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An Austrian Red Wine Surprise
By Ed McCarthy
Jul 14, 2009
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I visited Austria recently with the intention of enjoying its dry, elegant white wines; after all, Austria is white wine country.  But I came away enamored with one of its red wines, a wine with the classic Germanic name of Blaufränkisch.  If you haven’t yet tasted or even heard of Blaufränkisch, I promise you that you will be getting to know it soon, because Austrian Blaufränkisch, somewhat ignored until recently, is now better than ever.

Austria really didn’t establish itself as a serious wine country for dry wines until about twenty years ago.  Considering this short span of time, it is remarkable how quickly Austrian white wines have caught on in the U.S., especially with sommeliers.  No surprise, really, because Austrian Grüner Veltliners and Rieslings, the big two, do complement so much of the cuisine popular in today’s restaurants, with the emphasis on seafood, fish, and lighter meat entrées.

Austria will never be a huge wine-producing country because of its geography; the Alps take up most of the western part of the country.  The northeastern part, just north and west of the beautiful city of Vienna, is home to most of its Grüner Veltliners and Rieslings.  I have become a huge fan of Austria’s Rieslings, in particular; they tend to be drier and more full-bodied than those of neighboring Germany, northwest of Austria.

In the relatively warmer, southeastern part of Austria, in the region called Styria (Steiermark), remarkably good Sauvignon Blanc is produced, along with Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc (known locally as Weissburgunder), and Pinot Grigio.  Welschriesling (no relative of the nobler Riesling) is commonly grown throughout eastern Austria; it’s apparently a useful, inexpensive domestic variety, but I don’t believe that it has much of a future outside of central Europe.

The Burgenland region of Austria, on its eastern border, next to Hungary, is home to most of the country’s red wines.  The climate is temperate, moderated by the huge Lake Neusiedlersee, on the Hungarian border.  Although red wines comprise only 30% of Austria’s wines, they have been popular within the country, with very little being exported in the past.  Three red varieties dominate: in order of production, they are Zweigelt, Blaufränkisch, and St. Laurent.  For me, Blaufränkisch is clearly the best of the three varieties, hands down. 

Zweigelt, Austria’s third most-planted variety (after Grüner Veltliner and Welschriesling), is a crossing between Blaufränkisch and St. Laurent.  It was developed by Professor Fritz Zweigelt in 1922 at an Austrian viticultural college, and has proven to be the hardiest Austrian red variety; it is resistant to frost, ripens early, can grow in many diverse locations, and is generally resistant to disease.  Depending on how it’s grown, it can be a light, easy-drinking red wine, similar to Beaujolais, with pronounced, tart cherry flavors, or a powerful, spicy red that is typically matured in barriques.  I prefer the lighter version; I think Zweigelt loses its charm and identity when it tries to become a powerful red wine.  Zweigelt is often blended with varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, with dubious success, at least for me.

St. Laurent is believed to have originated in Burgundy, France, and in fact is related to Pinot Noir.  It is well-established in Austria, having been there for centuries.  St. Laurent is typically darker, more robust and velvety than Pinot Noir, and can age well.  It has tart cherry flavors, and the best examples can be quite good, without ever really reaching the heights of fine red Burgundy.  St. Laurent also blends quite successfully with Blaufränkisch.

Now on to my favorite Austian red variety.  In Germany, it’s called Limberger, in Washington State it’s known as Lemberger (although Hogue Cellers calls it Blue Franc), and in neighboring Hungary, it’s known as Kékfrankos--and quite popular there, I might add.  But the principal home of Blaufränkisch is Austria’s Burgenland region.  Blaufränkisch’s definitive origin has yet to be determined, other than “central Europe,” but it has been grown in Austria for many centuries. 

Because it is more difficult to handle than the trouble-free Zweigelt, Blaufränkisch up until recently has not gained as much attention as the Z grape.  It buds early and ripens late, and can only be grown in a relatively warm, sunny climate.  It is also prone to developing grape stem rot.  But two events have led to a marked improvement in Blaufränkisch: Austrian growers have discovered the best regions in Burgenland to grow it (it is greatly influenced by its terroir), and nature has been favorable.  The apparent global warming during the last decade has led to many excellent vintages for this late-ripening variety.

