As Grüner-Veltliner continues its remarkable star-turn on retail shelves and restaurant wine lists across America, this seems like an appropriate time to take a second look at the charming red wines of this underrated wine-producing country in central Europe.
Or, perhaps, this is a chance to consider the reds of Austria for the first time. After all, too many wine lovers still think of this country as home to crisp, occasionally sweet white wines and little else. And, indeed, it is the whites that are most likely to be presented when visiting the wine shop or skimming a list for a bottle to accompany a meal.
But the red wines of Austria, across a broad range of prices, offer just as much pleasure as the whites, and often have the added benefit of providing those things that far too many (still generally affordable) reds fail to in our modern world of internationally styled wines: A sense of surprise, terroir specificity, and idiosyncrasy.
Some of this is perhaps the result of Austria’s tendency to allow indigenous varietals to shine. This is not to imply that planting locally typical vines is a prerequisite for the profound expression of a place through its wines, but it certainly helps.
In the case of Austria, its two most intriguing red varietals, I’ve long believed, are ones that too many people are still not familiar with (but likely will be in the future as more retailers and sommeliers continue to introduce the wider public to their considerable charms): Zweigelt and Blaufrankisch.
Both of them, as well as the superb Pinot Noir of the country and the light, refreshing St. Laurent grape, find their home base in the eastern part of the country, where nearly the entire wine industry is located. And while the geography here is far flatter than the typical alpine images that come to mind when talk turns to Austria, the terroir ranges widely, from sandier vineyard sites to loamy ones to areas that are higher in iron. As a result, the grape varieties planted are not the only determining factor when it comes to a wine’s ultimate expression here; soil, micro-climate, and vini- and viticultural decisions play significant roles, as well.
In preparing to write this article, I tasted nearly two dozen Austrian reds, and while the differences from producer to producer—as well as grape to grape and region to region—were substantial, one aspect of the wines stood out above all others and remained fairly consistent: A respect for brighter acidity and a willingness to let the grapes and terroirs speak for themselves without an overwhelming or obscuring dose of oak.
And while there are certainly some wines that are crafted in a more modern style, the overwhelming majority of them—including the more modern bottlings—speak to a real sense of place. That, in the end, is where the true excitement comes from.
I usually feature a wine of the month alongside this column. But this time, due to the overwhelming quality of so many of the Austrian reds I tasted, I’ll be providing tasting notes and impressions of the highlights. (Complete tasting notes are available at www.BrianFreedmanPhiladelphia.com, in the “Reviews” section.) It seems to me that, this month, it’s more important to recognize the widest swath possible, as opposed to simply focusing on the single best wine. The overall quality, in the end, is far more important than singling out the ne plus ultra.
One of my favorites was the Weingut Anita und Hans Nittnaus Blauer Zweigelt 2006 from Burgenland. This more modern wine started off rich with dark berry fruit, a hint of milk chocolate, and a marked creaminess on the nose. On the palate, however, the red berry character came through, as well as the typical spiciness of the grape, though here it was a bit more restrained. All of the elements came together with some time in the glass, and the finely grained tannins and bright beam of acidity kept it all lively and fresh.
More perfumed and exotic was the Zantho Zweigelt 2006, also from Burgenland. A dense, concentrated nose of cherries and aromatic brown spices followed through to a peppery, mineral-rich palate whose spicy echoes remained on the tongue through the entire finish. On the other end of the spectrum from that lighter bodied wine was the Weingut Karl Fritsch Zweigelt Red Soil 2005, a more muscular, chewy red from Donauland whose sweet tobacco, cranberry, and slightly stony notes really set it apart.
Shifting gears and grapes, the Paul Achs Blaufrankisch 2006 showed ancho-infused chocolate and smoky, grilled green bell peppers on the nose and a fresh, easily quaffable fruitiness on the palate. The Moric Neckenmarkter Blaufrankisch 2006 featured grilled herbs, subtle toffee, an almost biscuity character in the glass, and a vaguely Bordeaux-like style whose subtlety was the backbone of its charm. This one is worth laying down for 2-7 years: It’s fantastic now, and will only continue to improve with time. Buy several bottles now and follow the evolution every couple of years.
The Weninger Blaufrankisch Durrau 2003 showed what the grape is capable of with some time in the bottle. It was meaty and touch syrah-like on the nose, and showed beguiling hints of warm licorice, twigs, dark cherries, and violets, as well as sweet cigar tobacco and a quiet sense of nuttiness. This wine was exceptionally stylish and had finesse to spare.
Indeed, what was most surprising about tasting all of these reds from Austria was not that they were so well-crafted and enjoyable (fans of Austrian reds have known that was the case for a long time), but that they were able to achieve that high quality over such a broad spectrum of styles.
Then again, most great wine-producing countries do exactly that, so perhaps it makes sense that Austria should be no different. In that regard and in so many others, Austria seems to have everything its takes to become a major force in the red-wine world. The proof is right there in the bottle. All you need to do now is start exploring, and popping those corks.
Brian Freedman is a food and wine writer, wine educator, and consultant. He is also Editorial Director of ClassicWines.com, host of the Internet video series The Classic Wines Minute, and Director of Wine Education at The Wine School of Philadelphia. For more information, please visit www.BrianFreedmanPhiladelphia.com.