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Wine Enthusiast Podcast: Excellent Red Wines of Austria

Contributing Editor Anne Krebiehl MW talks with Lance Foyster, Master of Wine and co-owner of U.K. importing company Clark Foyster, about Austria’s red grapes and what you need to know about these lovely and seductive wines.

Anne Krebiehl: Hello and welcome to the Wine Enthusiast podcast: your serving of wine trends and passionate people beyond the bottle. I’m Anne Krebiehl, the Austrian editor here at Wine Enthusiast, and in this episode, I’ll talk to Lance Foyster, Master of Wine and co-owner of Clark Foyster, a specialist Austrian wine importer here in the U.K. We’ll be talking about Austria’s red grapes. You all know Grüner Veltliner as Austria’s white signature grape variety, but did you know that more than a third of Austria’s vineyards are planted to red grape varieties? They are called Zweigelt, St. Laurent, and Blaufränkisch. Lance and I will be chatting about these and will be tasting a lovely and seductive Blaufränkisch wine: Dorli Muhr’s Samt & Seide, which means, literally, silk and velvet.

It’s a sunny morning in west London, and I’m here with Lance Foyster, master of wine. Lance, good morning.

Lance Foyster: Hi. Morning.

AK: You have been a specialist in importing Austrian wines for quite a while. So how did you get into Austrian wines?

LF: It goes back over 20 years, I think. I went to Vievinum in 1998 with Mark Pardo, who I worked for at the time in a small importer in the south of London. And Mark had been to Austria, and had come back and said, “There’s some wonderful stuff here. And none of it’s imported to the UK: we should go and have a look.” So this was sort of 10, 12 years after antifreeze and the country had sorted itself out, I suppose, and was ready to present wines to the world again. So we went, and saw some lovely wines, most of them white. But we did spend a couple of days in Burgenland, and came back with a portfolio of wines, which we then started to try and talk to people about.

AK: Fabulous. Today, I’m here to talk to you about red wines.

And I am so sorry, but the London sirens keep going. I don’t know what’s wrong this morning, but that’s just an authentic soundscape.

LF: Sound of London, yep, sound of London.

AK: I mean, it’s funny: people think of Austria as a white wine country, but there are lovely reds and then not well-enough known, I think, because I enjoy drinking them a lot. So: Austrian reds. Give us some impressions.

LF: Yes. Well, on that first weekend at Vievinum, the Burgenland room, which is the area, I suppose, where most red wine from Austria comes from, is a beautiful hall on the first floor. And there were dozens and dozens of producers there. And so we spent most of our time downstairs tasting white wines, but we spent an afternoon up in the upstairs. And we made a beeline for Josef “Pepi” Umathum, who we had heard of because he’d won a prize for top Burgundy look-alike, I think, because they didn’t have categories of Austrian wines then. And so he’d won it for his Saint Laurent, I think in the Pinot Noir category. So we’d heard of him. We went straight to him and he said, “Oh, I can’t work with you. I work already with an importer. But here are a couple of other young producers who you might be interested in.” So that’s where it started. And then we came back two weeks later and did a proper tour of Burgenland and visited quite a few producers and came back with a little portfolio ready-made. So, it was mostly whites, but we did buy a little bit of red.

AK: And we have to say here, Burgenland is that region in the east of Austria. This is where the Alps have already fallen away, and eased themselves into the Pannonian plain. So Burgenland is a really warm region on Austria’s eastern border with Hungary. And I think we should talk a little bit about Austria’s most planted red grape variety, which is called Zweigelt. It is an Austrian original because its two parents are St Laurent—which you mentioned—and then the other fabulous Austrian red grape, Blaufränkisch. So we have St Laurent and Blaufränkisch, and they were crossed in the year 1922 by Professor Fritz Zweigelt at a viticultural institute in Klosterneuburg, near Vienna.

And at the time, you know, crossing different grape varieties was a big thing because everybody was still reeling—everybody in Europe was still reeling from phylloxera and mildew. And everybody wanted to find grapes and create grapes that would have a decent yield and would make delicious wine. And funnily enough, Dr. Fritz Zweigelt—who has a bit of a checkered past—managed to cross this variety. And he called it Rotburger and it performed. But then, of course, world wars happened and Europe went to its knees, and people had more important things to worry about, frankly, than creating new grape varieties. But in the 1950s, a great Austrian wine grower Lenz Moser rediscovered this and started planting it, and realized what a great little crossing it was. And it was only later that the grape was named Zweigelt—and now it really is Austria’s most planted red grape. And I think it’s a great place to start, if you want to start drinking Austrian reds, which I think you should: taste Zweigelt!

