Unsung heroes: Discovering Austria’s red grape varieties

They may be overshadowed by the country's much-celebrated whites but Austria's red wines can be intriguing, distinctive and delicious. David Kermode takes a closer look at three Austrian red grape varieties that every wine lover should know about

Words by David Kermode

Eisenberg region of Burgenland
Eisenberg, a sub-region of Burgenland, where some of Austria's finest reds are made from Blaufränkisch

Though it has a long and illustrious vinous history, Austria still offers a voyage of discovery for most wine lovers, particularly its reds, which undoubtedly sit in the shadow of its hugely successful whites. Grüner Veltliner is Austria’s undisputed superstar grape: a delicious, versatile, food-friendly variety that is the country’s calling card. However, its dominance should not be allowed to obscure an enticing and distinctive range of red varieties with which we should all be acquainted.

A glance at Austria’s production volumes provides evidence of Grüner’s supremacy: from a total of 44,728 hectares under vine, 30,300 hectares are planted with white grapes, with the variety accounting for 14,548 hectares – in other words, a third of all the country’s vines.

Lake Neusiedl
The shores of Lake Neusiedl have been an important area for a fresh, crunchy style of Zweigelt

While Austria’s key red grapes can be beguiling they also present significant challenges in the vineyard, which might explain their second-tier status in terms of plantings. An analysis of reds reveals that Zweigelt is Austria’s most planted variety, with 6,129 hectares, that’s around 13% of all vines, followed by Blaufränkisch, at 2,597 hectares, or 5.8%, and the country’s other indigenous grape, St Laurent, sitting at just 596 hectares, a mere 1.3% of total plantings.

Grüner Veltliner’s dominance should not be allowed to obscure an enticing and distinctive range of red varieties

The latter’s paltry performance has little to do with quality or lack of demand – a relative of Pinot Noir, the finest examples are quite simply enchanting – but rather, a reflection of the fact that it is fiendishly difficult to grow, with its disease-prone thin skin and low yields. Arguably Austria’s most august, age-worthy red variety, Blaufränkisch is not without its challenges either, as it is prone to ‘coulure’, a condition that causes the failure of grapes to develop after flowering, and the wines can also be austere when youthful. Conversely, Zweigelt, the country’s most popular, crowd-pleasing red, presents the opposite problem: at its best fruity and fresh, the vines grow like billy-o, meaning yields must be tightly controlled to avoid dilution, while new oak needs to be carefully used as it can easily oppress the red fruit.

Burgenland, a state in eastern Austria, is home to many of Austria's most impressive red wines

‘All three key Austrian red varieties have a delicious freshness of acidity and peppery spice,’ says Freddy Bulmer, Austria buyer for The Wine Society and IWSC judge. ‘Zweigelt is unrivalled when it comes to entry-level wines… almost Beaujolais-esque, just a bit spicier. St Laurent suffers the most from a lack of identity, [as] a lot of producers have their own ideas about what it ought to taste like, [however] if you’re a fan of Burgundy, St Laurent is a great place to start. Personally, I think Blaufränkisch offers the best wines at the top end… they can be quite tightly coiled when young, but I think it a fascinating variety with great ageing potential.’

For Dirceu Vianna Junior MW, who oversaw the IWSC’s judging of the country’s wines this year, it is Zweigelt that presents the greatest opportunity for Austria’s reds: ‘Most people would consider Blaufränkisch as Austria’s hero grape. I enjoy St Laurent when the wines are elegant and reminiscent of Pinot Noir, however my hero grape is Zweigelt because of its versatility. It is the most planted red variety and when judiciously handled by producers it is capable of achieving excellent results. Due to its diversity of styles, Zweigelt has the potential to follow in the footsteps of Grüner Veltliner and become the next success story from Austria.’

Three Austrian red grapes to get to know


Named in honour of its creator, Dr Freidrich Zweigelt – a renowned yet controversial ampelographer (an expert in the study and classification of cultivated grape varieties), whose enthusiasm for Nazi ideology ultimately saw him arrested – Zweigelt is a crossing of Blaufränkisch and St Laurent, developed 100 years ago. The variety is highly malleable in the hands of a winemaker, meaning it can run the gamut of descriptors from crunchy and fresh to dark and intense. Thanks to a concerted focus on quality, Zweigelt has enjoyed a recent renaissance, in a crunchier, fresher style, most notably from the shores of Lake Neusiedl, the best examples providing vibrant, spicy red fruit, with the wines enjoying a short spell in the fridge prior to being served with pizza or pasta.

One to try: Unger, Kaisenberg 2019



Named after St Lawrence’s Day (August 10th), on which the grapes begin to change colour, Sankt Laurent (as it is known in Austria) is a mercurial variety that has won a small legion of loyal fans (myself included) for its ability to produce delicate, enchanting and ethereal wines. DNA profiling suggests it is descended from the ancient Pinot and Savagnin varieties, with the finest examples certainly resembling Pinot Noir. Though challenging to grow, St Laurent has experienced a gentle revival, with its lithe, dainty, cherry-driven charm making it well-suited to the fashion for lighter, brighter wines.

One to try: Lentsch, St. Laurent Reserve 2020



Generally considered by collectors to be Austria’s finest red variety, Blaufränkisch (aka Lemberger in Germany and Kékfrankos in Hungary) is an ancient grape, thought to be a natural crossing between Sbulzina and Weißer Heunisch, much enjoyed in the years of the Habsburg dynasty. Its combination of racy acidity and grippy tannins can make some wines appear austere in their youth, however it is a serious, gastronomic wine, well-suited to ageing. Darkly coloured, with morello cherry, red plum and foraged blackberry characters, some of the finest examples are to be found in Carnuntum, Eisenberg and Leithaberg.

One to try: Esterházy, Estoras Blaufränkisch 2020