Half of the pleasure of wine is in its aromas. Aromatic grape varieties, however, can be a challenge. To make quality wines, they demand fine-tuned interaction between climate, variety, site and handling. Austrian winemakers have long been blessed with this elusive combination, and they produce some of the world’s most alluring aromatic wines.
Sauvignon Blanc, Gelber Muskateller and a range of Traminer varieties thrive across Austria but excel in the cool, sunny, high-altitude vineyards of Styria, or Steiermark, Austria’s southern-most region. The Thermenregion, on Vienna’s doorstep, is home to two indigenous aromatic specialities, Rotgipfler and Zierfandler.
All of these varieties have a long history in Austria, where they furnished the aromatic top notes in the field blends of the past. They have been vinified separately since the mid-20th century and have become stars in their own right.
Not widely planted and made in small quantities, they’re not as well known as they should be. While Styrian Sauvignon Blanc is making international waves, Gelber Muskateller, Traminer, Rotgipfler and Zierfandler still occupy a delectable niche. The lovely thing about them is their dryness, precision and freshness. They’re highly aromatic, but never overbearing.
Austrian Sauvignon Blanc, formerly known as Muskat-Sylvaner, enjoys cult status at home, where it displays notes of lemon peel, hazelnut, smoke, flint, beeswax, honeycomb, smoke, ripe Mirabelle plum and wet walnut. It is grown across the country, but the best wines hail from Styria and owe their heightened finesse to climate.
“Styria is characterized by rough weather and poor soils,” says Alex Sattler, who’s the winemaker at Weingut Sattlerhof in Südsteiermark. “Precipitation is high, and cool Alpine winds whip through the [often steep] high-altitude vineyards, which can rise up to 1,960 feet. Sauvignon Blanc is a robust variety which develops a unique character in these tough conditions.”
He says the quartz soils make it “smoky and savory,” while limestone soils give an “elegant, salty” edge to the wine.
“No other grape variety interacts as much with the cool and damp Styrian weather or the different soils as Sauvignon Blanc,” says Armin Tement, of Weingut Tement, also in the Südsteiermark.
Some simple wines are made with the pronounced grass and passion fruit notes for which the variety is famous. The finest wines, however, are aged in various sizes of oak and acacia barrels, and they often have a creamy aspect from malolactic fermentation.
“The higher the wine quality, the more subdued the expression,” says Tement.
Single-vineyard wines have an uncommon lightness and brilliance, combined with a subtle yet profound depth of flavor.
“This is a paradox,” says Tement. “They are never loud, opulent or exotic. A mature Styrian Sauvignon Blanc shines with finesse, elegance and the clarity of its provenance. It is never superficial, always profound.”
The cool, extended growing season allows for full aromatic development and retention of acidity, which results in high maturity at harvest and natural tension. Tement says that this gives the local Sauvignon Blanc “an extra dimension but, above all, longevity.”
Sattlerhof 2017 Kranachberg Sauvignon Blanc (Südsteiermark); $75, 95 points. Yellow cherry, apricot and Mirabelle plum come to play on the creamy, tart and enticing nose. The palate adds a bright and vivid note of lime zest as well as some warmth and concentration. The result is a vivid, rounded, full-fruited Sauvignon Blanc with a creamy core and lasting, incisive flavor. Wonderful now, and certain to evolve. Drink now–2035. Craft + Estate–Winebow.
Stefan Potzinger 2018 Ried Czamillonberg Sauvignon Blanc (Südsteiermark); $35, 93 points. Notes of apricot, lemon and cream create a seductive trinity on the nose. The palate continues in the same harmonious, fruity and creamy fashion and adds contour and precision with zesty, almost spiky, lemon freshness. A yeasty note corrals all the fruit flavors into a dry, vivid, fresh finish. Drink now–2035. Yountville Wine Imports.
Schauer 2018 Sauvignon Blanc (Südsteiermark); $25, 92 points. Subtle white summer blossom plays scentedly above the green-moss and lemon notes on the nose. The palate comes in with zesty concentration despite the slenderness and charm, with slight fizziness. This is light, bright but oh so expressive—totally refreshing and wonderfully dry. The Sorting Table.
