Wednesday, April 18, 2007

In the Cellar at Wallse

I profiled sommelier Aldo Sohm and his cellar at Wallse in today's New York Sun. Here's the link and the text.

In the Cellar: In Praise of Zierfandler

"Zierfandler—I'm a crazy guy on that," Aldo Sohm, the friendly sommelier as Wallsé, Kurt Gutenbrunner's cozy Austrian restaurant in Greenwich Village, said. Well, fine. It's good to have enthusiasms. But what is a Zierfandler anyway?

"It's a wine with an aromatic profile completely against the mainstream," Mr. Sohm explained, pouring out a sampling of light-gold liquid. "You don't find this kind of pink-grapefruity flavor, this pure spice-driven taste. And it's very clean. People love it." After one sip, I don't blame those people one bit.

Like most of the wines on Wallsé's list, the Zierfandler comes from Austria. Ninety-five percent of the world crop of the little-know varietal is grown in the Thermenregion area just south of Vienna. Until recently, most of it stayed in Austria, happily guzzled by residents of Salzburg and Innsbruck. But the rising profile of the brisk and refreshing, food-friendly grüner veltliner — the country's most famous native grape — and Austria's potent spins on riesling have changed that. Germany remains Austrian wine's biggest export market, but America is quickly closing in.

"Grüner veltliner has become very hot," Mr. Sohm said. "It was always known as something easygoing, not so special, low in alcohol, and really refreshing. But you find examples of it that are up at the top range. Those wines lose some of this crisp and easygoing character, but they are really rich. And now you see a lot of tastings where you have grüner veltliner against top Burgundies. And many times, they are preferring the grüner veltliners." He was referring primarily to the so-called Judgment of Vienna, a London tasting organized in 2003 by the wine writers Tim Atkin and Jancis Robinson in which the judges awarded grüners seven of the top 10 spots. Some famous Burgundies and California wines were left in the dust.

Still, as much as grüner is surging, it's still probably only known to one in 20 New Yorkers. And if you don't know grüner, Wallsé's wine list can look like a Germanic cryptogram. "People open up the wine menu and the only words they recognize are red and white," Mr. Sohm said.

He says it with a smile, however, because Mr. Sohm loves to educate, and particularly Americans. "I know they feel uncomfortable. Why should you order a wine for $125 that you have never heard of? But I can promise you one thing. If you don't like the wine, you just have to give me a blink of the eye." According to the sommelier, only one diner has resorted to blinking in his three years at Wallsé and its associated restaurants, Blaue Gans and Café Sabarsky. "What I love in Americans is they are so open-minded. If they don't know something, they taste it."

Among the things these openminded Yankees are tasting is Neuburger, a white Austrian varietal with a nutty flavor, and Zweigelt, a dry, low-alcohol red that's almost as vegetal as it is fruity. They also sample Rotgipler, another white grown in same region as Zierfandler but imbued with more richness and spice than its neighbor. "Women love this wine," Mr. Aldo whispered, as if passing along the recipe for Love Potion No. 9. (Is it possible that "Rotgipler" sounds romantic if said with the right accent?)

If the Rotgipler doesn't work on the ladies, Mr. Sohm could try to impress them with a tour of his trophy case. The Austrian-born 35-year-old is something of a competition addict. Before moving to New York in July 2004 to work at Mr. Gutenbrunner's restaurants, he was named top sommelier in Austria four years running. Once stationed in America, he felt the need to prove himself once again, entering a taxing two-day competition in New York City organized by the American Sommelier Association. The trials included a written exam, a blind tasting, food and wine pairings, and even a cigar recommendation. He prevailed and was named "Best Sommelier in America" in January.

Now he is training to compete in the annual face-off of the International Association of Sommeliers, to be held next month on the island of Rhodes. It will be tough: One of the exams on the rigorous agenda is described only as "surprise."

After Rhodes, Mr. Sohm promised, he will retire from competitive wine-slinging. "It's going to be my last competition," he said. Well, break out the Zierfandler!

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