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Chestnuts, Winter Whites, and Anemoia
Austria rotgipfler and zierfandler, like roasted chestnuts, evoke nostalgia for a time you've never known. Plus: Make this soup during this holiday cold snap.
This is my second-to-last newsletter of 2022, and to celebrate the holidays I’m revisiting this old chestnut on chestnuts (and obscure Austrian wines). It’s a favorite essay, as well as a favorite recipe, and I hope it gets more love this season than it did last year. Since I have more than ten times the number of readers I did last December, I’m hopeful it will.
On December 27th, I will publish a piece on New Year’s drinks. Then, on January 3rd, I will return to the usual twice-a-week schedule, publishing Tuesdays and Fridays. If you haven’t yet upgraded to paid, there’s only a week left to get the holiday discount, and to make sure you don’t miss any new content in the new year.
Considering the ubiquity of Nate King Cole’s “The Christmas Song” and its opening lyric—Chestnuts roasting on an open fire—I’ve always found it a profound irony that most Americans have never actually eaten a roasted chestnut.
There’s a reason for that, and it’s rather a melancholy one. The American chestnut tree, Castenea dentata, was all but eradicated from the eastern U.S. by a fungal blight during the first half of the 20th century. Around 1900, nearly half of the trees in forests from Maine to Alabama were American chestnuts. By the time Cole first sang his holiday hit in 1946, they were nearly extinct, and roasting chestnuts had already become a nostalgic memory. Only about 100 American chestnut trees remain. For decades, foresters have been working to reintroduce the species.
Over in places like Italy, France, Portugal, Germany, and Austria, chestnuts are standard fall and winter fare. Since I am often traveling in Europe during the colder months, I’ve always loved seeing (and smelling) vendors on the streets and in the Christmas markets, roasting chestnuts on an open fire and selling their treats wrapped in in paper cones.
On my last trip to the Loire Valley, chestnuts popped up on several plat du jour menus, including an unforgettable chestnut and mushroom soup that I ate on Armistice Day, at Auberge de l'Ile in Touraine on a gorgeous crisp autumn afternoon.
I returned home with chestnuts on my mind. I was nostalgic for roasted chestnuts, even if they had never been part of my own experience. In his Dictionary of Obscure Sorrrows, John Koenig invented a term for this: anemoia, “nostalgia for a time you’ve never known.” Anemoia is very much what I was feeling.
So I was pleasantly surprised to see imported chestnuts for sale at my local Whole Foods. I bought a few pounds and knew immediately I would try to recreate that chestnut and mushroom soup during the holidays. (Scroll down for the recipe.)
Right around the same time, I received samples of some obscure white wines from Austria’s Thermenregion, made from the rare grapes zierfandler and rotgipfler. These were happy, friendly wines, full-bodied, ripe, even a little plump, with lots of tropical fruit and fragrant flower notes, but graceful and generous, with always a complex hint of salty or smoke. I found these to be perfect winter whites—a concept that doesn’t receive nearly enough love. I also knew they would be a perfect pairing with my chestnut soup.
Thermenregion is a small wine appellation close to Vienna, and the name is a nod to the thermal springs of nearby spa towns like Baden and Bad Vöslau. The centerpiece is Gumpoldskirchen, a pretty town dating to 1140, near the Vienna Woods. During the heyday of the Austria’s Habsburg Empire, many of the Emperor’s prized wines came from the vineyards around Gumpoldskirchen, whose name was still well known by wine connoisseurs into the mid–20th century. In fact, at the Paris Exposition of 1855 (famous for establishing Bordeaux’s premier cru classification system) it was actually a rotgipfler from the Thermenregion that took first prize at the fair.
But the region was hit hard by a wine scandal in 1985 and its sweet blends of local grapes like zierfandler and rotgipfler fell out of favor and were mostly forgotten. For a good deal of the late 20th century, many growers replanted chardonnay.
When I was researching Godforsaken Grapes, I visited Gumpoldskirchen. I met winemaker Johannes Gebeshuber at his half-timbered winery dating to 1905. Gebeshuber has been trying to revive interest in zierfandler and rotgipfler for more than two decades. He took me on a tour of the cellar amid beautiful, huge dark-wood casks engraved with detailed images of Saint George slaying the dragon (from 1907) and the Last Supper (dating to 1937).
“When I started here,” he said, “I grew 25 varieties. But I decided to focus only on zierfandler and rotgipfler.” Perhaps stating the obvious, he added: “We had hard times when we started with the local grapes. In years past, people were asking for chardonnay. People said, ‘We don’t know zierfandler and rotgipfler.’ You couldn’t sell it.”
Zierfandler and rotgipfler are both strange grapes, and there’s only a little over 100 hectares planted of each. Rotgipfler is so named because the tip of its vine shoot is red. Zierfandler’s local name—spaetrot, or “late red”—is so called for the telltale red color of its skin when fully ripe.