Few wines spell summer and scented lightness as much as Gelber Muskateller. Elsewhere in the world, this ancient variety, also known as Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains, is often made into sweet and even fortified wines. In Austria, a dry, slender style triumphs. Inherent, almost weightless freshness and aromas of nettle and fern allow the elderflower, honeysuckle, jasmine, citrus and grape aromas to dance without ever becoming overwhelming.
Christoph Neumeister, of Weingut Neumeister in Vulkanland Steiermark, says that Gelber Muskateller needs a long, cool vegetation period.
“This allows us to harvest fully ripe grapes at a potential alcohol level of 11.5% in the middle of October,” he says. He points out the big difference in day and night temperatures, which encourages the full aromatic development and acidic brightness of this late-ripening grape.
Neumeister employs skin maceration to get as much aroma as possible, and he ages his spontaneously fermented wines on lees to make Gelber Muskateller that’s “bone-dry and juicy.”
“I want my Muskateller to be a continuous unit from first sniff to finish,” says Neumeister, who notes that long lees contact lends stability and longevity.
Gerhard Wohlmuth, of Weingut Wohlmuth in Südsteiermark, also emphasizes that Gelber Muskateller can mature for years, despite its inherent lightness. Wohlmuth cautions that site is key, though.
“It loves well-ventilated, high-altitude vineyards with poor soils,” he says.
Much farther north in the Kremstal region, Martin Nigl, of Weingut Nigl, ensures his Gelber Muskateller is planted on “light and stony soils. This way, the berries don’t get too big, and the varietal character is particularly pronounced.”
Despite these endeavors to craft expressive, long-lived wines, Austrians love to mix Gelber Muskateller with sparkling water to make summertime spritzers. Nigl says he also enjoys these bone-dry light wines as an apéritif.
Wohlmuth 2018 Gelber Muskateller (Südsteiermark); $20, 92 points. Elderflower headiness announces the bright aromatics of this vivid Gelber Muskateller. The palate stays ultralight, dry and bright with lemon, creating a highly aromatic but deliciously weightless wine. Citrus juiciness and concentration only heighten these sensations. It’s a summer joy. VOS Selections.
Tement 2018 Gutswein Gelber Muskateller (Südsteiermark); $20, 91 points. Gorgeous elderflower on the nose has a zesty streak of lime and shimmering summer blossom. The palate picks up on elderflowers and zestiness and lets them fill its slender, streamlined and dry body. Its verve and scentedness are a joy. Perfectly light and fragrant summer drinking. Weygandt-Metzler.
Nigl 2018 Gelber Muskateller (Niederöstereich); $23, 90 points. A bright honeysuckle nose has the slightest overtone of rose petal. This sends the bright aromatics of Muskateller into a rounder, spicier, more floral arena. The palate is concentrated and fresh, but enriched with that floral ripeness. The finish delivers the dry, zesty moreishness. Skurnik Wines.
Traminer, which has been identified as Savagnin, comes in a number of ways in Austria, each with slightly different characteristics. There is Roter (red) Traminer with red grapes, Gelber (yellow) Traminer with golden grapes and Gewürztraminer with pink grapes. They have slightly different characters.
“Yellow Traminer has distinctly yellow fruit notes and higher acidity,” says Neumeister. “Hence, it has been planted more over the past 15 years.”
Joseph Umathum, of Weingut Umathum in Burgenland, says that “yellow Traminer gives the lowest yields, is filigree, but its golden berries make spicy, savory, almost honeyed wines with real freshness.”
Red Traminer, on the other hand, “is the quietest and most elegant,” says Neumeister. Andreas Eder, of Weingut Eder in the Wachau, says that red Traminer has “distinct notes of rosewood, mallow and a lot more body.”
Gewürztraminer, the best known of the trio, “has an intense rose scent, almost overpowering and very memorable, with low acid,” says Umathum. Older Traminer vineyards are often still a mix of these varieties, and most are just labeled “Traminer.”
Neumeister says that despite its “baroque” varietal nature, Austrian Traminer has “a kick of freshness.”
It’s mostly produced in a dry style. The grape takes particularly well to warmer sites in Burgenland or the Wachau, where its thick skins protect it from fungal infections.
Eder makes dry wines from his red and yellow Traminer in the Smaragd style, which is Wachau’s designation for the latest harvest and highest alcohol level. He says that the phenolic nature of the wines, resulting from the thick grape skins, requires some cellaring for a harmonious expression.
