Austrian affair

Austria’s red wines have improved over the past decade, with the elegant Blaufränkisch variety offering the greatest promise…

Austria’s red wines have improved over the past decade, with the elegant Blaufränkisch variety offering the greatest promise

MY AUSTRIAN ODYSSEY continues. Last year, I was finally won over to Austrian red wines. Having been a huge fan of the white wines for many years, I could never muster much enthusiasm for the country’s reds. But over the past decade they have steadily improved, and quite possibly my tastes have changed too. In the past, some were unripe and vegetal; others at times seemed to be trying too hard with over-extracted fruits and a lot of new oak. Worst of all, some were a combination of both. Happily, most producers now appear to be aiming for more balanced wines.

Austria has three distinctive red varieties that it can call its own, or at least share with a few other parts of central Europe. Zweigelt could be described as the Gamay of Austria: light, exuberant wines filled with dark cherry fruits. St Laurent is more structured with similar cherry fruits. But the variety that really caught my fancy last year was Blaufränkisch, so I vowed to learn a little more about it. This is the second-most widely planted red variety in Austria, known as Kékfrankos in Hungary and Lemberger in Germany and by various other names in central and eastern Europe.

My first Blaufränkisch encounter took place in January at a wine weekend in Knockranny House in Westport, Co Mayo, where I met Roland Velich of wine producer Moric, a leading proponent of the variety. His wines were magnificent.


In June I was invited to attend a tasting of 200 of Austria’s greatest red wines, all from the 2009 vintage. I had no idea they made so many red wines, and I managed to taste 70 odd wines before my tastebuds finally gave up. The following day I went to a tasting of Blaufränkisch from the Burgenland, the premium region for the variety. I came away thinking that Austria produces some great red wines, but also a great many less impressive examples too. Of all the indigenous varieties, Blaufränkisch seems to offer the greatest promise. Some still suffered from the drawbacks mentioned earlier, but overall it was an enjoyable group of wines, showing real character, and a pleasant change from the Cabernets and Merlots you seem to find at every tasting.

I met Velich again in Austria, and sampled his stunning single-vineyard wines, sadly unavailable here. He doesn’t own any vines, but works on contract with growers. His obsession with Blaufränkisch began in the late 1990s. His first vintage in 2001 did not meet with universal acclaim. At the time, the market seemed to want big, powerful wines, and the Moric wines were the antithesis of this – light, elegant and unoaked. Velich refused to send samples to the large media tastings, arguing that these events favoured the bigger, rich wines. However, the turning point came with his 2006 vintage, which received a score of 96/100 in the influential American Wine Advocate magazine.

Velich is not alone in his quest for a more restrained style of Blaufränkisch. Over the past decade, many others have emerged, so my tasting notes are littered with new discoveries, with the best examples coming from the Carnuntum and Burgenland regions. Further sub-regions are emerging too.

Depending on where it is grown, and who makes the wine, Blaufränkisch can vary in style. Common to most of the wines are distinctive blue fruits – blueberries or mulberries, as well as morello cherries. The best wines have a wonderful refreshing purity of fruit.

Blaufränkisch has naturally high levels of acidity so yields need to be kept low to maintain a balance. The best can keep well (all that acidity helps). Overall, I find they can bear a similarity to Syrah from the northern Rhône, young Pinot Noir from Burgundy and, most of all, Barbera and Nebbiolo from Piedmont. All these wines share certain characteristics: a purity of fruit, good acidity, elegance, refinement and finesse. They may not appeal to those who enjoy full-bodied, ripe wines made with plenty of new oak, but I find them far more enjoyable and interesting.


Blaufränkisch 2009, Carnuntum, Gerhard Markowitsch, €19.50Light- to medium-bodied with good blueberry and mulberry fruits mixed with peppers, finishing on an austere note. Stockists: The Hole in the Wall, Dublin 7; Brechin Watchorn Wine, Ranelagh; Gibneys, Malahide

Blaufränkisch 2008, Neusiedlersee, Birgit Braunstein, 13.5%, €16.95Pure unadorned blueberry fruits with a nice kick of acidity, and decent length. Attractive off-beat wine to drink by itself or with lighter meat dishes. Stockists: The Corkscrew, Chatham Street, Dublin 2; Wicklow Wine Co, Wicklow

Blaufränkisch 2010, Burgenland, Moric, 12.5%, €18.99I made this bottle one of my wines of the year last year. Vibrant and fresh, but with real depth, pure blueberry and dark fruits, well-integrated acidity, and good clean length. Stockists: On the Grapevine, Dalkey; No 1 Pery Square, Limerick; Market 57, Westport, Co Mayo; Cabot Co, Westport, Co Mayo

Blaufränkisch Reserve 2009, Burgenland, Moric, 13%, €35This has an extra richness and concentration of dark fruits, wonderful length and real style. I have laid down a few bottles for a year or two, as I suspect it will develop further. However, it is already an impressive wine. Stockists: On the Grapevine, Dalkey; Cabot Co, Westport, Co Mayo

John Wilson

John Wilson

John Wilson, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a wine critic