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In an era when wine has become a global industry, wine aficionados must search for handmade quality. Artisan wines are most exciting to find when they are insider tips — unfamiliar to international consumers and thus still in the realm of good value. Dedicated fans scrutinize wine magazines, newsletters, catalogs, auction reports and tastings to detect the latest underground buzz.

The vineyards of Austria’s Burgenland region

This column’s mission is to share the results of our own reconnaissance. And our tip of the week? Watch for Austrian red wines, so under-recognized that even many wine professionals are barely aware of their existence.

Austria has an ancient tradition of viticulture and winemaking. In the Burgenland village of Zagersdorf, for example, grape seeds from the vitis vinifera species (used in winemaking) were found in a grave dated to 700 B.C.

Yet in just the past 15 years, Austria’s wine industry has undergone a dramatic quality revolution, and the country has emerged as one of the world’s most exciting wine-producing nations.

Austrian wines remain a well-kept secret in part due to limited production and export. They account for barely 1 percent of the world wine supply. Austria’s winemakers emphasize quality over quantity: The country’s average grape yields are only half that of neighboring Germany.

The Austrian production landscape is composed mainly of small, family-owned wineries, with less than 5 hectares of vineyard. Out of financial necessity, these winemakers have typically cultivated crops such as beets, carrots and onions in addition to their grapevines. Winemaking was long a part-time pursuit, with wines bottled for local consumption by the village cooperative. But as demand and recognition increased over recent years, more quality-driven Austrian vintners have dedicated themselves entirely to their vineyards.

The coziness of its wine villages makes Austria a rewarding place for wine lovers to explore. Winemaking families often operate bed-and-breakfasts on the winery grounds or offer simple, memorable meals in their cobblestone courtyards. A picnic table at the vineyard’s edge is the perfect setting for a chilled glass of Gruener Veltliner, Austria’s signature peppery white wine.

Austria’s vineyards are composed of 77 percent white grape varietals and 23 percent red varietals. Traditionally, Austria is known for its dry varietal white wines, made principally from Gruener Veltliner and Riesling. But the hottest trend on today’s Austrian wine scene is the emergence of richly concentrated red wines.

In other famous Riesling regions such as Germany and Alsace, France, red wine production tends to be limited to delicate, often highly acidic, lighter-style reds. As a result, our expectations were confounded when, on a recent research trip to Austria, we savored heady, deep crimson wines, with ripe, full-bodied flavor and aromas.

The warm, sunny Burgenland region stands out for its red wine production. In contrast to other Austrian regions, red varietals here account for about 70 percent of grapes grown. Austria possesses an intriguing array of indigenous red grape varietals such as Zweigelt, Blaufrankisch and Sankt Laurent. Little known elsewhere, these grapes produce some stunning wines.

Blaufrankisch is the landmark varietal in Burgenland, and there are vineyards that have precious, low-yielding Blaufrankish vines more than 80 years old. Among Austrian winemakers, it is currently fashionable to blend local red grapes with international varietals such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.

One new-wave red blend comes from Weninger, a family-owned Burgenland winery in the village of Horitschon. The 1997 Weninger Veratina (3,500 yen at Tokyu department store in Shibuya) is a meaty cuvee of Cabernet Sauvignon, Blaufrankish, Merlot and Zweigelt with flavors of blackberry, plum, spice cake, pepper and smoke. Pour this savory, claret-style wine for connoisseur friends and earn a reputation for wine savvy.

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