Image featured above: The beautiful rolling hills of the Steiermark (Styria).
Estimated reading time: 9 minutes
Simply because Austria is a German-speaking country, don’t be fooled into thinking the grape varieties are the same! Indeed, both countries do share some of the same varieties, but the climate, the soils, and tradition have influenced the preference of varieties in each country. Let’s take a moment and explore the wonderful grape varieties which make Austria’s wine scene so varied and interesting.
According to the Austrian Wine Marketing Board, Austria currently has forty grape varieties approved for the production of Landwein (the European Union equivalent term is Protected Geographic Indication), and Qualitäts– and Prädikatsweine (the European Union equivalent term is Protected Designation of Origin). Twenty-six of the forty varieties are white, and fourteen are red. The red varieties currently represent one-third of the vineyard area planted, and a surprising number of these forty are indigenous. Austrian vineyards are dominated by two varieties, the white Grüner Veltliner and the red Zweigelt.
Without a doubt, Grüner Veltliner dominates the Austrian wine scene. With 14,423 hectares (35,640 acres) currently planted, it represents 47% of the planted white varieties, and 31% of the total varieties. The name Grüner Veltliner was first mentioned in the eighteenth century, and has also been called Weissgipfler and Grün Muskateller, although it is unrelated to the Muscat family of grapes. However, it does have a unique heritage. DNA profiling has shown it to be a natural cross of Savagnin, also known as Traminer (read more here about this very old and interesting variety), and a nearly extinct variety, Sankt Georgen. The only surviving vine of Sankt Georgen was discovered by accident in May 2000 in a forest near the village of Sankt Georgen am Leithagebirge in the federal state of Burgenland. The winemaker Hans Moser successfully propagated the vine and eventually was able to make a 100% varietal Sankt Georgen wine, albeit in very small quantities. Despite the similar names, Grüner Veltliner is not related to either Frühroter Veltliner or Roter Veltliner. There is a mutation with grey-colored berries called Grauer Veltliner.
Grüner Veltliner is a versatile variety producing styles of wine from sparkling to dry whites to dessert wines. High yields produce light, fresh, crisp wines with a distinctive white pepper note, which the Austrians call “pfefferl”. This is the style typical of the Weinviertel region, where Grüner Veltliner represents 48% of the vineyard area planted. In the hands of the best producers and at low yields, Grüner Veltliner can produce extraordinary wines of very high quality. These full-bodied, concentrated, dry, white wines show notes of mineral, citrus, pepper, and spices. They are ageworthy, eventually developing the complexity and grace of the white wines of Burgundy. It’s not unusual, then, that these wines can fetch high prices. But never fear! There are many examples of good-quality Grüner Veltliner wines at reasonable prices.
Given the diverse styles of wine that Grüner Veltliner can produce, it is not unusual that the wines can accompany a wide variety of dishes. Austrian cuisine is rich and varied, and the Austrians are particularly fond of wild game. Probably the most famous Austrian dish is Wiener Schnitzel, a veal escalope that has been pounded thin, dredged in flour, then in beaten egg, and finally in breadcrumbs. It is fried in lard, and the crispy fried escalope is traditionally served with Viennese potato salad. The rich flavor of this dish demands a full-bodied, but fresh, white wine. Grüner Veltliner is the perfect partner for this dish. You can easily prepare Wiener Schnitzel at home. Give it a try!
As I mentioned in the history blog of this series, the Zweigelt variety was created by Fritz Zweigelt in 1922 at the Klosterneuburg Center for Investigation. Dr. Zweigelt originally named the variety Rotburger, but later the name was changed to honor its creator. Dr. Zweigelt crossed two Austrian varieties, Blaufränkisch (read about Blaufränkisch here) and Sankt Laurent to produce Zweigelt. As I also mentioned in the history blog, Lenz Moser was a proponent of the Hochkultur vine training system. Plantings of Grüner Veltliner increased under this system during the 1950s, and plantings of Zweigelt as well although the variety wasn’t widely planted before this time. From the end of the twentieth century until 2015, plantings of Zweigelt increased significantly. The variety has been and continues to be the most important red variety in Austria. According to the most recent survey conducted in 2017, there are 6,426 hectares (15,879 acres) planted, which represents 13.8% of the total vineyard area of Austria. Not surprisingly, Austria’s neighbors, the Czech Republic and Hungary, also have some plantings of Zweigelt. Canada’s British Columbia also has a small amount of Zweigelt planted, but most surprisingly, Japan has some 231 hectares (571 acres) planted, almost all on the island of Hokkaido.
As in the case of Grüner Veltliner, Zweigelt is used to produce a variety of different styles of wine. At relatively high yields and aged in stainless steel tanks, the grape produces exuberantly fruity wines with notes of purple berries; wines destined to be consumed in their youth. At lower yields, the wines show good structure and can age well, particularly when aged in oak. In this case, the wines typically show notes of sour or Morello cherry. Zweigelt wines can be intensely colored in the red-purple spectrum, similar to the color of Malbec wines produced in Mendoza, Argentina. From time to time, sweet wines made from Zweigelt are produced in the Burgenland region.
