My introduction to Austrian wine was over thirty years ago and I remember it as clearly as if it were yesterday.
My husband-to-be and I were seated side-by-side on a luxurious velvet (okay, maybe it was silk) banquette in the original Aureole Restaurant on the Upper East Side. The soft-spoken waiter leaned in to discuss the wine selection. The long list was in one of those hefty, pre-iPad, electronic ‘books,’ the first computerized wine list I’d ever seen.
I told the waiter that we wanted to start the evening off with a refreshing, white wine, one that would stimulate our appetites. “Have you heard about Grüner Veltliner?” he asked. We had no clue!
And so began our journey into Austria’s most famous white wine, now a favorite of both my husband and I.
Nowadays most people have heard of Grüner Veltliner, by far the most planted grape variety in Austria. According to wine critic and Master of Wine Jancis Robinson, “No self-respecting restaurant wine list, whether in New York or Hong Kong, can afford to be without at least one example of this, Austria's signature white wine grape.”
But what I’ve learned on my continuing wine journey is that Austria has many grape varieties — in fact, a total of 40 (26 white and 14 red) that are officially approved for the production of qualitätswein, English for quality wine. And while the vast majority of Austrian wine is white (and mostly Grüner Veltliner), plantings of red varieties have doubled during the past two decades and now represent one third of Austria’s area under vines.
AUSTRIAN REDS STEP UP TO THE PLATE
Over the past few decades, due to global climate change, winemakers worldwide have had to adapt to warmer conditions in the vineyards. Since white varietals tend to thrive in cooler conditions than reds do, this means that, in some areas of Austria, white wine production has decreased and plantings of more heat-tolerant red varieties have doubled.
Austrian reds are primarily grown in the far eastern part of the country, in Burgenland, with its many subregions, and to a lesser extent, in the Thermenregion, just south of Vienna. Burgenland, in particular, is an area that is strongly influenced by an ancient lakebed, the Pannonian Plain, that has a continental climate of hot, dry summers.
Valerie Kathawala, Austrian wine specialist, says that while the summer warmth is what makes Burgenland ideal for Austria’s red wines, climate change is pushing these summers hotter and drier. “Most growers say that their goal is to preserve freshness and balance in their reds,” says Valerie. “To do this, they are relying more and more on their higher elevation and north-facing sites, or are acquiring new vineyards that meet these criteria.” She told me that in Burgenland, growers are looking for parcels nearer the Leithaberg, a low, forested mountain range with a high percentage of limestone soils that bring out coolness and elegance in their reds.
Other measures being taken in the vineyards include intensifying the use of compost to retain moisture in the soils, as well as experimenting with various hybrids that may be better suited to the warmer, more disease-prone climate. The increasingly prevalent use of biodynamic farming methods — with its aim of creating healthy, self-sufficient ecosystems — also aids growers in becoming more observant of the needs of the vines.
THE FUTURE FOR AUSTRIAN RED WINE
Austria, with its short history of red wine production (the first red wine of designated origin was in 2005), has a future that’s looking bright. The two most planted red varietals, Zweigelt (TSVYE-gelt) and Blaufränkisch (blouw-FRANN-keesh), may be a little tricky to pronounce, but so was Grüner Veltliner — until it started showing up in restaurants all around town, intriguing wine lovers enough so they learned how to say it.
“There is no doubt the future is looking fantastic for consumers hoping to get their hands on more outstanding Austrian reds.” says Valerie. “The up-and-coming generation of extremely well-educated growers is bringing a deeply nuanced understanding of soil, climate, varieties, vineyard elevation, and exposure to their plantings of Zweigelt, Blaufränkisch, and other Austrian reds like St. Laurent and Pinot Noir. Most importantly, they are vinifying them with unprecedented sensitivity.”
WHAT DO ZWEIGELT AND BLAUFRÄNKISCH TASTE LIKE?
Zweigelt, a crossing between Blaufränkisch and St. Laurent, is the most grown red wine variety in Austria and accounts for half of the country’s red wine production. Zweigelt comes in a range of styles, from light, fresh, and simple to nuanced and powerful, with good aging potential.
The best ones can be identified by their dark red fruit and peppery spice notes, along with a mineral and earth-driven savory quality that is reminiscent of tobacco and bay leaf. They are usually medium bodied with medium-plus acidity, a soft mouthfeel, and excellent balance, length and intensity.
Zweigelt is a wine that won’t overwhelm the food it’s served with. Its acidity, moderate alcohol and subtle tannins makes it ideal for a wide variety of dishes, from grilled and roasted fish and meats, to pastas, cheeses, and salads.
Known as Lemberger in Germany and Kekfrankos in Hungary, Blaufränkisch is the second most planted red variety in Austria and typically makes wines that are bigger and more powerful than those made from Zweigelt. Blaufränkisch wines have aromas of dark ripe cherries and dark berries. Medium to medium-full bodied, with medium acidity, the best examples are perfectly balanced with pronounced minerals, spice, ripe fruitiness, and an appealing acidic tartness. It makes for a refreshing wine to have with poultry, cured meats, pork, lamb, beef, and game.
Valerie noted that as recently as 10 to 15 years ago, many Blaufränkisch were seeing a lot of new oak. “Those wines will have a different profile than the more restrained style of today," says Valerie. “which looks towards a balanced ripeness and uses different aging vessels: large, old oak casks and, increasingly, concrete which brings an added level of freshness and vibrance to Blaufränkisch.”
Hopefully we’ll be seeing more of these fruit-driven, elegant red wines alongside their Grüner Veltliner siblings. These interesting wines are worth seeking out for their outstanding quality, generally low alcohol content (food friendliness) and, most importantly, their authentic expression of what Austrian red wine can be.
TOP AUSTRIAN RED WINE PRODUCERS TO LOOK FOR
Franz Weninger, Nittnaus, Leo Hillinger, Wachter-Wiesler, Hans Igler, Jalits, Umathum, Paul Achs, Hannes Reeh, Moric, Schloss Gobelsburg, Rosi Schuster.
STEMWARE MADE IN AUSTRIA
Did you know that Austria makes some of the most beautiful handmade wine glasses? My favorite stemware producer is Sophienwald, a company that has a long history — since 1725 — of creating artisan glassware.
I caught up with Ginger, co-owner of Adelion, Sophienwald’s official U.S. distribution partner, to find out which of their glasses is best to use when drinking Zweigelt and Blaufränkisch. She told me that Sophienwald makes a glass specifically for red wine, but that most wine drinkers prefer the Essential glass, a universal fit for most wines, whether red, white, or rosé. “We find that the shape of the Essential gives the wine room to breathe, while collecting the aromas from the wine,” says Ginger. “The angles of the glass direct the aromas to your nose. With other, higher-alcohol wines this can be a bit overwhelming, but as Zweigelt and Blaufränkisch wines are usually moderate in their alcohol content, it’s delightful.”