“Austria’s red wine culture only started in the mid-‘80s and the real potential of Austrian red is a new phenomenon — even for ourselves!”
Willi Klinger, Managing Director of Austrian Wine
Four years ago, on my first visit to Austria, my objective was to immerse myself in the world of Grüner Veltliner and Riesling. Combined, they are the vinous ambassadors, a perceived high-quality duo, and represent the majority of plantings. That was then. On my return last year, it was time to turn my attention to a darker shade. Producers are in the middle of releasing their 2011 and 2012s — two standout back-to-back vintages, which are considered on par with the superb 2009s and 2006s.
According to Christian Zechmeister, Managing Director of Wein Burgenland, “The big challenge for our winemakers is to compete with top products from all over the world. In blind tastings, Austrian red wines are regularly one of the top — so we are doing quite well. The only real problem is the small amount of wine that we are producing. Austria will never be a big player quantity-wise, but quality-wise. Quality is our chance!”
35 years ago, red plantings accounted for 15 percent. Today, the ratio is almost one-third. That said, most feel that red plantings have been maxed out due to two factors: First, demand for premium whites, both on the local and international markets is at an all-time high. Second is the limited terrain, which is directly affected by the confluence of the Pannonian and Mediterranean climates, which run between the 47th and 48th parallel. The Pannonian climate produces the highest levels of sunshine (over 2000 sun hours) in all of Central Europe. The Mediterranean climate creates the warmest temperatures in Austria. Combined, they push red grapes to full maturity. In the evening, temperatures turn cool, which preserves acidity, creating wines that feature a combination of ripe fruit and refreshing personalities.
Austria grows 13 red varietals and has based its industry, primarily, on indigenous varietals. After tasting through hundreds of reds at last year’s VieVinum, Austria’s largest international wine festival, which is held at the glorious Hofburg Palace in Vienna, I have put the following overview together.
In the past, I have described Zweigelt as Austria’s equivalent to Gamay in Beaujolais. Both grapes are prone to high yields and when left to their own devices, they tend to produce simple wines. With regimented vineyard practices and ethical treatment in the winery, quality is fabulous.
Today, unequivocally, Zweigelt is Austria’s top performer in terms of quality. This crossing of St Laurent and Blaufränkisch was created in 1922 and now accounts for 14 percent of all plantings. It is early ripening, producing rich wines, with a purple-red colour, soft tannins and a distinct cherry flavour. Both oaked and non-oaked versions exist. It is also blended with other national and international varietals to produce a selection of top end Cuvée wines.
It makes sense that this cool-climate varietal has found a place in Austrian viticulture. Pinot Noir probably came to Austria with the German Zisterziensern Monks. Between 1999 and 2009, acreage increased 58 percent, but it only accounts for less than two percent of all plantings. For such a small production, quality tends to be high, and for my dollar, is tied with Blaufränkisch for second place in terms of quality.
Still skeptical? In the last three years, Austrian Pinot Noir has bested the world elite, twice, in blind tastings. This includes the famed Burg hound DRC (Domaine de la Romanée Conti) vs The World Blind Tasting. Impressive stature indeed!
The name for this grape is derived from St Lawrence Day (August 10), when the grape starts its verasion. Many producers extoll the virtues of this grape, which accounts for less than two percent of plantings. That said, the majority of what I sampled tended to be hard and austere — and my least favourite of the indigenous varietals.
This noble grape’s origins were first documented in Austria back in the 18th century. Elsewhere in Europe, it is known as Lemberger and/or Kékfrankos. Stylistically, the wines tend to be sturdier when compared against the opulence of Zweigelt. Age helps to show its pedigree, as there is usually a high level of tannin. Red and dark fruits, as well as a pleasing earthiness, help to define the grape.
This old variety, which was probably cultivated by the Celts, was first documented back in the 16th century. Its home is in the Styria region, where the climate is the warmest, helping the grape to stave off frost and rot while ripening late into the season. Hallmarks of this varietal tend to be red fruits and herbs.
The majority of both these varietals were planted between the late 1980s and 1990s and have now plateaued. Combined, they account for less than three percent of all plantings. Many feel that Merlot is well suited to the Austrian terroir because of its early ripening nature. In practice, only a few winemakers produce a varietal Merlot — most use the grape as a blending partner with Cab Sauv, producing superb medium-to-full-bodied reds with classic Bordelaise flavours.
You can also find the occasional Franco-Austrian Cuvée, which includes Zweigelt, Blaufränkisch and/or St Laurent, which are singular and tasty.
Blauberger is a soft and easy drinking variety that grows well in most soils. Because of its dark colour, it is usually used as blending fodder, with the occasional mono-varietal making an appearance. Blauer Portugieser arrived from the Douro Valley circa 1770. Since the end of last century, its acreage has dropped by 31 percent and now represents only three and a half percent of all plantings. It produces rather simple wines with pale colour. And then there is Syrah. Its climactic malleability allows peppery Northern Rhone versions and opulent New World styles to be made.
Austria’s red growing areas are located in the east, south of the capital of Vienna, where the climate and soil conditions are nearly perfect for producing top-quality red wines. The main region is Burgenland, but there’s also Thermenregion and Carnuntum, two smaller areas that produce high-quality reds on a regular basis.
This, the most famous area, has been dubbed the land of sunshine. Contained within are four smaller appellations. The first, Neusiedlersee, which borders Hungary, makes reds from Zweigelt — either mono-varietal or blends. The pure Zweigelts will be labelled with term Klassik. The blends must contain a minimum of 60 percent Zweigelt, with the remainder, indigenous varietals, and will be designated Reserve.
To the west of Neusiedlersee is Leithaberg, which produces Blaufränkisch wines. Theoretically, the wines can contain up to 15 percent other red grape matter. In practice, it is usually 100 percent. The law here mandates one year of aging in barrel and a minimum alcohol of 12.5 percent.
Mittelburgenland is the centre of red wine production and is best understood by its nickname, Blaufränkischland, as the majority of the 5,000 acres is planted to the variety. Once again, there are two levels of quality: Klassik and Reserve, with the latter requiring longer aging and a slightly higher alcohol content. There are also some fine Cabernet/Merlot blends to be had.
Eisenberg essentially copies its neighbour to the north, Mittelburgenland. It is all about Blaufränkisch, albeit on a smaller scale; both Klassik and Reserve designations are in play.
Both appellations are located within Niederösterreich (Lower Austria), border Burgenland and share the same climate. Carnuntum, with its sandy soils, means that Zweigelt, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot have found a symbiotic relationship. There is also some serious Blaufränkisch now being made. The other, Thermenregion, has over 2,000 years of winemaking history, first with the Roman legions, and then by the monks, who rejuvenated viticulture during the middle ages. All said, the northern portion, which is cooler, produces white; while the southern portion, red, in the form of Pinot Noir and St Laurent.
Located on the Slovenian border, within the larger Steiermark (Styria), Westeirmark is famous for producing wines from Blauer Wildbacher, a red grape with nebulous origins and a cult following. It is famous for producing a dry rosé that goes by the name Schilcher, which is meant to be drunk in its youth. The same grape can also produce powerful, dark and tannic reds. These wines can be easily identified by the picture of a Lippizaner stallion on the bottle.
“In blind tastings, Austrian red wines are regularly one of the top …. Austria will never be a big player quantity-wise, but quality-wise. Quality is our chance!”
Christian Zechmeister, Managing Director of Wein Burgenland