Zwei Go to All the Trouble?

(Originally published December 2006)

“Familiarity breeds contempt.” Or, so the saying goes. So, what does unfamiliarity breed? A Hanes essay on alternative grape choices!

To wit, Austria makes a good amount of wine, known mostly for their white wines. These days production is probably around 75% white, 25% red. However, it’s the red wines we want to focus on here. Hanes was thinking. For once. A lot of the Austrian red wine that is gaining traction in the American marketplace are those made from “international” grapes, that is, grapes like Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon or Pinot Noir. Familiarity. Meanwhile, many “indigenous” Austrian grapes have trouble being recognized or acquiring shelf space. Unfamiliarity. The thinking part. Just how long have the international grapes competed against the indigenous grapes for vineyard acreage? Even if they don’t call them acres there? How can we help the local team?

The wine industry as a whole in Austria has had many ups and downs. Winemaking there goes back to the age of the Celts, Romans and into the Middle Ages. Back then considerably more land was under vine than today. But we live in a time of quality, not quantity, people. Currently, there are four major wine regions comprised of 19 smaller wine areas. Red wine is produced in all of these areas but certain areas are more known for crafting the best reds Austria has to offer. Weinland and Weinviertel produce the most red wine but not necessarily always the highest quality. Quality-wise, one could probably make a short list of Donauland, Burgenland (which really is broken down into northern, middle and southern parts), Neusiedlersee, Carnuntum, Thermenregion and Kremstal. Naturally, there will always be exceptions to such a list, both pro and con.

The more recent ups and downs in the Austrian wine industry have in some ways been a boon to red wine production. Bad things like outbreaks of phylloxera-based disease or oidium (powdery mildew) infection provided opportunity to replant vineyards with different grapes, prodding selective reassessment and experimentation. It’s harder to say, but the scandal in the 1980’s involving certain Austrian producers illegally adding diethylene glycol to white wines to add body and sweetness may have forced the industry to focus more on red wines as a way of gaining back international confidence and market share. In any event, one can say that the 1980’s was when red wine production began to be taken seriously in a larger, more widespread manner.

No duh, but this was when grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah and Pinot Noir began to be planted with increasing rapidity. As the usual formula goes, increased use of oak was and is also employed. Because Austria labels their wines with the name of the grape, these best known grapes make more of a splash abroad, especially when crafted to taste like what the Ausländers expect them to taste like. Mittelburgenland is the new Napa! And, surprise, surprise, most of these sorts of reds are the most expensive coming out of Austria today, in some cases well over $50 a bottle. Note that in the case of Pinot Noir, certain producers will label the bottling with the more Germanic names of Blauer Burgunder, Blauburgunder or Blauer Spätburgunder. Keep that straight, OK? These are obviously the wineries without savvy marketing consultants.

During this process, less marketing and general popularization has been done for the red wine grapes more historically grown in Austria. Additionally, it seems little has been done to export vines of these grapes to other wine regions of the world so as to gain secondary exposure that way. So, while we see Italian grapes like Sangiovese or Nebbiolo or a Spanish grape like Tempranillo grown in California, no Austrian grapes. But, watch out, one day it will be the “next hot thing” and on the cover of Wine Spectator!

So, what are these grapes, so often possessed of charm and flavor, if not recognition?

Blaufränkisch is probably Austria’s classiest, most complex indigenous red wine grape. The Franks are those credited with the planting of the grape, a sign of high quality in those wacky medieval times (as opposed to those lousy heunisch (“Hunnic”) wines). The “blau” part, in case you have not yet surmised, pertains to the grape’s “blue” color. Calling a grape blue is very popular in Austria. Poor depressed grapes. Anyway, in attestation to Blaufränkisch’s quality, it is one of the few grapes well-known and grown elsewhere. Germany has some, Friuli in Italy has some. Washington State here in America grows some, normally called “Lemberger.” It’s popular too in Hungary where it goes by the name of Lois Lane. Whoops, that is Kékfrankos. Some Hungarian reds imported into the U.S. will label these wines with this grape name. And now you know it’s Blaufränkisch. Sweet. Blaufränkisch typically makes full-bodied, sturdy wines of very high acidity and more moderate tannins. Lots of dark fruit, velvety grip and can be earthy or floral with some spice. Because of its fuller body, a lot of the time winemakers think it can handle bigger doses of oak. That’s too bad. Good Blaufränkisch wines should cost between $15 and $30 and are worth seeking out if you want to really see what “alternative” Austrian reds are about.

