Five Sommeliers Share Their Favorite Austrian Wines

It was a pleasure to attend a virtual tasting recently hosted by Austrian Wine. Five sommeliers, including three Master Sommeliers, shared some of their favorite Austrian wines. It was fascinating to taste these wines and learn why they picked these wines. In addition to being delicious wines, they are also great values, ranging between $20 – $35, which I wrote about in the Napa Valley Register and share here.

Wine drinkers have been increasing their consumption of wines during lockdown. According to Nielsen, with bars and restaurants closed, brick-and-mortar alcohol sales were up 21 percent during the seven-week lockdown period, ending April 18, as compared to the same time one year ago.

And online sales of alcohol have more than doubled, up 234 percent, from one year ago. Whether with meals or on Zoom calls with friends, we continue to enjoy wine on a daily basis. But with the increase of purchasing, there has also been a trend towards quality wines in the less-expensive category.

Austrian wines fit perfectly into the category of quality wines at value prices. Austrian wines definitely provide a “bang for the buck” and sommeliers have known this for a while. Austrian wines are found on every good wine list, including the wine lists of Master Sommelier Pascaline Lepeltier (New York), Master Sommelier June Rodil (Houston), Master Sommelier Morgan Harris (San Francisco), Sommelier Patrick Hymer (Chicago) and the Best Sommelier in the World in 2016 Arvid Rosengren (New York). These five sommeliers joined Michael Zimmermann from Austrian Wine for a virtual tasting in which they shared some of their favorite Austrian wines.

Austria is a small region. The wine grapegrowing area in Austria totals 113,000 acres and there are 23,000 wine grapegrowers, most of whom are small centuries-old family wineries.

Austria has three major wine grapegrowing regions: Niederoesterreich (Lower Austria), Burgenland and Steiermark (Styria). In addition, there are 16 smaller wine regions, including Vienna. There are close to 40 authorized grape varieties in Austria, with 63 percent planted for white wines.

The flagship grape of Austria is Gruner Veltliner, making up 37 percent of total production, and that is the grape that most people associate with Austrian wine. But there is also Zweigelt, Blaufränkisch, St. Laurent, Welschriesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Gelber Muskateller and Weissburgunder.

June Rodil loves Austrian wines for their purity. Pascaline Lepeltier loves the experimentation mixed with the seriousness of the wines. Arvid Rosengren appreciates the diversity of styles and regions and a consistency of high quality across the board. Arvid, as well as Morgan Harris, agreed that the quality is high, matched by value and that you can find an exception bottle of wine for less than $30. Patrick Hymer recommends that we taste different Austrian wines, and these are five wines they selected:

— Loimer NV Rosé Brut Sekt Reserve Niederösterreich g.U. ($35)

Located in Langenlois in the Kamptal region in Lower Austria, biodynamic wine producer Fred Loimer took over the family winery from his father in 1998. Sekt, Austrian sparkling wine, has been made in Langenlois for decades. This Rosé Brut Sekt Reserve is a blend of Pinot Noir, Zweigelt and St. Laurent, which adds color and slightly deeper fruit tones. Twenty percent of reserve wine is added to the blend. Secondary fermentation happens inside the bottle and the wine is aged for 18 months before disgorgement.

Arvid selected this wine. He explained that he tends to shy away from sekt wines because they can be fun but simple. But he is drawn to the Loimer Rosé Brut Sekt Reserve because it is a wonderfully complex and drinkable sparkling wine. Patrick was impressed by the amount of structure this wine had for a sparkling wine, and June added that it was “round and lush but restrained with complexity.”

Morgan added that the quality for the value ($35) could not be beat, and Pascaline added that this wine, with its fruit forwardness and sweetness, the wine could be enjoyed as an aperitif or paired with sashimi, umami flavors or spice.

— Christoph Hoch NV Österreich Grüner Veltliner “Hollenburger” ($20)

There are many styles and flavors of Gruner Veltliner and that has been a challenge for Pascaline who has struggled with Gruner Veltliner’s identity. But she selected the Christoph Hoch NV Österreich Grüner Veltliner “Hollenburger,” which she called “a showstopper.”

Christoph Hoch is the 12th generation, since 1640, to make wine in his town of Hollenburg, on the south side of the Danube. Hoch is a biodynamic producer who takes a holistic approach to winemaking.

For the NV Österreich Grüner Veltliner “Hollenburger”, he treats each barrel as an experiment. While all the wine is fermented and matured in big oak casks, some of the wine has macerated on the skins, some goes through malolactic fermentation, some are whole cluster and others are direct press. The resulting wine is a non-vintage blend consisting of 40 percent from the most recent vintage, 40 percent from the previous vintage and 20 percent from three vintages ago. (The back label always lists a lot number in tiny print and the first two numbers show the youngest vintage in the blend.)

