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Astounding Austrian


Don't know Austrian wine? One taste of the 2006 Johann Donabaum Setzberg Spitz Riesling Smaragd and you'll be hooked

If wine consumers, especially American wine consumers, think of Austria at all, and manage not to confuse it with Australia—believe me, it happens—it's in terms of Gruner Veltliner, the country's aromatic trademark varietal.

But these days the Austrian wine industry is being rejuvenated and energized by the efforts of a series of dynamic young producers who are making wines with real verve and style. A fine example of this is the Johann Donabaum Setzberg Spitz Riesling Smaragd 2006. (Please note that the illustration depicts the 2007 label.)

I opened this wine without knowing its price, expecting just another thin, dry European riesling. One sip, though, and all my preconceptions were turned upside down. My taste buds screamed, This is a fabulous wine!

Then I looked at my notation on the back label and saw why—it is also a $42 wine. Now when it comes to wines, price is not always an indicator of quality. Even leaving aside the absurd, mad-money prices commanded by certain small-production trophy wines, there are far too many overpriced name-brand bottles turned out all over the world that I wouldn't drink at a quarter of the price. However, these are the exception. As a rule, and over time, Adam Smith's invisible hand asserts itself, and good wines, even great wines like this, get their financial rewards, or at least their financial rewards as far as the limits of fashion allow.

"Unbelievable Decadence" in Time

And that is why, even at this price, this astounding wine is still a very good deal.

But why is it so special? To start with, when riesling is good it is not just very good, it is astounding. It's as rich and complex as chardonnay but more subtle, more restrained, and with a whole panoply of more slaty, earthy, mineral flavors—tasting great riesling has been described as like licking wet stone—than you find in any other white wine. It rolls over my tongue leaving a trail of flavors in its wake, flavors that linger in the mouth for minutes after, a haunting legacy of greatness.

Lemons and tangerines, mushrooms and pepper, pineapple and cloves all overlap in layers of intriguing complexity, yet this wine is still so young and will live for at least another decade, during which time all those flavors will only intensify, mature, and ripen into a wine of unbelievable decadence. And you thought $42 sounded expensive?

Trouble finding this wine? Try wine-searcher.com.

When to Drink: Now, and for the next 10 years

Breathing/Decanting: Not necessary

Food Pairing: Cream sauces, richer fish, pasta carbonara, charcuterie

Grapes: 100% riesling

Appellation: Wachau

Region: Wachau

Country: Austria

Price: $42

Availability: Limited

See more wines at nickonwine.com.

Nick Passmore is an independent wine writer and consultant based in New York. For five years he contributed a widely read monthly wine column to Forbes.com, in addition to which his work has appeared in such publications as Forbes, Discover, Town Country, the Robb Report, the Wine Enthusiast, Saveur, Sky, and Golf Connoisseur. He is currently Artisanal Editor for Four Seasons magazine and contributes the Nick Passmore: Wine of the Week column to BusinessWeek.com. He is also a judge at the widely respected annual Critics' Challenge wine competition.

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