Alternative Austria

01 January 2000
Alternative Austria

Think of Austria, and like as not you will think of sweet wines. You will probably have heard of Willi Opitz; if not, you will. If you are over a certain age, you will remember the anti-freeze rumpus. This, justifiably, enrages the Austrians - how many other countries continue to pay for an adulteration scandal 12 years on?

All in all, you may have the impression that Austria is marginal - another Germany, another Switzerland, another area in which customers are not going to be terribly interested.

If this is the case, you are missing a trick. Austria is the dark horse of Europe, producing, yes, world-class sweet wines and complex aromatic whites - but also quite breathtakingly good reds.

The first sign of something unusual afoot cropped up in 1995, when Austria scooped one of the Pinot Noir trophies in the International Wine Challenge with Umathum's St Laurent 1992, while another Austrian red, the Sonnhof-Rotspon Barrique '92, picked up a silver. The truth slowly dawned: Austria has what most wine-producing countries would kill for - a unique range of indigenous red grape varieties and a climate warm enough to ripen them.

The main area for red wine production is the Burgenland, south and south-east of Vienna on the Hungarian border. This is also the best area for Austria's sweet whites, which flourish round the shores of the Neusiedlersee - a huge shallow lake that creates the ideal conditions for noble rot production.

Reds are also grown east of Vienna in Carnuntum, in the Thermen region south of the city, and in very small quantities actually in the city, one of the few capitals to have a significant wine industry of its own.

Austria's new wine-makers

The great leap forward in Austria's reds has come from the new generation of young wine-makers, many of whom have worked in France and the New World. Although they are working with international varietals such as Cabernet Sauvignon, they are using them to complement rather than replace Austria's own indigenous grapes.

The most widely planted red grape variety is Zweigelt, a cross between two other Austrian grapes - St Laurent and Blaufr„nkisch. When it is allowed to grow freely it produces attractively soft, but simple, cherry-flavoured reds. However, when yields are curbed, it can be fashioned into a much more elegant, though still attractively youthful wine.

St Laurent itself is favoured for its family resemblance to Pinot Noir - although it tends to make more powerful, fuller-bodied wines than those emerging from Burgundy - while Blaufr„nkisch mingles vivid, red-berry flavours with attractive spice and acidity.

Other red wine grapes being used, mainly in blends, are Blauer Portugeiser - a robust, gutsy workhorse of a grape; Blauburger - a cross between Blauer Portugeiser and Blaufr„ nkisch; and Blauburgunder - Pinot Noir.

A measure of the achievement of Austria's wine-makers is that the whole they are creating is more than the sum of its parts. While the diversity of grapes they have to play with is interesting, none could precisely be described as noble.

But by blending these grapes, and with classic varieties such as Cabernet, they are producing some extraordinary wines which combine the appealingly soft tannins and intensity of fruit of the New World with the elegance and balance of the old - interestingly, very few show an overt oak influence.

Such skill, unfortunately, commands a high price and a ready market back home, which means we do not get to see much of the best of Austria's offering. Top producers such as Achs and Nittnaus are not available in the UK at all; others such as Pîckl and Umathum export only one or two of their wines; while still others such as Pittnauer and Norbert Bauer - which showed their wines at the recent Austrian tasting in London - are looking for importers. But availability is improving.

Austria's white wines, too, are making great strides. Grnüer Veltliner, the most widely planted grape in Austria, is something of an acquired taste for English palates. As with Riesling, it needs to be drunk either very young or with a considerable bottle age, although it can be excellent with asparagus.

But drier white wines are emerging - Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Sauvignon and Chardonnay, particularly from the southern region of Styria - that are attractive, distinctively European, alternatives to those on offer from the New World. Again, they are just beginning to filter through - although some importer will no doubt have snapped up the quite stunning Tiglat Chardonnay from Weingut Velich that was shown at a recent London tasting.

Building a following for Austrian wines is, admittedly, not easy with few wines of any distinction available in the off-trade at less than £5. "What we need is more good-quality, entry-level wines that will show just what Austria is capable of," says Noel Young of Noel Young Wines in Cambridge, one of the biggest Austrian importers.

Despite this deficiency, interest is growing. "We keep getting calls from merchants who say they think it's time they gave Austrian wine a go. Locally, in Cambridge, we've made headway by encouraging restaurants to serve the Austrian wines by the glass, linking them to a specific dish. They can see that customers are much more likely to try a glass than splash out £15-£20 a bottle on something they don't know," says Young.

But what makes Austrian wines worth persevering with is exactly what makes them hard to register with the public: their rarity. These are not bottles that are going to end up on the supermarket shelf. There simply is not the volume. But they are wines that are rewarding to the adventurous wine-drinker in search of something new, and to the restaurateur looking for wines that will flatter rather than fight his food.

For further information about Austrian wines contact the Austrian Trade Commission on 0171-411 3825

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