Austrian fruits shine through

Austrian wines are leaving their oaky reputation behind to let the fruit show, making them suburb summer choices

 The River Danube flows past a vineyard near Durstein in Austria. Photograph: Tekin Türkdogan

The River Danube flows past a vineyard near Durstein in Austria. Photograph: Tekin Türkdogan

Sat, Jul 12, 2014, 01:00

For years the red wines of Austria were a source of mild embarrassment to the country. Many producers tried a bit too hard and ended up with wines that were either over-extracted or too oaky, or both. They were certainly not the only ones guilty of this kind of winemaking. Producers around the world were seduced by the French method of fine winemaking, which might work in Bordeaux, but didn’t always suit the available grapes elsewhere. In the case of Austria, the best wines were those that were allowed to express their delicate but appetising natural fruit.

Two years ago, I attended a tasting of Austrian red wines at the Vievinum wine fair in Vienna. There were still a few made in the over-oaked style, but the majority was trying very hard to let the purity of fruit show through and some had succeeded admirably. This year the same tasting had more than 200 wines available, far too many to taste in a day.

I concentrated on Blaufränkisch in the morning and dipped into a few Pinot Noirs and Sankt Laurent (a promising Austrian variety) in the afternoon. I also went to a mitteleuropa tasting the following day that included Blaufränkisch, or its equivalent, from Germany (Lemberger), Romania (Burgund Mare), Hungary (Kékfrankos) and Slovakia (Frankovka). Missing from the line-up of course was Slovenia (Modra Frankinja). Confused by all the names for a single variety? I certainly was, but it did prove that this grape is not short of fans in central Europe.

At the general tasting at Vievinum, I talked to Roland Velich (producer of the Moric, below) one of those responsible for the rebirth of Blaufränkisch. He always has an interesting take on some subject. This year it was Blaufränkisch and Kékfrankos it’s Hungarian namesake. Velich argued that before international boundaries and the Cold War intervened, there was a natural vineyard that stretched from Burgenland (where his grapes come from) over into Hungary. He is already working with a Hungarian producer on white wines and intends adding some red wines that recreate this ancient terroir. The single vineyard Moric wines (tiny quantities available here through Cabot & Co) are expensive but magnificent. I may yet raid the piggy bank. The other Blaufränkisch producer of note is Muhr-van der Niepoort, producers of true garagiste wines from a tiny winery operated by Austria’s PR guru Dorli Muhr in partnership with Dirk Niepoort. He is better known as producer of some of the greatest wines of the Douro Valley in Portugal. Their wines are subtle, delicate and fragrant.

Since first tasting the Moric wines, I have been completely converted to Blaufränkisch. To me, it is the best of the red Austrian grape varieties, foreign or indigenous, capable of making fresh vibrant wines with a lovely purity of fruit. The nearest thing you will find from elsewhere is good Beaujolais or Cabernet Franc from the Loire Valley. With their lightness of fruit and refreshing acidity, they are perfect summer wines. The three examples below may seem expensive, but they are amongst the best wines I have tasted so far this year.

Moving beyond Blaufränkisch, Austria does produce other red wines from the usual array of international varieties as well as a few local grapes. Of the foreign grapes, Pinot Noir seems to offer the most promise, and certainly these are improving all the time. The two best-known local varieties are Zweigelt and Sankt Laurent. A cross of Sankt Laurent and Blaufränkisch, the best Zweigelts offer violet aromas, delicious juicy dark cherry fruits, sometimes slightly spicy, with light tannins. They also tend to be the least expensive of Austrian red wines. Sankt Laurent is seen as a difficult variety to grow but despite this, plantings have grown significantly in recent years. There are suggestions that it is a relative of Pinot Noir, but St Laurent is often deeply coloured with relatively full-bodied sour cherry fruits – the antithesis of Pinot Noir.

It is hard to see Austrian red wines gaining huge popularity in Ireland; production is too small and by their nature the wines are more likely to interest the wine-lover as opposed to the wine-drinker. However, both groups should take the trouble to try them out. Certainly with their light fruits they make great summer drinking. Served cool rather than chilled (an hour on the fridge is plenty) they are fairly versatile and can be enjoyed with many salads as well as pork, chicken salmon and tuna. jwilson@irishtimes.com

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