Wine

Beyond Grüner Veltliner: A Guide to Austria’s Other Essential Grapes

May 21, 2020

Story: Punch Staff

Photo: ©AWMB/Manuel Zauner

Wine

Beyond Grüner Veltliner: A Guide to Austria’s Other Essential Grapes

May 21, 2020

Story: Punch Staff

Art: ©AWMB/Manuel Zauner

Though long looked to as a source for grüner, Austria is home to a wide assortment of standout grapes. Here are the ones to know—and why.

If you’re like most Americans, your first encounter with Austrian wine probably came in the usual way: via a screw-capped bottle of grüner veltliner. Bright, zippy and thirst-quenching, this entry-level take on Austria’s signature grape first rose to fame in the 1990s, when it dominated the wine world pop charts as a fresh alternative to the same old sauvignon blanc and pinot grigio. Now a staple of the modern roster of crisp, refreshing whites, it remains a fan favorite for good reason: Not only is it delicious, but it delivers some of the best values to be found in wine.

Any country would envy such a success story. But in Austria’s case—one of Europe’s most historically significant winemaking nations, with a fine wine legacy that extends back to the Hapsburgs—grüner’s mainstream appeal represents something of a mixed blessing. For many, the popularity of this easy-drinking style has come to eclipse everything else Austria has to offer—which, as it turns out, encompasses a whole lot.

That includes, for one, far more serious iterations of grüner, capable of standing toe-to-toe with any of the world’s great whites. But as industry pros have insisted all along, Austria’s strength lies in its diversity. Lately, thanks to the rediscovery of old classics and the arrival of a younger (and increasingly natural-minded) generation of winemakers who are shining a light on the country’s lesser-known grapes and growing regions, the full spectrum of the nation’s centuries-old wine culture is finally coming back into focus.

“What defines Austria right now is this amazing diversity of forward-thinking growers who are working with indigenous grapes and trying to express them in very different ways,” says New York–based master sommelier Pascaline Lepeltier, who describes a widespread “redefinition” of Austria’s identity.

As a result, there’s never been a more rewarding time to discover the full range of possibilities that Austria brings to the table. From a renaissance of quality reds to unique riffs on varieties both familiar (see: riesling, sauvignon blanc) and still under-the-radar (zierfandler, neuburger), to the revival of Austria’s traditional field blends, the country is home to a kaleidoscopic range of expressions. Of the country’s 26 white and 14 red approved varieties, here are just a few of the essential examples that deserve to be on your radar right now.

Riesling

If you were to poll a cross-section of U.S. somms about their favorite Austrian grape, there’s little doubt that riesling would come out on top. The iconic bottlings from the Lower Austrian regions of the Wachau, Kamptal, and Kremstal regions rank among the finest renditions of the grape produced anywhere on Earth: fleshy, taut, muscular and always bone-dry. According to Master Sommelier Morgan Harris, “Austria offers a more savory style of riesling, which is one of the things I appreciate most about it; there’s always this basso profundo salty quality that I love.”

Sauvignon Blanc

Though not technically indigenous to the nation, sauvignon blanc has been a specialty of Austria’s Styria region since the early 19th century. While more-affordable versions highlight freshness and purity, the best single-vineyard examples, typically fermented in neutral oak, deliver a richer, uniquely Austrian take on the grape. According to Lepeltier, this riper style “is very interesting for pairing with food, especially with [notoriously hard-to-match] bitter greens.”

The “Other” Indigenous Whites

At a time when wine geeks are obsessed with reclaiming little-known and overlooked native grapes, Austria can boast a treasure trove of options. These include such charmingly idiosyncratic examples as neuburger (a fragrant, full-bodied and often spicy grape that thrives in several subregions), the Thermenregion’s zierfandler and rotgipfler (often blended together to form the backbone of the area’s rich, fleshy whites), and roter veltliner (no relation to gruner, this pink-hued grape is used to make plump, concentrated whites.

Gemischter Satz

Back in the olden days, before the modern shift to mono-varietal wines, it was standard practice to co-plant a heterogeneous mix of grapes together in the same vineyard, providing growers with an insurance policy, of sorts, against poor vintages. The modern revival of Austria’s pre-industrial, co-fermented field blend, known as Gemischter Satz (or “mixed set”), finds an apotheosis on the outskirts of the Viennese capital, where the current generation of producers has reinterpreted it with thrilling results, ranging from fresh and simple updates to the area’s traditional tavern wines to profoundly age-worthy single-vineyard expressions.

Austrian Reds

One of the most exciting developments to shift Austria’s trajectory of late has been the reconsideration of its native reds. Riding the same wave of interest that transformed Beaujolais and the Loire into modern sommelier darlings, Austria’s offerings have become a modern staple of progressive wine lists across the United States. Of the country’s two main vareities, the zweigelt grape typically skews toward the fresh, juicy, drink-me-now side of the spectrum, whereas the earthy, middle-weight blaufränkisch grape shows a bit more structure and heft, drinking something like cabernet franc’s savory, smoky, central European twin.