Two weekends ago, I was fortunate enough to attend the 2014 edition of VieVinum, Austria's biggest and best wine show, courtesy of the Austrian Wine Marketing Board.
It was an incredibly eye-opening experience, if for no other reason than the three-day tasting took place in Vienna's stunning Hofburg Palace, the official residence of the president of Austria and home to some of Europe's most powerful rulers over the centuries, including the Habsburg dynasty.
After days of wandering from one breathtaking room to another tasting Austrian reds, whites and bubblies (as well as a handful of wines from other countries), I returned home quite excited about the wines I had tasted, and was determined to track down as many Austrian wines available in our market as I could find.
The tasting notes at the end of this column reflect the entirety of that search at both Liquor Marts and private wine stores -- three stinkin' wines, all made from Austria's signature white wine grape -- the aromatic, summer-friendly Grüner Veltliner.
And while all three are fine examples, some of the most memorable wines I tasted were made from other grapes. Some would be familiar to Manitoba wine drinkers who enjoy cooler-climate (read: lighter) Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc and even Merlot.
First, a quick Austrian wine primer: there are four main wine-producing regions, all located in the eastern portion of the country. In descending order of hectares of grapes produced, they are Lower Austria, Burgenland, Styria and Vienna.
The latter is the smallest geographically, located around the city of Vienna, but makes some of the most exciting white wines in a style (and designated place of origin) called Gemischter Satz. The wines are meant to reflect the joy of Viennese life, and must contain at least three different grapes planted in one vineyard and harvested/pressed together, with no one grape making up more than 50 per cent of the blend. While they make crisp, fresh entry-level whites, reserve versions of Gemischter Satz wines are elegant and age-worthy (I tried one from the 1970s that was still quite lively).
Some of the lesser-known grapes really piqued my interest. The day before the main VieVinum event began, for example, I attended a morning session focused on Austrian red wines from the very strong 2011 and 2012 vintages.
Manitoba wine drinkers who enjoy Ontario reds might be famililar with the Zweigelt grape -- there are a couple reds made from this grape that hit our shelves from time to time. It's Austria's most widely planted grape, does well in cooler climates, and typically delivers fresh blackberry and grape jam notes.
But most impressive to me (other than tasting in the same room as Jancis Robinson, a wine-writing legend) were the reds made from Blaufränkisch, arguably Austria's signature red grape. Typically wines made from Blaufränkisch deliver deep cherry and blackberry notes, with lighter herbal components and firm acidity. Entry-level versions are fresh and ripe, while higher-end reserve wines (typically aged in oak) offer spice, firm tannin and some incredible structure.
Until more Austrian wines hit our market, I'll have to be content with the memories of discovering so many new favourites in such a regal setting at VieVinum. And, well, enjoying the three Austrian wines available here.
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GROONER 2012 GRÜNER VELTLINER (Lower Austria -- $14.78, Liquor Marts and beyond)
With its modern, retro-ish label and bright colours, the Grooner is certainly eye-catching. Lemon-lime notes are most prominent on the nose, with green apple, herbal and spice notes as well. It's crisp and light-bodied, with pronounced citrus notes and a very slight hint of effervescence. Tasty. 3 stars
LAURENZ V. 2010 "FRIENDLY" GRÜNER VELTLINER (Lower Austria -- around $20, private wine stores)
There's a chalky, mineral component out front on the nose, with secondary lemon zest, green apple and tart peach aromas in there too. It's light-bodied and mainly dry, with just a hint of residual sugar remaining to balance the bright acidity. You wouldn't want to go any older than 2010, I reckon. 3 stars
STIFT GOETTWEIG 2012 GRÜNER VELTLINER "MESSWEIN" (Lower Austria -- around $20, private wine stores)
Pear, green apple skin, fresh-cut flower and chalky notes are all relatively subtle on the nose of this "messwein" (or "altar wine"). Sure enough, on the light-bodied palate the fruit doesn't jump out you as much as the others, but there's decent complexity to the green apple, lime, pear and chalky notes. 3 1/2 stars
(Linz, Austria -- $2.69/500 ml can, Liquor Marts)
This Euro pale lager is one of Austria's most common beers, and (along with Stiegl, made in Salzburg) is available in Manitoba. (I may have enjoyed a couple beers while in Austria as well.) Medium-gold in colour and clear with a white head, the Gsser brings doughy, malt and lighter floral and grassy/herbal aromas. It's light, crisp and dry, with the doughy/malty notes pervading on the palate. A serviceable summer lager. 2 1/2 stars