LF: Yes, it’s a grape—so I said we started 20 years ago and we didn’t have much interest in Zweigelt at that time, and I tasted a few. It was—as you say, it was the grape that everyone really made and that wasn’t limited just to Burgenland. There was a lot of Zweigelt in all the other parts of the country. But I found it a bit insipid, a bit dull; often a little bit overly—over acidic, I felt for our market. And it’s a very different grape now, I think. So we didn’t originally focus much on the Zweigelt, although when we did finally come to work with Josef, we felt that he made one of the better or best Zweigelt examples – and better because it seemed to have a bit more weight to it, a little bit more interest and a little bit more concentration perhaps than than the other Zweigelts, that I suppose we had we had kind of eliminated from our list.

But it is a bit of a chameleon grape variety. And it can produce kind of all sorts of different  styles, whether they’re oak or unoaked, how late they’re harvested, how rich they are or how, you know, whether they’re Beaujolais on one end or whether they are, I don’t know, sort of a lighter red Italian. I’m not sure. The identity of it is a little bit fluid, I feel.

AK: I think you’re right. And it’s funny that what you say as insipid and acidic of course comes if you make if you make a wine from a very high-yielding vineyard: that can happen. But it actually is what I like a lot about Zweigelt, is that it isn’t a big full-bodied wine.

LF: Yes. Yes.

AK: It’s one of those lighter reds. And this is exactly what I actually love about it, because I like lighter reds, which are very fresh and crisp. And Zweigelt is actually something I like to chill a little, especially in summer. And so it’s not a heavy wine, even though it can be made into a heavy wine if you really restrict yields. If you put it in oak—and you’re right, I think Zweigelt is a chameleon. That’s right. We actually—well, I taste so many of them that I know what you’re saying—but I still think its advantage is that it’s an incredibly food-friendly wine that doesn’t weigh you down.

LF: Yes. I mean, no, I think that would go from most Austrian wines, red and white. But certainly, Zweigelt fits that bracket. It does work nicely. But I think the trend in our market certainly, you know, amongst our customers is certainly towards lighter reds and unoaked reds. And reds that may have used oak, but don’t really show that they may have used oak; the effect of oak without the taste of oak. And I think that’s important for Zweigelt; I think you don’t want to swamp it with oak flavors. I think that’s crucial for all Austrian reds, really: you don’t want to swamp them with flavors of oak, even if oak’s added a little bit of complexity down the line somewhere.

AK: I agree with you and I’m happy about that kind of general trend, which I think is not only an Austrian trend, but a global trend in reds. Because when I first started getting into wine, it was all about big oak, you know, new oak. The more vanilla the better, you know, the more coconut, the better. Now, oak has become much more of a textural thing. And I think you’re right, these Austrian wines, these Austrian red wines we’re talking about actually fit that mold of the elegant red.

And talking about elegance, perhaps we should move on to Zweigelt’s parents. So those are two indigenous grape varieties. It’s called St Laurent, is one parent, and Blaufränkisch is the other. And St Laurent, many people think it’s French and say Soh-nt Law-roh-nt, but it’s actually Sahnt Lah-rehnt. And St. Lawrence’s day is on the 14th of August. And that is generally when the St Laurent grapes turn their color from green and start going red in the vineyard. That’s what it’s named: that’s why it’s a St Laurent. And I actually have to say, I don’t know what St Laurent is the patron saint of. I don’t know.

LF: No, I don’t.

AK: But St Laurent is a lovely wine. And when I first got to know it, I used to draw parallels to Pinot Noir. And I’m no longer sure because it gets riper, but it has a similar silkiness.

