Austrian wines easily intimidate American oenophiles, who generally lack knowledge about wines from this country save for the 1985 diethylene glycol wine scandal, a.k.a. the “antifreeze scandal.” We tend to think of these wines as hard-to-pronounce grape varietals from unrecognizable regions with long names that are sticky on the tongue. So, that being said, let’s throw out all of those pretenses and taste some dry, well crafted, easily pairable white and red wines from Austria, shall we?
Austria and Germany are neighbors with a similar language, yet their wines differ in many ways. Austrian white wines hold a good deal of minerality and spice while remaining bright, crisp, and dry, where German whites posses an oily, off-dry minerality that stays on their side of the border. Grüner veltliner or “Gru-Ve” is the most recognizable white varietal grown in Austria and is the perfect go-to wine for every occasion.
Austria is divided into four major wine-growing regions—Neiderösterreich, Burgenland, Steier Mark (Styria), and Wien (Vienna)—each of which has specific sub regions. Neiderösterreich has eight specific wine growing sub regions. The region of Kamptal, within Neiderösterreich, is centered on the river Kamp and makes some of the best wines in the country. Wachau is in the west of Neiderösterreich, and is also home to some fine white wines, including the best selection of riesling. Weingut Josef Bauer makes a Pfarrleithen riesling from Wagram that is mind-blowingly good ($22.95 at Tastings). It is goldenrod yellow in color and packed with ripe stone fruit aromas, and has bright acidity without being piercing. The Steininger Kamptal Reserve Grüner Veltliner is one of my personal favorites with notes of green pea, apple, white pepper, and a mineral-driven finish ($25.99 at Wine Warehouse). It is dry, yet fruity, and is an excellent counterpart to any Asian dish, especially Vietnamese cuisine. It also pairs well with seafood, smoked ham, and bitter greens or salad, which are typically challenging to match. Grüner veltliner is usually affordable, with most bottles costing less than $20. On the higher end, the Nikolaihof “Hefeabzug” grüner veltliner from the Kamptal region ($29.99 at Wine Warehouse) is an amazing find. “Hefe” means “aged on lees,” which are the dead yeast cells that drop to the bottom of the barrel. This style adds a nice creaminess to the wine, and has a salty minerality with bigger bones and spice. The winery is Demeter-certified biodynamic and family-owned since 1894. Its goal is “to get as much power and energy into the wine as possible whilst interfering with nature as little as possible.” The family uses stinging nettles, valerian root drops, and valerian tea preparations on the soil, which act like homeopathic medicine for the grapevines to remain healthy. All of its wines go through natural fermentation, meaning no commercial yeast cells are added to get the fermentation process started.
With the weather transitioning to cooler nights and a hint of drying leaves in the air, we should all be drinking Austrian red wines. Starting with blaufränkisch, which is grown mostly in Austria and some in Germany and in the U.S., where it’s called lemberger. The wines are spicy, smoky, herbaceous, and lighter bodied, making them easy to pair with most foods. It’s a fun replacement for Pinot Noir or Gamay (which it closely resembles), hailing from Burgenland, on the eastern edge of Austria abutting Hungary. The Weingut Netzl Carnuntum Cuvee is a blend of blaufränkisch, zweigelt, and merlot ($15.99 at Wine Warehouse). It is deep ruby in color, with spicy fruit, dark berries, and juicy elegance with pleasant tannins. This wine would pair beautifully with roast duck. Wines from Leo Hillinger are prominent in stores around our area and they are a good starting place for trying out Austrian wines. The Leithaberg blaufränkisch ($32.99 at Wine Warehouse) is powerful and dark with notes of licorice, graphite, and blackberries.
For something a tad tamer, try the Hillinger Hillside Red, which is a meaty blend of syrah, merlot, and zweigelt ($24.99 at Tastings). The spice and white pepper notes from the syrah really show through and give this wine a nice kick to an otherwise juicy, yet full-bodied wine. This is a perfect substitute for someone who enjoys cabernet sauvignon and is trying to branch out of her comfort zone.
Of all the wines in Austria, zweigelt (a.k.a. blauer) has stolen my heart. It is the perfect marriage of savory and spicy, with good structure, medium to full body, and strong character. It also goes with everything. I have yet to find a dish that zweigelt hasn’t complemented, from Italian food to sushi. Hard to believe, right? The Steininger zweigelt Novemberlese from Kamptal is a good example of this varietal that is relatively easy to find on shelves. It gets its name because it is harvested in November and it possesses notes of red cherry and smoke, and pairs especially well with cured meats and charcuterie. But, like I said, give it a whirl with anything and you’ll be pleasantly surprised.
Tracey Love is the event coordinator at Blenheim Vineyards, the sales and marketing associate for the Best of What’s Around farm, and proprietress of Hill & Holler.