The wines of Austria are virtually unknown in New Zealand - strange when we realise that at the end of WWI Austria boasted the third largest wine production in the world. Today they rank 16th, just behind Greece and just two places ahead of New Zealand... and like much of Central Europe much of their wine is consumed domestically, a small amount escapes the borders to be enjoyed beyond.
Austrian wine evokes two things - firstly Gruner Veltliner, the grape that dominates the volume of production, and the infamous "Anti-Freeze Scandal."
In the 1900s, Austria was largely producing white wines made from Muller Thurgau and Gruner Veltliner, slightly sweet and rather ordinary wines - in fact a significant portion was exported in bulk to Germany and other countries to plump up their cheaper wines. In 1985 the Austrian wine industry virtually collapsed overnight with the shocking discovery of diethylene glycol in more than a dozen lines of Austrian wines - a chemical more commonly found in anti-freeze. When added to wine, it produced a broader and sweeter palate, and as with German wines the sweeter ones fetched better prices. Small issue being that in humans it can cause brain and kidney damage. Nobody knows exactly how or why it started, but it was speculated that it was to do the supply of large volumes of sweeter wines to German supermarkets at a consistent standard. Ultimately some 350 Austrian wines were blacklisted, and another producer charged after dumping 4,000 litres of poisoned wine into the local sewer.
Inadvertently perhaps ironically the anti-freeze scandal did the Austrian wine industry a favour- over the intervening decades the Austrian wine industry has transformed. Less of the large mass-produced and low quality wine, very strict production and quality controls and a swing towards organic and biodynamic production.
This week we hosted a tasting lineup of 9 different Austrian wines, four whites and five reds from different regions around Austria. Austrian wine production occurs between 46-48 degrees North, about the same as southern Germany and central France. Western Austria is greatly impacted by the Alps, with much of the white production coming from the areas north of Vienna, and the reds from the warmer region on the eastern border with Hungary.
We start with Gruner Veltliner (or 'Groovy' as the Americans seem to call it) is still the largest grape produced, accounting for more than a third of Austrian wine. Fresh, lean, mineral and herbaceous - the Bernard OTT 'FASS 4' Gruner is a very good example, matured in large old oak casks, with time on lees leading to a richer palate weight and a long savoury finish.
Next we move on to a Neuburger produced by Feiler-Artinger. This is a hybrid grape native to Austria, this example fermented in barriques and 5 months on lees. Much bigger in body than the Gruner, with a rich smoky nose, and complex stone fruit, florals and nutty flavours.
After that we moved on to a very polarising wine, Umathum Koniglicher Tafelwein (Kingly Table-wine) - made from Lindenblättriger, originally a Hungarian grape often blended with Furmint in making the iconic sweet Tokaji. This version is a dry wine however, and with a distinctive musky and oxidative nose with hints of kerosene reminiscant of an aged Riesling. Spicy on the palate, pear and lime.
Something a bit more familiar- our last white is a Reserve Riesling from Weingut Stadt Krems, a winery established 550 years ago and owned by the town of Krems - initially to provide revenue to fund the town hospital. It still owns 30 hectares of vineyards including some of the best plots in the region- perched precariously on steep stony hillsides above the Danube. The Riesling is a stunner, and drinking exceptionally well now at 8 years old. Slightly off-dry, with a brilliant complex nose of orange blossom, tangerine, lime, passionfruit and honeysuckle. Rich and slightly oily palate with a long and lingering finish.
Onto the reds, we start with a Pinot Noir by Pittnauer - different to a Kiwi version and perhaps more reminiscent of a Cote de Nuit Burgundy. Earthy and stinky on the nose, perhaps a whiff of tinned asparagus with a savoury herbaceousness that indicates possibly a cooler vintage and a touch of whole bunch use.
Next a St Laurent from the same producer - another Austrian grape. The parentage of the grape is believed to be a mix of Pinot Noir and another unknown grape varietal, and has a reputation of sitting somewhere between a Pinot Noir and Beaujolais. Juicy yet savoury berry flavours with plenty of warming spice. Out of curiousity we also opened a Kiwi example for comparison, the Spade Oak 'Heart of Gold' St Laurent - wafting with lavender and potpourri on the nose, with brighter cherry, raspberry and eucalyptus flavours.
Zweigelt is the most widely grown red grape in Austria, being a hybrid of St Laurent and Blaufrankisch. It is often blended in Austria with Cabernet and Merlot to produce their own version of a 'Bordeaux style' blend, but this example is 100% Zweigelt. Deep morello cherry flavours, and a rich meaty texture but soft tannins.
Lastly a pair of Blaukfrankish wines. The name translates loosely to 'Blue French' - in the middle ages grapes were divided broadly into 'Hunish' and 'Frankish' varietals, those from the Huns deemed to be lower quality in comparison to those from the 'Franks' (French). Perhaps easiest to borrow the words from Roland Velich to describe the grape- “If you have to describe it to someone who has never had Blaufrankisch, you could put it into the middle of the triangle of spicy Syrah of the Northern Rhone, tannic Nebbiolo of the Piedmont, and the soft silky Pinot Noir of the Burgundy. On a more general level, Blaufrankisch is a finely structured, spicy red wine with good acidity and tannins and loads of character.” Our first example is from Prieler, medium bodied with brooding black fruit and peppery spice. The last wine being a Reserve wine from Moric, a winery now producing some of the best wines in Austria. While the wine is made in a traditional Burgundian way, the result feels like a very modern wine with bright fruit up front, a linearity through the mid palate and long and rich but very smooth tannins.
Our evening concluded with a lively debate around the trends and merits of Organic, Biodynamic and the nebulous "Natural" wines, perhaps the common ground found in agreeing that Kiwis should be more adventurous in their palates and continue to search out wines from far beyond our borders to broaden our minds and palates! Thanks to everyone to came to make the evening a success.
Edit: 17/3/2015 - For those interested acclaimed wine reviewer Raymond Chan has also written a comprehensive blog on the evening here: http://www.raymondchanwinereviews.co.nz/blog/an-austrian-wine-tasting-at-wineseeker