It might surprise you to learn that in a small corner of Austria they have only just finished picking the 2011 harvest. I’m not sure if this is some sort of record—certainly there can’t be many regions in Europe waiting to bring in the grapes—but on the banks of Lake Neusiedl, they have just picked the last of their Gewürztraminer, Muscat and Riesling.
“I don’t know of anybody in the world who has grapes left on the vine,” says Austrian winemaker Willi Opitz, “but I expect we are the last.”
Temperatures didn’t fall low enough to make Eiswein on Mr. Opitz’s 17-hectare estate close to Illmitz, a small market town near the Hungarian border. So instead of picking the shriveled botrytised crop of grapes in ice-cold conditions, he waited to make Trockenbeerenauslese, a style of wine known for its rich, golden color and seductive sweetness.
A former mechanical engineer who turned his hand to wine making in 1995, Mr. Opitz is a natural marketer. Who else, on meeting McLaren Group chairman Ron Dennis, would create a range of wines called Silver Lake, dedicated to the firm’s Formula One team? This was followed by a blend known as Mr. President, which he sent to Bill Clinton, and in September he produced an Hasta la Vista cuvée, which he gave as a gift to the Arnold Schwarzenegger museum in the actor-turned-politician’s former hometown of Thal, near Graz.
So it came as no surprise that grapes for the very late 2012 harvest were picked on Valentine’s Day in order, says Mr. Opitz, to provide a competitive edge. Presumably so sommeliers have a story to tell to amorous couples next Feb. 14 (the wine will be bottle in May). If you want someone to remember your wines, he says, you need to give them an experience—something to remember and make them happy. “We want to enable people to enjoy life,” he says. “This is the name of the game. It is always good if you finish a dinner with something nice.”
If it all sounds a little over the top, that is probably because it is. But why not? If Austrian wine is ever to break out of the world of sommeliers and connoisseurs and into the mainstream, it will need a lot more characters like Mr. Opitz.
So when he came to London to show his wines as part of the Austrian wine tasting gala, the winemaker was the only one serving Pinot Cuvées with olives and Eiswein with a spoonful of coconut and vanilla crème brûlée. “I always say that serving white bread to people at wine tastings is against human rights,” Mr. Opitz says.
Sweet and white wine aside, it was his red wine, made from Pinot Noir, that I found most appealing, with its attractive plummy scent. Red wine is an interesting proposition for Austria. The country produces scintillating Riesling and Grüner Veltliner, but it also produces a range of red wines that are high in acidity and fruit, providing a wonderful antidote to the big, hearty wines produced in the New World.
ine merchant Caspar Bowes, who runs Bowes Wine in the U.K., says that whenever he is handed a glass of Austrian red, he immediately thinks “where is lunch?” Austrian Pinot Noirs pair well with meat dishes such as roast lamb, dry, smoked game and smoked salamis.
The best examples of Austria’s reds are undoubtedly those made from the Blaufränkisch and Blauer Zweigelt varieties. These aren’t names that trip off the tongue, but they do possess an appealing, spicy, cherry character. In the spectrum of flavors, they range somewhere between the light, juicy acidity of Beaujolais and the fragrant, fruity notes of Dolcetto.
At the tasting in London, Uwe Schiefer’s wines were a standout. The 2005 Blaufränkisch had a polished, ripe depth, with a hint of spice and dark chocolate, while the ’08 was fresher.
To best understand these wines, one should look at them in the context of food: they have the acidity to stand up to dishes such as duck, or, in the case of Mr. Opitz’s sweet wines, sticky-toffee pudding.