Austria is a wonderland for good wines! But it is known
only to those adventuresome souls around the planet who seek good wines and who
have no fear of mispronouncing the names of unfamiliar grape varieties.
Though Italy and Spain have, these days, more of the center stage of wine
drinkers, it is Austria where the quality of wines has skyrocketed rapidly over
the past decade.
Austria had been the home of a major production of sweet wines. Back in
the late 1970s and early 1980s, these were an alternative to the more costly
sweet wines from Germany. But that world is long ago and far away!
The Austrian wine industry was dealt a major blow in 1985 when a scandal nailed
a lot of wineries. One jealous vintner blew the whistle and this sound was
heard around the world! It seems a number of winemakers were adding
diethylene glycol to their late-harvest dessert wines as a further measure of
sweetening them. This additive is more commonly found in
"anti-freeze," so I suppose it's ironic for it to be appearing in
wines which might have been sold as "eisweins" (sweet wines made from
grapes frozen on the vine)!
The wineries whose wines were found to have diethylene glycol in them went
bankrupt. The government enacted a strict set of wine regulations, as
their wine industry was dealt a major blow.
Over the past 20+ years, a new generation of vintner has taken over the reigns
of many family wineries. They've realized their chances for survival are
based on quality winemaking rather than "industrial" production.
There are hundreds and hundreds of wineries in Austria today. More
than 5,000 actually.
Near as I can tell, though there is a major critical publication reviewing
Austrian wines, the syndrome we've seen in California of intensifying the wines
to court a higher numerical score has not taken hold.
California vintners (and Australian, French and Italian, for that matter) have
upped the ante, continuing to increase levels of alcohol, oak and, sometimes,
sugar in their wines in hopes of receiving higher numerical scores.
We first became aware of Austria's wines when a couple of enterprising vintners
sent a letter to the Robert Mondavi winery wanting to correspond with
Californians in the wine business. Mondavi forwarded the letter to the
winery trade publication called Wines & Vines and we responded to their
missive. Some months later, Josef and Veronika arrived in San Francisco
for a vacation and some winery visits. I was pleased to be able to visit
them at their Thermenregion winery a year or two later.
Meeting my Frankfurt-area friends one visit in Austria ages ago, we stopped to taste 50
or 80 wines at the famous Kloster Und. I didn't find very much of
interest, tasting many poor wines. But a couple stood out and I bought a
bottle of wine from a nearby vineyard called "Malat Bründlmayer."
Little did I know, but Norbert & Gaby had planned to visit this place the
I was impressed by Malat's wines and these days he's regarded as one of the major
leading lights on the Austrian wine scene.
Today in the San Francisco Bay Area, you'll find many restaurants which feature
Austrian wines. These have excited the local wine cognoscenti, because so
many of the wines "work" so well with various cuisines.
The famous San Francisco restaurant "Slanted Door," which features
Viet cuisine, has an outstanding selection which are well-suited to the
food. The fancy and elegant restaurant of Gary Danko also has a lovely
range of Austrian wines (I think I stunned the sommelier there when I ordered a
bottle without his having to suggest it).
The quality of the wines from Austria continues to improve and the future is
very bright for their wines.
Austrian Stats &
Austria has some 113,000 acres of vineyards. Seventy percent are in white
grapes. The predominant, nearly "national," variety is the Grüner
grape known to nearly none of our customers. Something like 29% of Austria's
vineyards are Grüner Veltliner (and this percentage has dropped over the past
decade as winemakers explore other varieties).
I have tasted hundreds of Grüner Veltliner wines. I may be the only person in
our town to
be able to make such a claim. I can also tell you the quality of this
grape can be fascinating and well-suited to pairing with good foods. One
parent of Grüner Veltliner is said to be the Traminer. And,
interestingly, Grüners can age handsomely! I was in the Kremstal in 2004
and we were presented a "mystery" bottle. Everyone of the wine
professional crowd was impressed by this wine and NOBODY guessed it to be a 50
year old bottle!
A bottle of Mantlerhof Roter Veltliner from the
Still youthful, too, at 50 years of age.
Riesling accounts for about 4% of Austrian vineyards (it's grown over the past
decade). Chardonnay, which also
goes by the name "Morillon,", has become more prominent, going up from
a mere 1% of vineyard plantings to 3.1%! Sauvignon Blanc has found a home in the Steiermark region where it makes
amazingly good wines, easily on par with the best from California and France's
Loire Valley. Pinot Blanc is often labeled as Weissburgunder and some very
fine examples are here and there.
The major red
varieties are the Blauer Zweigelt and the Blaufränkisch. Zweigelt is
the most widely planted red grape. It is cultivated in all 16 wine areas
of the country. It covers about 14.1% of vineyard lands in Austria and is a
cross of Blaufränkisch and St. Laurent.
Blaufränkisch, also known as Lemberger, is the second most important red, but
possibly the most exciting local variety. It seems to really thrive in the
Mittelburgenland which has been dubbed "Blaufränkischland." It
comprises about 7% of vineyard plantings in Austria.
Cabernet (1.3%) and Pinot
Noir (1.4) and Merlot (1.4%) are grown in Austria. They're just not widely planted. Syrah
(.3% of total vineyard land) shows promise, too.
And Austria has its share of oddball, obscure varieties, too.
Blauer Wildbacher (also known as Schilcher) is found in the Weststeiermark where
it makes high acid, lightly pink sparkling wine. How about Blauer
Portugieser? Or Blauburger (not to be confused with Blauer Burgunder which
is Pinot Noir)? How about Zierfandler (also known as Spätrot)? Or
Rotgipfler? Goldburger? Bouvier?
The Regions of Austria
Four major zones with various sub-regions:
1. BURGENLAND -- nearly 13,840+ hectares
Sub-regions: Mittelburgenland, Neusiedlersee, Sudburgenland (this
includes a famous wine village called "Rust").
2. LOWER AUSTRIA nearly 27,128 hectares (Known as
Sub-regions: Carnuntum, Donauland, Kamptal, Kremstal, Thermenregion
(including the famous wine villages of Gumpoldskirchen and Vöslau), Traisental and the
3. STYRIA -- nearly 4,240 hectares (Steiermark)
Sub-regions: Sud-Oststeiermark, Südsteiermark (known as "Austria's
Tuscany") and the Weststeiermark.
4. VIENNA -- Precisely 612 hectares (Wien)
If you go there, many wineries are open on some goofy schedule. These are
called "Heurigen" and you can spot them by a pine branch or something similar
hanging outside. They serve their own wines in some form or another. Sometimes
these places offer food, from some sort of Austrian "country" or
"peasant" fare to a bag of potato chips. Wines are offered in a variety of
ways; from wine glasses to tumblers. On my first visit to Austria, we
walked (at the beginning, crawling at the end of the evening) from heurigen to
heurigen. Though we had a full dinner, my host and hostess insisted we have
something to eat at each and every heurigen room. Some Austrians are big
SOME AUSTRIAN SELECTIONS
The Talented Silvia Heinrich of the J. Heinrich winery in