My column on Austrian wine focused on the country’s white wines, but let’s not overlook its reds, which I discussed in detail in a column last year.
I asserted at the time that while the country’s main red grapes — Blaufrankisch, Zweigelt and St. Laurent — offered hearty fruit to appeal to a wide range of drinkers, they “always contain something below the surface, a contrast of flavors found even in the simplest bottles.” (Here are last year’s recommended bottles.)
White wine certainly prevails in Austria; in 2010, it produced 28.1 million gallons of white to 17.8 million gallons of red. The country’s key white-wine regions are a nexus surrounding the city of Krems that links together the Wachau, Kamptal and Kremstal regions, with the Wagram and Traisental areas nearby. (All that distance can be covered in a stretch that approximates the run from downtown Napa to Calistoga.)
That’s where I spent most of my time. But I did spend a couple of days in the east, in the Burgenland and Carnuntum regions near the Slovakian and Hungarian borders, where much of Austria’s red wine is grown. That’s home to outstanding red wines, particularly from the Blaufrankisch grape.
The origins of Blaufrankisch (Blue Franc, or Lemberger, if you’ve been to Washington state) are mysterious, although the second two syllables might alternately refer to Germany’s Franks or to the archaic use of “Frankisch” as a term for superior wines. Although it isn’t Austria’s most planted red grape — that’s Zweigelt — it has a centuries-long history there, and the makings of greatness.
It’s always worth looking for bottles from producers like Prieler, Paul Achs, Markowitsch and Krutzler, among others. But two visits in particular helped underscore why this part of the world, and Blaufrankisch, arguably should be in the discussion of the world’s top wines.
First: an afternoon hike on the Spitzerberg hill in Carnuntum, just east of Vienna. My guide was Dorli Muhr, who when not running her public-relations firm in Vienna is half of the Muhr-van der Niepoort winery (Importer: Martine’s Wines). I’d heard from Muhr for years about the special qualities of the Spitzerberg, but only after our walk did I finally see why it could become one of Austria’s great wine terroirs, much like the slopes of Burgenland’s Leithaberg and Eisenberg. (The other half of the winery is Muhr’s ex-husband Dirk Niepoort, of the historic Port house.)
‘Maybe in 20 years’ From the slopes of the Spitzerberg, which includes a nature conservancy wrapped around its vineyard land, you can gaze across a endless flat stretch that rolls into eastern Europe. Here is the first rise after hundreds of miles across the Pannonian plain, which explained the wind farms dotting fields below and the gliders always circling overhead. (Spitzerberg is one of Europe’s top locations for gliding.) With limestone-rich soils sitting atop a granite base, it is the westernmost bump of the Carpathian mountains, much as the nearby Leithaberg slope is the easternmost vestige of the Alps.
With 25 acres in vine, split into at least 25 parcels, the Spitzerberg faces almost due south, enjoying full sun, constant gentle wind and mostly dry weather from the east, making for concentrated but not severe red wines.
Fine spot for a hike. (Photo: Jon Bonne/The Chronicle
And yet much of the hill remains unplanted; just 8 wineries produce a Spitzerberg. After reclaiming her grandmother’s original parcel on the hill, plus several others, Muhr has been systematically replanting, mostly to Blaufrankisch but also to Syrah, Cabernet Franc and more.
“Maybe in 20 years there will be a market,” she says. “You have to think in generations.”
As the vines have gotten older, the Muhr-van der Niepoort wines have become ever more nuanced. Often foot-trod, fermented with whole clusters and aged mostly in old wood, they certainly could win a Burgundy lover’s heart. Yet they retain a true Austrian soul, full of Blaufrankisch’s spice and floral character.
Muhr-van der Niepoort’s 2009 Carnuntum, a sort of declassified Spitzerberg, bursts with juniper and hyssop aromas, although it’s prelude to the 2009 Spitzerberg, from 55-year-old vines, which adds aromas of marjoram and damson plum for one of the most ethereal red wines you’re likely to encounter. (The bummer with this Fred Astaire of a wine? Just 800 bottles produced.)
The 2010 Spitzerberg, from a tough vintage, shares those heady aromas but offers more solid dark fruit and tannins. (There’s also a violet-scented 2009 Syrah that would put to shame much of the northern Rhone.)
It is lucky, perhaps, that this project began a little less than a decade ago, when land could still be had on the Spitzerberg for €1.50 per square meter. (It is now more than six times that, Muhr says.) By then, Austria had lost some of its appetite for the usual fascinations that befall ambitious red winemakers: heavy extraction, thick tannins, lots of new oak.
“I’m really glad we started this project in the 2000s and not the 1990s,” she says.
High priest of Blaufrankisch So why haven’t Austria’s red-wine sites been part of the discussion of great vineyards until now? Roland Velich has an explanation.
“In every map of great grands crus of Austria, you never find Burgenland,” Velich says, “because it was never part of Austria.”
Which is to say it was part of Hungary, whose border skirts the edge of the Neusiedler See, the great shallow lake that helps define the area’s climate and culture.
Velich farms about 50 acres of Blaufrankisch across this part of Burgenland, a prodigious amount in a region that lends itself to tiny parcels. His vineyards stretch from his home in the tidy village of Grosshoflein, at the southern end of the chalk-filled Leithagebirge (the name for hills that define the Leithaberg appellation), south to the towns of Lutzmannsberg and Neckenmarkt, both of which straddle the Hungarian border.
Through his Moric winery (Importer: Winemonger) Velich has become a high priest of Blaufrankisch. He is adamant about picking slightly on the early side — “I would rather it’s 5
minutes before 12 than 5 minutes too late,” he says — and instead of new French oak, he prefers the Austrian casks made by Franz Stockinger outside the city of Linz.
His wines are meant to bring Burgundy-quality refinement to the soils of Mitteleuropa, with Blaufrankisch as the vehicle: “We are happy that we are a generation that’s able to bring these treasures to the surface.”
Century-old vines We taste in Velich’s living room, a sleek refurbishing of several old farmhouses, as his surprisingly mellow Vizsla wanders outside.
There is the 2010 Moric Lutzmannsburg Alte Reben, a stunning phantasm of a wine filled with cured meat, juniper spice and bayberry aromas, grown on a series of parcels in Lutzmannsburg, on a mix of loess and loam atop limestone, from vines up to 100 years old. From a bit farther north is the 2010 Neckenmarkt Alte Reben, full of rich kirsch-like fruit, rose petals, sweet spices and chalky mineral aspects, an whipsaw to Lutzmannsburg’s steady flow, grown from vines up to 80 years old on mostly slate, with a bit of limestone and loam.
Neither discount the pleasures of his more approachable 2010 Burgenland Blaufrankisch, from a mix of parcels in both villages, with gorgeous damson plum and bright mineral flavors, a savory rye-seed spice, and the pitch-perfect clarity that defines all Velich’s wines.
Even in the midst of Blaufrankisch country, there is thirst for white wine. Velich has made one for at least a decade. If you want to see Gruner Veltliner rechanneled as Corton-Charlemagne, look for his Sankt Georgen, a limestone parcel near the town of Eisenstadt (the southern portion of the Leithagebirge). The forthcoming 2011 Sankt Georgen Gruner Veltliner, plays in deep waters for Austria — a saline, yellow-fruited wine aged in old 500-liter barrels and full of the fine-textured minerality that limestone can bring.
“You’ll see,” Velich says, “this has nothing to do with the