LF: Mmm. I love St Laurent. And actually, on our very first shipment that I mentioned, it was St Laurent that we imported from Gerhard Pittnauer. And he was a young producer at the time. And he was really focusing on St. Laurent more than anything else—even though it’s a very small part, I think, of the total vineyard area, unlike Zweigelt. But he’d made himself a champion of St Laurent right from the start. And what appealed to me—as someone who had grown more, grown up more and joined Burgundy more than Bordeaux—was the suppleness of it. So I did feel a kind of Pinot-esque texture to the wines, but what also appealed to me, and still does,  is how fresh St Laurent manages to be, even when even in conditions that would maybe make Pinot a bit jammy and a bit soupy.

So, you rarely have more than 12.5 or maximum 13 alcohol, even in a hot climate, so that’s a big, big attraction, I think, in these days of earlier ripening and higher alcohol levels. But you also have gentler tannins, and gentler tannins are very important to my way of tasting wine. And I think St Laurent corresponds to all those things. I mean, the growers say it’s very difficult to grow: yields are very low. I think. Comes up with all sorts of—is vulnerable—to all sorts of problems in the vineyard. But people like Gerhard Pittnauer, and many others now, they stick with it notwithstanding.

AK: And so a lot of St Laurent actually from Thermenregion, which is also in the east. So the red wine regions of Austria are sort of the more easterly, the warmer edges of the country where the warm air can come in from that continental plain in Hungary, where there’s a lot of sort of continental heat, but then sort of spreads west into Austria. And that’s Thermenregion and Burgenland.

LF: We actually also buy a very nice St Laurent from Schloss Gobelsburg in Kamptal, so the other side, the cooler end. And so it does—you do find a little bit of it, but I guess it’s predominantly grown in Burgenland.

AK: Yes. But so, of course, the other thing that I have to pick up on, since you started importing and tasting these wines, the other big thing has happened, which is climate change, which really has helped all of these reds in these formerly really rather marginal areas to ripen. And, you know, of course, climate change is a huge challenge. But for certain areas, if you look at the Hainfeld, if you look at lower Austria, the Danubian regions which were really—and still are—predominantly white, climate change has opened quite a few doors for beautiful red wines. And when we come to talk about Blaufränkisch, I’ve actually brought Blaufränkisch along because I love it so much.

And please open it! We need to uncork it. It’s one of my favorite wines, and I love it because of its name: its called Samt & Seide, which, you know, means silk and velvet. And it is a Blaufränkisch. It is from the village of Prellenkirchen. It’s made by Dorli Muhr. And it’s actually in one of those regions that are known for Zweigelt, but this is Blaufränkisch. It grows on a Dolomitic limestone outcrop of the lesser Carpathians. So the last few Carpathian mountains that reach from the east back into Austria.  Salute, Lance!

LF: Cheers, Anne.

AK:  It’s before noon. But I guess we are professionals here, and we have got a spitter.

LF: We have a spitter.

AK: Mm. That smells good. Lovely. And I can smell both that kind of cheery brightness, but also its freshness.

LF: So the color is quite, quite light, isn’t it? I mean, you can find darker Blaufränkisch than that, but Dorli’s wines are on the kind of lighter side. I don’t know them well, but that’s my memory of having tasted them before. But I don’t know this cuvée.

AK: Well, her top cuvée from this mountain is, of course, Spitzerberg, which is made with foot-trodden grapes. Samt & Seide is also from that same slope, but the younger vines and—it’s sort of far more approachable. We have the 2016 wine here, and I love its crunch and its crunchy fruit. But the reason I brought this bottle along is to give us a little hook about what Blaufränkisch does so well and what I think Blaufränkisch does better than either Zweigelt or St Laurent, because Blaufränkisch shows us its origin, doesn’t it?

LF: Yes. Yes. And that’s so important. I mean, I’m a specialist—call myself a specialist importer of Austrian wines, but wherever we buy wine from, we want them to show where they come from. And you don’t want the winemaker to be showing off too much. This is a—I mean, there’s a very big range of styles that Blaufränkisch can make. And that does reflect different wine-making, obviously, but it does also affect the different regions.

And you know this wine and this area better than I do. I don’t buy wines from here. But I would say, if I come across wines with this kind of elegance and delicacy, when we first started in Austria, I would have bought Blaufränkisch, but I didn’t, because I found that the tannin levels were much less successfully managed perhaps than they are now. I found the wines quite abrasive, quite brusque. And yes, texture is very, very important to me. It always has been. And I didn’t find this in Blaufränkisch for the first few years of our importing, so we stuck with St Laurent and that was it. That was it for us for the first three or four years. But bit by bit, we’ve we’ve come to love Blaufränkisch. But it is a grape that needs very careful kind of turning management, I think, and can be, you know, can be over extracted—and certainly over-oaked as well.