While wine is typically an interpretation of vintage or place, what Pascaline appreciates about this wine is that it is about the grape, Gruner Veltliner, and the winemaker’s style. It is a different approach to thinking about wine. Arvid agreed that it was a cool approach to winemaking, but this is not a wine you just pick off a shelf in a store. It is a wine with context and one should understand the unique process to make the wine when tasting it.

I had the pleasure to taste this wine and with the context in mind, I enjoyed it all the more. The wine is unique. It has a reductive quality and hints of cider tones. The wine is medium-bodied and very structured but is beautifully fresh with vibrant acidity.

— Alzinger 2018 Wachau Federspiel Riesling Dürnstein ($30)

Located in Unterloiben in Wachau in Lower Austria, Leo Alzinger Sr. inherited the winery from his family who had been selling their grapes. In 1983 he began producing wine and passed it on to his son Leo Alzinger Jr. who studied viticulture and trained in Germany in the Pfalz region as well as in New Zealand. Like his father, he wants the terroir to express itself in each wine.

Patrick selected this wine because he said he feels it tells a story. He likes to pair this wine on a tasting menu as it is simple and bright yet also precise and linear with nervy acidity. He described the wine as elegant and opulent with aromas of pear, peach, dried apricot, tea and beeswax with a beautiful texture. June agreed that the wine is precise with weight on the palate and bright acidity.

— Neumeister 2017 Vulkanland Steiermark Sauvignon Blanc Ried Klausen ($27)

Christoph Neumeister is the third generation to run the winery. Located in the town of Straden in Eastern Styria, Neumeister has 35 hectares of steep hillside vineyards that are farmed organically. In the cellar, a minimal intervention approach is taken and include long skin maceration, spontaneous fermentation, extended time on the lees and late bottling.

Morgan selected the Neumeister Sauvignon Blanc as it is a wine he has worked throughout his entire career. It was on his first wine list in 2009 and continues to be on the wine lists he creates. There is a demand for Sauvignon Blanc. His guests request it all the time and the Neumeister offers a level of familiarity with regards to the variety but is novel because it is from Austria. Arvid agreed that this wine is special. Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand or Sancerre can be one-dimensional but this one has texture, and Pascaline added that it is crisp, clean and lean but also ripe.

A pale straw-gold color, the wine is beautifully aromatic. Notes of citrus fruits, peach, lilacs, sage and wet stones jump out of the glass. On the palate, the wine is vibrant and fresh. It is medium-bodied and beautifully textured. The wine lingers on the palate and ends with a mouthwatering finish.

— Moric 2017 Burgenland Blaufränkisch ($32.50)

Blaufränkisch (aka Lemberger and Kékfrankos) is a black-skinned wine grape that is the second most popular red wine variety, behind Zwiegelt, in Austria. While it is grown across Austria, it is most popular in Burgenland. Blaufränkisch is a late-ripening variety that produces red wines which are typically fruit forward with rich tannins and a spicy character. Blaufränkisch is a parent grape of both Gamay and Zweigelt.

Winemaker Roland Velich of Moric produces wines in a style unlike others in Austria. After spending decades studying the wines of Burgundy, he approaches Blaufränkisch as if it were Grand Cru Burgundy. The fruit is sourced form hillsides and the 8- to 50-year-old vines are grown on limestone, rock and loam. The grapes are fermented on the skins for about 20 days in open vats and steel tanks. Indigenous yeasts are used and no filtration or fining is used.

June selected the Moric 2017 Burgenland Blaufränkisch and defined Velich as an “iconoclast.” Despite 2017 being a hot vintage, she described the wine as well-balanced and elegant with spices and tannins. Drinkable now, the wine is age-worthy. Arvid expressed that the Moric is a pure expression of Blaufränkisch and Morgan added that the grape is revealed through the winemaking and is a great value.

A beautiful translucent garnet red color, the wine has notes of blackberry, currant, bramble and pepper. The texture is felt on the palate and the wine finishes with a tannic tartness. It is a beautifully elegant wine and the structure and freshness is unlike other Blaufränkisch wines I have tried. This wine is calling for food and can be paired with lighter meats, such as veal or pork, but can go with chicken or fish, such as tuna.

The United States is Austria’s third largest export market and exports continue to grow. These are wines to seek out if you are looking for high-quality wines that are also great values. An Austrian wine will pair beautifully with your next meal.

Read the original story in the Napa Valley Register.