The wine buff: Crossing borders
On a trip to Austria earlier this year, one of the highlights was visiting the borders that Austria shares with its neighbours.
As a landlocked country, it has expanded and contracted over time; the ravages of history can still be felt. Looking out from Schloss Hof Palace, I could see the Czech Republic in the distance, the vestiges of its Soviet rule still visible with dense outcrops of communist-era apartments, standing in stark contrast to the expansive terraced gardens of the palace.
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Later, after stopping in the fascinating Neusiedlersee wine region, which is situated on the eastern shores of a large, shallow steppe lake, we took the straight road which runs from Andau to Hungary, a path to freedom used, in the opposite direction, by the fortunate few who escaped communist rule. About 10km from Andau, an old watch tower looks out over the wooden bridge which crosses the Einser Canal, and the high fencing that once formed part of the Iron Curtain is now part of the Iron Curtain trail.
So why is this all relevant to wine? Vineyard Interfaces in the Heart of Europe was the theme of a conference I was attending, and the idea was to highlight how history has influenced the wine and vineyards of this part of the world. The wine regions in Austria border the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary and Slovenia, and once they were all part of the much larger Austrian-Hungarian empire. But following the First World War the borders were redrawn, as they are again after the Second World War and subsequent communist rule, slashing indiscriminately through families, farms and vineyards.
Ruszt and Burgenland, key wine regions which were once a part of Hungary, are now in Austria. The poignancy of this was felt when we had a wine-tasting at the border of Austria's Mittelburgenland and Hungary's Sopron, with winemakers from both sides of the border pouring their wines. Those from the Hungarian side talked about how communism had a devastating effect on wine production with vineyards being broken up and land redistributed in small plots for collective farming in 1945. Since the Berlin Wall came down and former Warsaw Pact countries regained true independence, there has been a slow return to making quality wine.
I had the opportunity to try many different wines while I was there, and I have already written about Grüner Veltliner, the white wine that has put Austria on the wine map. But Austria also produces top-quality red wines which have a delicious, fresh crunchiness.
Blaufränkisch is a grape that is well worth checking out. It's an old indigenous grape variety, known as Kékfrankos in Hungary, and can also be called Lemberger or Limberger. It can vary in style from a fruit-driven wine with spicy flavours to a more powerful red that has been aged in oak. It is not widely available, so it's worth asking for it in independent off-licences. I have one in today's line-up as well as a juicy Austrian Zweigelt.
Samt & Seide Blaufränkisch 2016
€26.95, 12.5pc, from Green Man Wines, Blackrock Cellar, Mitchell & Sons and Sweeney's, all Dublin
The Spitzerberg zone in the Carnuntum region of Austria produces exquisite Blaufränkisch, and this one from Weingut Dorli Muhr is aptly named velvet and silk. It's beautifully fresh with perfumed cherry, plum and a light touch of spice.
Claus Preisinger Zweigelt Kieselstein 2018
€21, 12.5pc, from 64 Wine, Fallon and Byrne, Green Man Wines, Clontarf Wines, all Dublin; Ely Maynooth, Kildare
With juicy flavours of black cherries, plums and a touch of raspberry, this naturally fermented Zweigelt from Austria, which is aged for 10 months in oak, is wonderful with food, and also great lightly chilled.
If you have some holiday time left between now and the end of the year, why not head to Tuscany with Il Vicolo Luxury Wine Tours run by Gerry McMahon of Galway's Il Vicolo, and Colm Carter of Honest2Goodness wine importers. The five-day trip ventures into Siena, Florence and Montalcino, visiting local vineyards where you'll meet passionate winemakers and taste amazing food and wine. October 21-25, €1,600 pp, ilvicolo.ie and h2gwines.ie.