Apart from how wonderful it can taste, the great pull of wine appreciation is there is always something new to learn; there are so many grapes to discover and so many countries and regions to explore. What I love most is attending an event where I discover a new region and some new varieties… and come away with a huge smile on my face, wanting to investigate further.
Before this tasting, my knowledge of Austrian wine started and ended with Grüner Veltliner (pronounced VeltLEEner, not VELTliner). I like Grüner a lot; I love its layers of fruit, minerality and spice. It turns out there is a lot more to discover and a lot more to love…
Thank you Austria.
It so happens that Evald, a student at the West London Wine School, is a fountain of Austrian wine knowledge. He also has a very fine cellar containing many fantastic Austrian wines… he was also kind enough to open his cellar to the West London Wine School and talk us through the wines and the regions at this most wonderful tasting event. The wines we tasted were interesting, different and delicious, and Evald was a most wonderful host; thank you so much for opening up the vinous delights that Austria have to offer.
Austrian wine is a real Phoenix from the ashes story, after the wine scandal of 1985 where a small number of wineries illegally added diethylene glycol (an ingredient used in anti-freeze) to improve the sweetness and body of some late harvest wines… this was only discovered when one of thesed greedy winemakers tried to claim tax relief against the purchase! Although it took the Austrian wine industry 15 years to recover from this, what it did do was to introduce much stricter wine laws, which have led to a very high quality output for us to enjoy today.
Yields are extremely low in Austria; the land under vine is half that of Germany yet the production is less than 25% in volume. The wine laws themselves resemble those of Germany; with PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) wines allowed to be produced using 35 permitted grape varieties (these wines all have the Austrian flag on the top of the cap). There is just over 45,000ha of total land under vine with 65% of output white and 35% red, although there has been a 10% shift towards red wines over the last decade. Grüner Veltliner accounts for 29% of all grapes grown followed by red Zweigelt at 14%, then a whole host of indigenous grapes such as Welschriesling and Weissburgunder (white), and Blaufraenkisch and St Laurent (red).
Our tasting began in the beautiful region of Wachau, an area of steep slopes, dry stonewall terraces and unique fauna and flora. The region produces the highest rated white wines in Austria and I was astonished to discover that less than 3% of Austrian wine production comes from the area, as most of the wine we see on the supermarket shelves in the UK has “Domaine Wachau” on the label. Wachau also has it’s own registered stylistic categories that only apply to dry white wines of the region, beginning with Steinfender for the lightest and freshest style, then Federspiel and finally, the full-bodied “Smaragd”.
Knoll Gelber Muskateller “Federspiel” 2012, Wachau (N/A UK, @£13 in Austria)
Muskateller is a member of the Muscat family producing highly fragrant and aromatic white wine. This has a very exotic and floral nose, quite reminiscent of Gewurztraminer; lychees and pineapple then a waft of red apple and a sprtiz of sweet spice. A very dry attack with lots of apple, especially the skin; a very fresh wine with lots of acidity. The palate is very different to the nose, perhaps not quite delivering quite on the promise but a very pretty wine that would make an excellent aperitif. 90 points
Knoll Grüner Veltliner “Ried Loibenberg” Smaragd 2010, Wachau (N/A UK, @£30 in Austria)
Rich and aromatic nose with apples, pears, a touch of fresh citrus and a delightful edge of exotic, warming spice. On the palate the wine is super-juicy upfront with apples and limes before the minerality kicks in and cleans the palate to allow the warm white pepper spice to come through on the long and delicious finish. A super complex and fresh wine with three stages, fruit, mineral and spice, which all come together in beautiful balance at the end. Lovely wine. 93 points
Hirtzberger Riesling “Singerriedel” Smaragd 2011, Wachau (Fine & Rare £62)
