Some wines I love for their scent, while others astonish me with their longevity. My favorite part about wine, though, is its ability to inspire emotions: joy, nostalgia and — perhaps the most compelling — surprise. Surprise compresses wonder, curiosity, and amusement in a single, impressionable moment. A surprising wine causes me to catch my breath, think twice, and feel differently about a wine or winery in the future.
For years now, I have admired the classic Grüner Veltliners and Rieslings from Salomon Undhof in Kremstal, Austria. Berthold Salomon and his children, Bert and Fay, represent the seventh and eight generation of winemaking at this estate — a tradition that goes back to 1792! They have upheld the values and quality the wine world has come to expect from this historical estate. I have tasted just about every vintage released in the past decade — from their sprightly Hochterassen Grüners to their riveting rieden (single-vineyard) bottlings from Pfaffenberg, Kögl, and Lindbergh.
Recently, they sent me a few of their wines. As I came across their amphora-aged Riesling “Alma Amphora,” I was … surprised. And immediately intrigued, for I had no idea they were playing with this ancient technique. Surprise became pure delight upon my first taste. A rush of tangerine and lime leaf raced down its center, pushing up white blossoms and just-ripened apricot. A comforting note of cream and marmalade hugged the back of my palate on the finish. Where had this been my whole wine life?
An Ancient Practice Given New Life
The first evidence of wine produced and aged in qvevri — as these clay pots are called — goes back roughly 8,000 years to the Republic of Georgia. It has captured the imagination of many around the world in recent years, particularly those who are experimenting with natural winemaking.
For “Alma Amphora,” ripe Riesling grapes are removed from the stem and pressed slightly. The juice and its skins are placed in amphora pots that have been buried in the ground beside the family’s backyard apricot orchard. Filled to the brim, these clay pots foster a long, cool, seven-week fermentation. They slumber through the winter and are only taken from their skins upon spring, when they receive their one and only modest hit of sulfur as well as a few rackings. Unlike many amphorae-aged wines, the Alma is remarkably brilliant in color — surprisingly so, it does not wear the haze or even depth of color one might expected from an extended skin-contact, unfined wine.
This Riesling is so radically different than those the family ferments in stainless steel. Though the latter preserves primary fruit and freshness, the amphorae draw out aromas at a whole new level. As though taken through the Willy Wonka factory of wine, the apricots are more apricoty, the lime more limey. The texture is lacey and lattice-like, airy yet impactful. Despite its soulful depth, there is a playful whimsy to this wine.
The best winemakers never rest on a recipe. They leave space for discovery and delight in the mystery that new (and incredibly old) techniques might offer the grapes — grapes they know like their very own children. I can sense that wonder in the Salomon family when tasting this wine, one that has such a unique identity apart from the others they create. Sure, some surprises might not be so lovely; any winemaker with a curious mind will laugh at some of their failed experiments. But some… well, some just might take your breath away.
2019 Salomon Undhof “ALMA Amphora” Riesling
Grapes: Riesling (100%)
Opinion: ★★★★★ (out of five)
• Food-friendliness: Highly versatile
• Value: Very good
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A beginner might like … Being surprised that in Austria, Rieslings are often bone dry. Unlike many German styles that make their way to the American market, Austrians pride themselves on producing dry Rieslings on the upper granite terraces of the hillsides alongside the Danube. These wines are racy and revved up with notes of lime leaf, stone fruits, and saline minerality.
A wine obsessive might like … Finding the least natty natural wine in the market. This wine boasts all the geek buzzwords (native yeasts, low/no Sulphur, amphora, skin-contact, unfined, unfiltered), but it comes off clean, pure, and utterly transparent. The acidity sings and excites. What’s more, this wine evolves tremendously over a few days — if you can be patient and try a little each day!
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