“Austrian Wines are the best kept secret of the wine world.” [Philip Blom, The Wines of Austria].
I just returned from an inspiring trip to Austria and I would have to say I agree with Mr. Blom. There were 16 of us all together, from New York, Virginia, and North Carolina. We visited the Wachau, Langenlois, Wagram, Carnuntum, Krems, and the Burgenland over 4 days. We managed to see 9 producers, all of whom we spent considerable time with, and all of whom treated us extremely well. They were warm and welcoming, they fed us (yes all 16!), tasted their wines with us, and were anxious to hear our opinions on how Austrian wine in general is doing in the US, and on their particular wines.
It wasn’t warm, but that didn’t matter….the vines were still beautiful.
We were a diverse group, with 5 of us representing New York. After spending a few days with my fellow New York-ers I will definitely be visiting Ost Café and Sea Grape Wine Shop, a retail shop in the west village. Somehow traveling together and tasting wine together has a way of transcending those competitive barriers.
Austria’s winemakers are world class, and certainly more than capable of competing at the best restaurants and wine shops. The whites you probably know about… Gruner Veltliner no doubt comes to mind, and the Rieslings take their place alongside Germany and Alsace. Note that the Rieslings tend to be dry here. But good reds? Sparklings? I was convinced before I left, and am even more convinced now, of both the whites and the reds. The sparklings were an eye-opener for me though. More on them in the next part of this blog, which will focus on Steininger Winery.
So, the reds you say. Really? Really. Try a Zweigelt or a Blaufrankisch next time you are in the mood for a Malbec with a kick or a spicy fruity earthy wine. And once you say them a few times, they’ll roll right off the tongue.
Blaufrankisch has been grown in Austria for centuries, mostly in the Burgenland. It comes in a variety of styles – from a slightly rustic (I mean this in a good way) to fruit forward and concentrated, to incredibly elegant. All with the characteristic blackberry, brambly flavors and aromas, often with some peppery spice. It’s berries are blue (hence the first part of its name), and it produces wines that were valued back in the time of Charlemagne, hence the last part of its name: grapes thought to be superior were called ‘frankisch’. Leo Hillinger does an amazing job with this grape [available at Maslow 6 Wine Shop]. In a different style, Steindorfer also makes a great Blaufrankisch [available at Sea Grapes].
Even 10 years ago, winemakers were treating Blaufrankisch more like Syrah which is understandable given its flavor profile. But once they started treating it more like Pinot Noir, its charms and nuances were able to come through. Also, the understanding of how to work with this grape and oak has improved dramatically in a short period of time.
Zweigelt was created by Fritz Zweigelt in 1922 and is a cross between Blaufrankisch and St. Laurent, another indigenous grape of Austria’s. Deeply colored, almost opaque, with black cherry aromas and flavors, and notes of dark chocolate. They can have licorice and cherry cola hints and run the gamut from lighter and fruity to dense and chewy. Zweigelts are not as picky about where they are grown so you can find them from a broader set of places across Austria. Along with great examples from Hillinger and Steindorfer (both located in Burgenland), try one from Anton Bauer.
While perhaps harder to find, some of the Pinot Noirs coming out of Austria are fantastic too. And then there is Syrah, Saint Laurent/ Sankt Laurent, Merlot, and a few others. Some of the top cuvees being produced are blends of at least two varietals. But these will have to wait for another blog.
In the meantime, do try a Blaufrankisch or a Zweigelt and tell us what you think!