Austrian wine! Who’d have thought we’d be talking about Austrian wine in 2010, particularly red wines from Austria? The truth is most of us had no idea these wines even existed a decade ago, and that’s not our fault. There were scant examples in the marketplace and little impetus to add more. But the truth, as we have seen it, is that Austrian reds can be great wines and, even more surprisingly, they can be great wines for Thanksgiving!

The surge in interest in Austrian wines can pretty much be attributed to the popularity of Grüner Veltliner, and the Internet. Without the Internet, Grüner Veltliner may very well have remained a fringe wine, favored by sommeliers and wine geeks everywhere, but kept from the mainstream by the slow flow of old media. But this is not an article on the power of new media, rather the amazingly persuasive quality of the new Austrian wine industry!

So, what’s the deal with Austria and why am I suggesting red wines with difficult names from a small mountainous country in the middle of Europe, where they not only don’t celebrate Thanksgiving, but don’t even eat turkey? Though I do hear Turkish food is popular!

Well, the bottom line is that these wines, this group of reds from Austria, are remarkable food-friendly wines that are crisp and refreshing, sure to complement your meal and not try to overpower it. Pairing these wines with your meal will be a victory by submission, not a knockout!

As you may have gathered, these are wines that favor a bit of subtlety and complexity over sheer power and alcoholic weight. They may not be the perfect match for candied yams, but if you look at a typical Thanksgiving meal, the yams and cranberry sauce tend to play a side role and one that no wine will match properly.

On the other hand, the stuffing, roasted vegetables, turkey and gravy together want a wine that is bright with a modest amount of tannins, and rich fruit that is fruity, without being tutti-frutti! A little earth, with some spice and herb, is a welcome addition to any red wine to be paired with Thanksgiving dinner, so I give you the varied splendors that are the red wines of Austria!

There are four main grapes used in Austrian wine and a little bit of background on each is in order before we move on to the tasting notes.

Zweigelt -- The most commonly planted red grape in Austria is Zweigelt. Much of the Zweiglet produced is destined to be enjoyed in its youth -- full of fresh, crunchy berry fruit and sprightly acidity -- though several producers have gone the path of lower yields in an effort to make more ageable examples. In almost all cases, oak ageing noticeably influences this more age-worthy style. Zweiglet is a cross between the Blaufränkisch and St. Laurent varieties.

Blaufränkisch -- Also known as Kékfrankos in Hungary as well as Lemberger, Blaufränkisch is the second most-planted red grape in Austria. It produces wines that are decidedly larger-scaled than Zweigelt, with a dark fruit profile and a richer, more tannic, if perhaps slightly more rustic profile. These tend to be wines that have a decidedly spicy edge in their youth yet are able to mellow with some time in the bottle.

Sankt Laurent or St. Laurent -- A signature grape variety in Austria, St. Laurent’s fortunes have risen and fallen over the past few years. Increased plantings followed an early surge in popularity but the finicky nature of the grape produced less than grand results from many of these new plantings. This finicky character, and the generally light body of many of the wines, has led to many comparisons with Pinot Noir, as it has the bright red cherry fruit characteristic of the grape. Though that is where the similarities end, since St. Laurent tends to be a more angular, bracing wine with a distinctly earthy, almost smoky quality to the fruit.

Blauer Burgunder aka Pinot Noir -- And then there was Pinot Noir. Pinot makes up a tiny portion of Austria’s vineyards, but the examples that have made it Stateside seem to indicate that there are excellent terroirs for this most fickle of grapes. Austrian Pinots tend to be lighter-bodied examples of the wine, with particularly fragrant aromatics and crisp, fine grained tannins that allow the wine to age deceptively well.

Dark and a bit hard on the nose with a woody, spearminty overlay to the lightly floral core of red fruit, with shavings of dark chocolate adding some complexity. Light and fresh up front with dark berry fruit flavors that are a bit anonymous. There’s a distinct mintiness in the mouth as well and, while the wine is fairly well-balanced, there are a lot of obvious wood tannins here. This seems to have good fruit and the finish shows some nice notes of sliced red plums and berries, but the wood treatment here seems to be a bit too aggressive for the fruit. A bit chunky and inelegant. 84pts

Very sweet and assertive on the nose, with more of a new world note than many other St. Laurent. This shows some distinct vanilla and sweet, if transparent, red currant, cranberry, wild cherry-toned fruit. Velvety in the mouth and nicely bright with earthy and lightly mineral-framed pure wild berry fruit flavors. This is decidedly fruit and fresh with soft tannins and integrated acids providing a rather seamless feel. The fruit has a gently earthy edge to it, but is a touch simple and finishes on the shorter side. 87pts

