Austria Report 2014: Visiting Vienna, Best of Blaufränkisch; Little Black Danube Valley Address Book + Ontario Buyer’s Guide
Sept. 9, 2014
John Szabo reports on his latest trip to the Imperial capital of Vienna for the 2014 edition of Vievinum. Apparently, he had fun, and he shares some discoveries that will be useful to all but die-hard, one-brand wine drinkers.
Mozart + Schnitzel +… Wein
by John Szabo MS
Mozart, the Vienna Philharmonic, the Salzburg music festival, the waltz, Wiener schnitzel, 19th century coffee houses or skiing in Innsbruck… Austria has many cultural references with which many North Americans will have at least some vague familiarity, if not personal intimacy. But wine from Austria? Awareness in Canada that wine is produced in this tiny, mostly Alpine central European country is as limited as the number of shelf-facings on Canadian government monopoly stores. That is, at least outside of the cozy world of sommeliers and wine writers and the not-so-occasional wine consumer unafraid to venture into the darker corners of the Vintages section. For these people, Austrian wine has already emerged from the dark Vienna Woods.
But since Austria may well produce some of the finest wines you’ve never tasted, it’s high time to experience Austrian life beyond Mozart.
So here’s my pitch. It includes suggestions on what to do in romantic Vienna to get you in the mood, followed by a look at the current Austrian wine scene, a list of the cream from nearly four score of blaufränkisch recently tasted (that’s Austria finest red grape), and the addresses in the Danube Valley that every wine lover should have (from the flagship appellations – Wachau, Kamptal, and Kremstal – for the country’s most important white variety, gruner veltiner, as well as riesling – Austria’s best kept secret and some of the very finest in the world). I’ll round it up with a Buyer’s Guide of wines currently available in Ontario. There is, of course, so much more. But it’s a start.
Each time I travel to Vienna, I’m swept up by the romance that hangs in the air, that suffuses the old wood panels and ancient stones, and lingers in the almost audible string quartets echoing off the cobbled streets and dancing in the dying light glinting off the Danube. I sit on the patio of the 19th C. coffee house Grienstiedl in the Michaelerplatz sipping a g’spritzer, an upscale version of soda and white wine, while listening to the soulful strings of a concert-level celloist reverberate off the walls of Empress Sisi’s Hofburg Palace residence with a sound that most concert halls would envy, busking more for practice than for pay.
I never miss a chance to travel up to the Nussberg vineyard on the northwest hills above the city to take in its magnificent, commanding view over all of Vienna, the spire of St. Stephen’s Cathedral in the Stephansplatz a tiny toothpick in the distance.
And it’s from this vineyard that one of my favorite Viennese wines hails: the Nussberg Alte Reben from Franz Wieninger, made from an interplanted mix of old vines that ripen each year under the Pannonian sun. This traditional field blend and others made from the 650-odd hectares within the city’s boundaries are a uniquely Viennese specialty officially called gemischter satz, which is almost as much fun to say as it is to drink. (If the Alte Reben isn’t available, Wieninger’s straight up Gemischter Satz is a more than worthy substitute.)
It’s unthinkable not to spend an evening in one of the dozens of heurigen in the outlying districts, like the Mayer am Pfarrplatz in the 19th district where Beethoven stayed in 1817 to work on the Eroica and begin composing the 9th symphony, and more recently, Arnold Schwarzenegger and his entourage nearly knocked me over on their way out through the narrow wooden door. Heurigen are Austrian institutions devoted to local food and especially wine scattered around the city’s outlying districts, where everything is produced on-premise, including the wine, and is served on long wooden tables in the open air under vine-covered pergolas. And the accordion plays on.
Then I’ll return to the center and stroll through the cobbled streets of this Imperial City, and admire its magnificent baroque buildings and palaces, heavily statued parks and squares, the rows upon rows of museums, the extravagant wood-paneled shrines to coffee, and inhale the strangely pleasant and authentic scent of fresh horse manure as I idle past the rows of carriages parked outside of St. Stephen’s Cathedral waiting to ferry passengers around the old quarter of the 1st district.
If hungry, there’s always the city’s most famous schnitzel at Figlmuller’s or the incomparable tafelspitz at Plachutta – a Rabelesian feast of boiled meats – or for more refined Austrian cuisine, the Michelin-starred Steiereck.
