Germany is experiencing a red explosion, possibly attributable to climate change, with the result that riesling is no longer the only fruit. A red grape like pinot noir can ripen, at least in the more southerly parts of the country. Some German pinots are now going head to head with Burgundy – and even beating them in competitions.
Austria has had a similarly successful white history with riesling, the anti-freeze scare of the 1980s not withstanding (and it is still talked about). However, the country is also experiencing increasing success with the increasingly fashionable gruner veltliner – a tangy, slightly herbal and very peppery white grape.
But, says Josef Umathum of Umathum Wine Estate, some parts of Austria are just not suited to white wine production. In some regions, he says, red production represents (or should represent) up to 50 per cent of output. In the warm and dry easterly region of Neusiedlersee in Burgenland, where he has 30 hectares under cultivation, red grapes ripen beautifully.
What is particularly interesting in Austria is that winemakers are not going down the road of an international variety like pinot noir, but engaging with their own local grape varieties. These include Blaufrankisch, St Laurent and Austria’s most important red grape, Zweigelt.
Umathum, a biodynamic estate, was one of the first producers (together with Zantho Estate, his joint venture with Wolfgang Peck) to focus on quality Zweigelt. Some measures are as straightforward as reducing yields through green harvesting, leading to greater concentration of grape flavours. Made well, this gastronomic wine with soft tannins and cherry-spice flavours can age for 5-7 years, or even up to 20 years for premium examples. Zweigelt is a cross of Austria’s two other most important grapes, Blaufrankisch and St Laurent.
Blaufrankisch (known as Kekfrankos in Hungary) has quite thick skins and the tannins can be somewhat “rough” says Umathum, meaning that it is not so popular among the Austrian wine drinking community which prefers soft and fruity wines. The Umathum Joiser Kirshgarten 2009, however, shows super rounded tannins balanced with expressive acidity. It is reminiscent of the top Beaujolais crus. There’s even an orange skin and grapefruit (and mineral, from schist soils) sensation on the finish.
St Laurent is also one of the parents of Pinot Noir, and Umathum refers to it as “a special type” of pinot. It is easier to handle in the vineyard than its offspring, and is well adapted to the Austrian climate.
St Laurent can make deeply coloured, velvety, densely concentrated wines, as the output from Pittnauer demonstrate. Pittnauer Klassik Dorflagen 2013 is warm and spicy with integrated acids and tannins. Alte Reben 2012 is very elegant and already showing some lovely development, while retaining juicy fruit.
Zantho St Laurent is Austria’s top selling St Laurent (it costs less than 10 euros) and is highly drinkable. It makes a good (and inexpensive) alternative to pinot.
A few good examples of Austrian pinot are emerging, but they do not generally fit into the German quality arena. Pittnaer Flassik Fuchsenfeld Pinot Noir 2013 is pretty and floral with a light texture – but it does have a long cherry-laced finish.
The Umathum Unter den Terrassen Pinot Noir 2012 is quite sweet compared with the Blaufrankisch, and though it has a savoury finish it should not be compared with Burgundy. However, Umathum says wines made with St Laurent can easily age for 10 years, and that they become more and more like pinot noir as they mature.
The main criticism of Austrian white wine is that they are too uniform, with producers being ultra interventionist in the winery, and refusing to take risks. Biodynamic producer Nikolaihof Wachau (Wachau is widely regarded as the top white wine region) is one of the very few fermenting in (old) oak casks to move beyond the squeaky clean paradigm.
This treatment helps give a lovely creaminess to the wines as they age. It may be that the consumer wants clear and clean with bright acids, so producers don’t believe they can sell more terroir-driven, complex white wines. The situation is different with red wines, says Umathum, where the range of styles is becoming more and more interesting.
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