Austrian Wine Basics
Red, white or green? It’s the question that launched Grüner Veltliner onto the American wine scene and put a tiny wine-producing country on the map.
Austria made a huge splash with its “Groovee,” as Grüner (meaning green) Veltiner became known, and has been thriving ever since.
Austria conjures many images: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Alpine skiing and the famous chocolate cake Sacher torte, but few people think of wine. Yet, in Austria’s east, where the Alps ease into the Pannonian Plain toward the Hungarian border, around Vienna and along the Danube River, wine is an integral part of life and landscape.
Geographically, Austria is about the size of South Carolina, but boasts more vineyard land (113,441 acres) than the entire California Central Coast AVA. Landlocked between the 48th and 47th parallels north (comparable to Seattle at 47.6˚N), Austria’s continental climate is moderate to cool, punctuated with cold winters and long, warm summers.
What sets Austria apart is the fractured nature of its wine industry. Thousands of small, family-run operations create wines mainly from indigenous grape varieties.
—Photos by Jens Johnson
Two-thirds of Austria’s wines are white. Chief among them is Grüner Veltliner, whose spiritual home is Vienna and the adjoining Weinviertel region. Here, the locals refer to Grüner Veltliner as pfefferl, or little pepper, referring to the variety’s primary attribute: peppery spiciness married to fruity flavors.
“Weinviertel is not a region which immediately shows its charm, even though it is really wunderschön, wondrously beautiful,” says Marion Ebner-Ebenauer, a winemaker who’s a rising star in the region. “It’s Austria’s largest-growing region and the largest area for Grüner Veltliner—everything is possible. On our really diverse soils of sand, loess and stone, we can grow top wines.”
Grüner Veltliner is also a mainstay in the regions of Wachau, Kremstal, Kamptal, Traisental and Wagram.
“Grüner Veltliner is Austria’s main variety,” says Fritz Miesbauer, chief winemaker at both the municipal Weingut Stadt Krems and the Benedictine foundation of Stift Göttweig, which has been making wine for almost a millennium. “It took the world a long time to discover it. You can make simple, easy-drinking wines from it, but also very elegant and even rich styles. Some emphasize ripe, yellow fruit, some are fresher and more citric, others are really savory.”
Pichler-Krutzler 2013 Supperin Grüner Veltliner (Wachau); $31, 95 points. Slender, tight and concentrated, this is nervy, high-octane stuff, yet generous. Weygandt-Metzler.
Stift Göttweig 2013 Gottschelle Reserve Grüner Veltliner (Kremstal); $36, 91 points. This is slender but buffered, creamy but not fat. It’s a balanced wine, with friendly glints of pear, fig leaf and aloe vera. Circo Vino.
Ebner-Ebenauer 2013 Hermanschachern Grüner Veltliner (Weinviertel); $25, 90 points. Expressive notes of white pepper, watercress and citrus make this a quintessential, zippy Weinviertel Grüner. Winemonger.
Riesling is the other white grape that excels in Austria. Its plantings have increased dramatically along the Danube and its tributaries. Riesling loves stony vineyards, especially those with poorer soils. Along the Danube, the dramatic vineyards can be steep and rocky, and are often terraced.
“Grüner thrives in well-ventilated, water-retentive loess soils, but Riesling prefers to be tortured,” says Miesbauer. “Riesling just loves rugged, austere soils of granite, gneiss and slate.”
The dry Rieslings grown in Wachau, Kremstal and Kamptal easily count among the world’s best. The variety of styles is dazzling.
Some producers deliberately harvest at different points, combining ripe fruit with botrytized grapes picked much later. Affected by noble rot, they’re ultrasweet, marrying fresh verve with richness and extra flavor, then are fermented dry.
Others produce whistle-clean, mineral Riesling of exquisite freshness. Whichever style you prefer, most have the thrill factor.
Also, Riesling develops its most intriguing and arresting flavors with age. If you have the patience to cellar them, true bounty awaits.
Franz Hirtzberger 2013 Singerriedel Riesling Smaragd (Wachau); $99, 96 points. Orange, mandarin and lemon frame peach and Mirabelle plum. This is fruit-framed, citrus-focused joy, combining immense concentration with immense elegance. Weygandt-Metzler.
Salomon-Undhof 2013 Steiner Kögl Reserve Riesling (Kremstal); $55, 94 points. Mandarin, apricot and lemon unite in a fruity, inviting wine with the characteristic verve of Riesling. Fruit of the Vines, Inc.
Schloss Gobelsburg 2013 Heiligenstein Reserve Riesling (Kamptal); $72, 93 points. An intriguing core of savory, spicy and salty characters provides added dimension. Herbs and yeast speak as much as wonderfully pure lemon and tangerine peel. Skurnik Wines.
