Tasting Wine: Austrian reds in the spotlight

n less than a decade, Austrian vintners and importers have done a remarkable job of getting the press and consumers to pay attention to their wines. The white wines have garnered most of the attention in the way that the paparazzi pay more attention to Paris than Nicki (Hilton, not Richie). Grüner veltliner, an indigenous grape, and riesling have been the main draws, but as Austrian wines have entered into peoples’ consciousness, other wines, both whites and reds, have drawn recognition.

Now that grüner veltliner rolls right off the tongue, I’m going to put the spotlight on some of the reds. Today, red wine grapes account for 30 percent of the production of all wine made in Austria. The pride and joy of Austrian red wine is blaufrankisch, which may actually be originally from Slovenia. It is grown throughout central Europe, where it is also called lemberger (Germany) and kekfrancos (Hungary). Medium bodied with soft tannins, blaufrankisch has a peppery, berry character that is reminiscent of some wines from the southern Rhône.

Zweigelt is the most widely planted red grape in Austria, accounting for close to 9 percent of all vines planted in the country. A cross between blaufrankisch and St. Laurent that was created in 1922 by professor Fritz Zweigelt, an Austrian horticulturist, it is also pretty spicy with cherry, plum fruit and rose petal aromas. St. Laurent, another indigenous grape, bares a resemblance to pinot noir, and there is speculation that there might be a relation. As a rule, I find St. Laurent to be a bit spicier than pinot noir, though it shares its red berry, especially cherry flavor. Of the nonindigenous red wine grapes grown in Austria, pinot noir seems to be having the most success. While it accounts for just a snippet of all plantings, I’ve tasted some really terrific renditions lately.

For our tasting purposes, I’m going to stick to the native three mentioned above. If you are a fan of the wines from the Rhône Valley, or even zinfandel, these won’t seem too terribly different, and if you’re not, give them a shot anyway as you are likely to be pleasantly surprised.

Kollwentz-Romerhof Zweigelt, “Follikberg,” 2006 (Burgenland)

This single-vineyard wine is made by one of Austria’s oldest wine families. Layered with blackberries, dried blueberries, cherries and spice, this wine is fairly intense and has tons of charm.

Suggested retail: $37

Heinrich St. Laurent, 2005 (Burgenland)

I wrote about Gernot Heinrich’s Zweigelt in a column last year. One of the most influential producers in Austria, Heinrich is one of the founders of the Pannobile, a group composed of several winemakers in Neusiedlersee, a subregion of Burgenland, that is dedicated to making wines revealing the terroir of this historic area with the individual stamps of the winemakers. For this project, each winemaker makes one wine labeled as Pannobile, and Heinrich’s is one of the best, but for the money, I’d go for his St. Laurent. Medium bodied with cherry, raspberry fruit, tea rose and mineral notes, this wine has a beautiful elegance.

Suggested retail: $31

J. HeiNrich BlaufraNkisch “Goldberg,” 2004 (Burgenland)

Of what I’ve been able to figure out, Johann Heinrich is not related to Gernot. These Heinrichs have been making wine for more than 300 years and now, along with his daughter, Silvia, Johann is running one of the hottest estates in Burgenland. The Goldberg vineyard was planted by Johann’s parents and is now 60 years old. No surprise then that this is an immensely concentrated and complex wine, yet it is not too heavy. You can drink it now but give it some air. However, if you have the patience, put a bottle away and come back to it in a couple of years.

Suggested retail: $37

Pamela S. Busch is the wine director and proprietor of CAV Wine Bar & Kitchen in San Francisco.

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