Friday, 22 March 2013

Austrian Wine 101

By Madeline Mehalko

The annual tasting of Austrian Wines in London is one that I was especially looking forward to. Not only do I love the crisp, food-friendly wines and rarely get the opportunity to taste so many fine examples in one place, but they serve Schnitzel and Strudel at lunch!! I visited some old favourites as well as made a few new discoveries, and I was really impressed with the quality of the materials being handed out by the Austrian Wine marketing board. Inspired by the wealth of information, I thought I would pass it on to those who might be interested to learn more about this fascinating (and sometimes confusing) region.

First, there are three main wine-growing ‘areas’: Niederosterreich, Burgenland, and Steiermark. Within these three areas there are several specified wine-growing regions:

Niederosterreich – Wachau, Kremstal, Kamptal, Traisental, Wagram, Weinviertel, Carnumtum, Thermenregion (mostly Gruner Veltliner and Riesling, with reds being produced in the last two)

Burgenland – Neusiedlersee, Leithaberg, Mittelburgenland, Eisenberg/Sudburgenland (mostly reds – Zweigelt and Blaufrankisch)

Styria – Sud-Oststeiermark, Sudsteiermark, Weststeiermark (mostly aromatic whites like Sauvignon and Gelber Muskateller)

Plus, Vienna, where mostly white field blends are made.

Some of these regions  where particularly distinctive wines are made have been given DAC status (like AOC in France or DOC in Italy), but this is an ongoing process so the lack of DAC does not indicate a lack in quality. The main thing to look out for is the red and white capsule, which indicates a quality wine. Generally, Klassik on the label indicates a classic and dry style whereas Reserve will be riper and more full bodied (perhaps even with some residual sweetness or oak influence).

A particularly special region is the Wachau – not only is it a UNESCO world heritage site and a place of astounding natural beauty, the vines are grown on steep terraces sloping down to the Danube with diverse soils and both Riesling and Gruner are fantastic here. Not happy with the lack of classification system in place, innovative producers here in the 80s created their own system of conveying information to consumers about the region’s dry white wines: Steinfeder means the wine is light and aromatic, Federspiel wines are between 11.5% and 12.5% abv and the most common category, and Smaragd indicates late-harvest wines which are rich and concentrated, but still dry. If you are curious to see what this region is all about, we do have a Riesling from top producer FX Pichler available on the website.

Then, there are the grape varieties. The usual international varieties can be found here, but to really get under the skin of Austrian wine these are the most important ones to try:

Gruner Veltliner - The quintessential grape variety of Austria and perhaps the ‘next big thing’ after Chardonnay and Pinot Grigio. It performs very differently on different types of soils, producing a range of wines from easy-drinking and peachy on sandy ‘loess’ soils to austere, intensely mineral and intended for long ageing on chalk and gravel. What the wines nearly always have in common is versatility with food matching (or lack thereof) and a distinctive note of white pepper.

Riesling - The Rieslings produced in Austria are generally a happy medium between Alsatian and German examples  – they are not as rich and unctuous as those from Alsace nor as light and delicate as those from Germany. They are capable of being quite fine boned and mineral and uniquely seem to display a peppery quality much like the Gruners from the region.

Blaufrankisch - Blaufrankisch is starting to be to red wines what Gruner is to white – Jancis Robinson wrote in the Financial Times that it is the grape ‘most likely to put Austrian reds on the map’.  It’s crisp, sour cherry fruit and medium body make it truly pleasurable to drink, unlike some of the 15% fruit-bombs out there! It is capable of being juicy and forward as well as structured and long-lived, depending on the terroir and the winemaker.

Zweigelt - Not as well known as Blaufrankisch internationally but still special to Austria, Zweigelt is a crossing of St Laurent and Blaufrankisch, created by an Austrian institution and now the most widely grown red grape variety in the country. It was generally known as the country’s ‘glugger’ but is now gaining a reputation for having high quality potential on the right sites. The wines are cherry-scented and with soft, smooth tannins.

We have just done a shipment of some great examples of some of these wines at entry level prices – look out for our Austrian offer in the March mailing. Discover why these wines are already firm favourites with wine writers, sommeliers and wine buffs everywhere.