There are several factors that contribute to the country’s recognition as an outstanding origin for premium red wines. Autochthon varieties seldom found elsewhere in the world meet with the many varied terroirs in Austria. Austrian family wineries typically send their sons and daughters abroad to gain international experience. A new generation of vintners has returned home and appreciates its homeland’s unique potential for fine red wines. The past decade has seen more confidence with indigenous grape varieties, increased consciousness of unique terroirs, and a significant decrease in the use of new oak. Exciting red wines are being produced.
The autochthon Sankt Laurent unites the power and with elegance and delicacy / Credit: OEWM - Faber
Unique grape varieties
Austria has a handful of unique autochthon black grape varieties capable of producing high quality red wines with superb ageing potential. Blaufränkisch is a thoroughly Central European variety that excels in Eisenberg, Mittelburgenland and Leithaberg and is also of great significance in Carnuntum. Blaufränkisch offers deep lingonberry, dark spice and refreshing acidity with abundant fine-grained tannins that become velvety once sufficiently aged. Sankt Laurent is an autochthone variety related to Pinot. This sensitive vine is cultivated mainly in the Thermenregion and in northern Burgenland. Sankt Laurent delivers dark, sturdy, fruity and piquant red wines with Morello cherry notes. Zweigelt, a crossing of Blaufränkisch and Sankt Laurent, is the country’s most prolific red wine variety. It is easier to grow than its parents, even in Austria’s coolest wine regions. The broad spectrum of styles range from easy-drinking, non-oaked styles to firm, generous red wines matured in small oak barrels. Zweigelt is often slightly purple-reddish coloured and offers soft tannins and appetizing acidity that highlights crisp cherry aromas. Rare autochthone varieties like Blauburger, Blauer Portugieser and Blauer Wildbacher are also worthy of discovery.
International varieties like Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah are often found as contributing components of high quality red wine blends. Austria also offers suitable terroir for the fickle Pinot Noir variety. The Drinks Business recently published the results of its competition The Pinot Noir Masters with Patrick Schmidt MW denoting Austria as “another nation that can wow with Pinot”.
The red-white-red quality seal on the capsule makes Austrian wines easily recognizable / Credit: OEWM - Lehmann
Many varied and interesting terroirs are found in Austria. The country’s vineyards include occurrences of almost all the main geological units at varying elevations and aspects with microclimates that offer superb opportunities for fine red wine.
In the southeast corner of Austria, the Eisenberg offers Blaufränkisch best circumstances for fine minerality and incomparable elegance, thanks to its special soils and a breath of Styrian freshness in the climate. The heavy clay soils of Mittelburgenland impart a particular depth of fruit to Blaufränkisch. This variety exhibits a completely different bright and chalky mineral character when grown on the limestone and mica schist slopes of the Leithaberg. The Spitzerberg enclave in Carnuntum has emerged as a particularly fine terroir for elegant Blaufränkisch with superb ageing potential.
The well-drained, alluvial limestone gravels of the Thermenregion provide ideal conditions for the finicky Sankt Laurent variety. where the largest contiguous area of the variety is cultivated. Considered a bit of a diva, Sankt Laurent demands good sites with deep soils and attentive care in the vineyard. Passionate producers with a long track record for producing high-quality Sankt Laurent are also found in other parts of Niederösterreich and Burgenland, particularly in the Neusiedlersee region. Usually planted in gravelly soils, the best Sankt Laurent wines are capable of uniting the power and spice that one would expect of Rhône with the elegance and delicacy of Burgundy.
Loamy soils in Carnuntum and in Burgenland’s wine-growing areas surrounding Lake Neusiedl yield attractively opulent Zweigelt wines. Favourable sites for this vigorous variety are also found in Austria’s coolest wine-growing areas in Niederösterreich and Steiermark.
The limestone gravels of the Thermenregion provide ideal conditions for Sankt Laurent / Credit: OEWM - Faber
Cool freshness, ripe tannins, deep fruit
Even with the great diversity of Austrian grape varieties and terroirs, the country’s red wines tend to exhibit a consistent characteristic that distinguishes them from those of other nations: aromatic freshness coupled with complete physiologic ripeness of the grapes. There is hardly another country in the world where refreshing red wines are so concentrated and substantial or where full-bodied red wines exhibit such grace. International wine critics, sommeliers, and wine connoisseurs appreciate Austria as a rich hunting ground for unique, high-quality red wines with ageing potential.