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The rise of Austrian reds

May 20, 2009 |  9:00 am

Wine1 At a recent tasting of Austrian wines at Ammo in Hollywood (whose Austrian general manager, Benny Bohm, seems to attract any continental type with a Germanic accent), I met Willi Klinger, the trade attaché for Austrian wine, who rattled off a set of statistics that reinforced how lucky we are to have any Austrian wines at all. 

You see, almost two-thirds of all Austrian wine is consumed in the country itself, with much of the remaining third exported to Germany and Switzerland. The U.S., though, surprisingly ranks third in imports (at just a tiny fraction of the other two countries) with a healthy share of wines brought in on the higher end – the Americans, in short, prefer quality to quantity.

The vast majority of the wines imported are white – notably their spicy, pea-tendril-scented Gruner Veltliners and pristine Rieslings (with the occasional Muscat, Weissburgunder, Welschriesling and Zierfandler thrown in for good measure).

But what’s really interesting right now is ...

the trickle of Austrian reds entering the market – some of the more unusual and compelling reds I’ve seen in quite a while. Last March at the World of Pinot Noir Celebration I stumbled across an impressive Austrian contingent of Pinot Noirs, along with a small number of wines made with St. Laurent, a variety that’s believed to be related to Pinot but which is usually a bit more rustic. Two other varieties, Zweigelt and Blaufränkisch, are making inroads here too.

Klinger calls Zweigelt the Austrian version of Merlot: ubiquitous, wide-ranging in style, seemingly everywhere, blending in with the scenery (sounds like its name should be Zelig). The ones I tasted, from Heinrich and Sattler, were clean and pleasant wines with a hint of carob in the nose and flavors of mocha and mulberry. Most are offered around $15, so you can give them a try without too much of an investment.

There’s more substance and depth in the Blaufränkisches, however (it is the Austrian name for an equally foreign-sounding variety, Lemberger). They are, in a word, blau – er, blue. The fruit is blue in hue, a floral blue in aroma and flavor, blueberries in the mouth, with plush middle palate and a fine tannic resolve and racy acidity that reads a bit like an amped-up Syrah. Blaufränkisch is terrific, unadorned by oak, as was the 2006 Moric from Burgenland, an inkpot of flavors larded with minerals and earth (about $23, at Woodland Hills and K&L).

-- Patrick Comiskey