Blaufränkisch was clearly my great vinous discovery in Austria.  The best way that I can describe it?  Italian Barbera meets Pinot Noir, with a touch of cru Beaujolais.  Blaufränkisch typically has dark berry aromas and flavors, blackberry and/or boysenberry, combined with minerally flavors, notable tannin, and bracing acidity.  Its acidity reminds me of Barbera and Pinot Noir, but its tannic structure also suggests Dolcetto or Moulin-a-Vent.  Blaufränkisch from good vintages can definitely age well; I tasted some that were up to 12 years old.  Peter Moser, an Austrian wine writer who has penned an annual publication called The Ultimate Austrian Wine Guide (Falstaff Publications) for a number of years, believes that Blaufränkisch needs a minimum of two years aging before it is ready to drink.

But frankly, I enjoyed the wonderful berry fruit flavors and great acidity of the younger Blaufränkisch wines the most.  Some producers have attempted to make “international” wines with Blaufränkisch, blending it with Cabernet Sauvignon and aging it in barriques; frankly, I think Blaufränkisch works best on its own, without much oak aging.

During my visit to Austria, I attended a Blaufränkisch tasting conducted by Austrian wine expert David Schildknecht, who, among things, is now one of the principal writers for Robert Parker’s “The Wine Advocate.”  Schildknecht selected 18 examples of Blaufränkisch, from vintages as young as 2007 back to 1999.  I describe my 10 favorites from the group (although I rated none of the 18 lower than 88+).  By the way, retail prices for the following wines in the U.S.  range from about $14 to $50 a bottle, with the average price around $25 to $30:

Schiefer Blaufränkisch (Südburgenland), Reihburg Vineyard 2006: Schiefer is one of Austria’s top producers of this variety.  Delicious; very Burgundian in style.  Fresh fruit on the finish, with a touch of oak.  92

Moric Blaufränkisch (Mittelburgenland), Lutzmannsburg Alte Reben Vineyard 2002:  Moric is also one of the great Blaufränkisch producers.  Rich and fragrant, with great acidity.  Although seven years old, very fresh and vibrant.  I loved it!  93

Moric Blaufränkisch (Mittelburgenland), Neckenmarkt Alte Reben Vineyard 2002:  This was the wine that Schildknecht rated 95 in The Wine Advocate, the highest rating ever in this publication for an Austrian red wine.  It tastes ripe and fresh, with blue and black berry flavors, firm tannins, real depth, and a long finish.  It was made from old vines.  Very Burgundian.  94+

Paul Lehrner Blaufränkisch (Mittelburgenland), Dürrau Vineyard 2006: Fresh and delicious.  A rich wine with black fruit flavors, with some oak showing on the finish.  One of the inexpensive wines in the group; a real value.   90+

Weninger Blaufränkisch (Mittelburgenland), Dürrau Vineyard 2006:  Weninger’s interpretation of this variety from the Dürrau vineyard.  Fresh and young, with lots of acidity.  It has plenty of stuffing, with a long, plummy finish.  Another fine value.  Weninger is the producer responsible for the revival of Blaufränkisch in Hungary--where he has vineyards.  91+

Ernst Triebaumer Blaufränkisch (Neusiedlersee Hügelland), Mariental Vineyard 2006:  Ernst Triebaumer is the producer who made Austria’s first great Blaufränkisch, back in 1986.  His 2006 is rich, concentrated, and focused, but tight at present.  It just needs a little time.  Will be wonderful.  93

Gernot Heinrich Blaufränkisch (Neusiedlersee), Alter Berg Vineyard 2007:  A delicious wine, reminiscent of Pinot Noir.  Although young, very approachable now.  Heinrich’s wines are fine values, and have good national distribution in the U.S.  92

Hans/Christine Nittnaus Blaufränkisch (Neusiedlersee), Leithaberg Vineyard 2006:  Very rich and lovely, pure Blaufränkisch.  Silky and supple, with great length on the palate.  A real beauty.  92+

Paul Achs Blaufränkisch (Neusiedlersee), Ungerberg Vineyard 2006:  Fresh fruit aromas; ample, ripe flavors.  Very concentrated.  A crowd pleaser, popular with the tasters.  Fine national distribution.  93

Trapi Blaufränkisch (Carnuntum), Spitzerberg Vineyard 2006:  Bright, tart cherry aromas, with ripe berry flavors and high acidity.  A stylish wine, with great length on the palate.  92
     

Just one more note in conclusion: I tasted an amazing dry rosé in Styria, called Schilcher, grown high up (about 1800 feet) in the mountains.  Made from the Blauer Wildbacher variety, it is light in color, quite tart, with excellent acidity.  It’s also made as a sparkling wine (sekt), and it’s absolutely delicious.  Various producers make it.  It’s produced in small quantities, but I have tasted it in New York (Le Bernardin Restaurant).