For Umathum, these phenolics are a structural element that help balance the moderate acidity and allows the wines to age. Austrian Traminer is softly scented, rather than heavily perfumed. This makes it a joy.
Eder 2017 Smaragd Traminer (Wachau); $36, 94 points. Rich notes of Damask rose are shaken awake with the first swirl. The richness almost is reminiscent of oil. The palate counters this with fines spritz and vivid freshness. The tingling dryness of the midpalate introduces notions of blood orange peel. This is concentrated and aromatic in a profound rather than heady fashion. Freshness and dryness prevail to create an absolutely elegant, full-flavored wine. Drink 2020–2035. Slocum & Sons.
Neumeister 2018 Ried Steintal Roter Traminer (Vulkanland Steiermark); $40, 92 points. Fresh red apple notes come with a hint of smoke and a bright notion of Damask rose. The palate then shows generosity of fruit with an expansive, mellow palate that is defined by lemony highlights amid a lovely, rich, aromatic, rose petal-scented texture. The finish is dry and bright and comes with a light-footed, lemony freshness. Frederick Wildman & Sons, Ltd.
Umathum 2017 Traminer (Burgenland); $23, 92 points,. Candied Mandarin orange and Damask rose on the nose make for a heady opening. The palate counters this all with dryness and freshness and a lovely texture with some phenolic pith. The finish is aromatic, dry and rose-scented. Winemonger.
Zierfandler and Rotgipfler
These two varieties, usually mentioned in the same breath, are absolute rarities. They’re specialities of the Thermenregion, where they grow in calcareous soils.
There are just 464 acres of Rotgipfler and 190 acres of Zierfandler in all of Austria. In the past, they were mostly blended together, and their quality made wine villages like Gumpoldskirchen famous.
Few winegrowers are willing to take on these demanding grapes because they are so susceptible to fungal disease. Those who grow them do so for their local authenticity and great quality potential.
Heinrich Hartl, of the namesake winery in the Thermenregion, says that Rotgipfler “has power, structure [and] longevity alongside a big portion of elegance and full-bodied aromatics.” The challenge, he says, is to express this “with precision.”
Rotgipfler is redolent of aromatic fruit like quince, citrus and red apple, often with floral overtones, and those chracteristics come with an intense, textured mouthfeel. Zierfandler, on the other hand, is known for its acidity. It’s a late variety whose pink skins gradually turn red with real ripeness. The nose often has waxy, nutty overtones and a citrus-oil richness.
“It is the last variety we harvest in mid-October,” Michael Reinisch, of Johanneshof Reinisch, says about Zierflander. He describes the grape as “rich in finesse, multilayered, with vibrant acidity and aging potential.”
The varieties require great care. Reinisch vinifies Zierfandler for a time in amphorae and keeps it on gross lees until bottling. Some continue the tradition of blending the two, because the grapes complement each other so well.
Older vintages of these wines, which seem to get ever more viscous even when made in a dry style, are a revelation.
Gebeshuber 2017 Gumpoldskirchen Zierfandler (Thermenregion); $37, 93 points. The nose is rather shy and gives merely the slightest hint of candied lemon peel. The palate, however, is a jolt of intense freshness and vivid fruit. Peach, guava and Mirabelle plum are framed by vividly tart citrus. The palate is concentrated but slender and makes an excellent case for this rare, autochthonous variety. Yum. Vignaoli Selections.
Johanneshof Reinisch 2017 Ried Spiegel Zierfandler (Thermenregion); $40, 93 points. Hints of wet hay and candied lemon make for an earthy nose. The palate is exquisitely fresh and concentrated, playing a high-toned lemon oil note against a rich, textured background. There is something urgent and pervasive about this, which will blossom fully with a little more bottle age. Drink 2022–2032. Circo Vino.
Heinrich Hartl 2018 Rotgipfler (Thermenregion); $24, 92 points. Red apple and wet earth come together in a lifted nose. The palate surprises with its roundness and its almost oily, very rich texture and immense concentration. There also is a creamy aspect that underlines all this generosity even more. Yet a wonderfully zesty core frames this richness and gives it contour, zing and freshness. A rich, dry wine for rich food. KW Selection.com.