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Wines from Austria offer something for everyone, from zippy whites and hearty red blends to award-winning sweeties. Simon Woods introduces the leading grapes and styles, with tips on perfect food matching
If Austria has a USP, it is Grüner Veltliner. It is a very versatile grape that is just as capable of producing fresh, vibrant kiss-me-kwik wines that are swigged with gusto in the country’s many heurigen – inns serving local food – as weightier, riper, more profound wines that reflect the character of their terroir and can happily age for a decade or more.
Food matching: The younger wines go well with seafood; while richer styles can be served with white meats. Reserve styles are excellent with Asian food, particularly if you order different courses but only want one wine.
While Grüner Veltliner may be Austria’s calling card, the Riesling can be every bit as good. So while it’s rare to find a winery west of Vienna along the Danube that doesn’t major on Grüner, it’s also rare not to find one that doesn’t make an excellent Riesling – think German aromatics with Alsace intensity. Once again, the range of styles varies, with wines from the heavier soils of Kremstal, Kamptal and Wagram being rich with ripe, even tropical flavours, while those from further west (especially Wachau) are more minerally and citrus.
Food matching: Thanks to its refreshing acidity, Riesling can cut through rich and oily foods, so rich seafood dishes, roast pork, duck and goose make great partners. Riper styles are also excellent with not-too-spicy Asian food.
Austria isn’t an obvious source of Sauvignon Blanc, but the scenic region of Styria along the Italian border excels with the grape. Some growers use barrel maturation to make wines that could pass for top-class white Bordeaux, but the general preference is for unoaked styles which offer a very satisfying halfway house between the exuberance of New Zealand and the more refined minerally wines of Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé. Grapes are now picked much riper than was once the case, with fruit more in the gooseberry and peach spectrum than the tart grapefruit and green pepper style that was in vogue 15 years ago.
Food matching: The wines can overwhelm delicate seafood dishes, but work well with more robust fish such as salmon and tuna, as well as with spicy foods.
Producers in several regions, but especially in Burgenland to the south of Vienna, use a wide variety of grapes to craft these heady nectars, including Chardonnay, Weissburgunder, Bouvier, Samling 88 (Scheurebe) and Welschriesling. Botrytis plays a part in many wines, but there are a number produced from late-harvested grapes that are left to dry on straw mats to concentrate flavour – look for Strohwein or Schilfwein. These wines tend to be richer and fruitier than other European sweet wines, but with enough acidity to prevent the unctuous flavours from cloying.
Food matching: Austrian Sacher torte is a classic partner, but other rich desserts, blue cheeses and foie gras also work well.
The sturdy grape is cultivated in many parts of central Europe, but thrives in Austria, and in Burgenland in particular. Its deep colour, gutsy berry and blackcurrant flavour and firm tannic structure have much in common with Cabernet Sauvignon, but there’s also a slightly earthy, charred chocolate and cherry edge reminiscent of grapes such as Tannat from south-west France or Sagrantino from Umbria. Some vintners make light, early drinking wines with no oak influence, while others go for a firmer, more ageworthy style.
Food matching: These are wines for hearty meat dishes, such as roast beef and venison, but they also work well with hard cheeses.
There’s no official relationship between St Laurent and Pinot Noir, but the two certainly have much in common. Both are tricky to grow, but when done well produce wines with generous, heady red and black fruit flavours and a supple, juicy mouthfeel. If there is a difference, it is that St Laurent has more of a rustic, spicy edge, but the wines can still be enormously satisfying.
Food matching: These are wines for sweeter meats such as duck and game, but don’t be afraid to try them with white meats or with seared tuna.
The Zweigelt grape was developed in the 1920s by crossing Blaufränkisch and St Laurent and is now Austria’s most widely planted red grape. It’s a versatile variety, making everything from light, fresh, almost Beaujolais-like wines that don’t object to half an hour in the fridge to more powerful, oak-aged wines that brim with earthy, peppery, berry-rich fruit. Think of a cross between the Piedmont varieties Dolcetto and Barbera and you won’t be far off.
Food matching: Younger, juicier styles are classic picnic reds, ideal with sausages and cooked meats, while more ambitious versions can cope with fuller-flavoured meats and dishes with tomato sauces.
The three grapes above are also used to increasingly impressive effect in a growing number of red blends, often in conjunction with varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah. Early attempts tended to be marked by extreme fruit flavours and OTT oak influence. But as both vineyards and vintners have matured, the styles are becoming more balanced, complex and refined, and they age superbly. What is particularly satisfying is that even when the foreign grapes form the major part of the blend (or cuvée, as it is often known), the wines still have an Austrian accent in the form of an earthy, savoury juiciness.
Food matching: They make great dining companions – serve them on those occasions when you’d normally reach for a great Cabernet- or Syrah-based wine.
Editorial feature from Square Meal Restaurants & Bars 2008