Austria’s reds have often been more B-movie than blockbuster. But a lighter, more confident national style is injecting some real star quality into the country’s rotwein. Darren Smith goes autograph hunting
How wine fashions change. It wasn’t so long ago that reds from Austria were little more than an abstract concept to the trade in the UK. Importers had a hard enough time shifting the country’s revered whites.
Thankfully, vinous horizons have broadened considerably in the past five or 10 years, and Austria’s indigenous reds – Blaufränkisch, Zweigelt and Sankt Laurent – are now as fashionable as a Noble Rot tote bag or a Zalto Universal.
‘We’ve put a disproportionate amount of effort into reds really,’ admits Lance Foyster MW of Clark Foyster, who must take a lot of credit for the red revival. ‘The whites are established now – you can see a Grüner on a pub blackboard these days, which you would never have done 20 years ago. So in a way the work for the white wine is done, but for the reds it certainly isn’t.
‘When we first started I remember thinking that the Blaufränkisches were extracted,’ he recalls, ‘the oak was clumsy, the textures weren’t great, the tannins weren’t very well done. But things have improved enormously in the last 10 years.’
The trend has really accelerated thanks to young Austrian importer Peter Honegger, owner of Newcomer Wines. Along with Les Caves de Pyrene, Newcomer Wines has acted as a real catalyst for the growth in popularity of Austrian wines.
Honegger launched the company in February 2014, gradually building up a trade arm that accelerated wildly – they now actively serve more than 100 restaurants.
‘The fact that Austrian red wine is now on more and more wine lists,’ he says, ‘it’s not only that Austrian wine itself is fashionable, but also the general development is towards red wines that are a bit more balanced, a bit more drinkable, with less alcohol – wines that don’t have to go just with a huge steak or a rich dish.’
The trend for Austria’s star red grape has been away from sweetness and concentration and towards finesse and structure. Dirk Niepoort is a winemaker synonymous with the kinds of lissom, light-footed wines that 21st-century Austria does so well. It’s fitting, then, that he should be co-creator of one of the most elegant Blaufränkisches the country produces: Muhr-van der Niepoort, a Carnuntum project he launched with his ex-wife, Dorli Muhr, in 2002.
Now overseen by Muhr and her cellar master Lukas Brandstätter, Muhr-van der Niepoort is a wine that shows Blaufränkisch’s evolution from the rich, Bordeaux-apeing style of decades ago towards a Burgundian savour and finesse.
The real turning point for Blaufränkisch was the breakout success of one producer, Ernst Triebaumer from Rust. His first vintage, 1986, is now a legendary wine in Austria. Then in the early 2000s, a handful of important producers – Uwe Schiefer in Eisenberg, Roland Velich in Mittelburgenland, Paul Achs in Gols and Muhr-van der Niepoort in Carnuntum – started a renaissance for the variety.
The keys to success with Blaufränkisch, Muhr believes, are sensitive extraction and less oak, and, perhaps less obviously, but crucially, picking time.
While Blaufränkisch is known as being a late-ripening grape, Muhr has usually finished picking by the first days of October – a time at which they’re often just getting started in other regions. ‘Whatever we know about Blaufränkisch is mostly based on its behaviour in Mittelburgenland [a region with heavy, water-retaining soils],’ says Muhr. ‘If we were to treat Blaufränkisch the same way here it would be a very unbalanced wine…’
Muhr-van der Niepoort’s equivalent in Burgenland is Franz Weninger, who is exploring the terroir aspect. Working biodynamically, Weninger makes between seven and nine single-site Blaufränkisches per vintage, grown variously on loam, schist, limestone and slate.
For a relatively young winemaker, he has become something of a lynchpin of the new generation of producers with a raft of talented youngsters gravitating to his cellar. His lightbulb moment, he says, came in 2000.
‘I was coming home from California and I thought, OK, they’re copying Spain, or they’re copying Italy. I saw my father with a French oenologist telling him how to make Blaufränkisch and I thought, oh my god, it can’t be true.’
The kinds of change Weninger implemented as he took control of his family’s estate centred on a minimal intervention approach and a commitment to organic/biodynamic farming – methods since enshrined in the RESPEKT biodynamic winemakers’ organisation, which includes such leading lights of Austrian red winemaking as Andreas Gsellmann, Paul Achs, Judith Beck, Gernot and Heike Heinrich, Claus Preisinger and Gerhard Pittnauer.
‘I would say that we are definitely going in the same direction,’ Weninger says, ‘which means low sulphur, very long on the lees in the barrel, no racking, or maximum once, used barrels or big barrels… [The difference] is especially with the oxygen treatment, with the racking; even Roland Velich or Uwe Schiefer are doing more racking than most of the younger producers are doing. All these things lead to different aromas and structure in the wine.’
Zweigelt may be Austria’s most-planted red variety, but few people would put it in the same noble class as Blaufränkisch. Characterful quaffing wines that offer a nice point of interest midway down a by-the-glass list would seem an appropriate level for most of them. According to Honegger, Claus Preisinger in Gols makes one of the best interpretations of Zweigelt – one that is bright, sappy and drinkable.
