Why Austria Boasts Some Of The Best Wines You Never Had
A journey through Austria’s diverse winemaking regions is an experience any serious wine lover should endeavour to undertake, as it promises to be a discovery of some of the best wines being made today—anywhere in the world.
Yes, this is a rather bold statement but there are plenty of good reasons why until only a few decades ago, Austrian wines were, by and large, consumed locally. Thankfully, the Austrians are not selfish with their wines and the year 2019 saw the nation’s wine exports reach an all-time high.
If you have been spoiling yourself regularly, you would have also noticed a growing selection of Austria’s uniquely aromatic whites, alongside luscious reds and elegant sweet wines on the menu of the world’s finest restaurants, including two-time World’s 50 Best Restaurants chart-topper Osteria Francescana in Modena, Italy, where Massimo Bottura has been offering his preferred bottles the last two decades. But this steady rise in appreciation for Austrian wines is just as evident in value-hungry markets around Asia, such as Japan, Hong Kong and Singapore.
This is boosted by the fact that there is an amazing breadth of quality pours to choose from; too many, in fact, to chew on in a single sitting. It would be a challenge even if we were to limit our picks to the Austrian-Slovenian-Hungarian borders that we visited in 2019, as part of the annual Austrian Wine Summit experience, organised by the Austrian Wine Marketing Board (AWMB). The focus this time was the winegrowing regions of Südsteiermark and Vulkanland Steiermark, which we covered via Eisenberg, Mittelburgenland and Neusiedlersee.
A somewhat easier undertaking would be to share highlights of this pilgrimage, and I would not be doing my favourites justice if I didn’t include fresh insights into the country’s indigenous grape varietals I had also gleaned. I could start with my picks for a few lovely grüner veltliner—a uniquely Austrian dry white wine that surprises with its range of flavours, from fruity to herbaceous—such as the Dockner Josef 2017 Kremstal DAC, and the 2017 Wachau Smaragd from Fisher Josef. The latter is an unusual find that shows off loads of exotic fruits, complemented by a delicious finish.
I could also add that the 2016 Thermenregion St Laurent Ried Frauenfeld from Johanneshof Reinisch—a youthful and aromatic red—is particularly enjoyable, with lovely clarity and a delectably jammy nose. And if I really wanted to underscore the varied and indigenous nature of the wines here, I would do well to include a “village wine”. That would have to be the 2015 Südsteiermark Reserve Gewürztraminer Gamlitz from Skoff-Domäne Kranachberg Peter, which is ripe and creamy with bright acidity and a firm finish. Though some may be as surprised as I was by the common feature of non-autochthonous grape varietals that were introduced centuries ago (such as pinot noir, pinot blanc and pinot gris), there are in fact beautiful examples of wines made with international varietals, including sauvignon blanc by top wineries such as Tement, Gross and Neumeister in Südsteiermark, as well as Frauwallner Straden in Vulkanland Steiermark, that I can wax lyrical about if space permits.
The nature of Austrian wines
In light of this need to be selective, I would rather share a little more about an expression of blaufränkisch I fell for. This is a fine example of the sort of elegant yet approachable reds that the country produces, which deserves more serious attention. This late-ripening grape is used to make some delectably complex wines—the sort that are food-friendly yet meaty and extremely satisfying on their own—even if it is not part of a blend. Most of the ones I tried were fruity, perfumed and sometimes peppery, but unique to its terroir. Though I also found this variety to be similar to a fine syrah, where the tannin structure and prominent notes of blackberry, chocolate and spice are concerned.
That is the nature of Austrian wines, which is anything but stuck in a popular style. As AWMB managing director Willi Klinger, who recently ended his tenure, shared, "When I can trace the wine—by taste—to a 1.5ha area or village, the winemaker has done a good job".
As far back as the 19th century, the blaufränkisch has been known to make quality wines. One particularly delicious example is from the small winegrowing region of Eisenberg in the south of Burgenland, which is next to the Hungarian border, where the principal grape variety is, not surprisingly, the blaufränkisch.
And while I would, in fact, suggest keeping Weingut Schützenhof’s 2015 Eisenberg DAC Reserve Blaufränkisch “Senior” for a few more years, it is already drinking beautifully. Lush and rounded, the wine flaunts a very good tannin structure and an elegant, long finish. I would add that the crystalline slate soils of the region certainly lend the wine its unmistakable notes of spice and even give it depth. But credit must also be given to the talented young team that is now leading this seventh-generation family-owned estate.
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To boot, there are two other similarly powerful yet elegant examples of blaufränkisch: Wallner’s 2011 Burgenland Reserve “Namenlos”, which I would like to cite as further proof of this wine's ageing potential; and Schiefer & Domaines Kilger’s 2015 Eisenberg DAC Reserve Ried Reihburg.
As if these aren’t inspiring enough, complementing this celebration of native varietals and terroir is a firm commitment to an organic approach to winemaking—from the viticulture to a minimal addition of sulphur to the wines—by many Austrian producers, both new and old. Even the natural wines here are surprisingly delicious—easy to appreciate and far from being presumably too funky or unfinished. I quite honestly enjoyed the 2015 Vulkanland Steiermark Reserve Cuvee “Fejro” from the Ploder-Rosenberg winery.
Much to learn and love about Austria’s quality wines
While dry white wines and even a few reds tend to come to mind when the topic of Austrian wines is broached, it is also worth noting how far the country’s dessert winemakers have come in re-establishing its reputation as a world-class producer of this noble elixir.
Using welschriesling, chardonnay, traminer, scheurebe, muskat-ottonel and, from time to time, even zweigelt, Kracher Winery in Burgenland has more than a few gems. To put it plainly, falling in love with its 2017 Burgenland Beerenauslese Cuvee, which is still showing good acidity with a mildly phenolic finish, is to be expected. Another potent yet balanced alternative is the 2015 Burgenland TBA Chardonnay Grand Selection, courtesy of the Gebrüder Nittnaus winery.
Suffice it to say, there is much to learn and love about Austria’s quality wines—not to mention the intrinsic value they proffer—which is why there has never been a better time to delve deeper into this amazing variety. In fact, if you are big on research, it helps to get your hands on a copy of the recently published tome Wine in Austria: The History, which includes insights into the country’s turbulent history and viticulture through the ages.
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This is the first academically substantiated reference work on the history of wine in Austria, and Klinger’s last major contribution before stepping down at the end of 2019, after 13 years in office, and passing the reins to Chris Yorke. It is a definitive guide and an expectedly long read, best approached over multiple sessions, accompanied by your favourite sips.