Given the versatility of the variety, Zweigelt wines can accompany a range of different foods. Austrian cuisine includes several boiled beef dishes, and a medium-bodied Zweigelt pairs easily with these flavorful dishes. A Zweigelt with more body and structure can accompany other typical dishes like roast beef with crispy fried onions, and other specialties like duck, goose, and lamb. Goulash, the piquant meat stew highly flavored with paprika, works well with a fruity Zweigelt not too high in acid. This style also pairs well with several of the traditional recipes featuring the many wild mushrooms found in Austria’s forests.
Austria’s third-most planted variety turns out to not be Austrian at all! Welschriesling, most likely of Croatian origin or from somewhere in the Danube basin, is the most widely planted white variety in Croatia, where it is known as Graševina. As I don’t plan to write about the wines of Croatia anytime soon, I will cover Welschriesling here.
First of all and most importantly, Welschriesling is genetically distinct from the Riesling variety. Equally confusing, in Italy it is known as Riesling Italico, and in various other Central and Eastern European countries the name also includes Riesling in one form or another. Some suggest an Italian origin because of the name Riesling Italico, but this has largely been discredited since the variety wasn’t introduced to Italy until the nineteenth century. This confusion of names has caused the variety to be maligned as a pretender to the noble Riesling. Welschriesling’s parentage remains unknown.
In Austria, Welschriesling is planted in all the major wine producing regions to some degree. It is generally used to produce dry or off-dry light bodied wines with a pronounced acidity. This style is particularly popular in the region of Styria. But the variety really shines in Burgenland and Neusiedlersee where it is used to produce the great Beerenauslesen and Trockenbeerenauslesen dessert wines. The grape’s thin skin makes it easily susceptible to the effects of the Botrytis fungus responsible for these impressive and long-lived sweet wines. The vine keeps its leaves until late into autumn, so the grapes can slowly overripen and reach very high levels of natural sugar. If you’ve never tasted one of the Welschriesling Trockenbeerenauslesen from the Kracher winery, seek it out. You’re in for a real treat! Welschriesling’s high natural acidity also makes it useful in the production of Sekt, Austria’s sparkling wine.
Austria’s fourth most planted variety is Blaufränkisch, a high-quality red variety. It is Burgenland’s most important grape variety with more vineyard area than both Grüner Veltliner and Zweigelt. The wines are typically higher in acidity and well-structured, and the best examples can age well in new oak barrels. The wines typically show notes of black fruits although in cooler areas red fruits emerge. For those who enjoy hearty grilled meats, a mature Blaufränkisch is a worthy opponent to the ubiquitous Cabernet Sauvignon.
Blaufränkisch is also popular in Germany, where it is called Lemberger. For more detailed information on this variety, please visit my blog entry here.
Riesling is Austria’s fifth most planted variety. Much of eastern Austria is a bit too hot for this vine that prefers a cooler climate. But in the cooler areas of Kamptal, Kremstal, and Wachau, Riesling can produce stunning wines of the highest quality. And Riesling’s preference for stonier soils and Grüner Veltliner’s preference for loess soils means that producers can maximize use of their vineyards.
Riesling, being Germany’s most planted grape variety, is covered in more detail in this blog post.
As the sixth most planted variety in Austria, Müller-Thurgau is still an important variety. It’s mostly planted in the Weinviertel where it gives light, fragrant, and quaffable wines. Müller-Thurgau’s vineyard area in Austria is declining as producers seek better quality. You can read more about this variety in my German series here.
You might be surprised to find that Chardonnay is an important variety in Austria. In fact, it wasn’t even officially recognized until 1986, although it certainly had been planted for many years before, and in some places confused with Weissburgunder (Pinot Blanc). It can produce very fine wines on the limestone soils of Burgenland’s Leithaberg DAC. It is also popular in Styria, where it’s known as Morillon, although no one seems to know why.
It also might surprise you that Sauvignon Blanc is an important variety in Austria. In fact, it is the most planted grape variety in Southern Styria, where it produces impressive wines at impressive prices. Although many of the Classic Sauvignon Blancs are vinified in the herbaceous style, the higher quality wines are stylistically approaching the best of the Loire Valley.
Kind thanks to the Austrian Wine Marketing Board for the data cited in this article.
In Part Two of The Grape Varieties of Austria, we’ll explore some of Austria’s more exotic varieties. Blauer Wildbacher? Rotgipfler? Zierfandler? Neuburger? Uhudler?? These are just a few of the unusual varieties which make Austrian wine a delight to explore.
Ready to plan your trip to Austria? I’m ready to help! Inquiries about wine tours at gregory @ gregorysmith.wine.
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