Austrian wine: beyond Grüner
Thought Austria was all about Grüner?
Well, it sort of is, with almost one third of its wine acreage given over to this chameleon of a variety. 13,518ha of Grüner Veltliner across Austria (source: Austrian Wines) account for all manner of styles. But Austria has further trumps up her sleeve: her spicy, silky reds are worth shouting about, however, there are other indigenous whites you should only whisper about and only to those who really care – because there are just so few of them.
If rare species and biodiversity are your thing, prepare to be in raptures. There are just 105ha of Rotgipfler and a mere 85ha of Zierfandler in the whole world. So please do whisper to your friends since consuming them, unlike Bluefin tuna or shark fins, will ensure their survival.
Both rarities hail from the Thermen region just south of Vienna, both have a lot of personality. Zierfandler is high-pitched but aromatic and fragrant. Rotgipfler is richer and more rounded. Both have immense texture which is probably what makes them stand out most.
Johannes Reinisch at Johanneshof Reinisch says Rotgipfler “has a medium to full body. It’s one of those white wines that goes really well with meat, especially when there is some spice involved.” For Reinisch this includes both Austria’s paprika-scented meat dishes and Asian cuisine. Silas Capps, store manager at Forest Wines in Walthamstow, sells Rotgipfler and echoes these sentiments exactly: “Customers have been pleasantly surprised, especially those who say they normally only drink reds or find whites too acidic.” He likes to think and talk of Rotgipfler as a “mix of a red and an aromatic white grape”, uniting the best of both their traits.
This rare pair often also appears as an intriguing blend. Joelle Nebbe- Mornod, of online retailer Alpine Wines, says: “Memorably, at one tasting, the Zierfandler/Rotgipfler blend convinced almost everyone there that they really owed it to themselves to be more adventurous in exploring Austrian wines.” But she is honest. “Zierfandler is a hard sell and a hand-sell,” she says. How could it be otherwise when Rotgipfler and Zierfandler are rare, hard to remember and hard to pronounce?
But that is why their natural habitat is the independent trade. Nebbe- Mornod is clear: “People don’t know they want it, but these are wines people will talk about.”
If you want to taste, Austria’s Annual Trade Tasting on February 8 will feature a free-pour showcase for these rare, indigenous varieties. While you are at it, also sample Neuburger, Roter Veltliner and take in another of Austria’s hits, Gemischter Satz. These are white field blends that are co-planted and co- fermented. In Vienna they have been elevated to DAC status but you can also find some from the Weinviertel.
For the Vienna DAC, no variety must exceed 50% and the third variety must make up at least 10%. Most Gemischter Satz is based on mixes of Grüner Veltliner, Riesling, Pinot Blanc and Traminer accounting for verve, freshness, spice, aroma and body. But some contain very rare, old, indigenous varieties such as Weißer and Grauer Vöslauer and Silberweißer Veltliner.
Austria’s line in elegant reds should be a far easier sell – no need to whisper here – the triumvirate of Blaufränkisch, Sankt Laurent and their common offspring Zweigelt offers three distinctly different varieties. Zweigelt is Austria’s most planted red variety with 6,476ha. It’s characterised by crunchy cherry fruit and light, supple tannins. Most is made into joyful, easy-drinking, great value reds.
Peter Honegger, founder of Austrian specialist retailer Newcomer Wines, says: “If picked early, these wines are juicy and fresh with elegance, perfect for customers enjoying serious Beaujolais.”
With just 778ha fickle Sankt Laurent is rarer. When guarded from overripeness it makes spellbinding reds of astonishing subtlety. Lovers of Pinot Noir will understand them instinctively.
Austria’s real sleeper, however, is Blaufränkisch. There are 3,225ha of it, chiefly in the warmer east. It is full-bodied yet sleek, has a backbone of freshness, proper structure, bags of berry fruit and killer spice. With muscle but no brawn it’s Austria’s elegant answer to all the bigger reds out there.
Honegger at Newcomer Wines loves it and enthuses about the variety’s stylistic spectrum: “Blaufränkisch just shows Austria’s immense diversity. Look at Südburgenland, filled with slate and iron-rich soils. It’s a beautiful birthplace for Blaufränkisch which is full of life and structure.
“Alternatively, look at Blaufränkisch grown around Leithaberg, a place with great character, too. I would always recommend Blaufränkisch to first- time customers who usually enjoy subtle, elegant reds such as Syrah from the northern Rhône.”
Blaufränkisch can be surprisingly long-lived and the top wines can easily be laid down for 5-15 years – if you can keep your hands off them.
So yes, Austria still is Grüner country, but that’s no reason to miss out on her other indigenous wines.