Austria’s Indigenous Reds: Blaufrankisch, St Laurent, Zweigelt

As I wait for the opportunity to finally go on vacation, I am getting ever more excited to try some of the Austrian reds that I like from producers I don’t know while away. Austrian reds are now about a third of the country’s production although the whites and sweet wines are much more widely known.

My first experience with Blaufrankisch was actually on Long Island oddly enough. Christopher Tracy, the winemaker at Channing Daughters on Long Island is a huge fan of Italian grapes and also grows Blaufrankisch.

My parents had a home, not at the foot of the Ngong Hills like Karen Blixen’s family in Out of Africa, but in Bridgehampton. I only discovered Channing Daughters the summer that we were packing it to move. I immediately joined the wine club and when I got my Blaufrankisch in the mail, I was skeptical. I was surprised and delighted at how spicy and ripe the flavors were and by its acidity.

Blaufrankisch grows in a variety of Austrian regions including Neusiedlersee, Burgenland (Mittel and Sud), and Carnuntum. These areas have enough sun and soil types that are ideal for red grape growing.

I have tried a number of wines from Austria made from this grape. Among my favorites are Weninger and Hillinger. Weninger hails from Mittelburgenland, specifically from Horitschon. Franz Weninger has been running the firm since 1982. The family has 30 hectares of vines with good draining soils in Austria and properties in Hungary as well. These deep, hevily loamy soils that are rich in clay yield optimal Blaufrankisch. Some of their vines are 80 years old. The winery has been biodynamic since 2006. The wines are vinified in wooden fermentation vats with ambient yeasts.

I highly recommendi the Blaufrankisch Hochacker which is a very fine expression of what the grape has to offer: fruit, spice, toasted notes, fine tannins and elegance.

The Hillinger Blaufrankisch was also exquisite. He has a few wines in which he blends this grape with other grapes but I prefer the single varietal version. I was lucky enough to attend a tasting in the wine shop where I work once a week, Maslow 6. Hillinger came in for the tasting and was very welcoming and warm. It appears he is something of a rock star in Austria but here in New York, he seemed very down to earth. The wines were great, rich and velvety.

St. Laurent, another Austrian indigenous red variety is a rich, fruity grape
which migrated to Austria from France and is genetically related to Pinot Noir. It is traditionally found in the Niederösterreich iand in Burgenland.

I haven’t tasted too many St. Laurent but I have tried the ones from Meinhard Forstreiter. St. Laurent is said to be a hard grape to grow, just like its relative Pinot Noir. It is sensitive to frost and hard to grow. In fact, it is only grown on some 800 hectares in all of Austria but it is a true gem.

The Forsteiter family began making wine in 1868. The 25 hectare winery is located in the Kremstal region, on the right bank of the Danube river. The soils in that area are known as the Hollenburger Konglomerat and is a layered mixture of clay, sand, and loess formed during the Ice Age.

The winery practices sustainable agricultural techniques. The St. Laurent is made from 50 year old vines. It is full bodied and elegant wine with roasted notes, soft tannins and berry fruit aromas and flavors.

Zweigelt is actually the most widely planted red grape variety in Austria. It is a cross between Blaufrankisch and St. Laurent. Zweigelt grows throughout Austria and makes many different styles of wines. From cheery fruity reds with pronounced spiciness to more complex ones with aging potential. The Neusiedlersee is the most well known area for Zweigelt.

Anita and Hans Nittnaus make wonderful Zweigelt as well as amazing dessert wines. Nittaus is known for his wine making as well as his ability to unite winemaking colleagues. He created two separate groups of winemakers, the first in 1994 called Pannobile which bands together winemakers making high quality wines from indigenous grapes and then created in 2004, the Leithaberg group started with 14 colleagues and now has 62 members making high quality white and reds from this specific terroir. He is moving towards bio-dynamic methods.

Interesting enough, I learned that Austria is the birthplace of organic farming which began in 1927 in the southern state of Carinthia.

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