Local in Austria

By David Schildknecht

The country's two most important and potentially profound grape varieties—Blaufränkisch and Grüner Veltliner—are little planted elsewhere in the world. Zweigelt—Austria's most widely planted red, is a source of easy-going, forwardly fruited reds and a key component in many a synergistic blend, but, similarly plays scarcely any role outside its (1922) birthplace.

Austrian wine growers are lucky. They've taken center stage with grapes they practically have to themselves.

There are, in fact, numerous underappreciated, internationally obscure grape varieties whose delightful and even exciting potential at least a few imaginative and intrepid Austrian growers are routinely demonstrating. Some are working with c&ecaute;pages of miniscule acreage such as the mysterious Gelber Traminer, or Furmint in its recent revival around Rust. Others are demonstrating the potential of a quite widely planted—and, in instances such as Blauburger, Gelber Muskateller, Neuburger or Roter Veltliner, an at-one-time much more widespread—cépage. When it comes to Welschriesling, that grape's sheer ubiquity even today is, no doubt, a major reason why until recently so few growers attempted to render from it something memorable.

St Laurent is a deep, plushly textured son of pinot noir

Austria's sheer number of autochthones is impressively large. Few of these have a secure place on Austria's future grape roster. Every year, growers (including a couple who make my personal hit list below) ask themselves questions such as whether the capriciousness of Gelber Muskateller or St. Laurent—not to mention the greater commercial attraction of the latter's famous parent, Pinot Noir, in identical sites—make it worth persevering. Still, one would hope that of all people, Austrian wine growers would recognize a Cinderella lesson in the rise of Grüner Veltliner, from obscurity largely within mixed plantings to solo stardom within three generations, and would not view any grape's lowly or even despised station today as decisive evidence of its lack of potential.

Happily—thanks almost entirely to Viennese growers' desire to promote a distinctive category among vineyards that have survived in significant numbers—the revival of Gemischter Satz is secure, and some of those grape varieties capable of extraordinary solo feats that few wine lovers have witnessed will at least live on in these field blends if nowhere else. Even Pinot Blanc (a.k.a. Weissburgunder), a grape most wine lovers only think they know, and with which some dozen Austrian growers excel, might only survive in this way. But here's hoping it doesn't come to that!

Herewith, a personal hit list highlighting outstanding and imaginative proponents of Austria's underappreciated and autochthonous varieties. Most of their wines are site specific if not in fact vineyard designated; those starred with an asterisk are growers who routinely bottle more than one wine per vintage featuring the cépage in question.

Rotgipfler wines from the Thermenregion combine body and citric vivacity

The grape illustrations by Siobhan Thomas were inspired by plates from Atlas der für den Weinbau Deutschlands und Oesterreichs werthvollsten Traubensorten by Hermann Goethe and Rudolphe Goethe, published in Vienna in 1876.

BLAUBURGER
Once more common in much of the Weinviertel than Grüner Veltliner, this black grape offers a profusion of juicy, spicetinged dark berries coupled with remarkable absence of appreciable tannin.
Pollerhof (Weinviertel)

FURMINT
Thanks to the Wenzels and a few others in Rust, this cépage is staging a small comeback, not only with selections culled from old vineyards in Tokaj, but with back-from-the-dead propagation of a few degenerate vines discovered to have survived in Rust. Furmint, in fact, was once a mainstay of what was then called German West Hungary, now Burgenland. With time on the vine (and time on the palate) piquant lime and buckwheat can give way to effusively floral honey, and firmness to opulence, even in dry versions.
Schröck* (Neusiedlersee-Hügelland)
Wenzel* (Neusiedlersee-Hügelland)

GELBER MUSKATELLER
A long-standing mainstay of Austrian, Hungarian and German viticulture, this piquantly citrus-zesty and pungently herbal variant of Muscat à Petits Grains typically informs invigorating but brusquely dry wines, especially in Southern Stryia. Those growers rendering more memorable versions tend toward idiosyncrasy (Bründlmayer, for instance, nowadays always harvests this grape last; the Musters subject their fruit to extended, sulfur-free lees élevage) but share an uncommon ability to capture sustained primary juiciness.
Bründlmayer (Kamptal)
Knoll* (Wachau)
Sepp & Maria Muster (Südsteiermark)
Pollerhof (Weinviertel)

GELBER TRAMINER
While not even officially recognized by Austrian wine law (though one may legally label the fruits of its yellow berries "Traminer" or "Roter Traminer"!), this Savagnin Vert look-alike is unmistakably distinctive, combining the rose petals of Gewürztraminer with almost Riesling-like vivacity and refreshment, its acidity helping render it outstanding in sweet versions. Knoll obtained their cuttings in the late 1990s from the Salomons, and a few other growers, like Umathum, have encouraged vines found within mixed plantings.
Knoll* (Wachau)
Umathum (Neusiedlersee)
Salomon—Undhof* (Kremstal)
Salomon—Oberstockstall (Wagram)

