A tasting of Austrian wine in London organised by the Austrian Wine Marketing Board this past week was a revelation, in the sense that a relatively small nation is producing some excellent wine.
Gruner veltliner is Austria’s most common grape variety, accounting for a third of all plantings. Riesling is also widely planted, with blaufrankisch one of the the most common red varieties.
Peter Moser publishes the Falstaff Ultimate Wine Guide Austria. This English-language version of his Falstaff Wein Guide, which appears annually in the German language, has been published each year since 2002.
Moser notes that Austria’s total production “is barely enough to fulfill the demands of the domestic market” but exports continue to grow.
Austria sells to its neighbours — Germany, Switzerland and the Netherlands. The United States has become a major market. In recent years Austria has targeted China and Japan in the Asian region.
The 2012 harvest volume was relatively small after the superb 2011 vintage. Frost meant that total production for Austria was about 2.1 million hectolitres, about 400,000 hectolitres less than the average of the previous five years. But 2012 appears to have been uniformly praised.
I focused on tasting the 2012 rieslings. The most fragrant rieslings are grown on slate soils, which give the wines a racy and mineral feel. It’s like tasting the aromas of river pebbles that have dried in the sun.
I tasted almost 30 of the 2012 rieslings from most of the best producers, and they were uniform in their quality. The best word to describe them would be exuberant — a combination of bright and zingy acids with relatively low residual sugar and flavours at the lemon and grapefruit end of the spectrum.
Sugars and alcohol enhance a wine’s sweetness while acids and tannins give a sense of sourness. The winemaker’s job is to find a balance between them. The level of sugar is known as residual sugar and it is usually measured in grams of sugar per litre. A wine with more than 45 grams per litre is considered sweet.
The rieslings had residual sugar of between 1.8 and 8 grams per litre. In other words, they are quite dry. Most could be drunk now, with the right kind of food. I have always maintained that riesling is the ideal wine to drink with delicate and spicy Asian food like dim sum or dumplings, compared with Bordeaux style reds which obliterate the texture and taste of subtle Asian dishes.
All gave that sensation of flintiness, or minerality. Some of the best came from producers like Rabl, Loimer, Hellmer, Lenz Moser, Petra Unger, Wohlmuth, Winzer Krems, Hirsch, Bründlmayer and Bauer.
Well-made rieslings show their glory at least a decade later. These wines integrate acidity and fruit and change colour from pale yellow to green gold. I have tasted 50 and 60-year-old rieslings that are dark gold, even amber, and still contain a zing of acidity. Their flavours have evolved to the point of perfection.
I assessed a range of Austrian rieslings from 2001 to 2005 to see how these wines evolve. All these older wines had low residual sugar, from 2.8 to 5.3 grams per litre. This means the wine’s quality and ability to age is a combination of great winemaking, terroir and excellent fruit.
The 2001 Loimer Steinmassl, from the Kampal region, has an acidity that acts like a container for a range of delightful flavours — toast, honey and lemon.
A 2002 Bründlmayer Reserve Heiligenstein “Alte Reben”, also from the Kampal region, was crisp like biting into a fresh green apple yet with aromas of honey and a tertiary quality that some people say smells of kerosene. Hints of an oil lamp or kerosene are typical of aged rieslings. It should not be overwhelming, but many riesling lovers admire a hint of this character.
A 2005 Wieninger Preussen, from the region around the capital Vienna, still tasted young and zingy. Despite its low residual sugar of 2.8 it tasted sweet. It’s like eating honey on brown toast, and the honey is so good that you don’t need butter.
These older wines show the potential of Austrian riesling to mature and develop and demonstrate their beauty. Do yourself a favour and look for some older Austrian rieslings, especially from the brands mentioned above.
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