Austria has an quite an uphill climb ahead of it. When most people think of Austrian wines, should they even think of them at all, I suspect they think of them as basically like German wines, but cuter. Some people perhaps think of Grüner Veltliner, which has become a sort of national grape, or perhaps even fine Riesling from the Wachau.
Almost none of us, myself included, think of red wine. I imagine Austrian reds consigned to the “Other” or “Eastern European” section of the wine shop, next to bottles of cloyingly sweet stuff with mysterious semi-Cyrillic labels.
Fortunately, many Austrian winemakers ignore our ignorance and produce delicious dry reds anyway. I had the fortune to sample a remarkable array of these red wines at the recent “Austria Uncorked” tasting in Chicago, and though I’ve been to Austria a number of times, this tasting was revelatory. A variety called St. Laurent was particularly divine.
I first sampled St. Laurent not in Austria but in the Czech Republic, where the variety is known as Svatovavřinecké. (Don’t worry about remembering that name or trying to pronounce it — you’ll have a hard time finding any Czech wine here in the states.) This direct descendant of Pinot Noir impressed me then, but I can’t even remember trying a St. Laurent (“Sankt Laurent” in German) in the years since. It was a real joy to taste several expressions of this exciting variety all together:
2009 Pfaffl ”Altenberg” St. Laurent: Pfaffl’s Altenberg vineyard lies in the large Weinviertel district north of Vienna. Its proximity to a forest keeps the grapes cool in the evening, according to Pfaffl’s website, allowing the ordinarily quick-ripening St. Laurent more time to develop on the vine. A deep garnet color, this wine smelled of ripe red fruit and iron. On the palate, the flavors moved from fruit to green pepper to black pepper on the finish. Very fun.
2010 Zantho St. Laurent: One of the more famous Austrian wineries, with a memorable lizard on its labels, Zantho is sandwiched between the Neusiedlersee (Neusiedler Lake) and Hungary. The warm, dry climate here provides ideal conditions for growing St. Laurent, according to the Zantho representative. St. Laurent is “quite a diva in the vineyard,” he continued, noting it’s “very sensitive to humidity and rot.” It seems Zantho catered to her needs — their St. Laurent had loads of big, dark fruit, velvety tannins and a white pepper finish.
2009 Johanneshof Reinisch St. Laurent: The warm vineyards of the Thermenregion south of Vienna are “too far from the River Danube to benefit from its refreshing influence,” according to The World Atlas of Wine, but it’s an ideal place to grow rot-susceptible St. Laurent. The 2009 had a very fruity, almost Robitussin-like aroma touched with iron. After a watery start, the wine tightened with flavors of earth and spice.
2007 Johanneshof Reinisch ”Holzspur” Grand Reserve St. Laurent: This single-vineyard St. Laurent takes advantage of Johanneshof Reinisch’s best soils and oldest vines. A brick red, the Holzspur sucked me in with a dusky nose of very dark fruit. It had a medium body, powerful spice, big fruit and a long finish. Excellent.
It can be hard to find a St. Laurent (even huge Binny’s has just one), but they are worth the hunt. Ask your wine shop about them, and seek them out on restaurant wine lists. St. Laurent may be a diva in the vineyard, but she’s a velvety, earthy delight in the glass.