A good amount of citrus and peach fruit on the nose, along with unexpected perfume of white flowers – very unexpected from a Riesling. On the palate the fruit flavours are peach, tangerine and a touch of tropical pineapple. There’s a decent level of acid but what is most noticeable is the clean minerality and warm but gentle spice, very pure and very clean. Would’ve guessed Grüner rather than Riesling if it had been served blind but very good all the same. 92 points
There are a growing number of international varieties being planted in Austria; the next wine was an example of a Chardonnay from Vienna…
Wieninger Chardonnay Grand Select 2009, Vienna (N/A UK, @£30 in Austria)
Tropical fruit with pineapple and mango, plenty of stony notes, with a touch of nut and some heather honey – quite New World actually. On the palate there is lots of peachy fruit and the texture is big and creamy with buttery, nutty flavours coming through to add levels of complexity. This is a very good wine with lots of texture and complexity…. But the 14.5% alcohol really sticks out leaving a hot, boozy finish. Such a shame as there is so much to like. 91 points
Now it was time to explore the red wines of Burgenland with examples of St Laurent and Blaufraenkisch:
Umathum St Laurent “Frauenkirchner” 2007, Neusiedlersee (N/A UK, @£40 in Austria)
The wine needs a bit of coaxing in the glass to get to the nose of sour cherry, with just a hint of kirsch and dried herbs. The palate is fairly muted but there is a big whack of acidity. Unfortunately the texture is vey lean and when the fruit eventually manifests itself it is blackcurrant and hedgerows than show themselves somewhat briefly. Doesn’t quite deliver this one. 86 points
Umathum Blaufraenkisch “Joiser Kirschgarten” 2008, Neusiedlersee (N/A UK, @£45 in Austria)
Now this is much more like it! The aromas are feral and savoury with black cherry fruit, smoke and coffee… a bit like Cherry Coke! The palate is big and powerful but still ever so young. There’s black cherries and red currants, the body is medium+ and there are lots of savoury, meaty notes working together beautifully. It’s big, it’s brash and its fantastic – a great big feral (a bit dirty!) wine – like good, ballsy Gevrey. 93 points
Pittnauer ‘Alte Reben’ St. Laurent 2009, Burgenland (Clark Foyster Wines £35)
This was served blind and I thought it was Blaufraenkisch after the tasting the previous 2… turned out to be a far better expression of St Laurent. Bright red cherries with a hint of roasted meat on the nose. Fresh fruit on the palate with cherries and red currants and just a nice hint of smoke and smooth tannins. 90 points
And then came the encore… the magnificent sweet wines… just look at those colours!
Feiler-Artinger Chardonnay “Ruster Ausbruch Essenz” TBA 2006, Nuesiedlersee (N/A UK, @£40 in Austria 375ml)
The nose is all sweet tropical fruit – mango, pineapple, passion fruit… very reminiscent of pineapple cubes and very enticing. The wine simply fills and coats your mouth – it’s as close as you’ll ever get to drinking marmalade. The sweet fruit, the high levels of residual sugar and the super-fine levels of acid all come together in a glorious mouthful and mouthfeel – it is fabulous and makes you close your eyes and smile. Even better with a piece of stilton. Fantastic and will only get better. 94+ points
Kracher Chardonnay TBA Nr. 9 “Nouvelle Vague” 1998, Nuesiedlersee (Seckford Wines £50 375ml)
And this is why it’s worth waiting for sweet Austria Chardonnay! Still lots of fresh apricot and mango but now it’s joined by some almost savoury dried prunes. The attack is tropical fruit and marmalade then, having covered your mouth, it melts and the dried fruit comes to the fore leaving you with a long, long finis of burnt orange. This wine almost ages in your mouth, from fresh to dried and back again… It is absolutely fabulous. 96 points
Willi Opitz “Opitz One” Schilfwein 2008, Neusiedlersee (Hedonism £38 375ml)
Willi Opitz was awarded “Winemaker of the year” at the International Wine Challenge in 1996 and 1997 and invented “Schilfwein”, which is made from grapes dried on reed-beds, similar to the ripasso technique in Venetto. Opitz One is made using the red Zweigelt grape. There is blackberry fruit but also some white stone fruit, burnt sugar and a delicious hint of nuttiness. The palate has the blackberries and cherries but the hints of tropical fruit are still there as the wine gathers pace and momentum as it coats your entire mouth with it chocolaty texture. Every sip brings different combinations of these flavours, which makes it so exciting and so delicious. 95 points