Like many European countries, Austria looks back on a very eventful history--and that’s putting it mildly. But one thing that has stayed true throughout its storied past is its cultural affinity for beautiful food and wine. Austrian wine has its own intriguing story that dates back to before the 16th century. But it wasn’t until recently that the country’s modern wine industry suffered a monumental set back in 1985 when it was discovered that a number of Austrian wineries illegally used the primary ingredient in antifreeze to alter the taste of the wines. While it greatly effected the credibility of the wine industry at the time, the silver lining is that the modern Austrian wine industry of today is regulated in such a way to demand that producers make a clear representation of the grape. As a whole, the country has a set criteria for sustainability that encompasses everything from farming, energy, waste, and social standards.
Though relatively small in production compared to the likes of Italy, Spain, France, and the United States, Austrian wine--which ranks eighteenth in overall production according to the Food and Agricultural Organization in 2014--does offer a unique alternative to the run of the mill selections we’ve become accustomed to in the U.S. market. Serving a selection of these wines at a dinner party among friends is sure to get some good conversation started, if not simply for the beauty of the wines, but certainly in the entertainment of trying to pronounce most of the wines.
The truth is, Austrian wine offers a great diversity of styles from, light-bodied to opulent white wines, as well as light and fruity or full-bodied red wines. Most of Austria’s vineyard area is in the eastern side of the country with nearly two-thirds of the vineyards planted to white grapes. Red grapes make of the remaining third with Zweigelt, recognized as the most successful. Other indigenous varieties include Blaufränkisch and St. Laurent. It’s interesting to note that while white grapes dominate the overall plantings in the country, the proportion of red wines has doubled over the last two decades.
The country has officially approved 22 white and 13 red grapes for the production of Qualitätswein (quality wine) or Qualitätswein of a special ripeness and type of harvest (Prädikatswein – sweet wine) and Landwein. Native variety Grüner Veltliner commands around 35 percent of that with Weissburgunder (Pinot Blanc), Grauburgunder (Pinot Gris), Welschriesling, Müller Thurgau, Chardonnay (known in Austria as Morillon), Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc among others accounting for the rest.
The four major winemaking regions include Niederösterreich, Wien (Vienna), Burgenland, and Styria. Niederösterreich is largest general region in lower Austria with eight subzones nestled along the path of the Danube River including Carnuntum, Kamptal, Kremstal,Traisental, Wachau, and Wagram. The other two regions, Thermenregion and Weinviertel are the only two subzones not located at the river.
Burgenland is the second largest region with about half the vineyard plantings of the Niederösterreich. Known as the land of sunshine, this region is most known for rich, full-bodied red wines from Blaufränkisch, Zweigelt, and St. Laurent in its four subzones of Eisenberg, Leithaberg, Mittelburgenland, and Neusiedlersee.
The smaller Steiermark region in the southeaster part of the country has garnered a name for its white wines other than Grüner Veltliner. Among the most abundant grapes is Welschriesling followed by Weissburgunder (Pinot Blanc), Chardonnay (also known in Austria as Morillon), and Grauburgunder (Pinot Gris). In the Sausal sub zone in particular, Gelber Muskateller and Sauvignon Blanc reign supreme. It is here that Sauvignon Blanc in particular is said to compare in quality to that of Sancerre and Bordeaux.
Wein, or Vienna, is the smallest region and the only European capital to have its own wine appellation. Most of the notable wines from Wein are young, fresh white wine blends.
At an Austrian wine master class hosted by the Austrian Wine Marketing Board, I had a chance to taste through more than a dozen shining examples of why people should pay more attention to wines from this country. From Chardonnay-based sparkling Sekt to a handful of distinctive Grüner Veltliner, I found a renewed fondness for these wines. Moreover, I found a unique understanding of how to share them with friends as an alternative to more recognizable varieties they find everyday. Here were a few of my favorites.
Grüner Veltliner instead of Chablis
Like the three classes of BMW--3, 5, and 7 series--this is a grape that delivers all quality levels. You can find light, high-acid wines as well as highly ripe Prädikat-category wines. Notes of spice, pepper, stone fruit, melon and citrus are all a common thread, but the styles can vary greatly. These are wines that are built to last ten years with great vibrancy and power. A few suggested picks from different regions in order of intensity and strength:
- Groiss 2015 Grüner Veltliner, Weinviertel DAC, $18
- Bründlmayer 2013 Grüner Veltliner Reserve “Alte Reben”, Kampala, $40
- Stadt Krems 2013 Grüner Veltliner Reserve, Kremstal, $54
- Rudi Pichler 2013 Grüner Veltliner, Wachau, $75
Riesling Instead of Savenierres
The problem with Austrian Riesling in the United States is that few consumers know what to expect based on their experience with varying German Riesling. The thing to know is that all Austrian Riesling is dry. (Although Auslesen and Beerenauslesen styles are permitted in late harvests with noble rot if the grapes are of outstanding quality.) They tend to carry forward bright notes of stone fruit including peach and apricot and offer a distinct minerality on the palate. And as with most quality Riesling, a little age is a sign of something delicious.
- Nikolaihof 2012 Riesling, Wachau, $75
- Stift Göttwieg Riesling, Krebstal, $40
Sauvignon Blanc instead of Sancerre or Bordeaux Blanc
As previously mentioned, the Sauvignon Blanc from the Steiermark region can be astonishingly competitive with other world class regions. These wines have florally with notes of currant, tropical fruit and gooseberries.
- Sabbath Hannes 2013 Sauvignon Blanc, Ried Kranachberg “GSTK”, Südsteiermark, $55
Blaufränkisch instead of Cabernet Sauvignon
Also known as Lemberger in Germany, this grape is rich with forest berry and cherry notes and can offer dense structure with sturdy tannin. A strong player in Burgenland, wines from Blaufränkisch have a great potential to age and offer a perfect alternative to big, robust Cabernet.
- Morric - Roland Velich 2011 Blaufränkisch, Burgenland $118
Zweigelt instead of Malbec or Merlot
With a softness similar to Merlot, Zweigelt offers a rich fruitiness that compares well to many well-made Malbecs. A cross between St. Laurent and Blaufränkisch, this grape is a happy medium between Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir. As the most widespread red wine in Austria, it can yield a variety of wines from fresh, fruit-driven young wines to strong, firm, barrel-aged wines. Rich in color with smooth tannins and a full body, Zweigelt is delicious, often very affordable, and worth seeking out.
- Claus Preisinger 2013 Zweigelt, Burgenland, $21
St. Laurent instead of Pinot Noir
Technically a descendant of Pinot Noir, St. Laurent is primarily found in Austria and Germany. Although not as refined its predecessor, this grape is richer and more robust offering fruity notes of morello cherry and cassis.
- Umathum 2011 St. Laurent, Burgenland, $23
It’s worth noting that Austria’s selection of sparkling Sekt (mostly from Chardonnay) as well as elegant sweet wines are a pleasure to explore as well. The question remains whether or not Austrian wine will have a larger presence in markets like the U.S. According to a 2016 report, revealed a growth by 12 percent over the previous year in exports to Switzerland, the U.S., Canada, Hong Kong, Norway and Australia indicating that if consumers can continue to feed their curiosity on lesser known wines, Austria may just have a chance to shake off its anti-freeze past for good, and share a seat at the table with its other European wine compatriots.