For something unique, try Austria’s other indigenous whites. Rotgipfler and Zierfandler are rare, with just 259 acres of Rotgipfler and 210 of Zierfandler in the world. Richly textured and full of fruit, both hail from the Thermenregion, south of Vienna. Neuburger, also indigenous, can be wonderfully nutty.
Gemischter Satz, wines made from numerous white varieties co-planted in one vineyard, are enjoying a resurgence. The most famous are made in Vienna.
From southeastern Styria come compelling versions of Sauvignon Blanc. Gelber Muskateller, a seriously underrated version of Muscat, grows throughout the country. It’s fragrant, dry, feather-light and refreshing on a hot day.
The vineyards around Lake Neusiedl in Burgenland have long benefited from the area’s botrytis-friendly mesoclimate.
Heidi Schröck 2012 Ruster Ausbruch Auf den Flügeln der Morgenröte (Burgenland). Skurnik Wines; $61, 93 points. Smelling this is like sticking your nose into a basket of supremely ripe yellow plums. Deliciously tempered and fresh, this is for those who like it ultrasweet; the oak-aging is supremely well-handled.
Wieninger 2013 Rosengartl (Wiener Gemischter Satz). Winebow; $55, 93 points. Juicily ripe Mirabelle plums have an edge of white pepper and smoky highlights that add deeper dimension. Gorgeously peppery arugula and watercress join on the palate, yet there is something incredibly fruity and round about this.
Sattlerhof 2013 Sernauberg Sauvignon Blanc (Südsteiermark). Circo Vino; $48; 92 points. Grapefruit zest and chervil meet in a happy union that suggests riper fruit the longer this stays on the palate. There is a little heat but lots of acidity, as well as midpalate texture and layers of citrus interspersed with yellow plum.
Domäne Wachau 2013 Terrassen Gelber Muskateller (Wachau). Vin Divino; $19; 90 points. Scented white Muscat grapes are undeniably present, but come to the fore in an elegant, subdued way. They play on a slender, citrus-focused and pleasantly light body, like a fragrant veil of silk.
Johanneshof Reinisch 2013 Spiegel Zierfandler (Thermenregion). Circo Vino; $37; 90 points. An unusual yeasty smokiness plays in the ripe apple fruit here. Very interesting and unusual, the midpalate is textured and shot through with lemony, bright acidity.
Ripe for Discovery
Depending on the must weight (the ripeness of the grapes at harvest) and the wine’s final alcohol content, Wachau white wines may be classified into three categories, all of which denote dry whites.
Steinfeder (max 11.5% abv): The name references the fluffy, light Steinfeder grass growing in the vines. It’s the lightest of the three categories.
Federspiel (11.5%–12.5% abv): A name borrowed from falconry. These are medium-bodied wines.
Smaragd (12.5 % abv and over): Named after the emerald lizard that thrives in the terraced Wachau vineyards. Full-bodied, often ageworthy bottlings.
Eastern Austria, comprised of Burgenland, Thermenregion and Carnuntum, is known for robust, elegant red wines that benefit from the warm Pannonian climate. It’s here that Austria’s indigenous red varieties thrive.
The dark, peppery and berry-scented Blaufränkisch is the grape to watch. It’s an intriguing contradiction of slender and rich, elegant and bold, fruity and spicy, structured and supple.
“The exciting thing about Blaufränkisch is its combination of two aromatic profiles,” says Georg Prieler, who makes world-class Blaufränkisch in Burgenland. “On the one hand, [there is] clearly structured fruit dominated by cherry and blackberry. On the other hand, there is something wild, something leathery, something like autumn foliage and even something akin to blood.”
Unoaked, Blaufränkisch is fresh-faced and full of berry fruit. But when it’s matured in oak, it can be round, even bold. The best expressions are supremely elegant and long-lived.
Styles range from slender, cool offerings from Carnuntum’s Spitzerberg Mountain, to rich, often mineral-driven wines from Burgenland. The Leitha Mountains contain limestone and schist, Mittelburgenland boasts schist and gneiss, and Eisenberg has dolomite, limestone and shale.
Feiler-Artinger 2012 Umriss Blaufränkisch (Burgenland); $25, 93 points. Sumptuous cherry fruit is slender and toned, yet not without depth, adding notes of blossom and smoke. Ripe, firm tannins provide structure. Winemonger.
Prieler 2012 Blaufränkisch (Leithaberg); $64, 93 points. While the fruit is sumptuous, the palate remains toned and fresh. One almost forgets to notice the subtle minerality and tannic structure. Skurnik Wines.
