Austria is becoming known for its red grapes, despite its reputation as a white wine country.
But, thanks to trailblazers Roland Velich of Weingut Moric along with Uwe Schiefer and Hans Nittnaus of their eponymous estates, in the last two decades plantings of red grapes have doubled—especially indigenous varieties.
Here’s a look at the red varieties, both international and indigenous, which are pushing Austria’s red wine scene forward.
Blaufränkisch, or Blau as locals call it (blau rhymes with now), was the noble grape of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (1867–1918). Its suffix signals its pedigree, as, at the time, collectively, noble grapes were referred to as “Fränkisch.”
Burgenland is home to the early-budding and late-ripening grape. The region features three appellations, or Districtus Austriae Controllatus (DAC), exclusively dedicated to the grape. These are: Eisenberg, with schist and slate soils; Leithaberg, featuring limestone; and Mittelburgenland, where Blau grows in heavy loam.
Blaufränkisch in Leithaberg
Apart from Nittnaus, another notable veteran Blaufränkisch grower is Gernot Heinrich, who, with wife Heike, runs one of the largest privately-owned wineries in Austria, Weingut Heinrich.
Within the last five years, Heinrich has converted his entire production to natural, or low intervention winemaking.
Another noteworthy winery is Lichtenberger-Gonzalez, run by Martin Lichtenberger and Adriana Gonzalez.
Their wines impress with delicate, graceful and floral expressions. They produce two high-class wines from the grape in Leithaberg. One bears the appellation name while the other is called Vorderberg and comes from a selection of their oldest vines—60 years on average.
Blaufränkisch in Eisenberg
Christoph Wachter, who runs Wachter-Wiesler, brilliantly transforms Eisenberg’s cooler microclimate and poor green schist soil, into delicate, graceful Blaufränkisch, which is often lower in alcohol.
These wines unfurl beautifully with short-term cellaring.
Blaufränkisch in Mittelburgenland
In Mittelburgenland, Franz Weninger is doing wonders with Blaufränkisch on his eponymous estate. Weninger champions biodynamic farming and natural winemaking and Blau is the crowning of Weninger’s portfolio.
Weninger’s versions are vibrant and combine power and poise with pleasant mouthfeels of dazzling textures. “You have to embrace the acidity as the vehicle and be gentle on the tannins,” explains Weninger.
Blaufränkisch Outside Burgenland
In Carnuntum, southeast of Vienna towards the Slovakian border, Weingut Dorli Muhr has emerged as the classical Blaufränkisch specialist, working organically, and crafting elegant wines. Her Blaufränkisch grows on the Spitzerberg mountain, which has poor limestone soils and an extreme mix of wind and dryness.
“In such conditions, the berries are much smaller than in Burgenland, and [the] yield is low,” explains Muhr. This combination creates wines that are aromatically expressive yet filigreed and graceful, which is typical for this terroir.
In Styria, Blau is very rare. However, in Styria’s Sausal, a lone ranger, Karl Schnabel, devotes his work to crafting exemplary red wines. His Blaufränkisch is idiosyncratic and different from any other versions from the country. This is thanks to the terroir of the Sausal mountain range—which is geologically older than the Alps—as its soils are almost entirely pure schist.
Sankt Laurent wines offer a unique profile, combining silkiness with red to dark fruit and often gamey notes. Indigenous to Austria, it primarily grows in Thermenregion and Burgenland. It’s not an easy grape to cultivate as it’s sensitive to fungal diseases because of its thin skin. It needs to be planted in vineyards with good airflow.
Also, it can be difficult in richer soils as it requires a lot of work in the vineyard with both canopy management and timing of the harvest.
Sankt Laurent can also be finicky in the cellar.
“Longer maceration extracts gamey flavors of the grape,” says Hannes Schuster, winemaker and proprietor of Weingut Rosi Schuster in Burgenland. Schuster leaves Sankt Laurent on the skins for less than a week for this reason.
This red was his first project before taking over the family estate. “At that time, my parents focused on international varieties and allowed me to play with Sankt Laurent.”
Today, he produces one of the most elegant and sophisticated expressions of this grape.
Another notable producer is Michael Reinisch, of Johanneshof Reinisch in the Thermenregion. His style is slightly heavier than Schuster’s but still balanced and complex.
Zweigelt is Austria’s workhorse grape. In 1922, Professor Fritz Zweigelt bred it by crossing Blaufränkisch with Sankt Laurent, and gave it its alias name, Rotburger. It is much easier to grow than either of its parents. Hence, it is the most widely planted red variety throughout Austria.
It is the primary grape of the Neusiedlersee DAC in Burgenland and Rubin Carnuntum. However, in Carnuntum, winemakers aim to produce quality fine wines from Zweigelt.
“Zweigelt is our signature grape and with careful vineyard work and yield management, it can be very complex,” explains Christina Artner Netzl of Weingut Netzl in Carnuntum. Her single-vineyard Zweigelt wines, Bärnreiser and Haidacker are a testament to her words. Christina also makes a more quaffable style of the grape under her private Christina label, which is meant to target the natural wine movement.
Additionally, worth noting are Strohmeier’s reds made from Blauer Wildbacher, a native variety to Weststeiermark. It’s normally used for producing a regional rosé called Schilher.
International Red Varieties
As for international varieties, the Merlot blend from Nittnaus, Comondor, is one of the most famous and is perfect for Bordeaux lovers.
For Austrian Pinot Noir, locally known as Blauburgunder, look for selections from Claus Preisinger.
Finally, fungal-resistant (PiWi) grapes are also gaining popularity due to climate change. Turn to Gut Oggau for their red blends, which often include a PiWi called Roesler.
Published: September 30, 2022