AK:  So, of course, we earlier were talking about the table and, you know, wherever we’d go, you and I Lance, isn’t it the case that people give us food, and then along with that wine, because it always should be—that should always be the case. So we’re now coming into autumn, into sort of darker months, into winter. And I think that’s when I when I go to my wine rack and look for the reds.

LF: Yep.

AK: So tell us a little bit about how you use your St Laurent, your Zweigelt, your Blaufränkisch at home. How do you—and how do you choose, and what do you have them with, and what are your favorites?

LF: Well, we drink a lot of Austrian red wine at home. I don’t feel that you need to. I mean, a lot of the restaurants that we sell wine to are far from being focused on Austrian specialty food. So I think the first thing to say would be that the wines are versatile, and work really well with a whole range of dishes. And the nice restaurant in London is a big part of our clientele for them. At home I’m very forgiving of food and wine matching. It’s perhaps not as important to my palate as it is to some other people’s palate, what I what I eat with what I drink.

But I suppose in a general way, I would say that Austrian wines—our food wines—they have a lovely acidity, which is always helpful when you’re eating and drinking together. And they retain their shape and they retain their flavor very easily. I think when you’re—maybe even when you’re eating strong-flavored foods with them. But I find that we drink very happily wines of freshness and elegance, and that’s what really appeals to me. And I could put all those three grapes into that category, at least in the interpretations that I import and the ones that I buy and enjoy drinking.

AK: And I came to speak to you because I think we share a lot of our favorites. You know, Pepi Umathum, Pittnauer, Moritz: those are lovely wines. And yes, I just—there are some international grape varieties that I love, that we all know and love, that are planted everywhere. But it’s really funny when all is the new world regions were planted, they looked mainly to France and to French grape varieties. And one of my quandaries is I think Blaufränkisch could be such a great wine grown internationally because it has that—it spans that kind of, it needs a bit of heat, but it can deal with coolness, certainly.

LF: Yes, exactly. And the vast majority of the wines that the that my business imports are from from Europe and Austria is not the only country, but very important to my small business. But I did import a bit of wine from Mac Forbes in the Yarra Valley in Australia and Mac has planted some Blaufränkisch because he spent some time in Carnuntum, in fact, and fell in love with Blaufränkisch. So there’s a few plants of Blaufränkisch in the soil in the Yarra, which we can await at some point.

AK: And then there is a little bit of land back in Washington and it’s just…I think it’s a grape that is one of the world’s really great red and noble grapes: that nobility has been recognised for a long, long time in Central Europe. But then a lot of that Europe for a long time also was behind the Iron Curtain; it’s only coming out into the world now. And yes, perhaps we can look forward to more international Blaufränkisch in the future.

LF: I can well imagine, I can well imagine. The progress in the 20 years that I’ve been importing Austrian wine, the progress in Blaufränkisch is probably bigger than anything else, I think. And I think it’s that understanding of the right sites for it; as you say, coolness. But a good predecessor doesn’t either – you want a warm soil and in a cool, cool sun.

AK: Well, a warm sol meaning his slate soils, in a shady part, or then a cool soil—the limestone soils—and then a sunny vineyard.

LF:  Yes.

AK: That’s because he’s in the lighter mountains that you either have slate and schist—

LF: Yeah.

AK: —plus also limestone. And he always says what element needs to be warm? What needs to be cool?

LF: That’s right, yeah.

AK: To bring out that kind of dual nature here: that is, to me, very compelling. Yes. So perhaps we should just clink glasses and say yes to Blaufränkisch and to its international success!

Thanks for listening to this episode of the Wine Enthusiast podcast, where Lance Foyster and I discussed the Austrian red grape varieties. Perhaps some of these have taken your fancy, so here are three suggestions:

The Dot 2018 Austrian Cherry Zweigelt. $13, 88 points.

Umathum, 2017 St Laurent. $20, 90 points.

Muhr-Van Der Niepoort 2016 Samt & Seide, Blaufränkisch. $30, 92 points.

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