And throughout it all, I’m constantly struck by the nation’s inherent composure and self-confidence; you can’t help but get a sense that Austrians are secure, and more than just financially. There’s a sense of comfort related to both the past and present, and indeed a conspicuous absence of insecurity regarding the future.
I suppose such a city couldn’t help but produce that legendary Viennese haughtiness – so pronounced in some cases as to make even a real Parisian blush – that I’ve come to expect, and even appreciate, being such a dramatic change from Canadian politeness. I suspect the attitude is born of this culture of precision and suspicion, even intolerance, of anything sub-standard that seems to be shared by all of Alpine Europe. Is it the mountain air? Order your drinks and get on with it, no time for polite dithering.
The Wine Scene
Wine culture thrives in Vienna, but not in the self-conscious, self-congratulatory way it often does in North America. In countless restaurants and wine bars, details are taken seriously but matter-of-factly, and one inevitably concludes that serving a wide selection of local wines at the proper temperature in gorgeous crystal stems is really just the way things are done, not how some star sommelier has dictated they should be in order to gain advantage over the competition and notoriety for himself. Switzerland may have watches, but Austria has some of the world’s finest glassware, such as the ever-expanding range from Georg Riedel, and Zalto, which for my money is easily the best high-end stemware on the market, so there are no excuses.
No visit to Vienna is complete without a stop at Wein & Co. just off of the Stephansplatz, one of the best wine shops/wine bars in the city where you can browse, buy, and bring your wine over the to bar side for chilling and sipping. That’s if you don’t find anything you like on the already extensive “regular list”. The historic Zum Schwarzen Kameel is also a favorite, especially if you find a seat on the crowded patio. You’ll experience fine wine and Viennese attitude all in one.
The Austrian Wine Zeitgeist
Austrian confidence permeates the wine industry, too, particularly refreshing in a business that is constantly looking over the fence to see what’s happening on the other side. Not to say that Austrian winemakers aren’t interested in the rest of the world, nor arrogantly under the impression that they make the world’s best wine – far from it – but neither do they feel an urgent need to change what they’re doing to chase current consumer trends. It’s as if to say, “stay the course and success will come”.
But it hasn’t always been this way. Only a few short decades ago the entire Austrian wine industry was in a state of crisis, if not outright panic, in the face of an overblown scandal that saw exports drop off the radar. It was as though a millennial tradition of winemaking had evaporated like the angel’s share from a barrel of wine. The remote, glorious past meant nothing to contemporary wine drinkers.
But setbacks can be turned into opportunities, and Austrians wasted no time in revamping the entire industry from top to bottom, imposing some of the strictest quality controls in the world of wine. The return road to international markets was bumpy and many of the same mistakes that have hampered other new and old world winemaking countries were committed, such as over reliance on international, often unsuitable grapes, adherence to the belief that clever winemaking could fix any problems, and devotion to over ripeness and the flavour of new oak. “The past three decades have seen plenty of setbacks, wrong turns and detours” says Willi Klinger, head of the Austrian Wine Marketing Board.
White wines have historically been Austria’s strength, and the fine-tuning that has occurred over the last three decades has shifted them into the top world leagues. Gruner veltliner remains the most planted grape by a good margin and in many ways defines Austrian wines, at least for export markets. It’s a polyvalent variety, running the spectrum of styles from light and whit-pepper scented from cooler areas like the Weinviertel, to round, full-bodied lush examples from the wind-blown loess soils west of Vienna on either side of the Danube (especially the regions of Wagram and Traisental), and piercing, firm, minerally wines from vineyards planted right on primary rock (gneiss, granites, etc.) in the Danube Valley.
Yet Austrian Riesling, in my view, and at the risk of offending a large percentage of the wine industry, produces the country’s very finest white wines. The examples from the primary rock terraces lining the Danube west of Vienna, especially the Wachau region and select sites in the Kamptal and Kremstal, are strikingly mineral, powerful, enormously complex wines capable of long-term cellaring and shouldn’t be missed by fans of the grape. See below for some trustworthy names to look for.