NEUBURGER
According to legend, Neuburger was discovered at mid-19th century as a bundle of vines floating in the Danube. A crossing of Roter Veltliner and Sylvaner (the latter long known as "Österreicher," though nowadays almost entirely neglected in its homeland), it quickly spread east from the Wachau. Its proclivity to require long hang time combined with susceptibility to rot and disease—and perhaps, too, its discrete manner—have led to a steady drop in acreage, but its wines' florality; nutty, sweetly vegetal flavors of white asparagus; and strikingly silken texture render it distinctively versatile as well as an irresistible quaffer. (But be careful; it tends toward high alcohol.) A serious search will turn up terrific examples with 30 or more years of bottle age.
G. Heinrich (Neusiedlersee)
Hirtzberger (Wachau)
Mantlerhof (Kremstal)
Nikolaihof (Wachau)
Tinhof* (Neusiedlersee-Hügelland)

ROTER TRAMINER
A century ago, to the extent that Traminer was known at all, it was in this variant, which is still prominently featured (as a bodybooster and aromatizer) in old field blends not just in Vienna but elsewhere (including what few such mixed plantings remain in Germany). The carnal and peppery aspects of the Traminer family tend to be emphasized, and relatively high potential alcohol tends to be requisite for achieving interesting flavors. (Umathum's is field-blended with Gelber Traminer.)
Neumeister (Südoststeiermark)
Umathum (Neusiedlersee)

ROTER VELTLINER
Unrelated to "Grüner," Roter Veltliner—once dominant in the Wagram, east of Krems—ripens only at high potential alcohol, yet the best (routinely dry) renditions manage to hide it. Musk, citrus and rhubarb are among features of its opulent yet simultaneously piquantly phenolic (as well as potentially long-lived) wines unsuited to the faint of heart.
Leth (Wagram)
Mantlerhof (Kremstal)
Rudi Pichler (Wachau)
Setzer (Weinviertel)

ST. LAURENT
St. Laurent (pronounced in Austria "sahnkt- LORE-ent") takes after its famous parent Pinot Noir (in intercourse with we-know-notwhom) by being site-sensitive and generally finicky (today it's unripe, tomorrow it rots), which is why many growers ask themselves, "Why take the trouble if it's not Pinot?" The best St. Laurent, however, resoundingly answers that question with deep cherry fruit, satiny but plusher texture than most Pinot, plus alluring animality and spice. (Zweigelt, incidentally, is a crossing of St. Laurent with Blaufränkisch.) Hannes Schuster is rescuing much of what's left in his sector, with memorable results that he points out now sell very well in the US though not at home.
Bründlmayer (Kamptal)
Schloss Gobelsburg (Kamptal)
G. Heinrich (Neusiedlersee)
Rosi Schuster* (Neusiedlersee-Hügelland)

WELSCHRIESLING
Ubiquitous throughout central Europe—and in more linguistic variants than there are national tongues—this grape gets little respect (outside its usefulness for nobly sweet wines), in part no doubt because its name suggests ersatz-Riesling but mostly because it's harvested at marginal ripeness with refreshing but simple, slightly green results. Give it time on the vine (and proper èlevage)—plus perhaps a dollop, at least, of botrytis—and its spiced pineapple can pick up remarkable complexity, as proven in recent years by Schröck and Kracher's vineyarddesignate "Greiner," which spends three years in cask, or by the 2013 debut of one small barrel's worth from old vines in the Weinstock sector of Zieregg, an insightful project that young Armin Tement plans to expand.
Schröck Kracher (Neusiedlersee-Hügelland)
Tement* (Südsteiermark)

Zierfandler is Chenin-like in its juxtaposition of opulence with brightness.

ZIERFANDLER, ROTGIPFLER
These two white wine grapes (the latter's shoot tips—gipfel—are what's red) are features of the Thermenregion south of Vienna, and are often blended, in which case the Zierfandler curiously tends to take the name Spätrot (also that of an important family estate). Wines from Rotgipfler strikingly combine body with citric brightness; Zierfandler is Chenin-like both in its juxtaposition of opulence with brightness, and its spiced quince and citrus flavors. To taste Stadlmann's rendition from the Mandel-Höh is to realize that Zierfandler can generate long-lived and irresistibly seductive libations of mind-bending complexity. (Quite possibly, a mix-up of labels when vines of this cépage were brought to the US from then Imperial Austria accounts for the name Zinfandel.)
Spaetrot—Familie Gebeshuber* (Thermenregion)
Stadlmann* (Thermenregion)

And a few outstanding practitioners of "Gemischter Satz" (field blends) that include autochthones and neglected c&eavute;pages:
Jutta Ambrositsch* (Wien)
Ingrid Groiss (Weinviertel)
Hajszan* (Wien)
Neumayer (Traisental)
Wieninger* (Wien)

This article first appeared in Wine & Spirits, April 2014.
Illustrations by Siobhan Thomas