Producers in the country’s warmer regions are finally seeing red, and the world is taking notice.
Austria is about to surprise us again. We are accustomed to its renowned white grape, Grüner Veltliner, as well as its Rieslings and quality sweet wines. But now its top producers are turning their attention to red wines. And increasingly, these are revealing the same excellence and attention to detail as the white wines, as well as a range of new and exciting styles.
Contrary to popular belief, Austria is not too cold to make red wines. While Austria’s winters can be bitingly cold (not dissimilar to parts of the Midwest, the summers are hot, often dry and just right for ripening grapes. Think Burgundy rather than Bordeaux, Walla Walla rather than Sonoma, and you wouldn’t be far off.
While the famed Wachau is too cold to produce reds of complexity and character, Burgenland, one hour south-east of Vienna, has become a red wine hotspot, both for the quantity of reds produced, and generally, the quality.
Many of the country’s best red wines come from Burgenland in an area north and east of Lake Neusiedl, or Neusiedler See (the southern half is generally reserved for sweet wines). This is Austria’s warmest grape-growing area, benefiting from shallow lake waters that reflect heat onto the surrounding hillside vineyards. They also come from an area further south: the warm rolling hills known as Middle Burgenland. Here the loam soils retain heat, the sand mixed in allows drainage and the hills are open to the warm winds of the east.
But Burgenland hasn’t completely cornered the market in quality reds. Carnuntum, a small region to the north of Burgenland, has a long, low ridge, called the Spitzerberg, which has proven fertile territory for intensely cherry-flavored Zweigelt.
The vineyards in the northern suburbs of Vienna are showing great promise with Pinot Noir. In Lower Austria, where white wines dominate, some producers in Kamptal and the Weinviertel are showing that the right sites can make good red wines.
Old World, New Style
Until the 1980s, red wines in Austria were neglected in favor of sweet and quaffing wines. A few pioneers were out there: Anton Kollwentz, Ernst Triebaumer, Hans Igler and Georg Stiegelmar surprised the Austrian wine world with the quality of their wood-aged wines. But generally, reds were simple and juicy at best, green and not quite ripe at worst.
Since then, Austria’s producers have improved red winemaking techniques. Already aware of the international market, established producers sent the next generation out to learn new winemaking techniques. They were then able to adapt their vineyards by producing riper grapes, cutting yields, improving pruning and green harvesting. They introduced small barriques for wood aging and started to use microoxygenation to soften the tannins and open up the fruit. They learned more about malolactic fermentation in red wines.
At first, the use of some of these techniques was clumsy. In the 1990s, there were too many overoaked and underfruited reds. They impressed the local market with fancy names, heavy bottles and high prices, but international markets were underwhelmed.
It is really only since 2000 that there has been a critical mass of quality red wine—enough to say that Austria is no longer just a white wine country. It is now possible to see trademark blending styles and specific approaches to the use of wood that are special to Austria.
With blending, there are several schools of thought. Many of the original red wine pioneers believe that a blend of local varieties, like Zweigelt and Blaufränkisch, or St. Laurent and Blauer Portugieser, makes the best, distinctively Austrian wines. Some of the most enjoyable Austrian wines are made with a blend of Zweigelt and Blaufränkisch, producing a juicy, almost Beaujolais-style wine. Gerhard Markowitsch’s Rubin from Carnuntum is a good example. Together these two grapes have created a style that is as Austrian as Shiraz Cabernet blends are Australian.
But an Austrian blend can also be much more complex. Albert Gesellmann’s Opus Eximium blends together St. Laurent, Zweigelt and Blaufränkisch, creating an ageable, deep, rich, velour-textured wine.
Other producers, while not ignoring the local varieties, add Cabernet, Merlot and increasingly, Syrah, to blends. Some producers also make stand-alone international wines, generally blends of Cabernet and Merlot as Bordeaux look-alikes. Georg Prieler makes Ungerbergen, a pure Cabernet Sauvignon, and uses Merlot in his Schützner Stein.
The other primary stylistic approach to Austrian reds is to balance fruit with wood aging. For less expensive wines, wood is not used at all—St. Laurent or Zweigelt straight from the tank is a deliciously fruity wine, and makes great young drinking. Further up the budget scale, wood becomes a winemaking tool. The wood has been toned down compared to the overoaked Austrian reds of the 1990s. Fruit—red berries, cherries, spices, sometimes exotic herbs—has been allowed expression so that it is one of the most enjoyable components in these wines.
The terroir is also allowed to express itself—something that was smothered by oak early on in the red wine renaissance. You get the mineral character of much of the Neusiedler See soils—poor land, sometimes with a high iron content. That shows through especially in the Blaufränkisch, which changes character as the soil changes.
There is, sadly, a downside to these deliciously fruity, sometimes complex, serious wines: price. High local demand has meant that for us—especially with the weak dollar—these wines are not cheap. The norm is $25 and up, although there are some wines under $20.
But it is worth seeking out a selection of the best (see sidebar). Austria has not yet reached the world league for its reds, as it has for its whites. But the producers are moving fast. Ten years ago, this article could not have been written.
The men (and women) in the red business
Wieninger’s Viennese heurige or tavern and winery are situated on a quiet suburban street in northern Vienna, an unlikely place for one of Austria’s star producers. But Wieninger (the name means “man from Vienna”) is as famed for his wines as for his parties thrown in the courtyard behind his house. His finest red wines are from Pinot Noir, a grape that seems to thrive in Vienna. The top cuvée, Grand Select, from the chalky soil of the Bisamberg vineyard, reveals Wieninger’s knowledge of the grape, derived from his time in Burgundy. Open vats are used for fermentation, and the wine is aged for two years in barrique.
Pöckl’s winery, in Mönchof on the eastern slopes just above the Neusiedler See is known for its creative wine names. This father (Josef) and son (René) team make subtle use of international varieties, blended with Austrian grapes to produce intense, compact wines such as Admiral, a blend of Zweigelt, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. Despite its name, Despite its name, their exotic Syrah blend, Rêve de Jeunesse (dream of youth), ages impressively. Ageability is characteristic of all the top Pöckl wines, but they also produce two early-drinking wines, Rosso Solo and Rosso e Nero.
Engelbert Prieler has an active family team behind him: wife Irmgard, and children Sylvia (an enologist and microbiologist), Michaela and George. With vineyards on the slopes of the Schützner Stein, on the western shores of Neusiedler See, the Prielers make impressive use of Blaufränkisch. They also have a penchant for Cabernet Sauvignon, used in one of their flagship wines, Ungerbergen. The best wines are two interpretations of Blaufränkisch: Johanneshöhe is all fruit and Goldberg, all concentration.