Other more exotic local grapes like rotgpfler and zierfandler from the Thermenregion south of Vienna can surprise by their dense orchard fruit and minerally character. Look for the wines of Stadlmann for a good introduction. In the southern part of the country, in the region called Steiermark (Styria), sauvignon blanc is the calling card. Steep slopes of varying composition including volcanic, gravel, limestone soils yield pungent sauvignons, somewhere between Loire Valley, Bordeaux and New Zealand in style, and most closely resembling the perfumed examples in Italy’s neighboring Friuli region. Look for Sattlerhof or Tement to get yourself started.
I’ll also put in a word for Styria’s pale rose specialty called Schilcher [SHILL-hair] made from the blauer wildbacher grape. These bone dry, searingly tart wines are a bit of an acquired taste, but I personally love the vibrancy and first-sip-of-the-day acids. Try Reiterer’s Alte Reben (“Old Vine”) Engleweingarten schilcher for a pleasant shock.
Reds on the Rise
Hands down, however, the greatest improvements in Austrian wine have come in the red wine category. I recall the first tasting of Austrian reds I attended some fifteen years ago in Toronto, where I was struck by how woeful they were for the most part: thin, green, weedy, or crushed by excessive oak and over-extraction. Klinger, referring specifically to red wines, is appropriately circumspect: “Looking back, we can see that while each of these innovations [international varieties, extraction, excessive oak use] were important steps on the way to new red wine highs, they were not the essence of this development.”
Now Austrian vintners, at least the top tier, have moved past this developmental phase to the point where terroirs and native varieties have been embraced with confidence. “Austria has three aces up its sleeve, namely the indigenous grape varieties Zweigelt, Blaufränkisch and St. Laurent. It is only now that we really understand how to play this incredible starting hand,” says Klinger.
My most recent tastings, including wines from the excellent 2011 and 2012 vintages, underscore the point. Austrian winemakers today can confidently spend more time looking at their vineyards rather than outside the country, comfortable in the knowledge that both their native grapes and their varied terroirs are able to produce wines that are as distinctive and qualitative as any other great local specialties around the world.
Proof of Success
A quick glance at the steep upward graph depicting Austrian wine exports over the last three decades tells a clear tale: foreign markets have grown increasingly confident in the quality of Austrian wines, and are willing to pay more and more for them. Exports reached an all-time high of 137m euros in 2013, all the more remarkable considering the steady or even decreasing exports by volume, thanks in part to several consecutive short crops. The value curve has been rising steeply for a decade. Also, average export price per liter topped 3 euros (c. $5) for the first time in 2013. That may not seem like a lot to Canadian consumers used to paying $15 and up for a decent 750ml bottle of wine, but that figure is among the highest in the world.
Still Work to Be Done
But there is, of course, still work to be done – any country that stands still in today’s market is quickly left behind. Red wine quality is still not uniformly high, and too many still rely on the crutch of over-making wines. The divide between progressive and backward looking winemakers is still wide. Blaufrankisch, despite its firm tannins and marked acids, is nonetheless a dainty variety, with delicate tart red fruit flavours that need to be preserved through careful handling. Heavy wood/caramel flavours all too easily overwhelm the delicate fruit character that makes the grape so attractive in the first place, and one gets the sense that great fruit is often compromised by aggressive winemaking. Several of the wines recently tasted are not at international level, while a handful could even be considered defective, and this among what are supposed to be the country’s top rated wines.
“When it comes to Blaufränkisch, we have seen that it was the right decision to move the focus away from cellar techniques and place it on the work in the vineyard,” emphasizes Klinger, words that more winemakers need to take to heart.
For detailed information on the Austrian wine industry and all appellations, visit the Austrian Wine Marketing Board excellent and comprehensive website.
The Wines: Top Blaufrankisch from 2011-2012
Following are a dozen blaufrankisch to track down at all costs. The wines were tasted in June 2014 during the biennial fair called Vievinum held in the Hofburg Palace in Vienna. The list of wines to be tasted was compiled by the Austrian Wine Marketing Board from the highest rated wines as judged by the local press.
The Burgenland in the far east of Austria on the border with Hungary, and its various sub-appellations, remains the reference region of production. Among my general observations is that limestone and slate soils seem to give the best – most refined, elegant and mineral – versions of blaufrankisch. The Leithaberg and Eisenberg DACs are almost uniformly excellent, while the silty-loam-clays of Carnuntum were generally less exciting, with many wines bearing the heavy hand of the winemaker. Exceptions, however, prove the rule.
