Friday, July 25, 2014

Austrians Like Them Young

At a media event at the Island Creek Oyster Bar, I learned that many Austrians like them young, and by "them," I mean their wines. Many of them don't have the patience to let wines sit in their cellars. They want their wines to be fresh and young, ready to drink as soon as it is bottled. This is a generalization, and certainly not applicable to all Austrians, but it is common throughout Austria.

The Austrian Trade Commission in New York and the Burgenland Wine Marketing Board came to Boston and presented a trade seminar and tasting on Austrian red wines. We learned plenty about the Austrian wine industry, and had a chance to taste a number of wines from indigenous Austrian grapes, such as Zweigelt, Blaufränkisch and St. Laurent. I've enjoyed such wines before, and this tasting only confirmed to me the delights of Austrian red wines. This is another category of wines which many consumers do not appreciate sufficiently. At the wine store where I work, it is extremely rare for a customer to ask for an Austrian red.

Overall, Austria produces annually about 250 million liters of wine, which is also about the same amount they consume each year. They export 50-70 million liters of their wine, but import a similar amount. The country has about 46,000 hectares of vineyards, generally located in the eastern side of Austria, and over 6000 bottling estates, roughly three times as many estates as there are in Australia. 35 grape varieties, 22 white and 13 red, are legally permitted and Grüner Veltliner is the most planted grape, occupying about 29% of the vineyards. White grapes in total occupy about 66% of the vineyards.

As for red grapes, Zweigelt occupies the largest portion, about 14% of the acreage. Second place, at 7%, is occupied by Blaufränkisch and third place, at 3.5%, is taken by Blauer Portugieser. All of the other ten red grapes occupy 1% or less. In general, Austrian red wines tend to have dark red colors, deep aromas, black fruit flavors and be well structured.

Zweigelt (also known as Rotburger) is a cross of Blaufränkisch and St. Laurent that was created in 1922 by Dr. Fritz Zweigelt. It is a fertile grape which grows well all over Austria. With a good yield, soft tannins and being an early ripening grape, it appeals to the Austrian preference for young wines. As the indigenous Blaufränkisch usually requires some aging, Austrians apparently wanted an alternative, which thus led to the creation of Zweigelt.

Blaufränkisch (also known as Lemberger) is an old variety, which can possess lots of acidity, spiciness, strong tannins and has an excellent ageing potential. In addition, it can be very reflective of its terroir. St. Laurent, a descendant of Pinot Noir, is a challenging grape in the vineyard, often low yielding. The older the St. Laurent, the more it seems to resemble Pinot Noir.

Our tasting basically was broken down into two flights, the first being wines, produced from indigenous grapes, that tended to be more fruity and easy drinking. The second flight were all produced from Blaufränkisch, intended to show the effects of different terroirs on this grape.

From the first flight, two wines stood out to me, one from Zweigelt and the other from St.Laurent. The 2010 Netzl Zweigelt ($18) had an intense, fruity aroma and on the palate, the bright red fruit flavors shined, accompanied by spicy notes, a bit of earthiness, smooth tannins, and a lengthy, pleasing finish. Good complexity for this price point, but also an easy drinking wine, which can be enjoyed on its own or with food. The 2011 Juris St. Laurent Selection ($26.95) possessed an intriguing smoky aroma, accented by black fruit. Its taste included a nice melange of black cherry, blackberry, dark spices, and earthiness, with moderate tannins and a lengthy finish. A wine of more depth than the Zweigelt, it probably would be best paired with a hearty dish, maybe a nice steak or even wild boar.

The Blaufränkisch flight was fascinating, showing how wines from this grape can differ dependent on terroir. In general, I enjoyed most of the wines in this flight, and believe that these are essentially food wines, especially because of their strong tannins. Black fruits and spicy notes were common to these wines, though, individually, some possessed elements of minerality, earthiness, or smokiness. What this means for the average consumer is that you can find diversity in Austrian Blaufränkisch, that it isn't a wine of a singular taste profile. More advanced wine lovers can revel in the differences of these wines from varied terroirs.

The 2011 Iby Blaufränkisch Classic was the easiest drinking of the wines, with bright red fruit flavors, blueberry notes and some mild spiciness. The tannins were the mildest of the group, though the finish was also the shortest. However, this would be an excellent introductory Blaufränkisch for anyone. The 2011 Prieler Blaufränkisch Leithaberg DAC impressed me with its complexity and taste. Delicious black fruit flavors, mild spiciness and smoky elements with an underlying minerality. With a lengthy finish, this is a wine you want to slowly savor. Highly recommended. An earthier choice is the 2011 Iby Blaufränkisch Hochäcker, definitely very different from their Classic. With more spice and black fruits, the earthy aspects dominate, reminding me of some Burgundies. Another hearty recommendation.

My favorite wine of the tasting was the 2011 Moric Blaufränkisch Reserve ($45-$50), which stunned me with its complex pleasures. Each sip seems to bring out different elements, from its blend of red and black fruits, to its strong minerality. There are intriguing notes of spice, herbs and even chocolate. The tannins are moderate but not overwhelming, and the wine lingers for quite a long time on your palate. One glass won't be enough for you, and the bottle will be empty far too quickly. This is a wine to impress your friends, and I highly recommend it.

Give some Austrian Zweigelt, St.Laurent and Blaufränkisch a try. Go to your local wine store and ask what Austrian reds they carry. Go to your local restaurants and ask what Austrian reds they have on their wine list.

What's your favorite Austrian red wine?

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