Who knew that expressing a warm affection for lovely, drinkable Austrian red wines could be construed as a revolutionary act that threatened civilized wine culture? Or that someone who champions Austrian grape varieties might be viewed as a wild-eyed radical, intent on casting the world of wine into a state of chaos “to the detriment of the wine consumer”?
Well, according to the eminent wine critic Robert Parker, wine writers who enjoy and advocate lesser-known grape varieties are “Euro-elitists” and may as well be espousing ideas comparable to “Kim-Jung-unism.” Blaufränkisch, otherwise known as lemberger and grown mostly in Austria, was singled out by Parker as “virtually unknown” and one of those “godforsaken grapes, that, in hundreds and hundreds of years of viticulture, wine consumption, etc., have never gotten traction because they are rarely of interest.” Recommending that people drink blaufränkisch, according to Parker, was something akin to the “propaganda machines of totalitarian regimes.”
This all may sound like the rant of a crazy person, but there it was, published behind the pay wall of eRobertParker.com, for anyone who paid $29 (for a 90-day subscription) to read.
In my response to Parker at the time, I called his rant “the literary equivalent of an old man shaking his fist at younger punks,” since it was clearly directed at a younger generation of wine writers who are interested in more than just the same old international grapes like chardonnay or cabernet sauvignon or syrah. Which Parker suggested is dangerous to an Establishment that he largely created.
Well, if all it takes to earn your Che Guevara t-shirt in the wine world is to drink and talk joyfully about Austrian red wines, I’m all in. And since I visited Austria soon after Mister Parker’s slightly unhinged manifesto, I figured it was high time to explore them more deeply.
There is no debating that Austrian grapes like blaufränkisch, Sankt Laurent, and zweigelt are not so well known by American wine lovers. One of the first mentions of Austrian red wines in the mainstream press came as recently as 2006, by the late R.W. Apple Jr. — one of my bon vivant heroes — in a New York Times article, in which he declared, “Austrian reds must represent the height of obscurity.”
Things have changed only slightly in the eight years since. You’ll generally only find a handful of Austrian reds at most wine shops. As New York Times critic Eric Asimov has noted: “nothing scares wine consumers so much as an umlaut…it often signals to consumers that they must flee in terror to the nearest bottle of pinot grigio.”
Terry Theise, the pitchman who introduced Americans to grüner veltliner, has been the most high profile importer of Austrian reds over the past decade. But even a boisterous self-promoter like Theise was still striking a gentle note of skepticism until recently. “Austrian red wine is to be taken seriously, that much is beyond dispute,” he published as recently in his 2010 catalog. “Yet for every truly elegant grown-up wine there are many others that are silly, show-offy, insipid, even flawed.” That line was removed from the catalog a few years ago.
By now, I think we can clearly say that Austrian zweigelt and blaufränkisch have earned a spot in the worldwide discussion over good-value red wines. In fact, I would say that Austrian zweigelt, in particular, offers some of the best-value, friendliest, and most drinkable red wines in the world. Zweigelt (created in 1922 by a cross between blaufränkisch and St. Laurent) is just what a new generation of wine lovers looks for: it’s fresh; it’s both fruity and savory; it’s incredibly food friendly. If you like dolcetto or cru Beaujolais, you’ll love zweigelt. As Theise writes: “Only a churl could dislike it.”
I’m recommending a baker’s dozen of zweigelt, all of which are $20 or under, most of which are $15 or under. In Austria, even the most acclaimed wineries still take great care in producing good quality everyday wines.
The issue for Austrian red wines, for me, may be at the higher end. Blaufränkisch can be more age-worthy than zweigelt, and transcendent, but I find it occasionally overwrought. St. Laurent, which can be lovely and is sort of like a more rustic, Alpine pinot noir, is still very difficult to find consistently in the U.S.
As I tasted through several dozen wines over the past few months — and as I sampled many by-the-glass offerings at Vienna wine bars — I tended to enjoy the “classic” bottlings of blaufränkisch and zweigelt at the lower end a little bit more than the fancier or “reserve” bottlings. This is where Theise’s thesis about “show-offy” wines finds some credence.
However, you can say the same thing for pretty much any New World wine region. Look at the fancier, more expensive bottles of Argentine malbec or Chilean cabernet sauvignon or Australian shiraz and you can see show-offy touches. Yes, Austria is squarely in Old Europe, but one thing to understand about Austrian winemaking is that it straddles the Old and New Worlds.
Before 1990, forget everything that’s red wine in Austria,” said Franz Leth, an acclaimed producer from the Wagram. “1990 was, for me, the beginning of red winemaking in Austria. At least by international standards.