A Killer Dozen
Weingut Ernst Triebaumer 2011 Blaufränkisch Ried Mariental Burgenland. Ernst Tribaumer took over the 300 year family operation in 1971, implementing a new quality direction. Many cite the 1986 Triebaumer Mariental blaufrankisch as the first great serious Austrian red wine, and it continues to be a reference point. The Mariental vineyard is an east-facing, mostly calcareous vineyard in Rust, with over 50-year-old vines, bottled separately only in exceptional vintages. The 2011 intense and concentrated, but without exaggeration, in the darker fruit spectrum, dense, rich, compact. Nearly twenty years on since this wine first catapulted Austrian reds into the international spotlight, this still remains a top reference. Best after 2018 – this can also age magnificently into the late ’20s.
Moric 2011 Blaufränkisch Lutzmannsburg “Alte Reben” Burgenland. Roland Velich is a widely recognized master of blaufrankisch, a variety he has pushed to the limits to see what could be obtained. His range of village and single vineyard wines is nothing short of extraordinary, vinified meticulously with the lightest of touches and refinement and elegance in mind. The old vines from Lutzmannsburg, some over 100 years and planted in high density, is all about finesse and florality, pure and authentic, the hallmarks of this sandy-loam over primary rock site. An energetic, natural wine of top quality.
Weingut Gernot und Heike Heinrich 2011 Blaufränkisch Ried Alter Berg Burgenland. Gernot Henrich runs a sizable operation (500k bottles annually) from a stylish, modern facility in the Burgenland, producing several ranges of wines, each at the top of their respective price categories. Grapes are biodynamically farmed, and the key words here are purity and elegance. The Alter Berg is a sea fossil-rich site in the Leithagebirge hills on the western shore of Lake Neusiedl, vinified à la pinot noir, in open top wooden fermenters and aged in 500l barrels. This is classic blaufrankisch: pure wild cherry, floral, blood orange character, clean and pure, with gorgeous, juicy acids and fine-grained tannins. For current enjoyment or mid term hold.
Weingut Uwe Schiefer 2012 Blaufrankisch Königsberg, Burgenland. A former sommelier at Vienna’s top restaurant, Steiereck, Uwe Schiefer is another acknowledge blaufrankisch specialist and among the first to pursue the more refined and elegant side of the variety. From his excellent range, the Königsberg vineyard stood out; this pure limestone site planted with over 50-year-old vines is a beauty. Classy, spicy and beautifully structured, with terrific length, it should hit prime towards the end of the decade. Look also for the 2012 Eisenberg, a top notch schist-quartz expression of the grape.
Weingut Wachter-Wiesler 2011 Blaufränkisch Reserve “Alte Reben” Eisenberg. This was a great discovery for me, the first wine I’ve tasted from Wachter-Wiesler, established in 1999 with the amalgamation of the two families’ vineyards. “For me, a wine is most interesting, natural and authentic when it is known where its grapes are grown,” says Christoph Wachter, and every effort to preserve the natural vineyard expression is made. The Alte Reben (“old vines”) is made from eighty year-old vines grown on the green slate soils that dominate the Eisenberg appellation, aged in 1500l casks. It delivers high density and intensity, compact tannins and firm acids, not to mention tremendous length. A serious wine, succulent, elegant and balanced.
Weingut Birgit Braunstein 2011 Blaufränkisch Leithaberg DAC. Another great discovery are the wines of Birgit Braunstein, made from organically grown, minimally-handled grapes. The limestone-rich soils of the Leithaberg favour finesse, which is perfectly preserved by wild ferment wild in wood vats and ageing in old 500 liter barrels. This 40 year-old vine cuvée is pure, and fragrant, succulent and lively. I love the fresh acids firm, structured tannins, balanced by ripe and zesty red berry fruit. Good to very good length. Best after 2016.
Weingut Familie Prieler 2011 Blaufränkisch Ried Goldberg Burgenland. The Prieler family has been in Schützen for at least 150 years practicing polyculture, and made the transition to a dedicated wine estate in 1972. Today the family farms 30 hctares of vineyards on the western shores of Lake Neusiedl under a nature reserve. The Goldberg and its mineral-rich slate soils is the top blaufrankisch bottling, pure, red fruit driven with typical herbal spice. I like the black currant character, juicy, lively acids, and fully integrated wood (26 months in small barrel, though must be well-used).