Zierfandler was grown all over the Austro-Hungarian Empire, where it was also called by its Hungarian name, tzinifándli. Some believe that what Americans call zinfandel—which is really a black Croatian grape called tribidrag— takes its name because the tribidrag was mistaken as tzinifándli, then wildly mislabeled as “Black Zinfardel [sic] of Hungary.” When the Habsburg Imperial nursery first shipped “Black Zinfardel” to a New York nursery in the 1820s, the mistaken name spread.
In Thermenregion, rotgipfler, with its ripe fruity character and unctuous body, has always been balanced and blended with zierfandler, with its acidity and minerality. “Years ago, these varieties were harvested very late,” Gebeshuber said. “So the wines were too sweet and heavy with high alcohol.” The wines he poured were the opposite, completely dry and bright. It had been a while since I’d tasted rotgipfler and zierfandler, and I was really pleased that the wines matched the joy I’d found years ago in Gumpoldskirchen.
Still, these wines also always evoke a sense of anemoia, a twinge of nostalgia for the “melodious decay” of the fin de siècle Austrian Empire, long disappeared, now living only in memory—just like the American chestnut.
I am always on the lookout for winter whites. I’m always surprised how completely wine lovers abandon whites when the weather turns cold, as if white wine’s only purpose is to be poolside on a sunny day. “No white between Labor Day and Memorial Day” is equally vapid advice in both fashion and wine.
What exactly is a winter white, anyway? Well, it’s not as if we’re drinking these wines while ice skating in a blizzard; hopefully we’re sitting in a heated room of some sort. It’s all about the winter table. Dishes such as casseroles and soups, root vegetables and roast pork and fowl, fondue and creamy sauces: all of those pair beautifully with bigger, richer white wines.
In winter, we’re looking for whites that are more full-bodied, perhaps with a more oily feel in the mouth. We still want freshness but we want a wine that’s more rounded and not too crisp. We opt for less acidity and more aromatics. Spice and honey and fleshy, tropical notes are welcome, and if there are citrus notes, we prefer tangerine rather than lemon.
Perhaps the most important tip about winter whites is this: Don’t drink them very cold. If possible, serve them at cellar temperature (around 55 degrees or a little higher) and avoid the refrigerator altogether. Too much chill masks the desired richness and aromatics.
All of the rotgipfler and zierfandler that I tasted from Thermenregion fit the winter white bill. What will not surprise you is that they are hard to find. But not impossible. Seek out the following:
Weingut Stadlmann Anning Rotgipfler, $21. Full-bodied, intense, melon and stone fruit with an underlying saltiness.
Stadlmann Mandel-Höh Zierfandler, ripe with notes of spice, pineapple, apricot and hints of hazelnut, tarragon, fennel, and an elegant, mineral finish.
Heinrich Hartl III Rotgipfler, nose of citrus blossom, honeysuckle, and and an unctuous, waxy palate of yellow apple, pineapple, and hints of herb and smoke on the finish.
Gebeshuber Ried Laim Rotgipfler, nose of fresh-cut flowers, melon, and white pepper, and flavors of juicy tangerine and a salty finish. (I’m disappointed not to find any Gebeshuber in the U.S. right now; if anyone knows of a source, please let me know.)
Chestnut & Mushroom Soup
1½ pounds chestnuts
2 tablespoons butter
3 tablespoons olive oil
10 ounces shiitake mushrooms, sliced
1 medium onion, chopped
1 garlic clove, minced
4 cups chicken or vegtable stock
Lots of fresh thyme
2 bay leaves
Salt & pepper
½ cup heavy cream
The trickiest part of this recipe is roasting the chestnuts—you’ll need tough, steady hands. Using a pairing knife, score each chestnut in an X-shape, on its flat side, through the shell and slightly into the flesh (be super careful!). Dry roast the chestnuts at 400 degrees for 15-20 minutes (until you see the peels pulling away from the flesh; see image below). Let the chestnuts cool for half a minute and then work quickly to remove the outer shell—you’ll have to do this while they’re still somewhat hot, so it helps to hold them in a towel. Try to remove as much of the thin inner skin as possible (running them under water can help). But don’t drive yourself crazy over this—a little of the inner shell is fine.
Before starting, reserve 4 peeled chestnuts, and 4 mushrooms for garnish.
Now, for the actual soup: In a stockpot, heat 1 tablespoon butter in 2 tablespoons oil. Add the chopped mushrooms, season with salt and pepper, and for cook on medium-high heat for about 3-4 minutes, until mushrooms start to brown. Reduce heat to medium low and add onions and garlic, cooking and stirring occasionally for about 6-7 minutes. Add the roasted and peeled chestnuts and cook for 4-5 more minutes. Add the stock, bay leaves, and thyme (8-10 springs tied into a bundle). Let simmer for 20 minutes.
While soup simmers, melt butter and oil in a small pan over medium-high heat. Chopped reserved chestnuts, then add to pan along with reserved mushroom slices. Sauté for about 2 minutes until brown.
When soup is finished, remove bay leaves and thyme bundle, and puree with immersion or regular blender into a smooth soup. Season with more salt and pepper as needed. Stir in heavy cream.
Serve in bowls garnished with sauteed chestnuts and mushrooms and thyme leaves.