By TOM MARQUARDT and PATRICK DARR
Las year was the 40th anniversary year of the 1976 Judgment of Paris, an historic even when the unheralded and undervalued chardonnays and cabernet sauvignons of California were pitted against the legends of Bordeaux and Burgundy in a blind tasting. A lopsided triumph by the upstarts from California spawned worldwide press acclaim, George Taber book “The Judgment of Paris” (2005), and eventually a movie “Bottle Shock” (2006).
Not so well publicized, however, was a 2002 blind tasting involving Austrian wines. Held in London and hosted by Masters of Wine Jancis Robinson and Tim Atkin, the competition matched well-respected French white burgundies, California, Italian and Australian chardonnays with Austrian chardonnays and gruner veltliners.
The results surprised many with seven Austrian entries in the top 10 wines as well as three Austrian gruner veltliners and an Austrian chardonnay placing one through four. Among the bested wines were the 1997 Domaine Baron Thenard Montrachet, 1990 Louis Latour Corton Charlemagne and 1999 Chardonnay Rey Gaja.
Some casual sampling of Austrian wines had us curious to delve more deeply into this relatively obscure wine region that is ranked 18th in wine production in the world. We contacted Klaus Wittauer of KW Selection, a leading Austrian wine importer, to learn more about Austrian wines and to sample some of his offerings.
According to Klaus, a native Austrian, “We are so small most producers are family owned … Austria has not been big enough to attract corporations.”
White wines dominate Austrian viticulture with the white grape gruner veltliner making up a little more than a third of production. Zweigelt and blaufrankisch dominate red grape vineyards in Austria although pinot noir is gaining popularity in recent years.
Klaus said that although Austria’s southern border abuts the Italian wine growing regions of Alto Adige and Friuli, grape growing in Austria takes place in the eastern portion of Austria, bordering the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary and Slovenia.
Two wines in our tasting were especially appealing. The Steininger Gruner Veltliner Grand Cru Kamptal Reserve 2014 ($25) offered a very burgundian nose, but no apparent oak in the mouth as a result of aging in neutral barrels made from acacia wood grown in Austria. Delicious tropical fruit flavors and a smooth presence in the mouth created a delicious drink.
We also were impressed with the Tegernseerhof Gruner Veltliner Bergdistel Smaragd 2015 ($30). “Smaragd” indicates the highest level of quality in wines from the Wachau grape growing region, and this gruner veltliner didn’t disappoint. Very ripe tropical fruit with some citrus notes dominated the sensory experience. Very smooth and elegant in the mouth. An example of Austria’s ability to produce world-class red wines was apparent in three red wines that we from three different grape varieties.
The Hillinger Zweigelt Burgenland 2014 ($20) was a very interesting and extremely refreshing red wine. Zweigelt is a relatively recent (1922) cross between St Laurent and blaufrankisch, and is now the most popular red grape in Austria. This wine provided very fragrant fresh berry fruit in the nose and lovely berry flavors in the mouth with black pepper notes. Very easy to drink and would be a good pairing with casual foods and barbecue.
The Anton Bauer Blaufrankisch Reserve Wagram 2012 ($35) was a stunningly good wine. According to Klaus this red wine is aged in new French oak for 20 months and produces a wine that is eerily reminiscent of a very high quality California cabernet sauvignon. A black cherry and cassis nose and flavors are framed in an elegant oak frame. This elegant rich fruit driven wine is amazingly good, and a terrific value.
If you appreciate high quality pinot noir the Hillinger Pinot Noir Terroir Burgenland 2014 ($55-60) should be on your list. This is an amazingly good pinot noir that rivals some of the best of Burgundy and California. The wine oozes fresh ripe cherry and berry scents and flavors with a hint of elegant oak, the result of all French oak barrels.
- Badia a Coltibuono Chiantic Classico Riserva 2011 ($35). Blackberry aromas with a hint of tobacco, this delicious chianti has a soft texture and a bit of mature tannins.
- BenzigerNorth Coast Sauvignon Blanc 2014 ($15). Citrus aromas mingle with grapefruit melon flavors in this crisp sauvignon blanc made by a pioneer in sustainable farming.
- Murphy-Goode Pinot Noir California 2014 ($15).For those of you looking for a decent pinot noir, at a great price, try this beauty. Appealing raspberry, and cherry nose and flavors with a hint of coconut.
- Spellbound PetiteSirah 2013 ($13). Rich cassis and blueberry flavors, dark in color and enjoyed best with pasta, beef and even pizza. Light enough to be enjoyed by itself too.
- Domaine des DeuxAnes Corbieres “Premier Pas” 2013 ($15). Very spirited wine with ripe blackberry flavors, medium body and a dash of rosemary and chocolate. From the Languedoc-Roussillon region, it is completely organic with no sulfites.
- AvignonesiVino Nobile di Montepuliciano DOCG 2013 ($29). Virginie Saverys introduced biodynamic farming when she bought this property in 2009. The results have been fantastic. Made entirely from sangiovese, it is packed with bright cherry fruit and floral aromas. You’ll love this gem.