place 1 almond cookie cup on each of 6 plates. Fill each with scoop of mousse. Top with freshly cut mangos.

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Panna Cotta with Balsamic Strawberries (from Ina Garten)
1/2 packet (1 teaspoon) unflavored gelatin powder
1 1/2 tablespoons cold water
1 1/2 cups heavy cream, divided
1 cup plain whole-milk yogurt
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/2 vanilla bean, split and seeds scraped
1/3 cup sugar, plus 1 tablespoon
2 pints (4 cups) sliced fresh strawberries
2 1/2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1 tablespoon sugar
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Freshly grated lemon zest, for serving
In a small bowl, sprinkle the gelatin on 1 1/2 tablespoons of cold water. Stir and set aside for 10 minutes to allow the gelatin to dissolve. Meanwhile, in a medium bowl, whisk together 3/4 cup of the cream, the yogurt, vanilla extract, and vanilla bean seeds. Heat the remaining 3/4 cup of cream and the 1/3 cup of sugar in a small saucepan and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Off the heat, add the softened gelatin to the hot cream and stir to dissolve. Pour the hot cream-gelatin mixture into the cold cream-yogurt mixture and stir to combine. Pour into 4 (6 to 8-ounce) ramekins or custard cups and refrigerate uncovered until cold. When the panna cottas are thoroughly chilled, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight. Combine the strawberries, balsamic vinegar, 1 tablespoon sugar, and pepper 30 minutes to 1 hour before serving. Set aside at room temperature.

To serve, run a small knife around each dessert in the ramekin and dip the bottom of each ramekin quickly in a bowl of hot tap water. Invert each ramekin onto a dessert plate and surround the panna cotta with strawberries. Dust lightly with freshly grated lemon zest and serve.