NAKED VINE: Austria’s red wines

By Mike Rosenberg
January 17, 2013

When you hear the word “Austria,” what pops into your mind?
The Hapsburg Dynasty? Any one of a list of composers longer than my arm? A certain ex-governor of Gully-fornee-uh?
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. Austria wasn’t exactly a major player in the world of wine until the last decade or so, when 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 actually has a long history of winemaking. There’s archeological evidence of wine production as far back as 700 BC. Through the Middle Ages, wine production waxed and waned, depending on various invasions, religious incursions and pestilences.
In the 19th century, Austrian wine really hit its stride, only to be laid low by that little louse phylloxera. But Austria bounced back quickly, and after World War I, it became the third-largest wine producer in the world.
In the 1980s, though, everything came crashing down because of a scandal in the industry. Austrian wines are generally acidic, light-bodied and minerally, and some enterprising winemakers discovered the taste could be “fattened up” by adding small amounts of diethylene glycol.
The more common term for diethylene glycol is, well, antifreeze. Even though only a small number of producers adopted this creative production method, the result was that many countries out-and-out banned Austrian wine.In the 1990s, Austria set up a control board for its winemakers, and a higher-quality product resulted. This reopened the gates for Grüner and other Austrian whites, and over the last five or six years, there’s even been an increased demand for Austrian red wine.
Austrian reds are largely autochthonal varietals—i.e., they use native grapes. The names of the resulting varietals, 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 wine salesperson.
I’d encourage you to practice your Germanic pronunciation, however, as there are some tasty offerings out there. (Samples: Blaufränkisch is pronounced “Blau-FRONK-isch,” Zweigelt is “ZVEI-gelt,” and Sankt Laurent—or 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, these are distinct possibilities.
Neckenmarkt 2009 Blaufränkisch and Neckenmarkt 2010 Zweigelt: I include these together because I found them to be very helpful, vocabulary-wise. Both have helpful phonetic spellings on their labels.
The Blaufränkisch has a surprising depth of flavor for a wine this light in body. There are lots of cherry and blackberry flavors without a full mouth feeling, and thankfully they don’t fade into wateriness. As the wine opens, you get a little more mineral and spice. We poured this with roasted grouper and vegetables, and it went splendidly. About $10.
As for the Zweigelt, you’re hit initially with a whiff of cranberries and graphite, followed by a bitter cranberry flavor that feels like it should be a lighter-bodied except that there’s almost a glycerine-y thickness. (Um, what was that about antifreeze again?) The finish is graphite and light tannin. This is not my favorite. Around $13.
Sattler 2010 Burgenland Sankt Laurent: This is a very light, fruit-forward and flexible red that is exceptionally easy to drink. It’s full of smooth berry flavors with a firm, pleasantly smoky backbone. I found it quite Pinot Noir-ish in character, though not quite as complex. We had a little smoked trout with the Sattler, and it turned out to be an unexpectedly wonderful pairing. You could conceivably have this for a brunch-time red, as it’s clearly a wine that’s not scared of a little oil and salt. $15-$16.
Heinrich 2008 “Red”: Oftentimes, these autochthonal grapes take on entirely different characteristics when blended. This table wine is a blend of 60 percent Zweigelt, 30 percent Blaufränkisch and 10 percent Sankt Laurent. The result? A much darker and deeper wine than any of those varietals singly.
The Heinrich has a fragrant nose of cherries and herbs, while the mouth feel is considerably heavier and the flavors are fuller. Those Pinot Noir-like flavors include 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.

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