Thanks to the splash Austria’s signature white, Grüner Veltliner, made on this side of the Atlantic some years back, the country’s wines are gradually claiming their rightful place in the American market.
Grüner established a firm foothold in the United States in the late 1990s when it became a trendy fixture on wine lists in Las Vegas, where many of the country’s top sommeliers are located. At one point, Aureole in Mandalay Bay reportedly had 150 of them on its list of 4,000 selections. The trend has since receded, but Grüner is now part of our wine landscape.
Much of its appeal is centered on its versatility with food. Grüner is a charm with fish and shellfish and is one of the few wines that plays well with vegetables—even wine-unfriendly ones, such as asparagus and artichokes. The wine comes in a variety of styles: The steep vineyards of the picturesque Wachau region produce a firm, mineral-based bottling, while the versions grown in Kremstal and Kamptal display spiciness and richer fruit. Grüner accounts for nearly one-third of vineyard plantings in Austria, although most of the wine is consumed locally when young. Leading producers include Hirsch, Willi Bründlmayer, Lenz Moser and Schloss Gobelsburg. While some bottles can fetch $35-$40, the Hirsch Veltliner #1 is widely available for $18.
Connoisseurs will tell you Austrian Riesling is even better than Grüner, and this may be true. The grape thrives in the terraced vineyards of Wachau, where the soil and climate are similar to the Rhine Valley in many ways. The wine tends to be rich in texture, with intriguing hints of white pepper, and pairs well with fish in substantial sauces, as well as with white meats. Many of the wineries that make Grüner produce Riesling as well. Excellent examples can be had from Loimer, Proidl and F.X. Pichler; prices begin at $10 and soar up to $65 for the best wines.
When it comes to reds, most Americans are on unfamiliar ground, probably because the names of the grape varieties are somewhat unwieldy. Blaufränkisch (otherwise known as Lemberger) is capturing the attention of the public with a fresh, medium-bodied and juicy texture similar to Pinot Noir. Good versions available in the States include Walter Glatzer, Sepp Moser and Weninger, all selling for less than $20. By far the most widely planted red wine grape is Zweigelt, which is actually a cross between Blaufränkisch and St. Laurent. Racy and lively, packed with crisp acidity, red fruits and spice, Zweigelt is similar to Grüner in that it is so friendly to food. Most bottles are in the $10 to $15 range and match up very well with white and red meats, stews and game dishes.
Historically Austria was known for dessert wines, but the market for those collapsed after the 1985 scandal in which a handful of producers were found to be adding diethylene glycol to make the wines taste sweeter. The industry shifted to dry white wines in the wake of that controversy, and the popularity of sweeter Austrian wine has only returned in the past decade. The best of these wines come from the eastern region of Lake Neusiedl (or Neusiedlersee), where climate conditions favor the incidence of botrytis, or “noble rot.” Producers such as Kracher and Hans Schwarz have been instrumental in returning the reputation of Austria’s dessert wine to its former glory, and the bottles are bargains compared to their German counterparts.
That’s certainly a development worth yodeling over.