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Get hip to Austrian wines

Austrian wines have had their ups and downs. Grapes were planted there in 500 B.C. by Celtish invaders, destroyed in A.D. 300 by barbarian hordes who didn't appreciate a good glass of wine and restored in 700 by Charlemagne, who did. Then, in 1985, production dropped by 80 percent after a scandal in which a few winemakers illegally sweetened their wares with an illegal additive.

Today, happy to say, Austrian wines are hip. In with the "in" crowd. The country's signature wine, gruner veltliner, is so popular with young U.S. sophisticates who love it but can't pronounce it that one company has put out a brand simply called "Grooner." Wine shop owners and restaurant sommeliers "hand sell" it to customers ready to try something new.

The Pfaffl family is riding the wave. In 1978 Roman and Adelheid Pfaffl took over a farm near Vienna with just two acres of grapes. By the time they handed it over to their children, Roman Jr., Heidemarie and Elisabeth, the winery owned 124 acres of grapes.

Roman Jr., now the winemaker, is a bit surprised that his family's wines have become hip with U.S. trendsetters.

"We're working on it," he says. "I can't say we're really widespread yet because so many Americans haven't heard of our wines."

Gruner veltliner is similar in flavor and heft to sauvignon blanc or pinot grigio. Pfaffl's lighter version, called "Austrian Pepper" because of a distinct hint of black pepper in the aftertaste, goes well with raw oysters, other shellfish and light fish dishes.

Its fullest version, the single-vineyard "Hundsleiten" Gruner Veltliner, is full-bodied and creamy, a nice match for spicy, fruity cuisine or Asian dishes.

Hundsleiten is like a fine Burgundy-style chardonnay in that, unlike most white wines, it responds well to aging for up to 10 years, Pfaffl says. He says he drank a 1990 vintage recently and found it was slightly darkened from oxidation but still creamy, even honeyed in consistency, with flavors of tropical fruits.

Austria's red wines are even less-known than its whites. The Pfaffl family makes St. Laurent, a darker-colored relative of pinot noir, with aromas and flavors of smoke, blueberries and black tea.

And it makes Zweigelt, a red grape created in 1922 when wine prof Fritz Zweigelt crossed a St. Laurent vine with the darker, more tannic blaufrankisch grape. Full-bodied and intensely fruity, it's Austria's most popular red.

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Highly recommended

*2010 Pfaffl Gruner Veltliner "Hundsleiten" DAC Reserve Single-Vineyard, Weinviertel, Austria: flowery, spicy aroma, sweet-tart flavors (pineapples, green apples), crisp and creamy, long finish; $31.

*2010 Pfaffl St. Laurent "Altenberg" Single Vineyard, Weinviertel, Austria: aromas and flavors of smoke, blueberries and milk chocolate, full-bodied, smooth, zingy with acid, long finish; $44.

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Recommended

*2010 Pfaff Austrian "Cherry" Zweigelt, (The Dot), Lower Austria: Pale, transparent red color, fresh tart-cherry flavors, spicy, peppery, very dry; $14.

*2010 Pfaffl Austrian "Pepper" (The Dot) Gruner Veltliner, Lower Austria: pale, light-bodied, lush but very dry, with flavors of minerals, citrus and black pepper, spicy finish; $14.

*2010 Pfaff "Haidviertel" Gruner Veltliner Weinviertel DAC Single-Vineyard, Austria: medium-body, rich, sweet, intensely fruity, citrus and pepper; $22.

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