Austrian wines have exploded on to the wine scene in the past few years which can often leave unfamiliar consumers confused and overwhelmed by the plethora of Grüner Veltiner and Blaufränkisch wines – many organic, most from small, single vineyard plantings. One of the best resources Austrian wine consumers can turn to are those that import the wines – the ones that really know them inside and out, know the market and know the potential each has to become your new favorite wine.
This month we sat down with Monika Caha of Monika Caha Selections, Inc. Here’s what she had to say:

What makes Austrian wine so unique? What makes it stand out from other regions?

Austrian wine is truly an artisanal product – made by small wineries that are primarily owned by families. The wines are hand crafted and individually made. There are no large corporations, no product and brand managers developing what the market needs; quite the contrary. The philosophy of the Austrian wine makers is to use indigenous grape varietals and reflect the terroir of the individual micro climate, not thinking if this wine is going to be a hit in the USA or Japan. The wine making is run by many thousands of small producers with an average of 5-35 hectares, compared to international wineries with 200ha and more.  Most Austrian wineries hand harvest, and practice sustainable, organic or biodynamic methods that work hand in hand with nature. What I love is that respecting the earth and making high quality wines is the priority. Austrian wines are honest wines that reflect the climate, soil and unique taste profile of the indigenous grapes varietals. The result; the wines show enormous fruit, unique minerals and texture with beautiful balanced acidity. Simply put, Austrian wines are world class wines; no surprise as there has been winemaking in Austria for thousands of years.

What  influenced your decision to work with Austrian wines?

As an Austrian living in New York for a long time I have always promoted the beauty and bounty of Austria, which naturally includes food and wine. I was executive chef and owner of the Austrian restaurant, Kaffeehaus, where my love for Austrian wine grew.  What little vacation time I had, I would spend in Austria visiting wineries. I became so enamored of the wines, the winemaker families and their way of life, that I decided to create a portfolio of choice winemakers from different regions, some of which have never been represented in the US. I enjoy working with farmers as they are so connected to nature, which is something I miss living in New York, and bottom line: I truly find Austrian wine outstanding.

Which producers do you import? Highlights?

My company structure is different than most other importers. We are not actually importers: Monika Caha Selections, Inc. is an agency that represents winemakers for import and distribution into the US, Canada (and soon, other markets). My business partner Toni Silver and I handle the marketing, press and sales needs of the wineries that we represent. Our portfolio currently consists of the following wineries: Forstreiter (Kremstal), Fritsch (Wagram), Graf Hardegg (Weinviertel, Neumeister(Südoststeiermark), Anita & Hans Nittnaus (Neusiedlersee), Stadlmann-(Thermenregion), Pollerhof (Weinviertel), Strohmeier (Weststeiermark), Waldschuetz (Kamptal), Weninger (Mittelburgenland)
We also developed brands together with Austrian winery partners: GROONER, ZVY-GELT, GV, ANDAU

Which states are you distributed in?

It varies per producer; with some producers we are nationally represented and with others we are primarily in New York State and New Jersey. We also started the Canadian market in Ontario with the LCBO and British Columbia with the BLCBO. We are going to expand next year also into the Vintage program of the LCBO.

What’s your favorite Austrian varietal? Region? Why?
I do not have a favorite Austrian varietal or region. For me the most exciting thing about my work is the versatility that each region has. That uniqueness creates the excitement.  That’s another reason why I like Austrian wine- it is so different from region to region – Even within a region you can find different styles and grape varietals.

What’s your favorite food & wine pairing for the season?

Since I am a chef, and it is just before the holidays, I created an Austrian inspired menu with wine pairing :

Kumomoto Oysters with Red Beet and Horseradish Minuette
Fritsch Grüner Veltliner Steinberg 2009 or Forstreiter Grüner Veltliner Kogl 2009

Pan Seared Artic Char with Spaghetti Squash Goulash and Roasted Fingerling Potatoes
Neumeister Sauvingon Blanc Klausen Erste Lage 2009 or Pollerhof Grüner Veltliner “Frau Mayer” 2009

Oven Roasted Pork Butt with braised Cabbage and Bread Dumplings
Stadlmann Zierfandler Mandelhöh 2008 or Graf Hardegg Riesling vom Schloss 2008

Slow cooked Venison Shoulder with Roasted Chestnuts, Brussel Sprouts and Lingonberries
Weninger Blaufränkisch Hochäcker 2008 or Anita and Hans Nittnaus Pannobile 2006

Blue Cheese, Walnuts and Pear Strudel
Anita & Hans Nittnaus Trockenbeerenauslese 2005

Where do you see the future of Austrian wine heading?

Hard to say. Here in the US, Austrian wine is still a hand sell and practically unknown to the average wine consumer.  It is of course very frustrating to observe a growing number of industrial wine conglomerates slowly taking over the national wine market of the US and the consumer fully buying into their marketing campaigns.

I do however see that there is a growing counter movement of younger Americans that are more open to artisanal and “green” products.  There is growing interest in entry level Grüner Veltliners and other Austrian wine varietals in a price segment between $ 9.00-$ 15.00. This is one of the reasons we created brands like Grooner, Zvy-gelt, GV and Andau.  By creating brand recognition, we make these varietals accessible to consumers who have never heard of them before.

However, since the economy has not been the best, people in general are gravitating to less expensive wines which, of course, could potentially harm the Austrian wine image more than already established wine countries.  When it comes to high end Austrian wines, our best and most important partners are still very committed stores that have trained personal and of course sommeliers of fine restaurants and wine bars.