Wines of the Month

AUGUST, 1999

August Austrians

I put some real effort into a futile attempt to come up with a catchy reason to write about Austrian white wines this month. By the time I thought that "Hey, both August and Austria start with 'au'!" was worthy of consideration, I knew I was forcing the issue. The truth is that no excuse or gimmick is necessary, because the exciting wines being produced in Austria can speak for themselves. Besides, if I had used the "au" idea, I'm sure someone would have complained that I should have included some Australian wines.

Few Americans are familiar with Austrian wines, although they represent some of the most compelling wines on the market today, appearing in a variety of styles from bone dry to decadently sweet dessert wines. So why are they relatively unknown on this side of the Atlantic? Undoubtedly, one reason is poor distribution. Until recently, hardly any Austrian wines were being imported into the USA. And even now, if you stray too far from a large city, finding an Austrian wine can be quite difficult. However, they seem to be popping up in more and more wine shops and restaurants every day, so your chances of stumbling upon one are increasing all the time.

Cost may be another issue. While many countries, such as Chile, South Africa, and even Australia, have had some success in breaking into the US market by offering inexpensive, good-value wines, many Austrian wines tend to be priced above the "magic" $10 level, possibly discouraging experimentation and impulse buying. Still, careful shopping can result in some real bargains (like the wines reviewed below), and many Austrian wines offer high quality and good value, even if they are priced a little higher than wines from some other countries.

Another reason may be label-phobia, which is frequently cited as a reason for the relative lack of popularity of German wines in the USA. Not only do the Austrian wine labels use many of the same conventions and terms which confuse many Americans who try to shop for German wines, but they also add their own jargon (e.g. Smaragd -- defined below), which may increase the confusion for many first-time buyers. Unfamiliar, and quite long, names of both places (e.g. Gedersdorfer Lößterrassen) and grapes (e.g. Grüner Veltliner) may also play a part in discouraging shoppers. However, a little research, along with a willingness to experiment, can yield great rewards for a buyer who wants to find some great new whites.

What do you need to know when you are shopping for Austrian white wines? First, you should know that except for dessert wines, Austrian wines are almost always made in a dry style. Second, you might want to know about some of the important white wine grapes. First and foremost is Grüner Veltliner, the most widely planted grape in Austria, and one which is rarely, if ever, seen elsewhere. These wines tend to have an herbal character, but also steely acidity, mineral flavors and a touch of spiciness, which sometimes makes me think of a hypothetical cross between Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc along with a dash of spice. Also important is Riesling, which isn't as widely planted as Grüner Veltliner, but makes some excellent wines which seem to have more in common with the Rieslings of Alsace than with those of neighboring Germany. Other grapes which are used in Austrian table wines which I have found on US wine store shelves include Chardonnay, Pinot Gris (which is usually listed on labels as Rulander or Grauer Burgunder), Sauvignon Blanc (also known as Muskat-Sylvaner), Gewurztraminer and Muscat-Ottonel.

In any country, knowing the best regions for various wines is very important. Most of the dry whites imported into the US seem to come from the Wachau and Kamtal-Donauland regions of Austria. These regions are considered to be the best, in general, for Austrian dry white wines. Some of the more impressive producers from these regions, whose wines are available in the US, include: Bründlmayer, Nigl, Prager and F.X. Pichler.

As with German wines, understanding the ripeness levels indicated on the labels can be invaluable. The Austrian system is similar to the one used in Germany. As in Germany, the label indicates the minimum ripeness levels of the grapes used by using the following terms (in ascending order): Qualitätswein, Kabinett, Spätlese, Auslese, Beerenauslese/Eiswein, and Trockenbeerenauslese. Austria also adds two extra categories: Ausbruch, with minimum ripeness levels between those of Beerenauslese and Trockenbeerenauslese, and Strohwein, which is made from dried grapes and has the same minimum ripeness level as Beerenauslese.

Adding to the complexity, the winemakers of the Wachau region use various local terms, of which the most commonly seen in the US is Smaragd, which is made in a dry style, but is at least of Spätlese ripeness. Steinfeder (like a light Kabinett) and Federspiel (a riper version of Kabinett) are also used.

Other terms to look for on the labels include Eigenbaugwein (means that the wine is from the producer's own vineyard) and Erzeugerabfüllung (means "Estate Bottled").

Although this article is far too short to be a complete reference for Austrian whites, hopefully it contains enough of an introduction to encourage you to hunt them down and experiment a little. This month, I'm recommending several wines I found by carefully shopping the local sales. One benefit of the lack of widespread popularity of Austrian wines is that sometimes shops need to drop the prices in order to move the bottles. However, these bottles would have been good values even at their regular prices.

E u. M Berger Grüner Veltliner Gedersdorfer Lößterrassen Kabinett '96 -- From the Kremstal. The town of Krems is roughly on the border of the Wachau and Kamtal-Donauland regions. This wine shows a slightly shy nose of grapefruit, herb, lemon and cola, which improves with aeration. Medium intensity fruit and herb flavors, including grapefruit, green apple, herbs, sweet pea, lemon, and a touch of charcoally smoke, which is livened up by a slightly spritzy texture. Good acidity, with fruit and herb flavors carrying over to the finish, which would have been better with out the slight hint of bitterness. Drink short term. Found at a closeout sale for $6.99, giving amazing quality for the price.

Weingut Bründlmayer Grüner Veltliner Kabinett '96 -- This wine from the Kamtal region shows a powerful yeasty, leesy, lemon and herbal nose. And it backs up the nose with plenty of lemon, grapefruit, sweet pea and herb flavors, along with a definite mineral streak. Finishes with quenching acidty, along with citrus and mineral notes. This has the backbone and stuffing to age for a few years, but it drinks very nicely now. Paid $11 on sale, again showing excellent value.

E u. M Berger Riesling Gedersdorf Steingraben + Lissen Kabinett '96 -- This wine says "Riesling" from the start, with mineral, cola, apple and lemon aromas. The nose seemed a little closed at first, but improved with air. This wine is for fans of racy, elegant Riesling, with its steely, minerally flavors, backed with some apple, lemon, grapefruit, and cola. A very long finish, but with plenty of acidity. The only quibble is that the finish seemed a bit simple with lemon and grapefruit flavors. I am positive that this wine will be better in a few years, given the intense flavors and strong acid backbone. Another amazing value at less than $10 (at a closeout sale).

As always, comments on these wines are welcome.

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Copyright 1999 by Marcel Lachenmann.