Sankt Laurent actually is supposed to originate in France and most likely came to Austria via Germany in the late 19th century. Most of the time it’s name gets shortened to St. Laurent. While losing some popularity due to its difficulty to grow, it has more personality than many other Austrian reds. When done right. It’s capable of a variety of body weights, normally presents red cherry and raspberry fruit flavors and in many respects is close to Pinot Noir (flavor-wise and in that difficulty to grow). The better ones have good acidic bite and even a bitter, herbaceous edge that keeps it fresh in the mouth. Tends to be more transparent to the soil and minerality too. It’s distinctiveness will turn some imbibers on, some off. Its uniqueness also results in small portions being added to blends, adding nuances to the juice of the other grapes. St. Laurent can be pricey, normally over $20 if not more per bottle.

Zweigelt remains Austria’s most widely planted red wine grape. It is bottled on its own or as the backbone of many blends. Alternative names for the grape are Blauer Zweigelt and Rotburger. An Austrian dude named Fritz Zweigelt created the grape by crossing Blaufränkisch and Sankt Laurent in 1922. Zweigelt grows vigorously and creates higher yields, making it popular with many winegrowers. It’s usually medium to full-bodied, smooth and often with an herbaceous or peppery kick to it. It can age decently in some circumstances but usually is consumed young. Because of the quantity produced, Zweigelt gets exported to the U.S. in larger quantities than its other indigenous peers. This despite having a name incredibly likely to scare off the average wine consumer. Prices vary but one can find highly representative bottles for under $16, if your wine store knows what they are doing.

Blauer Portugieser is the “poor relations” of Austria’s historically grown grapes. It serves a very important purpose - it grows easily and tastes decent. So, you can make a lot of it and more people get drunk than would otherwise. What’s wrong with that? Lore has the grape coming to Austria from Portugal centuries ago, thus the name, but this has never been accurately demonstrated. Its wines are generally soft with good body and low tannins and acidity. Good degree of juicy mixed red fruit flavors, on the sweet side with lower alcohol levels. Basic quaffing wine, would probably come in a box here in America. The grape is also grown with regularity in Germany and Eastern Europe. Very rarely exported to the U.S. so chances are you won’t be seeing any at the wine store. Maybe some maverick winemaker creates a high end bottling from low yielding, older vineyards of Blauer Portugieser and it’s on a wine list at some fancy Austrian restaurant. But doubt it.

Blauburger is another wild card entry. It’s an additional creation by Dr. Zweigelt, in 1923, crossing Portugieser with Blaufränkisch. From what Hanes can gather, it’s more like the former than the latter. Makes for a simple, light-bodied wine that ripens early, thus well-suited for cooler climes. It’s like the fourth most widely planted red grapevine in Austria. Very dark in color. Lowish tannins and average acidity. The guess is that a lot of the juice goes into blends. Never had a Blauburger wine here in America, only in Austria. It is what it is, making for serviceable wines for the huddled masses. Hey, don’t blame Dr. Zweigelt, you don’t hit one out of the ballpark every time.

There’s a few more grapes like Rössler or Blauer Wildbacher but, hell, you’d have a hard time finding them in Austria, never mind here. The basic focus should be on Zweigelt, Blaufränkisch and St. Laurent, the wines which truly reflect what Austrian red wines can be about. Of course, Hanes does enjoy many an Austrian Cabernet Sauvignon or Pinot Noir and such wines can show the essence of their place of origin quite nicely. However, these wines should not be sought out and consumed to the exclusion of their lesser recognized brethren!

As for food pairings and the like, these kind of Austrian reds are on the whole versatile enough to go with many sorts of dishes. Standards might be boiled beef, roasted pork, lambchops or grilled vegetables. Poultry works too but nothing too light. In addition, salmon has been known to pair well here. Avoid preparations which may be too sweet, incline more towards recipes with garlic or citrus in them. Otherwise, you can just drink these wines straight from the bottle on a park bench.

For those of you light on the lingo, as with the white wines of Austria, many reds are labeled with the word “Trocken” which means “dry.” It’s nice to know but mostly superfluous, so no need to pay that much attention or get distracted by the designation.

Think of it, a whole world of wine choices await you when you begin to sample the group of Austrian reds which include Zweigelt, the grape destined to be dead last in every alphabetical grape listing known to humanity!