I have been a fan of Austrian wines for some time now. Last year, in fact, I reported on the reds of Austria in these pages, and found their overall quality to be exceptionally high. And while, at the time, I knew that I would write about the country’s whites sometime this year, I had no idea it would end up being based on the single most eye-opening wine trip I’ve ever taken.
This past June, I had the opportunity to explore Austrian wine country as a participant in Wine Summit 2009, a once-every-other-year excursion for members of the wine press and trade that is hosted by the fantastic Austrian Wine Marketing Board. Over the course of several days, I toured, tasted, and attended seminars and lectures in Rust, Neusiedlersee, Weinviertel, Kremstal, Kamptal, Wachau, and Vienna. And now, having returned to the States, I am pleased to report that my hunch prior to the trip was correct: Austria’s wine industry is one of the single most exciting and promising in the world right now.
I taste, write about, and teach wine for a living, which means that, due to the high volume of wine I’m exposed to every day, it takes something special to really stand out. This makes it that much more extraordinary that I was so universally bowled over by the wines I tasted during my time in Austria.
The quality of the wines was nothing short of stunning. Indeed, from dry whites to sweet, and from easy-drinking reds to profound, more demanding ones, beautifully crafted, thoroughly delicious wines are easy to find at all price points and from every region I explored.
Taken as a whole, the wines of Austria exhibit what I consider to be the three most important factors that contribute to excellence: Top-notch fruit; smart, well-considered winemaking; and an abiding respect for the land itself.
That land, in fact—and, indeed, the regional terroirs in general—is not only incredibly varied, but also very well understood. This means that the best wines, at all price points, are not only delicious examples of well-grown fruit, but also often haunting evocations of the vineyards in which they were planted.
This was highlighted during a lecture at Domäne Wachau on the great single vineyards of the region. During the presentation, we tasted six wines (in pairs, the better to highlight terroir as opposed to varietal) from all over the Wachau. And, indeed, the differences were startling: Like Burgundy, the Rhône Valley, or any other world-class wine region, the minute differences in soil composition, drainage, wind currents, and more, were understood on a stunningly deep level here, and used to guide decisions throughout the wine-making process from grape to glass. Among my favorites were the Hirtzberger Riesling 2008 from the Singerriedel vineyard, the F.X. Pichler Grüner Veltliner 2008 from the Kellerberg vineyard, and the Domäne Wachau Grüner Veltliner 2008 from the Achleiten vineyard.
Most people are familiar with Riesling and Grüner Veltliner, the great white grape varieties of Austria. But to overlook others would be to miss out on some of the top pleasures of the wine world. Sauvignon Blanc from Niederösterreich (I loved the Fidesser 2007 Ausserm Holz), Taubenschuss Weissburgunder 2006—the same grape variety as Pinot Blanc—Furmint from Neusiedlersee-Hügelland (especially Schröck’s sweet, spicy, perfumed 2006 Turner Ruster Ausbruch), and more: These are the grapes and locations that you will see popping up on more and more wine lists and retail shelves in the coming years. They are not only delicious, but supremely drinkable, too.
The reds, as I reported last year, are stellar as well. If you haven’t yet explored the range of Zweigelt, Blaufränkisch, and St. Laurent, now is the perfect time to do so. What was different for me this time was that I had the chance to experience a number of them not just in a tasting environment, but at meals, too, which always changes the way they show.
And, in fact, that was the other big revelation on this trip: The food, which was, at every meal, nothing short of astounding. From the stunningly tender pike-perch, caught in the lake itself, at Restaurant Nyikospark in Neusiedl am See, to the tafelspitz raviolo at Landhaus Bacher in Mautern, all the food I tasted was astounding. Veal prepared in any number of creative ways; gorgeous seasonal fruits and vegetables; and fish as fresh and locally sourced as you’d hope to find anywhere in the world made for a food culture just as exhilarating as the wine one.
There is no better way to explore and gain an understanding of a country’s wine industry and identity than to visit it, and the level of appreciation I now have for Austria’s is far greater than I had even hoped. This is certainly a country that will continue to play an ever greater role in the world of wine: All of the pieces are in place, from the right grape varieties to absolutely stunning terroirs
to passionate, deeply committed people who will only continue to raise an already high bar of quality.
And as great as the wines are now, as interesting and rewarding as they are across the board, they will only continue to get better. So keep paying attention: Austria is chock-full of absolutely magnificent wine, and at the brink of the kind of international wine recognition it so richly deserves.
Brian Freedman is a food and wine writer, educator, and consultant. He is Director of Education at The Wine School of Philadelphia (www.vinology), blogger for www.UncorkLife.com by WineChateau.com, contributing editor at Philadelphia Style Magazine, and contributing writer for John Mariani's Virtual Gourmet. You can reach him online at www.BrianFreedmanPhiladelphia.com
. Videos and more wine reviews from the trip are available on the blog.