Confession: The vast majority of Austrian wines aren’t produced in the western, alpine portion of this landlocked nation. Nonetheless, I thought it would be good to start by planting the image of the snowy Austrian Alps in your mind, as it is one of the most picturesque settings in the world — a refreshing January reminder that winter isn’t all doom and gloom, especially when you’re cozying up in a chalet overlooking some softly powdered ski slopes.
When it comes to viticulture, we are more or less talking about the lowland regions in and around Vienna in the eastern half of the country bordering Slovakia and Hungary — the Weinland Osterreich — just in case you want to fit in a few quick tours. Even though Austria might not have the same lofty prestige as French or Italian vintners, the winemaking heritage predates Roman times.
And it shows! With strict laws in place and a shrewd focus on quality over quantity, there’s no reason why Austrian wines shouldn’t grace your menu. This pursuit of grape excellence also means Austria is only the 16th-largest producer by volume in the world (where France and Italy are first and second,respectively), which plays a hand both in elevating the prices for bottles and in their relative rarity of sourcing. Due to this second point, simply having an Austrian label on the wine list may be enough to pique the interest of a more adventurous patron.
The prototypical contemporary Austrian varietal is that of a dry yet full-bodied white with Grüner Veltliner leading the pack at just over a third of all grapes grown in the country. Living up to its namesake (“grüner” means “green,” and this single word often serves as an abbreviation), wines of this pedigree have a crisp, acidic tang with strong notes of lime zest, nectarine, tart apple and pepper.
Grüners have gained a lot of traction amongst oenophiles in recent years because their well-balanced mixture of dry flavors means they can pair with savory as well as highly bitter foods. Think chicken schnitzel with a side of broccoli and asparagus; normally you’d put a red in this picture, but a grüner will work just fine! Along these lines, this varietal can also be paired with any hearty meat or shellfish as well as sharp spices like ginger, tarragon, dill or curry.
As for other whites, be on the lookout for Welschriesling, which, although unrelated to the more prevalent German or Rhine Riesling, can produce some equally sweet and fruity wines while also having a tawny coloration in sharp contrast to the pale greens of the grüners. The Müller-Thurgau or Rivaner — a hybrid strain very popular in German vineyards — has made substantial inroads in Austria, producing a light, semisweet taste much like sauvignon blanc (and it is paired similarly, too).
When it comes to reds, which are far less widespread than whites, Zweigelt is the most common grape used, known for its bright violet-red color and soft tannins with a taste likened to a spicy, aromatic pinot noir — perfect for peppery meats, strong cheeses and anything tomato-based. Next worth mentioning is the Blauburger. Its dark, deep purple color is contrasted by its velvety and rather neutral berry taste profile. Blauburger is often matched with roasted vegetables, pork dishes or anything based in a mustard or creamy mushroom sauce.
Lastly, Austria is known for its incredibly syrupy dessert wines mostly coming from the area around Lake Neusiedl, but as is the case with nearly every Austrian varietal grown, local consumption (amounting to roughly three-quarters of what’s produced) prevents the export market from blossoming for anything outside of the grüner veltliner. As such, my outlook would be to start with this “green” white, working it into the wine list and pairings, and then — only if the demand is there — explore further (my runner-up being the zweigelt). Aside from that, Austrian wines are a treat worth trying, so consider them the next time you’re stocking up.