Last week, before a lengthy trip to Canada’s West coast, I was able to attend a great tasting of Austrian reds. While white wines from Austria have made a name in recent years – with a little help from Wine Spectator and such – Austrian whites have been widely disregarded in most parts of Europe and overseas. Undeservedly I think, just like the white, which have shown there strength in both the autochthonous Gruener Veltliner and the more international Riesling, Austrian winemakers have shown that once they sufficiently understood how to make fine red wine, they have fared equally well in local varietals as well as in blends using international varietals.
Regions, varietals, blends
Several varietals are considered autochthonous to Austria, including Blaufraenkisch (which is also grown in Hungary as Kekfrankos or in Germany and abroad as Lemberger), St. Laurent (a distant relative of Pinot Noir), Pinot Noir itself which is locally called Blauburgunder (= blue burgundy) and finally (and truly Austrian) the Zweigelt, named after it’s inventor Prof. Zweigelt who successfully made a hybrid of St. Laurent and Blaufraenkisch. Other local specialties like Blauer Portugieser (mostly grown in Eastern Weinviertel and tending to produce thin acidic wines), Blauer Wildbacher (grown in Styria and most renowned for the rather acidic rose wine named ‘Schilcher’) are of limited local importance.
Four provinces in Austria have mentionable wine producing areas (Styria, Vienna the capital city, Lower Austria, and Burgenland) but only certain regions in the last two yield good to great reds in numbers. In Lower Austria it’s focused around the area South to South-Eastern of Vienna, namely Thermenregion and Carnuntum (both bordering to Northern Burgenland) and to a lesser degree it’s biggest wine growing area, Weinviertel. In Burgenland all four defined regions (Neusiedlersee, Neusiedlersee-Huegelland, Mittelburgenland and Suedburgenland) produce great reds thanks to the more Pannonic climate.
While Thermenregion is specialized in Burgundy varietals and Southern Burgenland is almost exclusively Blaufraenkisch county, the other regions offer an interesting mix of single variety wines and blends. Besides the autochthonous vines, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah and to a lesser amount Cabernet Franc are grown, other international varietals don’t have official status and are grown and used as specialties and experiments.
While some vintners try producing wines made only from one of the internationals varietals, which usually only works in hot years as Cabernet is ripening late, often too late, for Austrian climate, blends mixing autochthonous and international varietals have been vastly successful in recent years starting to turn heads at presentations from Berlin to London. Some of the best names among those ‘blenders’ are Rosi Schuster (famous for CMB, a blend of Blaufraenkisch, Cabernet and Merlot), Kerschbaum (CuvÃ©e Impressario made from Blaufraenkisch, Zweigelt and Cabernet), Albert Gesellmann (Opus Eximium from Blaufraenkisch, St. Laurent and Zweigelt), Feiler Artinger (Solitaire, Blaufraenkisch, Cabernet and Merlot), A. Wendelin (Prophet, a succulent Syrah-blend), Johanneshof Reinisch (Grand CuvÃ©e, a wonderful blend based on St.Laurent), Juris (Ina’mera from Blaufraenkisch, Cabernet and Merlot) or Franz Netzl (CuvÃ©e Anna Christina, Zweigelt with Cabernet and Merlot). Josef Pöckl’s ‘Admiral’, made of 70% Zweigelt with Cabernet, Merlot and Syrah, was selected as wine of the year 05 by Austrian wine mag Falstaff.
Blaufraenkisch uber alles
Blaufraenkisch typically features rich fruity flavors including dark berries and black cherries and some peppery spiciness, with middle strong tannins from thick grape skins. If harvested ripe and of good quality and concentration it can gain a lot from barrique development. Some of the best known names in Blaufraenkisch are ‘ET’ Ernst Triebaumer (famous for Mariental), Josef Leberl (his full-bodied Reisbühel is available in sufficient quantity and at a very affordably price), Paul Kerschbaum (Hochäcker is essential), Weingut Krutzler and Wachter Wiesler from Suedburgenland (Krutzler’s Perwolff is legendary already), Domäne Pöttelsdorf (Baronesse) though today nearly every winery in Burgenland offers decent quality Blaufraenkisch.
The Professor and his creature
The situation is slightly different for Zweigelt, the one variety that is also grown in parts of Austria less supportive for red wine. Zweigelt is very fruity, with red fruit aroma, cherry, sour cherries, though thin skins don’t contribute a lot of body, structure or tannin. Only the best Zweigelt will be able to sustain wood support and barrique aging. Those who do can be great while the others are best as lighter, fruity wines for younger consumption. Dependable names include Paul Triebaumer, Rosi Schuster, Josef Pöckl, Marko Markowitsch, Paul Achs and a few dozen others. One of those others should be mentioned separately: while most reds from Styria are Zweigelt and most of them tend to be thin and slightly sour, there is one to exempt: Schloss Winkler-Hermaden is producing a wonderful, though high-priced Zweigelt called ‘Olivin’, after a common mineral in this area.
From Burgundy with love
The Burgundy varietals show similar and still different characteristics. While Pinot Noir offers red fruity aromas with noticeable fruit tannins and at times hints of orange and bitter almonds, St.Laurent reminds of sour cherry, sometimes paired with smokiness or frankincense. Both, if well made, tend to be a little reclusive when young and need to develop to open up. Both are very successfully grown in all of the regions with a especially high density in Thermenregion, South of Vienna. Two groups of Winemakers there have been set up to further quality in this area, on called the Burgundermacher, the other the Thermenwinzer. Other wineries offering great Pinot Noir and/or St. Laurent wines include Josef Umathum, Sodlawirt, Helmut Lang, Hardegg, Schloss Halbthurm, Hannes Schuster, Weingut Rommer and Silvia Prieler (better known for great Chardonnay). Juris is offering a brilliant CuvÃ©e of St. Laurent and Pinot Noir called St.Georg. Heribert Bayer isn’t growing his own grapes but still manages to make one of the most interesting Pinots, In Signo Tauri.
More to discover
Further information on Austrian wines can be found at the website of Austrian Wine Marketing. Many of the best Austrian winemakers have organized themselves into marketing organizations and quality clubs (see list below). For information on special wineries or wines mentioned please refer to the following link list of winery web sites:
Marketing Groups and Quality Clubs:
RWB – Rennomierte Weingüter Burggenland
Verband Blaufraenkisch Mittelburgenland
Vereinte Winzer Blaufraenkischland
Websites of the Wineries mentioned:
All pictures © ÖWM