Relatively obscure to most of the world, wine has been a part of Austrian culture for over 2,000 years. And with respect for their ancient heritage, modern 21st century producers are forging ahead, expanding new regions, adding diversity to the vineyard and complex flavors to the marketplace.
Most known to U.S. consumers are white wine releases from the Wachau region where riesling and grüner veltliner grow together on terraces etched in the slopes above the Danube River. However, there has been tremendous growth, in recent years, with producing red varietals. While cabernet sauvignon, merlot and pinot noir are found in Austria, they are mostly used to blend with native red grapes like blaufrankisch, zweigelt, St. Laurent and others.
Austria is actually at the same latitude as Burgundy, France, but more centrally located in Europe. Climate with warm days and cool nights along with a diverse range of loess-layered, calcareous and volcanic soils create distinctive, high quality wines available to us at exceptional value.
Austrian vineyards are divided among four major growing regions, set in the east, near borders with the Czech Republic, Slovenia and Hungary. The largest region, Niederösterreich (Lower Austria) is home to eight sub-regions including Wachau, Kremstal and Kamptal where some of the best riesling and grüner veltliner are grown.
Burgenland consists of five sub-regions that produce a broad range of full-bodied red and white wines.
Picturesque, with steep sloped vineyards, Steiermark has three sub-regions that are the origin to many Austrian white varietals, but most notably some of the world’s best sauvignon blanc.
The last area is Wein, a small region outside of Vienna that focuses, in addition to riesling and grüner veltliner, on native white varietals like welschriesling, weissburgunder and traminer.
Even with the growing diversity, grüner veltliner remains Austria’s national grape with nearly 43,000 acres under vine. It thrives in the Lower Austria region with deep, loose soils and an environment less conducive to disease.
From the Wagram sub-region on terraces above the north banks of the river, the Leth Steinagrund Grüner Veltliner 2015 expresses complexity throughout with concentrated citrus and spice on the nose and palate. The fresh minerality from mid-palate through the finish lives up to its 91-point rating from Wine Enthusiast magazine.
Named a Best Buy 2019 wine by Wine Enthusiast, the dry, fresh Buchlegger Holzgasse Grüner Veltliner 2018 ($12) originates from the Holzgasse Vineyard in the Kremstal sub-region near Wachau. The subtle bouquet opens to a rich mouthfeel of herbal, floral and citrus flavors.
The native blaufränkisch is Austria’s flagship red varietal. The wines are generally fruit-forward and spicy, which is what I found in the Triebaumer Blaufränkisch Rust 2018 Burgenland ($19). Beginning with aromas of ripened fruit, pepper spice and floral hints, the concentrated, but balanced fruit flavors finish with lingering spice notes. It is an impressive wine for the price.
The zweigelt grape is fairly new to Austria, beginning in 1922 when professor Fritz Zweigelt successfully crossed blaufränkisch and St. Laurent. Over time it has become the country’s most widely planted red varietal. Aged six months on lees, the lush Erich Sattler Zweigelt 2018 Burgenland ($18) offers intense aromas of baked fruit and herbs. The soft mouthfeel sets forth balanced plum, dark berry and spice flavors.
This and other Erich Sattler wines are available in the Bay Area and online for as low as $15 per bottle. His zweigelt is a terrific value under $20.
Related to pinot noir, the sparsely planted St. Laurent grape is, most likely, the descendent of a Burgundy seedling. It has seen a resurgence in Thermenregion (Lower Austria), and various vintages of the Weingut Schneider St. Laurent Thermenregion are available locally in the $20 range.
Some of the best terroir for sauvignon blanc lies in Sudsteiermark, part of the Steiermark region. Aged on lees in stainless steel tanks, the Weingut Sattlerhof Sudsteiermark Sauvignon Blanc 2018 ($25), readily available online, delivers complex stone and tropical fruit with saline and herbal notes on the finish.
Austrian wines, red and white, pair well with a variety of foods, especially Asian cuisine. They match up well with curry, chili and other flavors in my favorite Thai, Vietnamese and Chinese dishes. Hot tip for the day: Sushi, sashimi and gruner veltliner make for a match made in heaven.
Guest columnist Lyle W. Norton is a wine enthusiast and blogger in Santa Rosa who has written a wine column for 20 years. Visit his blog at www.lifebylyle.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org.