In over two and half decades in the business I’m sure you can imagine that I have attended my fair share of wine events, both here in Toronto and all over the globe. From the most extravagant soirées to much more modest expositions, I’ve been to them all, enjoying them to a greater or lesser degree, but always appreciating the efforts that go into executing such events (us journalists/sommeliers can be a demanding bunch at times).
With this in mind I’d like to bring your attention to The Art Of Wine : Down To Earth, a tasting dinner put together by Austrian Wine last month at Toronto’s highly acclaimed alo restaurant. Austrian wine had invited a small group of maybe 40 of the city’s top sommeliers, along with a smattering of writers, for a tasting experience that I rate up there with the very best I have ever experienced.
At around 6pm the invited guests made their way up to alo’s bar area from street level to be greeted by Austria’s amiable Minister for Agriculture, Andrae Rupprechter (see pic below). We were then presented with an array of some 50 Austrian wines from sparkling, through white/red, to sweet, all to be sampled as part of walk-around tasting that was an integral part of the event reception. Augmented by some serious hors d’oeuvres courtesy of Chef Patrick Kriss and his crew, this was a terrific strategy to get the assembled throng thinking about the breadth and depth of Austrian wine styles and their inherent versatilities when it comes to food pairing. Bravo to whoever suggested this format at the planning meeting as it was an undeniably smashing start to the evening’s festivities. What better icebreaker than a perfectly cool glass of Zweigelt as Toronto’s spring sunshine eked out its last few minutes of the day?
Speaking of sunshine, as we all shuffled through from the bar tasting, the sunset beaming into alo’s dining room at around 6.45pm was utterly stunning. For around twenty minutes the room was bathed in the most glorious light, adding a touch of magical to the already thrilling evening.
As we found our seats our MC for the night, Master Sommelier John Szabo, welcomed us to alo, and explained that we would be enjoying a series of five flights of Austrian wines alongside five courses from Kriss’ kitchen. I’ll eschew the obvious food porn photographs and simply give you the details along with my observations:
1st Course – Big Eye Tuna, Citrus, Endive, Wasabi
Served with a flight of four Austrian Riesling (2 x Kamptal, Wachau, Kremstal)
When it comes to the premium whites of Austria I’m often torn between the two, with either Riesling or Grüner coming out on top dependent upon my mood or the accompanying dish. In the case of this first flight, I felt that the 2912 Pichler-Krutzler Pfaffenberg was the most ethereal pairing, with all three of the others doing an admirable job, even with the challenges of the striking citrus and spicy hot wasabi components.
2nd Course – Ricotta Agnolotti, Butter, Perigord Black Truffle
Served with a flight of four Austrian Grüner Veltliner (Traisental, Kamptal, Kremstal, Wachau)
Despite the relative simplicity of this dish, finding a spot-on match would always be a formidable task, what with the richness of the butter/sauce and the heavy, earthy flavours that good black truffles bring to the plate. Grüner is always a good bet with some of the more perplexing food/wine challenges, and it didn’t disappoint upon this occasion. For me it was the 2015 Schloss Gobelsburg Ried Steinsetz Reserve that led the pack, and by a country mile. Delicious.
3rd Course – Hamachi, Brussels Sprouts, Chestnuts, Black Trumpet Mushrooms
Served with a flight of four other varietals (Furmint from Burgenland, Pinot Blanc from Burgenland, Sauvignon Blanc from Südsteiermark, and a Gemischter Satz from Vienna)
This grab bag flight was an excellent way to show off the extensive range of white varietals grown in Austria, and of course to exhibit the age-old field blend practice of the Gemischter Satz style. While the Furmint didn’t do too much for me that night, the other three wines shone alongside this delightfully executed dish. And I do have a certain soft spot for a good Gemischter, and so the 2014 Wieninger Nussberg Gemischter Satz was my personal favourite here.
4th Course – Beef Ribeye, Sunchoke, Maitake Mushroom, Bearnaise
Served with a flight of three Blaufränkisch (all from Burgenland)
Here at GFR we are always rattling on about the merits of the much underappreciated Blaufränkisch (at least in Canada) varietal, and so it was great to comparatively taste three excellent examples alongside one hell of a tasty beef ribeye. I had a particular fancy for the structure and fruit on the 2011 Moric Lutzmannsburg Alte Reben, which showed extremely favourably alongside this dish.
5th Course – Dark Chocolate, Espresso, Chantilly
Served with a flight of two dessert wines (Grüner TBA from Niederösterreich, Ruster Ausbruch from Burgenland)
I have to admit that not having much of a sweet tooth I don’t usually pair sweet wine with desserts, and tend to have sweeter wines with cheese or as a dessert in themselves. The 2013 Nigl Grüner TBA ticked all the boxes for me and was a fine ending to this excellent dinner.
Conducting a brief straw poll of my fellow diners at a nearby bar later that evening after dinner, it appeared that my peers felt the same way about this event, and had so much appreciation for the work of Birgitta Samavarchian and all at Austrian Wines, Chef Patrick Kriss and his kitchen, Sommelier Christopher Sealy and his FOH team (the service was so damn polished), as well as the witty but thorough presentation of John Szabo MS. A remarkable show all round.
Austrian Wines sure know how to throw a party, and other trade organisations could seriously learn a lot from everything that went down that evening.
Edinburgh-born/Toronto-based Sommelier, consultant, writer, judge, and educator Jamie Drummond is the Director of Programs/Editor of Good Food Revolution… And that was a night to remember.