In a global wine market dominated by international grape varieties, Austria stands out with its wealth of indigenous grapes. It was with friendly and versatile Grüner Veltliner that Austria made its name but there is more: as original, as food-friendly, as worthwhile discovering.
What are the white wines of Austria?
We have to start with the flagship Austrian grape that is Grüner Veltliner. It is Austria’s most widely grown grape variety and thrives across all its regions. However, its spiritual home is Niederösterreich, or Lower Austria.
Grüner is a true chameleon when it comes to style. Entry-level wines are always dry, light-bodied and peppery fresh with lots of pear and citrus fruit notes.
Single-vineyard wines, indicated by the term Ried or Riede (vineyard), can be highly concentrated and savory, especially those from Niederösterreich DACs Kremstal, Kamptal and, for the coveted Smaragd style wines, from the Wachau. Some of these single-vineyard Grüners are also matured in oak which suits them well and can add creaminess and notes of hazelnut and smoke. This kind of Grüner also ages well—mature bottles can be eye-opening in their herbal splendor.
Grüner from Weinviertel and Traisental are more light-footed, as are Federspiel style wines from the Wachau. In the Weinviertel, where Grüner Veltliner is a signature variety, it has the nickname Pfefferl, or “little peppery one,” referring to its wonderful, spicy and refreshing savoriness.
If you like well-rounded wines, look for Grüner from Wagram, whose deep loess soils give weight and flesh to the wine.
In special years, there might also be dessert wines made from Grüner. Look out for Eiswein, made from frozen grapes harvested in the depth of winter, or for BAs and TBAs (Beerenauslese and Trockenbeerenauslese) made from grapes shriveled by noble rot. Grüner also makes base wine for Austrian sparkling wine known as Sekt.
While Riesling is of German origin, Austrian Riesling is famed for its quality. The reason is that the grape is only planted in sites where it does really well (a mere 4,863 acres are grown). Where Grüner prefers richer, more fertile soils, Riesling thrives where other grapes struggle, in the stoniest vineyards with the poorest soils.
Unless stated otherwise on the label, Austrian Riesling is dry. Entry-level wines are unfailingly fresh and alive with vivid citrus flavors. Single-vineyard wines are concentrated and run the gamut of citrus, from lemon to tangerine to mandarin. Smaragd styles from Wachau tend to be particularly full-bodied compared to other Rieslings.
Neuburger is another native Austrian grape. A white variety grown in the Thermenregion and Burgenland, it has an appealing nuttiness and a rounded body. With just a few years of bottle age it becomes rounder and nuttier and makes an ideal companion to richer foods. With its generosity and mouthfeel it is the polar opposite of linear Riesling.
The entry-level styles are fruity, slender and fresh but single-vineyard wines (again, Ried or Riede on the label) are often matured in oak. This, together with the concentration of fruit from low yields, lends them longevity.
Mature Weissburgunder is complex and nutty and can easily stand toe-to-toe with aged Chardonnay.
This grape is the ancient Muscat Blanc à Petit Grain grape which has spread across Europe and the world. The difference in Austria is that it is vinified dry and yields weightless, aromatic wines. With aromas of elderflower, nettle and white summer blossom, it is the perfect summer wine.
You can find lovely examples of Gelber Muskateller across Austria, but it reaches its zenith in Styria (Steiermark). This cool, southerly corner of Austria allows the grapes to develop seductive aromatics without ever gaining weight.
Zierfandler and Rotgipfler
Far rarer than either Grüner Veltliner or Riesling are two Austrian originals, the white grapes Zierfandler and Rotgipfler. Both are at home in the Thermenregion just south of Vienna and local custom is to blend them since they naturally complement each other.
Zierfandler has pronounced texture and acidity, while Rotgipfler has aromatic, floral and fruity notes often reminiscent of honeysuckle, red apple and quince.
Some producers do bottle these grapes separately. But alone or in a blend, they are intriguing, unusual wines that really shine on the table where their freshness and texture can stand up to rich food.
To Sauvignon Blanc aficionados, Styria is still a well-kept secret. This import arrived in Austria in the 19th century and the easy, entry-level wines are pitched somewhere between French restraint (think Sancerre or Touraine) and New World tropical and citrusy expressions (think Marlborough, New Zealand).
Single-vineyard Austrian Sauvignon Blanc, on the other hand, can easily stand alongside the finest examples of Pessac-Leognan and Graves. Seek them out and you will be surprised at their finesse.
