Wine has been produced in Austria for thousands of years, so it’s not exactly a new industry. But it can be challenging to find Austrian wine in the U.S. Restaurants with an adventurous international wine list will likely have some Austrian wines available by the bottle, and if you find a wine bar with a great sommelier or wine director, you can sample Austrian wines by the glass. The Austrian wine you are most likely to see is Grüner Veltliner (pronounce the “v” like an “f”). It’s THE white wine of Austria, accounting for approximately 30% of Austria’s vineyard acreage. (That might not sound like a lot, but when you consider that the other 21 white grapes grown in Austria account for another 30% combined, it shows how dominant Grüner Veltliner is.)
Grüner Veltliner is a dry, crisp wine that often exhibits a bit of spicy pepperiness. Oaked versions are usually rounder, while unoaked offerings show more minerality. It’s a great food wine but also quite pleasant as an aperitif.
Before we left on our Austrian holiday adventure, my brother and sister-in-law sent us a trio of Austrian wines for Christmas—homework, as they put it. The white was Grüner Veltliner (of course), the red was a blend of Merlot, Pinot Noir, and St. Laurent, and there was a sparkling made from Pinot Noir as well. All three are available at Total Wine.
We began with the Winzer Krems Grüner Veltliner Kremser Sandgrube. It was delicious—it had good acidity and tasted of peach and citrus with just the slightest hint of sweetness. We drank it one night with chicken sausages and the next with salmon burgers. It complemented both very well, and even matched with the Brussels sprouts we ate, which is no small accomplishment. (Brussels sprouts and asparagus are typically difficult to pair with wine because of their bitter qualities.)
The Hillinger Small Hill Red Blend was fantastic. Merlot and Pinot Noir are well-known grape varieties, but I had never had St. Laurent before. The wine had a good backbone of tannins without being sharp.
The last of the bunch was Hillinger Secco Pinot Noir Sparkling Rosé. It was well-structured with good acidity balanced by fruit, but not overwhelmingly fruity.
While in Austria, we had surprisingly few opportunities to drink wine. When we were shopping at the Christmas markets, we had Gluwein, punsch, or hot chocolate, and we drank beer or Champagne several times as well. But when we did manage to drink wine, we drank only Austrian varietals. Why go to Austria to drink French wine?
At Gasthaus zur Oper in Vienna, I tried a Blaufränkisch, and my husband had Zweigelt. Blaufränkisch is a red grape common in Austria and Eastern Europe. I enjoyed it, but it was very tannic, which is a hallmark of Blaufränkisch. If you don’t like tannic wines, you will probably not like this one. Btw, when grown in the U.S. (primarily in Washington State and the Finger Lakes district of New York), this grape is called Lemberger.
The Zweigelt, which is also red, was less tannic and had more fruit both on the nose and the palate. The grape is a hybrid of St. Laurent and Blaufränkisch, so it shares some characteristics with both, but to a lesser degree. Zweigelt is the most widely planted red wine grape in Austria. Total Wine offers several Austrian Zweigelts and one Blaufränkisch if you’re interested in trying them but can’t go all the way to Austria!
At Die Wilderin in Innsbruck, I experimented with white wines that were not Grüner Veltliner. First I tried a Weissburgunder, then a Grüner Silvaner. The Weissburgunder was smooth and round on the finish with a silky mouthfeel. It was similar to California Chardonnay, but less oaky and buttery. My notes on the Silvaner are less helpful: “The Silvaner was unlike anything I’ve ever had. I don’t even know how to describe it.” Thanks, me of two months ago. Weissburgunder and Grüner Silvaner each accounts for a very small portion of Austria’s wine production, and are exceedingly difficult to find in the States. So you may actually have to go to Austria if you want to try these!
We also had Grüner Veltliner three times in Austria, and they were all delicious. At our hotel bar in Vienna we had a Weingut Jurtschitsch from Kamptal. On the train from Vienna to Innsbruck (yes, you can buy and drink wine on the train!) we coincidentally had a 2013 Winzer Krems Sandgrube, which was one of the wines from our “homework” assignment. And with Christmas Eve dinner at the Hotel Schwarzer Adler, we had a Domäne Wachau 2014 Federspiel, which you can buy at wine.com and BevMo. I recommend them all.
The bottom line is that Austria makes some wonderful wines, both red and white, but white is where they truly excel. If you have an opportunity to sample them for yourself, I suggest you seize it!
P.S. February 18 is National Drink Wine Day, so plan accordingly!