Christopher S. Miller
Last weekend I had the pleasure of sharing some grilled Bratwurst and Knockwurst with the ‘Distinguished Gentleman from Haddam’ and with that we enjoyed a bottle of Hartford Court 1998 ‘Arrendell Vineyard’ Pinot Noir from Russian River Valley in Sonoma and a bottle of Zantho 2001 Zweigelt ‘aus’ Burgenland, Austria. My brother-in-law (the mason) – Oh…I mean ‘The Distinguished Gentleman from Haddam’ is familiar with the Hartford Court Pinot Noirs and considers them some of his favorite Californian wines. When the Hartford was finished, I opened the Zantho, on the nose I immediately caught a bright black pepper character along with fresh raspberries and blackberries, the palate was full and long with lovely balance and freshness. My brother-in-law was generally impressed with the Zantho for the first sip but still preferred the Hartford Court Pinot Noir, after a glass he had decided the Zantho was very impressive, soon he was wanting a case of the wine if it was any less than $25 a bottle. I had no idea what the price of the wine was at the time, though now I know it is only about $14. Though it may be hard to find, search out this great value. The Hartford Court will retail for about $40, more for the 1999 vintage, yet it is still an excellent wine, just not an everyday wine.
The Austrian wine industry has had its fits and starts over the years, but has made some great strides in quality in the last ten years or so. The wine regions are mostly to the east of Vienna and are generally considered to do best with white grapes, but in the southern areas the climate is suitable for both red wines and dessert wines. Burgenland is the southern most area in Austria just on the border of Hungary and focuses on red wines from Blaufränkisch (Lemberger) and Zwiegelt (a cross of Blaufränkisch and St-Laurent). St-Laurent is thought to be a relative of Pinot Noir and Zwiegelt is named after the Doctor who created the cross. The problem with Zweigelt is that it was created for volume, so some producers push the production up and the quality goes down, but with good vineyard management and lower yields the grape is able to produce some beautiful wines that are well suited to many styles of food.
The wine regions surrounding Vienna (Wachau, Kremstal, Kamptal and Vienna) are best suited to cool climate white wine grapes. Their indigenous grape is the Grüner Veltliner, which makes a perfumed wine with very good balance and some have a touch of white pepper in the nose along with citrus notes. The other white grapes used are Chardonnay (of course), Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc. Riesling is a good fit for the climate and many producers are making very good examples, but I have been very impressed with several Austrian Sauvignon Blancs. Two producers to look for are: Anton Bauer, and Weingut Prager.
One of the most unique Austrian wine regions is just north of Burgenland and also on the border of Hungary, the Neuseidler See-Hügelland. This region is known as the best place for making dessert wines that have been infected by Botrytis (noble rot), the key in making Sauternes. The reason the Botrytis is so prevalent in the area is due to the Neuseidler See or lake, which is very wide but also very shallow, this creates fogs and mist that Botrytis thrives in (actually a good thing). I find these dessert wines delightful, with fresh aromas and crisp acidity to balance the sweetness of the wines. Alois Kracher and Steindorfer are two very good producers for dessert wines from this region, Kracher has attained a bit of a cult status for his wines so they are a bit expensive but values compared to classic regions like Sauternes and Hungarian Tokaji.
I must confess that the wines of Austria are very intriguing to me for many reasons. One – they are a bit of an underdog in the wine world, two – the wines are very unique and individual in their styles and grapes used and three – I worked there as a Chef in the mid 1980’s, and enjoyed the wines then almost as much as the beer.