Weingut Muhr – van der Niepoort 2011 Blaufränkisch Ried Spitzerberg Carnuntum. This is the only non-Burgenland blaufrankisch to make my top list, though considering the unusually high limestone content of the Spitzerberg, and the partnership between Dorli Muhr and Dirk Neipoort (of the extraordinary Niepoort wines in the Douro Valley, Portugal, it’s not surprising that it sits in the top class. This is fine, fragrant, balanced and elegant blaufrankisch, highly minerally, with lovely wild cherry fruit. And if you think this is good, just wait for the 2012s to be released.
Weingut Pittnauer 2011 Blaufränkisch Ried Ungerberg Burgenland. Although considered St. Laurent specialists, the biodynamically-farmed, wild yeast fermented blaufrankisch from the Ungerbrg vineyard is a stunning wine. It spends 20 months in old barrels, delivering an intriguing aromatics including green olive, citrus-blood orange, and authentic grape spice while the palate is arch classic blaufrankisch with its mid-weight, fine but dusty tannins and crunchy acids, plus mineral character.
Weingut Anton Hartl 2011 Blaufränkisch Ried Rosenberg Leithaberg DAC. Organically certified grapes (since 2010), high limestone content in the vineyard and gentle handling give Toni Hartl’s blaufrankisch a quality edge. The 2011 is just on the right side of reductiveness, with lively red berry fruit, tart and juicy – a blaufrankisch on the more elegant and succulent side.
Weingut Anita & Hans Nittnaus 2011 Blaufränkisch Ried Tannenberg Burgenland. Although not the most expensive wine in the Nittnaus range, the Tannenberg vineyard blaufrankisch is for me their finest wine. Made from biodynamically-grown grapes, the 2011 has genuine complexity and character, voluminous and substantial palate, with fine-grained, firm tannins and succulent acids. A superb wine, best after 2016.
Weingut Krutzler 2011 Blaufränkisch Reserve Burgenland. In opposition to the current trend in the Burgenland for site-specific bottlings, the Krutzlers “no longer rely exclusively on single vineyards, but rather focus on the interplay of premium fruit, consistent vineyard management and steady stylistics”. The Reserve is made from 15- to 30-year-old vines on the estate’s top sites on the Eisenberg and in Deutsch-Schützen, and this offers a nicely balanced nose and palate to match, with a fine mix of tannins and acids, alcohol and fruit. Everything is nicely in place, with excellent length. Best after 2016.
Little Black Book Addresses in The Wachau, Kamptal and Kremstal
While not an exhaustive list, these are the producers you shouldn’t miss when traveling through the Danube Valley west of Vienna, or when shopping anywhere for top bottles of grüner veltliner and Riesling from Austria.
Buyer’s Guide: Top Smart Buys in Ontario
The following recommended wines are currently available in Ontario, either at the LCBO or via consignment agents. Click on each for the details.
Loimer Spiegel Grüner Veltliner 2012 Kamptal, 94 $64.95
Weinrieder Riesling Kugler 2009, Weinviertel 92 $29.95
Weingut Loimer Grüner Veltliner Terrassen 2012 Niederösterreich, 92 $39.95
X. Pichler Federspiel Loibner Klostersatz Grüner Veltliner 2012 Wachau, 91 $37.95
Wieninger Gemischter Satz 2013, Vienna 90 $20.95
Kurt Angerer Grüner Veltliner Kies 2013 Niederösterreich, 90 $19.95
Winzer Krems Edition Chremisa Grüner Veltliner 2012 Niederösterreich, 89 $24.95
Zahel Gruner Veltliner Goldberg 2013, Vienna 88 $22.60
Weingut Loimer, Grüner Vetliner ‘lois’ 2013 Niederösterreich, 87 $18.95
Heinrich St Laurent 2010, Burgenland 91 $36.95
Heinrich Zweigelt 2012, Burgenland 89 $24.95
Zantho St Laurent 2011, Burgenland 88 $18.00
That’s all for this week. See you over the next bottle.
John Szabo MS