The Austrian Renaissance

Maybe you, like many, have a preconceived notion of Austria. I’ll confess that before my days in wine, back when I was a bookish English major with writerly aspirations, I knew Austria not for its bracing whites, but instead for its famous Salzburgian export. You know the guy. After Austria cleaned up its act, following an unfortunate incident with diethylene glycol in 1985, the country became known for that one bright varietal that umlaut lovers everywhere have come to associate Austrian wine with.

I’m talking, of course, about Grüner Veltiner.

Except that Austria isn’t a one-trick pony. Allow me, here, to diverge for a moment, with a promise to return to this point.

When people ask me what I like to drink, I cop to being a Francophile, as any good sommelier would. But when people ask about my region of preference, I don’t tell them about how much I love the first growths of Pauillac or the Grand Crus of Vosne-Romanée—sure, these wines move me, but they’re not the ones I reach for every day. I’m more inclined to head for the shelf marked Loire at my local wine store, where the reds, whites, and sparklers are bright, enduring, terroir-driven, remarkably diverse, and compatible with whatever I’m eating. I’m happy with Chinon on some days—those funky reds from the Loire’s interior—and Bonnezeaux on others, the sweet, botrytis-afflicted wines from neighboring appellations.

The wines from the Loire are cerebral wines. They aren’t heavy-handed or high in alcohol and they’re possessed of all the grace and finesse and earth that sommeliers like me require in a quaffable bottle or two. Which brings me back to Austria.

Although Austria’s climate is closest to that of lower Burgundy (warm summers, with consistent sun and cool evenings that provide good acid in the grapes), the sheer diversity of varietals mirrors the Loire Valley. Looking for a high-acid, clean, quaffable red, like the Sancerre Rouges made from Pinot Noir? Look no further than Austria’s most widely grown red, Zweigelt. Searching for an earthy, funky red, closer in style to those heady Cabernet Francs for which the Loire is so famous? Blaufränkisch is the name of your game. Austrian Riesling, vinifed both dry and sweet, is the answer to the Loire’s Chenin Blanc. And yes, Grüner Veltliner, still grown in spades, is the high-acid and aromatic doppelgänger of the Loire Valley’s famed Sauvignon Blanc.

In other words, Austria has more to offer than Mozart and memories of an antifreeze scandal—and way more to offer than just a green little grape that shows good acid and performs well as an apéritif. This is a wine drinker’s paradise, filled with possibilities. Drink up.