‘Zweigelt could be a big international success,’ says Muhr.
‘It is a grape that is somehow related to Pinot; it is a very refreshing, very fine red wine. But most of the producers want to make a 14% heavily extracted wine out of it, which is probably not exactly ideal for the grape.’
The variety is a speciality in the western part of Carnuntum, around the villages of Göttlesbrunn and Höflein, both of which benefit from soils with more water content and cooling breezes from the surrounding forest to retain acidity and freshness.
Good producers include Martin Netzl and Horst Pelzmann, but Gerhard Markowitsch is widely regarded as the best Zweigelt producer in the region.
‘If you compare the wines of the 90s with [the wines of]today, they’re getting more elegant,’ he says. ‘They are really focused on the fruit, because as the vineyards are getting older [the wines are becoming]more focused. They are more serious when it comes to the fruits [with]deeper structure.
‘At the beginning, all of Austria we tried to copy too much. Now we have the right amount of experience to do the right things for our own grape varieties, our own single sites,’ he says.
Grown in Neusiedlersee, and bits of the Thermenregion and Weinviertel, Sankt Laurent is seen as a sort of enigmatic alter ego of Pinot Noir.
It’s true that the variety does have a similar, if somewhat deeper, fruit profile to Pinot, but it is in fact not related.
A bit more resilient to heat than Pinot, it rarely develops high sugars, so it is never very alcoholic. Pittnauer (Gols) and Philipp Grassl (Göttlesbrun) make serious versions, but there’s a lot of overoaked, flabby dross too.
When Pittnauer joined the Pannobile Lake Neusiedl winemaker’s group in 1998, he was using selected yeasts and new oak. In 2006, he began conversion to biodynamics, stopping new oak two years later. In 2012, he produced his first no-added-sulphur wine, BF Dogma. Last year he made four different wines that way.
‘The best expression of Sankt Laurent is a certain spicy note in the nose and a minty herbalness; silky and savoury on the palate, refreshing with good acidity and low alcohol,’ he reveals.
ABC – A Blaufrankisch Compendium
Carnuntum (esp Spitzerberg)
Famous names: Muhr-van der Niepoort
Poor sandy limestone soils, very low rainfall, big diurnal shift. Elegant wines that retain a markedly fresh acidity.
Famous names: Markus Altenberg, Gernot and Heike Heinrich, Birgit Braunstein
Limestone and mica-schist soils – elegant, spicy, tightly woven and balanced Blaufränkisch with some minerality.
Famous names: Moric, Franz Weninger
Water-retentive clay and loamy soils, Pannonian climate. Best known for full, spicy, fruit-forward, balanced styles of Blaufränkisch. Notable exceptions exist, for example the slate and limestone of Neckenmarkt.
Famous names: Paul Achs, Claus Preisinger, Gut Oggau
Clay, loam and gravel soils, Pannonian climate regulated by Lake Neusiedl. Less of a diurnal shift. More Zweigelt here. Blaufränkisch wines can be a touch heavy, though the best show elegance and balance.
Sudburgenland, esp Eisenberg
Famous names: Franz Weninger, Christoph Wachter-Wiesler
Green slate higher up slopes and iron-rich loam soils lower down – slate soils give mineral wines with higher acidity, in a lean, angular style. Iron-rich soils associated with earthier wines with firmer tannins, so the wines need longer to mature, but have great ageability.
We love Austria, we do…
Jan Konetzki, wine director, Ten Trinity Square and La Dame de Pic
Their quality, unique character and value make them relevant, and there is a lot to choose from in the UK. In Mei Ume, our Chinese and Japanese restaurant, Pittnauer’s St Laurent works well with the umami of raw tuna and soy sauce. In La Dame de Pic, our Michelin-starred modern French, we serve Moric’s Blaufränkisch with the aromatic cooking of Anne-Sophie Pic because it fills the gap between classy Burgundy and meaty Syrah from the Rhône.
Michael Sager, owner of Sager + Wilde
For us, Austrian wines are more important than on most other UK wine lists. Their energy is special and their vibrancy is clear as crystal. I love elegant reds from the Burgenland (Tschida, Altenburger, Preisinger). We are doing this collaboration with Christian Tschida, who I think is the most refreshing natural wine producer in Austria. He is firm in his beliefs yet his wines are balanced and utterly drinkable.
Jürgen Witschko, sommelier, The Fat Duck
Austrian reds are still a niche product, although the selection is great here. You can find all the styles of Blaufränkisch, Zweigelt and Sankt Laurent, from classic to reserve. A challenge is always to explain the meaning of DAC and what style is behind each. For me the most successful way to sell Austrian reds is: compare Blaufränkisch with Northern Rhône, Zweigelt with Beaujolais, Sankt Laurent with Volnay – give a quick overview, highlight the things in common and – SOLD!