Mention Austrian wine and you might spark a discussion about Grüner Veltliner and Zweigelt. These are the best known white and red grapes of Austria, respectively, and the country can legitimately claim them as “native” grapes. I’ve probably helped this perception in my columns about Austrian wine over the past four years. Yet during my recent visit to Austria’s wine country, I learned that there is so much more than these two grapes.
Grüner rightfully has first place among Austrian whites, with Riesling close behind. But there are others: Gelber Muskateller makes lovely flowery dry wine, redolent of lychees and peach blossoms. Pinot Blanc is quite popular, more so than Pinot Gris. (The latter is typically labeled with its German name, Graüburgunder, while Pinot Blanc seems less likely to be labeled Weissburgunder. This is probably an indication of which grape is exported most.) Welchsriesling, which is not Riesling, is best in sweet wines (though Heidi Schröck makes a delicious dry version). Sauvignon Blanc is also grown, especially in Styria in the south.
While Zweigelt is the most widely planted red grape, several producers I spoke to admitted to favoring Blaufränkisch for producing the best wines.
“Blaufränkisch is like standing in the middle of a forest,” says Georg Prieler, of Weingut Prieler in Burgenland on the west side of Lake Neusiedler. “You have these leafy aromas, a bit wet, woodsy. Blaufränkisch translates the soil better than Zweigelt. I like a variety that shows where it comes from.”
Claus Preisinger specializes in Zweigelt at his modern winery on the east side of the lake, but he too says Blaufränkisch is better suited for premium wines if only because it requires more care in the vineyard.
“I cannot make an entry level wine with Blaufränkisch with the same quality as Zweigelt,” Preisinger explained. “If you do Blaufränkisch at 15 tons a hectare it gets sour, and that’s not my style. I do it at 5 tons… For me, it’s fascinating to work with.”
And then there’s Saint Laurent, a wine that resembles Pinot Noir and can apparently be as fickle in the vineyard. While not exclusively Austrian, the variety can make lovely, silken wines in the Burgenland.
When looking at the global wine world, it’s easy to pigeonhole Austria into its “native” grape varieties, but there is some wonderful Merlot, Syrah and especially Pinot Noir grown there, too. These may have a harder time gaining export market share because of the competition, but they demonstrate Austria’s diversity as a world-class wine producing country.