Burgenland reds are catching up with Austria's whites as wines with fans at home and abroad, says JOHN DOWNES MW.
The Austrians have failed to reach the World Cup finals in Japan and Korea this summer, and several football-loving winemakers are not happy. But the country could be on to a winner with its wines. ‘Before the next World Cup, our wines will be up in the top echelon of international quality,’ insists Thomas Klinger of the Austrian Wine Marketing Board. And he’s not only talking about the whites. He’s also talking about the Burgenland Reds.
South of Vienna and nestling against the Hungarian border, Burgenland is Austria’s second largest wine region, with almost 20,000ha (hectares) within the areas of Neusiedlersee, Neusiedlersee-Hügelland, Mittelburgenland (Middle Burgenland) and Südburgenland (South Burgenland).
Neusiedlersee boasts central Europe’s only steppe lake (Lake Neusiedl), and the vineyards of Neusiedlersee are planted on the eastern shore on loess, gravel and sandy soils, with the red vineyards around the northerly town of Gols rapidly gaining well-deserved recognition.
The vines of Neusiedlersee-Hügelland are planted around the lake’s southern shores and the picturesque town of Rust. Further south in Mittelburgenland, where the terrain becomes more hilly and wooded, we get a glimpse of Austria’s red wine history. ‘The nickname of the area is Blaufränkischland,’ reveals Kurt Feiler of Rust-based growers Feiler-Artinger.
Generations have realised that the heavy soils with their ample water-retaining capacity provide perfect conditions for the extensively planted variety, Blaufränkisch. Old vines, some a sprightly 80 years of age, are therefore a feature of the vineyards, their low yields producing rich, full-bodied, complex wines. Südburgenland, with its meagre 457ha, is probably just as well known for the Weinmuseum Moschendorf and Vinothek Südburgenland as its wines, but some interesting reds are starting to emerge from these parts.
Burgenland is starting to make the headlines. ‘There are three great Bs in the world of wine: Bordeaux, Burgundy and Burgenland,’ boasts Velich’s winemaker Heinz Velich. Whereas Austria’s northerly vineyards are influenced by cooler air, down south the warm southeasterlies can push the summer mercury to 40ºC – to the delight of Burgenland’s red varieties. With the lake providing myriad microclimates, and with ever-improving winemaking technology, Austria’s reds are becoming an exciting proposition. It’s therefore not surprising that Austria’s 75/25 split in favour of white wines is turned on its head in Burgenland. ‘It’s 50/50 at the moment,’ explains Klinger, ‘but reds will be in the driving seat here before long.’
Traditional white varieties such as Welschriesling and Muskat Ottonel are being grubbed up to make way for the successful red varieties of Blaufränkisch, Zweigelt and St Laurent. How refreshing to see winemakers sticking to indigenous varieties. ‘This gives us reds that have completely different taste profiles to other reds in the world,’ explains Karl Fischer of Lenz Moser. But the Burgenlanders are not blinkered by tradition, and have planted Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot to lift the blends. Syrah is also finding favour, while the flirtatious Blauburgunder (that’s Pinot Noir to you and me) is turning heads as a single-varietal wine.
Blaufränkisch produces full, juicy, tannic blackberry wines that always carry the variety’s hallmark acidity, while the lesser known St Laurent is softer, with velvety plum and red fruit. Zweigelt may be a cross between Blaufränkisch and St Laurent, but at its best it is completely different from either, giving unmistakable full-bodied, crisp, wild black cherry qualities linked to rich, silky tannins.
The wines appear as a single varietal or a blend of two or all three varieties, with an occasional injection of Cabernet or Merlot. This is a portfolio that’s exciting many winemakers who only a few years ago thought that Austrian whites held the only key to the global marketplace. My bet is that more and more winemakers will jump onto the big red bus.
The indigenous collection is completed by Blauer Portugieser. Although this covers the same vineyard area as Blaufränkisch (at about 5% of Austria’s vineyards), it is nowhere near as classy. But though the wines lack acidity and alcohol potential, their softness and mellow red fruits have an easy-drinking charm on a summer day.
Way back in 1990, eight of Austria’s top winemakers came together under the ‘Pannobile’ banner to create an Austrian appellation, including the best red cuvées. ‘The concept is that only the best wine from each vintage can wear the Pannobile label,’ explains co-founder Paul Achs, whose winery is in Gols. Membership may be by invitation only, but being admitted doesn’t mean it’s all plain sailing. ‘Everyone has to submit his chosen Pannobile wine to the other members for tasting and approval every year,’ explains Achs. The collection shows the quality that Austrian reds can achieve and, more especially, the real potential of the indigenous grapes.
Pittnauer Pannobile 1996 is a blend of Blaufränkisch, Zweigelt and St Laurent. It has a touch of tobacco on the nose and a smooth, layered red and black fruit palate. It’s ageing beautifully. The 1999, in contrast, is still in short trousers, but the structure to ensure tasty and complex times ahead is all there.
The Beck Pannobile 1996 is a Zweigelt and Blaufränkisch blend with a dollop of Pinot Noir added in. My tasting notes queried: was that the soft cherry finish that remained after the powerful yet juicy, crisp damson palate? The small proportions of Cabernet and Merlot showed a plum and blackcurrant presence within the mulberry Blaufränkisch and Zweigelt blend of Nittnaus Pannobile 1996. One sip of Juris St Laurent 1999 confirms its pedigree. Single blend and single-minded, it shows ripe, sweet blackberry and damson with a soft, long, friendly finish.
As most of Austria’s regions specialise in whites, the hot question is: just how long will it be before the red revolution spreads? A glimpse at the quotes in the glossy promotional brochures produced by each of the regions gives some clues: ‘The reds of Kamptal are beginning to enter the market’; ‘There’s a growing interest in the culture of red wine in Donauland’ and ‘Approximately one third of Thermenregion is cultivated with red varieties’. It looks like the revolution is definitely on the move.
The name of Lenz Moser is synonymous with Austria, not only because it is the largest producer (with well over nine million bottles annually) but also for its high vine training system, popular in Austria and worldwide. Although Lenz Moser is based in distant Kremstal, it has realised Burgenland’s potential and leases 25ha of Austria’s largest estate, Klosterkeller Siegendorf, on the northwest shore of the Neusiedlersee, to produce its premier red. ‘The vineyards date back to 1244 and are exceptional. It’s a pedigree that shows in our Siegendorf Rot, a blend of French oak-matured Blaufränkisch and Cabernet Sauvignon,’ confirms director Karl Fischer.
A WARM RECEPTION
The price tag on Austria’s top reds could well prove to be killer as they fight for a place on the top shelf, but a little common sense, a sound marketing campaign and a few good vintages could do the trick. The new millennium with its warm 2000 vintage has served them well. ‘They have deep colour, Austrian fruity brilliance, a real fruit concentration and excellent ageing potential,’ says Klinger. By the 2006 World Cup, it is rumoured that the Austrian football team are still likely to be in the doldrums – but will Austrian reds find themselves in wine’s first division? Looking at recent results, they’re well on their way.
Written by John Downes