Just a hint of fudge right out of the gate with smoky, earthy undertone, and some nice woodsy, oak spice top notes to the mix of boysenberry and blueberry on the nose. A bit austere up front with curiously soft, lush tannins. The acid lends a certain nervous character to the wine. The mid-palate shows nice wild blueberry and cherry notes with a hint of oak that adds complexity to the woodsy finish that ends on a note of wild strawberry jam. This is complex and savory with fine balance and length on a medium-weight frame. 88pts

A classic St. Laurent nose: earthy, spice, and filled with dusty cherry fruit. This is particularly smoky on the nose, with a hint of carob. Lovely entry, silky yet bright with hidden acids. The lush quality of the fruit conceals the tannin and acidity here with a mélange of blue and red fruits accented with a touch of fudge covering the palate. With air, this firms up a little but it retains its soft yet bright character right through the lightly spicy, medium-length finish. 88pts

This smells of crushed berries with a touch of fresh juniper and notes of earth, a very light dusting of vanilla, with touches of marzipan and violets. On entry this is soft and broad, fruity and fleshy with bright acid and soft tannins supporting the bright, juicy berry fruited mid-palate. There’s a little spice on the backend and this gains good focus in the mouth, finishing with a firm, earthy tone. This is fruity, uncomplicated and refreshing. 88pts

A light layer of lightly toasty oak greets the nose followed by soft notes, a warm cherry, rose petals, wintermint and a touch of antiseptic chalkiness with a real chocolate Necco wafer element. That lightly minty choco tone is the first thing you get in the mouth as well, followed by a nice depth of black fruits with a touch of black olive and chalky tannins. The backend is nice and focused, with more of the medicinal/floral aspects of the nose that lead to a firm, moderately long minerally finish with coffee cream notes on the finale. This is a rigid, complex wine with a slightly matte character that may very well improve with ageing. 89pts.

Deep with smoky, chocolaty overtones to the lightly weedy, hay, tobacco, polleny floral-scented fruit that adds notes of black cherry and damp earth in the glass. With time this turns spicier, picking up notes of Middle Eastern spice, coriander and a hint of curry. This is broad on entry, with very soft tannins and nicely integrated acidity supporting transparent, almost cranberry-toned dried red cherry fruit. This is a light wine, easy going and styled very much like a Cru Beaujolais. The finish is a touch short, with crisp tannins finally showing up, adding nice definition to the light yet lingering notes of wild berry fruit. This is absolutely my kind of wine. 90pts

Earthy, powerful and dark on the nose with a lightly resinous note of dried pine cones over black cherry with a hint of dried orange peel in the mix. This is soft and polished on the tongue with plenty of fine, lightly powdery tannins buried in juicy, rich fruit that has a really pronounced mineral edge to it. This is deceptive in the mouth; it doesn’t seem particularly expansive and is not very aromatic, but does have great depth of fruit. There’s a hint of oak adding a little spice to the cherry fruit, which has excellent persistence, but this is wonderfully textured and has excellent purity with a very refreshing finish. 90pts

Very focused in the glass with aromas of herbs, earthy beetroot, ginseng, gardenias, and a hint of star anise over sweet and spicy wild blueberry fruit. Soft and well balanced in the mouth with a soft, silky feel. This is very Pinot Noir-textured, with a profile that recalls the red fruit of Pinot yet in an earthier, more mineral register. This is both slightly rustic and quite elegant at the same time with a touch of wood spice and vanilla floating over the gentle raspberry and red cherry-toned fruit. The finish is long and lithe, continuing with fading echoes of that earthy fruit. This is really seductive yet quite a subtle wine. 91pts

This offers up distinctly herbal and earthy aromas that range from quinine to dry, clay soil with a nice core of beetrooty, spicy, cola-scented, slightly nutty wild plum fruit. This is earthy and very vaguely bitter upfront, with good acidity that squeezes out the sides from under the bright, taut fruit. Soft and yet with real tension on the palate. The lightly blueberry/wild berry-toned fruit builds on the mid-palate and shows flashes of plum on the backend, before evolving into a complex braid of earth, herb and fruit on the medium-length finish. This is not the richest or most intense wine of the bunch but structurally it’s the most appealing, with terrific balance and freshness.  Absolutely floats across the palate and onto the finish. 92pts

This has a distinctly animal aspect to the nose, which may be off-putting to many people, but it adds a layer of cowpatty and horse blanket over a still assertive core of sassafras-tinged wild cherry and raspberry fruit. This is particularly complex and quite intensely aromatic, and for me a lot of fun to smell. This continues to evolve in the glass, gaining vegetal, soil, and leathery notes. Elegant on entry with fine balance, this has excellent complexity in the mouth, revealing a nice beetroot and rhubarb aspect that complements the fresh, lightly spicy red fruits of the mid-palate.  There’s a touch of wood on the backend and a gentle medicinal overtone that adds a bit of a cough lozenge aspect to the long wild cherry and mineral finish. Lovely Pinot, complex and elegant. 93pts