Often “announced” by bottles with red tops superimposed with a white stripe, the wines of Austria provide the theme for my latest “single country” review .
Moving on from its issues with sweet wines over 35 years ago, Austria’s wine folk began to concentrate on something we now know the country does brilliantly (crisp and fresh dry whites) and a place where it does it especially well (part of the Danube Valley a few dozen miles north west of Vienna).
Although decent white wines are certainly made elsewhere, it is exactly that area and its surrounding region (together forming Lower Austria – Niederosterreich) on which I shall concentrate initially.
The parts of Lower Austria that are particularly rich in star vineyards include Kamptal, Kremstal and – brightest of them all – Wachau.
If those names are not especially familiar, the grape that is so brilliantly suited to the climate and geology thereabouts is rather better known – gruner veltliner.
Around a third of Austria’s vineyards (rising to 62% in Lower Austria) are devoted to gruner veltliner vines and it is unquestionably the country’s signature grape.
Predictably, though. riesling is another important grape (although miles behind gruner in output) so it is on those two varieties that the white wines in this review will focus.
As overall temperatures rise, so red wines will become more plentiful in countries like Austria and, consequently, this review includes some of those too.
In the normal way, pictures and hyperlinks (where available) are included for the wines being commended.
So let’s look at that signature grape
It is no surprise that gruner veltliner has become a popular variety given its firm acidity, clean mouth-feel, herby background and dashes of white pepper.
On top of that, it can age well and is great with spicy and fried food and even – some claim – wiener schnitzel.
When grown in steep sided vineyards, it often exhibits sought-after mineral characteristics but tropical fruit components also emerge once you move away from the craggier terrains.
Standing convention on its head
Most wine textbooks tell you to head for the “latest available vintage” when buying basic white wine – but, today, I suggest that you ignore that advice for once.
In my opinion, the 2019 vintage gruner veltliner is still drinking better than the 2020.
Unlike most of Western Europe, 2020 was cooler and wetter in Austria than 2019.
Those more typical conditions mean that 2020 wines tend to be more traditional and, while classically structured, do seem to have less texture and ripeness than those from the previous harvest.
Both vintages though do have plenty of lively acidity.
My top choices
Several good gruner veltliners can be found on the High Street around the £7 or £8 mark but the one that I enjoyed most was this version from Morrisons.
With floral aromas yet a vague flintiness, 2019 The Best Gruner Veltliner (£8.25 at Morrisons and 12.5% abv) has apple and grapefruit flavours supported by good lime acidity and traces of white pepper and herbs within its slight spicy texture.
And higher up the price points
A little more expensive (but well worth digging deeper for) is this richer and more tropical fruit influenced version from the Kamptal region; this really is lovely wine.
Richer and more complex, 2019 Adnams Gruner Veltliner (£16.99 at Adnams and 12.5%) offers us peach, mango and pear flavours with pink grapefruit acidity and an attractive sweetness on the finish that, nevertheless, contains nutty elements too.
And among those 2020’s
However, traditional gruner components may carry special appeal to you – and crisp but lighter versions may work better for some of the occasions you have in mind.
If so, here is a nicely crafted 2020 version at a good price and from the widely acclaimed Wachau region.
While (as already outlined) less textured than the 2019 versions, 2020 Weissenkirchen Gruner Veltliner Federspiel (from £10.99 at Majestic and 12%) delivers clear-cut orchard fruit flavours impressively enlivened by fresh, sherbet lemon acidity and hints of herbs and pea shoots.
Moving on to riesling
Given the cool-ish climate in Austria, it is no surprise to see riesling prospering there.
Its vines are sufficiently late budding but early ripening to sidestep the adverse weather conditions at either end of the year that can create havoc among other varieties in places like this.
Going further, much of riesling’s vitality and complexity is lost when temperatures are too high and, consequently, ripening has been unhelpfully fast and, in this context, excessive.
So, Austria’s conditions give it an inside track producing tasty, straightforward inexpensive riesling but, make no mistake, where conditions are perfect winemakers there can scale the heights that usually superstars alone can ascend.
First though, for an everyday example take a look at this component of Sainsbury’s Taste the Difference range that faithfully reflects many classic Austrian riesling characteristics – especially with its spicy or herbal traces and possibly mineral influences too.
Light and fresh, 2020 Taste the Difference Austrian Riesling (£8,75 at Sainsbury’s and 12.5%) provides soft peach and apple bedrock flavours supplemented by good acidity and a savoury backdrop that also embodies menthol and other herb constituents.
Then, bounding up the quality staircase.
By common consent, the best Austrian riesling comes (rather like gruner) from elevated and granite based vineyards around Wachau.
This offering from Kamptal for example, made by an award winning winery, would be perfect as a brilliant special occasion wine.
Balance is the key to the glories of 2019 Allram Gaisberg Riesling (£29.95 at Slurp and 13%) where complex pepper, basil, thyme and melon flavours are delightfully integrated with a trace of peach at one extreme and complex minerality at the other yet all skilfully offset by vibrant acidity and no more than a whisper of the variety’s trademark kerosene.
Finally to red wines
As climates change so red wine areas extend further and further from the equator – although, of course, sun-obsessed varieties (like mourvedre) will not suddenly flourish on England’s North Downs.
Red wines from previously unpromising areas are usually based initially on little known varieties that can cope with cooler climates and their more sedate, drawn-out, ripening processes.
The resulting wine will often be light in alcohol (and sometimes in texture too) with sharp acidity and flavours at the “raspberry” end of the spectrum.
Getting more specific
One such variety is zweigelt, which is grown in several different parts of Austria, and accounts for over 40% of the country’s red grape vines.
It is an early ripening, high yielding variety that produces fresh summer wines not unlike very young barbera or the lighter red wines from the Loire.
Scottish wine merchants WoodWinters offer a presentable, organic one – 2019 Sepp Moser Sepp Zweigelt (at £11.75).
However, this next one is probably the most widely available option for a typical, tasty example to delight those who enjoy this style of wine (and I freely admit to being one).
Light in texture but dark in colour, 2019 Von der Land Zweigelt (from £8.99 at Majestic and 13%) delivers aromatic raspberry and black cherry flavours complemented by bold acidity together with nutmeg, vanilla and cinnamon influences rounded out by a concluding savoury twist.
But there are magnificent blends too
Zweigelt also figures in this next (slightly more expensive) red which proved to be my personal favourite in a recent Wine Society tasting.
Proving that as red wine production gathers pace in new areas so opportunities for “international” varieties open up – this wine blends zweigelt with three other varieties that include merlot.
Perfumed and relatively light, 2015 Pittnauer Pittnauski Burgenland (£17 at The Wine Society and 13%) brings us sensational and complex plum and loganberry flavours with cinnamon and green herb components accompanied by sharp acidity but little tannin.
I hope to see you all again on Monday when my usual look at current promotions in major retailers appears and is accompanied by the latest Top Tips.
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