Muhr-van der Niepoort 2011 Spitzerberg Blaufränkisch (Carnuntum); $70, 92 points. Wild blackberry, fringed by ivy leaves, makes a lasting impression in this mysterious, ethereal wine. A slender body with fresh acidity destines this for the table. Martine’s Wines.
Austria’s most planted red grape is Zweigelt, a cross of Blaufränkisch and St. Laurent made in 1922. The variety makes fruit-driven, light- to medium-bodied reds ideal for summer or lunchtime drinking and can be served lightly chilled. Some are oaked, making them richer and rounder.
Zweigelt’s charm lies in its primary cherry and berry flavors. It’s never heavy and often very affordable, yet some winemakers produce elegant expressions aged in oak, too. In Carnuntum, it’s sold as Rubin Carnuntum, and it’s also the main red variety in the Neusiedlersee DAC (Districtus Austriae Controllatus).
Zweigelt is grown in every Austrian region, even within the city limits of Vienna, where it’s served in virtually every wine bar. Since it ripens earlier than other reds, it also does well in the white-dominated Weinviertel.
Zweigelt may have the makings of a workhorse grape, but with restricted yields and due care, its purity shines through. Because it’s so widespread, the variety is also made into cherry–perfumed rosé still and sparkling wines.
Gernot and Heike Heinrich 2013 Zweigelt (Burgenland); $25, 92 points. This shows the elegant, spicy side of the variety without denying its lively, cherry-laden appeal. It’s a great combination that’s medium-bodied and delicious. Winebow.
Markus Altenburger 2013 Zweigelt (Burgenland); $18, 91 points. This is boyish and exuberant, showing off vibrant cherry as well as a palpable tannic structure. T. Edward Wines Ltd.
R&A Pfaffl 2013 Austrian Cherry Zweigelt (Niederösterreich); $14, 89 points. This wine celebrates the fruity, peppery nature of Zweigelt, with easy, vibrant cherry notes. Palm Bay International. Best Buy.
Austria’s diva is St. Laurent—it’s said to be even trickier in the vineyard than Pinot Noir. But just like Pinot Noir, it can create heart-stopping moments.
St. Laurent is never heavy, and it can have aromatic cherry flavors with floral overtones. If you’re partial to Pinot, St. Laurent will be a discovery.
The country’s indigenous reds also can make full-bodied, rich and long-lasting wines in blends made solely with Austrian grapes or international varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.
Several Burgenland winemakers belong to the Pannobile group, which specializes in indigenous blends. Look for them if you want to experience unusual, full-bodied reds.
Pittnauer 2011 Rosenberg St. Laurent (Burgenland); $55; 94 points. Lifted notes of wild, aromatic raspberry hover above a far earthier base of chestnut. Sniffed at another moment its red cherry and peony petal flavors come to the fore. The palate is light bodied with a firm acidic backbone, destined for the table. Savio Soares Selections. Editors’ Choice.
Nittnaus Anita und Hans 2012 Pannobile (Burgenland); $36, 93 points. Red cherry fruit spiced by gentle white pepper notes makes for an enjoyable, fresh and joyful red. This combines the virtues of fruity, cherry-ish Zweigelt with the more sumptuous, fuller-bodied and spicy notions of Blaufränkisch. If you are new to Austrian reds, this pretty much is exquisite Burgenland in a glass. Frederick Wildman & Sons, Ltd.
Steindorfer 2012 Reserve St. Laurent (Burgenland); $35, 93 points. Lusciously ripe red cherry tinged with peppery spice sets the tone—this is dense with fruit but still light on its feet. Typically a finicky grape, this example of St. Laurent shows with style and grace. The palate is wonderfully balanced showing real resonance. While beautiful now, there is potential to develop. Select Wines Inc.
The Hills Are Alive … With Wine!
The von Trapp family of The Sound of Music fame must be the world’s most famous connoisseurs of Austrian wine. For a taste of home, they drink wines made by Höpler in Burgenland. Christof Höpler is proud to celebrate the 40th anniversary of his relationship with the von Trapps this year with the 2014 Pinot Blanc.
“It’s just great that Austrian wines have become trendy in the U.S.,” says Johannes von Trapp, youngest of the singing family’s 10 children. “The inability of Americans to pronounce most of the names is no longer an issue—now it has become a fun thing. Austrian wine to me is many things. First of all, it is good wine. Secondly, it’s a way of participating in the culture in which our family originated, and lastly—did I say this already?—it’s good wine!”
- 1Grüner Veltliner
- 3Other Whites
- 6Other Reds