Austrian wine has rapidly gained in international stature in the past decade, mostly on the strength of Austria's dry white wines produced within a 20-mile radius of the small city of Krems on the Danube, less than 50 miles west of Vienna. The steep, terraced, riverside vineyards of the Wachau, immediately west of Krems, as well as geologically diverse sites on the edges of the city and to the north in the Kamptal, yield Austria's most brilliant and distinctive wines. Differences among Austrian wines within close proximity to one another are often dramatic. Nearly as dramatic, is the sight of such geological formations as crumbling volcanic slopes, sandstone buttes, and huge wavelike mounds of ancient glacial dust called loess.
Burgenland, a long, narrow swath of land running the length of Austria's border with Hungary, is home to the majority of Austria's red wines and botrytis-influenced sweet wines. Northern Burgenland is subdivided into two viticultural regions, the Neusiedlersee and Neusiedlersee-Hügelland, both named for the long, shallow lake that runs between them. To the south two red Austrian wine regions are appropriately known as Mittelburgenland and Südburgenland.
Multiple styles: dry and aromatic, light and sparkling, and rich and sweet
Asparagus and artichokes
One of the more versatile white wine grapes, Muscat is grown around the world for use in use in light and dry wines, low-alcohol sparkling wines, and sweet, late-harvest wines. Its proliferation around the world (and especially around the Mediterranean) leads us to conclude that Muscat was one of the first domesticated grapes. Indeed, scientists from the University of Pennsylvania have analyzed pots excavated from King Midas's burial mound to conclude that Muscat was a major component of the alcoholic beverage served at his funeral feast.
Even if Muscat is cultivated across the Mediterranean basin and in some New World locales, we find that the best dry expressions of the wine come from Alsace. When vinified dry, to eliminate all residual sugars, Muscat makes a pungently aromatic wine that can handle the two wine killers, asparagus and artichokes. Gewürztraminer may be Alsace's standard-bearer with regard to intensely aromatic wines, but Muscat is no wimp, even if it is a little tamer and more refined. Expect to find notes of ripe peach and apricot, flowers, and fresh herbs. We like wines from Domaine Barmes Buecher and Domaine Ernest Burn.
Many may remember the ubiquitous advertisements for Asti Spumante, the sweet sparkling wine from Piedmont in Italy. This wine is also made from Muscat grapes. We prefer its cousin, Moscato d'Asti, which is bottled within months of the harvest at an even lower alcohol level- sometimes below five percent. This light, sweet, bubbly wine shows exuberant flavors of peach, apricot and pear, and is an outstanding apertif. Its low alcohol is also refreshing at the end of a meal, paired with fresh fruit desserts. Look for wines from Saracco and La Spinetta.
Muscat also makes traditionally-styled, carbonation-free sweet wines in many parts of the world. Some of these are consumed almost entirely within the country of origin, while others do make it onto the international market. Australia has a long history of fortified wine production, especially in the Rutherglen region of northeast Victoria. Here, old stocks of Muscat are blended to produce a non-vintage fortified wine that is typically between 18 and 20 percent alcohol. These bottlings are marked by flavors of caramel, toffee, and exotic spices. Try wines from R. L. Buller and Sons as well as Chambers Rosewood.