A good friend once said to me: “Grüner Veltliner? What the heck is Grüner Veltliner?” This was a man who drank 1.5 liter bottles of industrial Pinot Grigio and Chardonnay. So one day I introduced him to an inexpensive liter bottle of Grüner Veltliner. From that moment an obsession was born. Grüner Veltliner became his house wine, and in the 2004 vintage he purchased (and consumed!) five cases of a wonderful bargain Grüner Veltliner from Hofer. (For what it's worth, he just bought his sixth this week.)
I have another friend who loves the Rieslings and Grüner Veltliners of a winery known as Hirtzberger. Now these are anything but value wines. From the most famous Austrian region, the Wachau, Hirtzberger makes stunning but also expensive wines that are delicious young but repay cellaring. There are few wines that this friend will pay over $10 for, but Hirtzberger makes the list every single year.
Finally, my wife does not like red wine. In fact she actively dislikes it. But just a few months ago we were at a tasting, and had the chance to taste two reds from Paul Achs, a Blaufränkisch and a Pinot Noir. Well she not only drank them, she truly enjoyed them!
And that’s how it is with Austria. It’s a country with a great diversity of styles, and something for everyone to like no matter their taste or budget. There are wines that can fill your need for a Tuesday night table wine, and also for that Saturday night 40th birthday celebration. The white wines of Austria have received the most press, but the reds are up and coming as well. What follows is a short introduction on the basics of Austria.
The White Wines
This is the bread and butter of Austria. Grüner Veltliner and Riesling make up the lion’s share of what you are likely to find, but be on the lookout for Weissburgunder (also known as Pinot Blanc) and Sauvignon Blanc.
Grüner Veltliner is indigenous to Austria, and grown only in limited quantities anywhere else in the world. The beauty of Grüner Veltliner is that it is so adaptable to a variety of styles, from light and fruity to rich and mouth filling. A number of producers (e.g. Hofer, Berger) sell inexpensive liter bottles of Grüner Veltliner that will beat the pants off that supermarket Chardonnay, while more prestigious bottlings from producers such as Jamek, Brundlmayer and F.X. Pichler can stand toe to toe with White Burgundy. Grüner Veltliner is also very food friendly, and it makes itself at home with many foods considered unfriendly to wine. Having trouble matching a wine to your asparagus salad; try a Grüner Veltliner. You just find your match.
Austrian Riesling is an interesting case. Because of the language on the label, many people assume it is like German Riesling, light and frequently sweet. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact Austria’s closest Riesling cousin is Alsace, with its richer and fuller Rieslings. The major difference between Austria and Alsace is that in Austria you can almost always count on Riesling to be dry, versus the sweetness crap shoot that has become Alsace. There are sweet Rieslings (and Grüner Veltliners) in Austria, but they are virtually always dessert wines. Austrian Riesling still has plenty of fruit aromas and flavors, but also lots of mineral aromas and flavors, so those looking for a taste of the soil, come to Austria.
The Red Wines
First of all, finding Austrian red wines outside of Austria is not easy. The domestic market drinks up everything they can find, so not a lot of Austrian red wine makes it out of the country. But what does make it out again runs the gamut from inexpensive to luxury priced wines.
Pinot Noir is making a splash in Austria, as it is nearly everywhere else in the world. The styles of Pinot available in Austria run the gamut from simple, easygoing quaffing wine to ripe, rich fruit bombs with lots of oak. Given the usual concentration of fruit in Austrian Pinot Noir I am wary of wines with too much oak, but a few vintners have pulled off the ripe, oaky style successfully. You do pay for the privilege however.
Getting back to more typically Austrian wines, there are a number of grapes that are usually unfamiliar to most wine drinkers. Blaufränkisch is known as Lemberger in some parts of the world, while St. Laurent and Zweigelt are, like Grüner Veltliner, pretty much confined to Austria. All three red grapes make some deliciously fruity wines, but again the modern fascination with oak sometimes intrudes to their detriment.
If you notice a distinct lack of specifics in this section, you are correct. The problem is that not much Austrian red wine is out there, and in most cases, what you can find will cost you a substantial amount. There are a few good value producers to watch out for (Lehrner and Glatzer come to mind), so careful shopping can lead to exploration opportunities.
Austrian Wine Regions
If the heavy duty marketing had its way, we would believe that the only good Austrian wines came from the Wachau, a region West of Vienna. Most of the highest priced estates are in the Wachau, and some of the greatest wines, but not nearly all of them. Knoll, Hirtzberger, Pichler (F.X. and Rudi) and Jamek are some of the leading names in the Wachau.
The Wachau is a place to find wonderful Grüner Veltliner and Riesling, as well as some stunning Weissburgunder. The same can be said of both the Kremstal and the Kamptal, and in both of their cases you will have a better chance of finding good values. The Kremstal actually shares a border with the Wachau, and some producers have vineyards in both regions. Nikolaihof, a fine, biodynamic producer in the Wachau, has its most famous vineyard, the Steiner Hund, in the Kremstal. The leader in the Kremstal is Nigl (pronounced Nee-gul) who makes extraordinary Riesling and Grüner Veltliner, as well as a very well regarded Sauvignon Blanc. Salomon, Mantlerhof and Berger also make very good wines in the Kremstal, with Salomon sometimes approaching the quality of Nigl, and Berger being a value leader. I personally enjoy the wines of Mantlerhof, with their Grüner Veltliner Eiswein being a personal favorite.
The Kamptal is just bursting with great wines. Again the strengths are Grüner Veltliner and Riesling, but there’s also very good Weissburgunder and Muscat (known as Muskateller at some addresses) available. Bründlmayer is the leader in the Kamptal, but there are so many wineries close on Willi Bründlmayer’s heels that it’s hard to count. A particular favorite is Hirsch, who leads the movement away from corks and over to screwcaps for fine Austrian wine. A few years ago Johannes Hirsch decided to bottle everything in screwcap, even his most prestigious wines from the Heiligenstein and Gaisberg vineyards. You, the consumer, get the benefit of taint free wines every time.
One of the most interesting things about the Kamptal is that so many producers make wine from the same three vineyards. Heiligenstein, Gaisberg and Lamm are all first class sites, with Lamm the heavyweight for Grüner Veltliner, and Gaisberg and Heiligenstein shining stars of Riesling. The opportunity to compare the wines of Hiedler, Hirsch, Bründlmayer and Schloss Gobelsburg from these great sites is not something to miss.
There are a number of other important wine regions in Austria. Burgenland, near Vienna, is home to Alois Kracher, producer of Austria’s greatest sweet wines. Heidi Schrock makes fine dry and sweet wines in Neusiedlersee-Hugelland. Carnuntum and Weinviertel are fertile ground for values, with the previously mentioned Glatzer and Hofer being good reference points.
If the length of this introduction has not already scared you away (I never said Austria was easy.) then I encourage you to joint me on a month long journey through the fertile wine country that surrounds Vienna. Get your culinary skills fired up as well, because Austrian wine is some of the most food friendly in the world. Viel Spaß und genießen der Wein!
There behind the glass lies a real blade of grass. Be careful as you pass. Move along. Move along.