Quick…”Austria” – what just popped to mind? The Hapsburg Dynasty? Any one of a list of composers longer than my arm? A certain ex-governor of Gully-fornee-uh? Probably. How about wine?
“Aha!” a couple of you might say, “I thought about wine! That groovy sounding grape Grüner Veltliner.” Well, bonus noogies for you. You’re absolutely right. Austria wasn’t exactly a major player in the world of wine until the last decade or so as more and more folks discovered that umlaut-speckled, mineral-slathered bottle of deliciousness. About half of the wine made in Austria is white, with Grüner making up two-thirds of that. Austria is on a similar latitude as Alsace, and the mountainous terroir yields lean, minerally, acidic wine.
Austria actually has a long history of winemaking. There’s archeological evidence of wine production as far back as 700 BC in Austria. Through the Middle Ages, wine production waxed and waned, depending on various invasions, religious incursions, and various pestilence. In the 19th century, Austrian wine really hit its stride – only to be laid low by that little louse phylloxera. Austria bounced back quickly, though – and after World War I, Austria was the third-largest wine producer in the world, selling largely to other Central European countries.
In the 1980’s, though, everything came crashing down because of a scandal in the Austrian wine industry. Austrian wines are generally acidic, light-bodied, and minerally. Some enterprising winemakers discovered that the taste could be “fattened up” a bit by adding small amounts of diethylene glycol to the wine. The more common term for diethylene glycol is...well…antifreeze.
Needless to say, this did the Austrians no favors. Even though there were only a small number of producers following this creative production method, many countries out-and-out banned Austrian wine. In the 1990’s, Austria set up a control board for their winemakers to ensure quality. As a result, more care was taken in general in production of wine, and a higher-quality product resulted. Quality versions of Grüner reopened the gates for Austrian whites, and over the last five or six years, there has been an increased demand for Austrian red wine.
Austrian reds are largely autochthonal varietals (you may remember this term, meaning “native grapes,” from our profile of 20 Mondi). These grapes, alas, don’t roll trippingly off the American tongue. Asking for “Blaufränkisch,” “Zweigelt,” or “Sankt Laurent” is likely to cause an accidental spray of saliva in the face of your unfortunate local wine salesperson.
I’d encourage you to practice your Germanic pronunciation, however, as there are some tasty offerings out there. So you know, the pronunciation of Blaufränkisch is “Blau-FRONK-isch,” the pronunciation of Zweigelt is “ZVEI-gelt,” and the pronunciation of Sankt Laurent (St. Laurent, as it’s sometimes written) is “Zankt LAUER-ent.” All of these wines are in the weight class of pinot noir and Beaujolais, so if you’re looking for a red that’s a little different (perhaps for Thanksgiving dinner), these would be distinct possibilities.
Neckenmarkt 2009 Blaufränkisch and Neckenmarkt 2010 Zweigelt – I include these together because I found them to be very helpful wines, vocabulary-wise. Both have helpful phonetic spellings of the varietals on their labels. The Blaufränkisch a very light, pleasant red. I thought it had a surprising depth of flavor for a wine this light in body. Lots of cherry and blackberry flavors without a full mouth feeling, although thankfully not fading into watery. As the wine opens, I got a little more mineral and a little more spice. An excellent summer red alternative, had I found it a couple of months ago. We poured this wine with some roasted grouper and vegetables and it went splendidly. About $10.
As for the Zweigelt – I was hit initially with a whiff of cranberries and graphite. Its taste is light – almost a bitter cranberry flavor. The flavor feels like it should be a lighter bodied, but there’s almost a glycerine-y thickness. (Um…what was that about antifreeze again?) The finish is graphite and light tannin. Not my favorite. Around $13.
Sattler 2010 Burgenland Sankt Laurent -- A very light, fruit forward, flexible red that I found exceptionally easy to drink. I found it full of smooth berry flavors with a firm, pleasantly smoky backbone. I found it quite pinot noir-ish in character, although not quite as complex. I recently rigged up my little kettle grill to double as a smoker. I sugar-and-salt cured some trout filets and put them over the applewood. We had a little smoked trout with the Sattler. My tasting note reads “Holy crap!” An unexpectedly wonderful pairing. You could conceivably have this for a brunchtime red, as it’s clearly a wine that’s not scared of a little oil and a little salt. Solid for around $15-16.
Heinrich 2008 “Red” – So, what happens when you start blending these autochthonal grapes? Oftentimes, these grapes take on entirely different characteristics when blended as when poured alone. (Case in point – just about any non-Burgundian French wine will be a blend.) This Austrian table wine is a blend of 60% Zweigelt, 30% Blaufränkisch, and 10% Sankt Laurent. The result? A much darker, deeper wine than any of those varietals singly. This one has a very fragrant nose of cherries and herbs. The mouthfeel is considerably heavier, and the flavors are fuller. Those flavors resemble pinot noir: cherry and smoke – with some pepper thrown in for good measure. The finish is long, firmly tannic, and peppery. For a fairly unique experience, give it a run for about $18.