After all, the Austrian wine industry had to reinvent itself in the late 1980s and early 1990s after a scandal in 1985, when a bunch of unscrupulous wine merchants poisoned their wines with a chemical used in manufacturing antifreeze, in a ham-handed, criminal attempt to increase sweetness levels. That scandal pretty much ruined whatever small market Austrian wines had at that point.
But the positive byproduct is that the scandal forced Austria to pass some of Europe’s strictest wine laws and quality-control procedures. Winemakers have embraced certain New World technologies — unlike elsewhere in Europe, to choose an obvious example, almost all Austrian wine is bottled with a screwcap. But at the same time, Austrian winemakers embrace Old World ideals. There’s nothing more Old World, after all, than making wine from indigenous grapes that may be unknown outside of your own region.
When I asked Markus Huber why Austrian winemakers use certain methods, he almost scoffed: “Why should we do what everyone else is doing? We are quite adventurous in Austria. Or even ahead of the times.”
That attitude, needless to say, has always been the perfect one to disturb the Establishment. • 27 June 2014
Huber Zweigelt 2011 (13.2% alcohol by volume, $20)
Spicy, meaty, herbal and savory. Complex, but still incredibly drinkable.
Schloss Gobelsburg Zweigelt Gobelsburger 2009 (12.5%, $15)
Rustic nose, in the best sense. Cherry and black pepper. So damn attractive and good value.
Glatzer “Riedencuvée” Zweigelt 2009 (13%, $16)
Spicy with a nice, long finish. So drinkable – the way zweigelt should be.
Fritsch “Red Soil” Zweigelt 2010 (12.5%, $15)
Brick red, peppery and herbal on the nose, but tart cherry in the mouth.
Winzer Krems Blauer Zweigelt St. Severin 2012 (13%, $14)
Purple, with blueberry flavors reminiscent of petite sirah. Good acidity throughout, with a dolcetto-like finish.
Winzer Krems Blauer Zweigelt “Kellermeister Privat” 2010 (13%, $18)
Meaty and savory aromas, with black pepper and rusitc tannins on the finish.
Meinklang Graupert Zweigelt 2011 (13.5%, $20)
A dark nose of licorice and spice, with underripe berry and plum.
Hermann Moser Zweigelt 2010 (13%, $17)
Dried herbs and fresh cherry. Lively acidity, with a wonderfully peppery finish.
Paul Lehrner “Claus” Zweigelt 2011 (13%, $13)
Berries and an attractive rustic elegance on the nose, with pepper and smoky finish.
Wachter-Wiesler Zweigelt 2011 (12.5%, $10)
Deeper, richer than usual, with dark berry, and meatiness.
Grassl Zweigelt Classic 2012 (13.5%, $11)
Purple, light-bodied with a berry nose. A little big on the finish, but pleasant.
Anita und Hans Nittnaus Blauer Zweigelt 2012 (13%, $15)
Purple, with aromas of dried fruit, chocolate and a chalky finish.
Andau Zweigelt 2012 (13.5%, $12)
Pepper, baking spices, and cherry. Balanced and drinkable.
Wachter-Wiesler Béla-Jóska Blaufränkisch Eisenberg 2011 (13%, $18)
Smoky nose with aromas of anise and red fruit, with a core of spice. Finishes peppery and with nice tannins.
Leo Hillinger Blaufränkisch 2011 (12.5%, $13)
A crowd pleaser, with big fruit pie flavors.
Glatzer Carnuntum Blaufränkisch 2009 (13%, $20)
A rustic nose, with blueberry flavors. Finishes short, with acidity that’s on the edge of too much.
Kirnbauer Blaufränkisch Classic 2011 (13%, $25)
Fresh berries and a green, dill-like note on the nose. Tart cherry in the mouth.
Sattler St. Laurent 2012 (13%, $15)
A complex, sexy nose with savory aromas of cigar box and cedar. Fresh blackberries with a very savory finish of dried herbs.
Zahel St. Laurent Kadolzberg 2011 (14%, $20)
Sour cherry pie with a bit of baking spice. Rich, with juicy acidity.
Grassl St. Laurent Classic 2012 (13%, $12)
Blended with 10% pinot noir. Vanilla and violet; perfect for an Oregon pinot lover.
Huber “Hugo” Red Blend 2012 (13%, $15)
A blend of zweigelt and blaufränkisch. Super herbal with lively acidity and bitter orange peel on the finish.
Heinrich Red 2008 (12.5%, $12)
A blend of 60% zweigelt, 30% blaufränkisch, and 10% St. Laurent. Rustic sour cherry nose with mellow, fruity flavors. Super drinkable.
Anton Bauer Wagram Cuvée 2010 (13%, $18)
Pepper and cherry. A complex blend of 40% zweigelt, 40% blaufränkisch, 15% cabernet sauvignon, and 5% merlot.