Austrian Red Wines Are Finally Coming of Age

Austrian reds have struggled to catch up with their magnificent white cousins, but the best are now coming of age.

Historically, Austria has always been white wine territory, that freshly drawn carafe of iconic Grüner Veltliner greeting you in your favorite Vienna Heuriger. Red wine was, well, there and we drank it. But this began to change in the 1980s, as Austrians discovered imported red wines that were affordable and far more interesting than their own. It takes a different cellar craft to get the depth of character that turns mere red grape juice into magic. The French do it best, so Austrian growers raced to plant the classic Gallic vine stocks: cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir and merlot. The Klosterneuburg wine school HBLA built French winemaking technology into their courses and cellars were stocked with Limoges oak barrique casks. Turbo-charged by generous subsidies, red wine rose from less than 20 per cent to nearly 35 per cent of domestic production.

But blindly following others can be fatal. As red wine production soared, prices fell through the floor. Winemaker Alois Höllerer lays the blame squarely on agricultural policymakers: “This was the classic pork belly cycle!” Farmers know it, and it is always them that lose: They’ve invested and then couldn’t sell the stuff. So, although Austrian reds had become very presentable, copying the French meant they had lost their individuality. Who needs a knock-off pinot noir when the original is right there on the shelf?

Lead, Don’t Follow

Austrian Wine Marketing boss Willi Klinger understands the importance of local provenance in selling wine. “We had a treasure, our autochthonous (indigenous) red grape varieties, Zweigelt und Blaufränkisch.” It was time for a change of plan.

Today, Austrian domestic red wines are beginning to follow the triumphs of Grüner Veltliner in the international market – in the famous London Tasting of October 2002, Austrian white wines took seven out of the top ten spots. Austrian reds will probably never reach the same giddy heights, but in an international blind tasting in Singapore in 2010, an Austrian pinot noir took the top spot. A good start – if still in debt to the French.

Professor Robert Steidl at the Klosterneuburg school knows that producing good red wine is complicated. Abandoning the traditional sortenrein (single variety grape) tradition in favor of blends (cuvées for wine buffs), winemakers were able to fine-tune the taste. More elusive is the magic of barrique, the special quality that oak casks can bring. Modern steel tanks that inject precise amounts of air can go part of the way. The crass technique of adding oak chips (known in the trade as “carpenter wine”) is the low-cost alternative. Professor Steidl sighed: “Nothing quite matches real barrique.”

Robert Brandhofer of Pub Klemo sees his clientele split: Austrians show little alcoholic patriotism and are keen to explore imported red wines, but his international customers want to learn about the Austrian varieties. Quality comparisons are never easy, but he sees a clear picture: At around €10, imported wines offer better quality for the money, but up-market, Zweigelts and Blaufränkisch can match the champions.

So no need to feel you have to put a fancy Chateau Quelconque on the table for your next dinner party: There are Austrian reds that can now hold their own with the best.

Simon Ballam
English, studied in NY and worked in London, Düsseldorf, NY, Fankfurt, Prague and Vienna. This covered stints in market research and the film industry, international advertising coordination and strategic planning. Currently business school lecturer and journalist.

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