This Hungarian grape of Tokaj fame is gaining ground in the Burgenland region, which borders Hungary. When vinified dry, Furmint has complex aromatics reminiscent of baked apple, smoke and linden blossom. When vinified sweet due to botrytis affection, it lends bracing acidity to balance the inherent sweetness of the wines.
This grape, which is of no relation whatsoever to Riesling, is rarely seen outside Austria. Welschriesling is fairly neutral and generally only used for entry-level wines. However, with a little respect and lower yields it can be used to make subtle, light-bodied whites.
What are the red wines of Austria?
Zweigelt is Austria’s most popular red grape, and its chief characteristic is a lively, juicy red cherry note. Think of it as a red counterpart to Grüner Veltliner. It thrives in most places and can make everything from easy-going, chillable picnic-style reds to serious, oak-aged and ageworthy wines, though the latter is only possible with lower yields.
Zweigelt makes a lovely base for rosé sparklers that come highly recommended. It’s also made into sweet, botrytis-affected styles in Burgenland.
Blaufränkisch is the sleeper red that the world still needs to wake up to. It’s Austria’s most serious red grape, and it conveys wonderful pepperiness and depth without heaviness. Entry-level Blaufränkisch has a lovely pepper and blueberry character, while the single-vineyard wines show beautiful structure, aromatic dark fruit and glorious spice.
Blaufränkisch also ages in an almost Burgundian fashion, so make sure to squirrel away a few cases if you have a cellar.
St. Laurent is a very temperamental grape that’s difficult to handle in the vineyard, but is absolutely worth the effort. In many ways, it’s similar to Pinot Noir, though heavier in tannin and with darker fruit notions. In its maturity, you could mistake St. Laurent for fine, mature Pinot Noir.
What of Austrian Pinot Noir? The grape has had a presence in Austria since the Middle Ages, but like Austrian Riesling, it is only grown where it really works.
Thermenregion, Vienna and Wagram are Pinot Noir hotspots where the grape reaches rounded, sinuous old-world elegance, often with a cherry-touch common in other Austrian reds. Fine acidity, savory notes and silky structure are hallmarks of the variety here.
Other Austrian Wines
Many of the white varieties of Austria are planted in field blends—a vineyard block that contains many different types of grape. Each ripens at its own speed, but all are harvested and fermented together.
This kind of winemaking was once widespread and can still be found in Alsace, old California Zinfandel vineyards, the Douro and Veneto. In Vienna these field blends have been enshrined into law as Wiener Gemischter Satz. These blends create lovely food friendly wines that bring the charm of many varieties into one glass—the freshness of Riesling, the texture of Grüner, the aroma of Muskateller and so on.
Zweigelt, Welschriesling, Furmint and Grüner are also well-suited to sweet wines. In Austria’s east, the vineyards around Lake Neusiedl are prone to developing noble rot (Botrytis), a fungus which shrivels grapes and concentrates sugar, acid and flavor to make concentrated, lusciously sweet wines.
These wines are precious and rare. Should noble rot not develop, some winemakers will dry their ripened grapes on reeds cut from the shallow shore of the lake, allowing them to make sweet wines from these raisined grapes. This is known as Schilfwein (Schilf meaning reed).
In rare years, when the weather is just right and winemakers experience sharp frost, grapes deliberately left on the vine can be harvested frozen and made into gorgeously sweet, thrillingly pure Eiswein.
Sekt, Austrian Sparkling Wines
Austria also makes sparkling wines called Sekt. Grüner Veltliner, Riesling, Chardonnay and Weissburgunder are generally used as a base. Zweigelt and Pinot Noir also make wonderful bases for rosé Sekt. Sekt ranges from easy, entry-level bubbly to exquisite, long-aged bottles of super-fine fizz. Price will be a good indicator for quality here.
Sekt also has its own classification that demands traditional-method bottle fermentation for its reserve and grande reserve categories.
For such a small country, Austria provides a wealth of diverse wines. It is the result of an ingrained, ancient wine culture that evolves constantly and makes the most of its indigenous grapes and a few European varieties that have found a new home here.
What is remarkable—and still kept secret from many wine lovers—is the astonishingly high quality level of Austrian wines. Even the entry-level offerings are squeaky clean, well made and ready to surprise even the most discriminating wine lover. Felix Austria indeed.