Austrian Wine may not have the same fame as the classic old-world wine nations of France or Italy. However, things are changing. People are paying attention to Austrian wine. Whether it’s the flagship Grüner Veltliner, classic Burgundy grapes, or the native Zweigelt.
Austrian wine is a long story, which dates back to the 4th century B.C. when Celtic settlers planted the first grapes in these regions, (MacNeil 2015, pg.591). As with so many other European wine-making regions, the Ancient Romans really brought greater life to Austrian wine. This is thanks to the stronger trading routes and more advanced technology both in viticulture and farming more generally.
However, the real definitive time in Austrian wine came in the 20th century, where scandal rocked the world of Austrian wine. However, now Austrian wine is back. Passionate, innovative and dedicated family-farmers have changed people’s perception of Austrian wine. This article will take you through its return to prominence, the key regions to know about, the grapes that thrive, as well as some of our favourite Austrian winemakers.
Austrian Wine – The History
As we’ve touched upon, the world of Austrian wine is not without controversy. The nation of Austria as we know it today, began in 1919, after the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian empire following World War 1. Unsurprisingly, due to the economic turmoil and general instability caused by the Great War, viticulture suffered. The refined and acclaimed wines sought after by many before fell by the wayside as many farmers looked to prioritise cheaper, mass-appeal, high-yielding wine, (MacNeil 2015, pg.592).
This desire for cheaper methods, and essentially cutting corners, culminated in a scandal in 1985. A few unscrupulous wine brokers sought to cut some cheaper wine with ‘diethlylene glycerol‘, (a component in Antifreeze). The goal was to sweeten the Austrian wine, in order to make sure a bad harvest would fit the mass-market palate which they were trying to satiate. Thankfully, no one was harmed as merchants quickly found the compromised wine. Yet, the news went global. The public perception of Austrian wine was thoroughly tarnished.
However, sometimes a system must fall apart for a better one to take its place. No longer could farmers rely on the demand for cheaper, sweeter, mass market wines. This left it to smaller, family-ran winemakers, to rebuild a new Austrian wine market. Indeed, these are the figures leading the Austrian wine industry today. Passionate, knowledgable winemakers, who have their family-history wrapped up in the viticultural world and remember a time before mass-market wines led this wine-making nation.
They returned to their roots to create wines that respect the terroir, which they know to be great. A respect for the region and a forward-thinking nature is evidenced by the fact that, in 2015, Austria had the largest percentage of farmland under certified organic production.
So, it appears Austria has recaptured the glory of their wine-making past. Innovative and talented winemakers have changed global perception of this area and began once again, producing outstanding wine. Let’s look at some grapes which help to make Austrian wine great.
The Key Grapes of Austrian Wine
This is the flagship grape of Austrian wine. However, its roots are Italian. The name can be tracked backed to Ancient Rome and means ‘Green Wine of Veltlin’. Veltlin being area in the Alps, which refers to modern-day Valtellina, Italy.
Grüner Veltliner can be two broad styles. Both are dry, with good structural acidity, combining into citrus and orchard fruit flavours on the palate. Yellow apples and pears in particular. This variety also often possesses a distinct spicy note of white pepper and vegetal notes of asparagus.
One style is lightier, fruitier, more accessible. This is likely the Grüner Veltliner you’ll come across more often than not. Young and pale with a more pronounced acidity. These are excellent when served chilled. This also includes the Grüner Veltliner Sekt style of wine. Sekt is the Germanic term used to delineate a sparkling wine.
The other style of Grüner Veltliner is more refined. These will often be for Reserve, or DAC wines, (more on that shortly). These retain the typical acidic, however it will have mellowed when compared to the younger varietals. This is balanced with white pepper, almond and a strong sweetness and minerality.
Blaufrankisch and Zweigelt
These are two fantastic grapes and, in many respects, the red wines that typify Austrian wine. However, these red grapes possess very different tastes. The Blaufränkisch, (known abroad as Lemberger), is bold and spicy, with a strong structure, reasonably tannic and medium bodied. Whereas the Zweigelt, a blend of Blaufränkisch and St.Laurent, is lighter. Low in tannins and high in acidity with rich red fruit and spicy notes. It puts one in mind of a Pinot Noir.
The Burgundy Bunch and Riesling
Much like Germany, a number of classic Burgundy grapes have found themselves at home in Austrian wine. This means that you can expect to find excellent examples of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Blanc. Just remember that the latter two will carry the names Spätburgunder and Weißerburgunder. Another grape which garners high acclaim worldwide, in Austrian wine particularly, is Riesling. This is despite it only accounting for 4% of plantings.
A large reason that these grapes thrive is likely due to the shared philosophy that Austrian wine appears to possess with Alsace and German wine-makers. Indeed, these are all grapes which have had great success in both the Alsace and Germanic wine regions. This philosophy is purity, (MacNeil 2015, pg.594). Winemakers of these areas look for clear expression of terroir and the grape’s inherent flavours.
A firm respect from tradition, and the knowledge accumulated through generations, is instilled in these winemakers. The deep reverence for terroir and the grapes themselves likely coincides with the great number of organic winemakers in the world of Austrian wine.
Klassik Vs Reserve
Another key thing to look our for are the labelling terms Klassik and Reserve. This will give you an indication of what type of expression of the grape variety you will be about to taste. Klassik denotes a wine that is light, fresh and likely more fruit forward, that hasn’t seen any oak. It’ll be a vibrant wine intended for earlier consumption.
Reserve on the other hand will generally be a wine which has more body and texture, due to extended ageing periods. The Reserve term is often ‘reserved’ for those grapes which are of the highest standard as they’ll produce the wines which are worth ageing. This is not to say Klassik wines are inferior, they’re just a different style.
The Major Austrian Wine Regions
Austria is a land-locked country located in the Eastern portion of Central Europe. The vineyards themselves are in the Eastern portion of the nation, above, below and surrounding the capital city, Vienna. The two largest wine regions in Austria, which possess several sub-appellations, are Lower Austria and Burgenland.
Lower Austria makes a great deal of high-quality Austrian wine. Indeed, over 50 percent of Austria’s vineyards come from this region. This region, which is in the North-East of modern-day Austria, takes its name from the lower part of the Danube River which flows through it. Two sub-appellations of Lower Austria to be especially aware of are Wachau and Wienviertel.
Wachau, named a UNESCO world heritage site in 2000, is a relatively small wine-making region when compared to the rest of Europe. Wachau is formed of around 3340 acres, whereas Bordeaux has almost 300,000 acres. Quality not quantity is always a factor though. If you want a world-class Grüner Veltliner, then Wachau is likely a good place to start! The high slopes and sandy loess soils make this grape thrive.
Wienviertel, covers 34597 acres, this makes it Austria’s largest wine-producing region. Similarly, to Wachau, the soil possesses a lot of loess. Over time the Danube has ate away at the banks exposing this ice-age period sandy soil.
Within, the Wienviertel region, you should look out for the ‘DAC’ stamp. DAC, (Districtus Austria Controllatus), is similar to other geographical wine indicators, such as AOC, (Appellation d’Origine Controlée), in France or DOC, (Denominazione di Origine Controllata), in Italy. These are really the wines to look out for. If you see a DAC, you’re likely about to have a great Austrian wine.
Another major area of consideration in Austrian wine is Burgenland. The eastern-most region of Austria wine hugs much of the border between Austria and Hungary. Many vineyards possess a strong gravel soil, stemming from the old locations of the Danube River.
This is an area in Austria which allows for a great variety in excellent wines. 29415 acres of vineyards are dominated by coarse and carbonated sandy gravel soils. Burgenland is also home to several DAC regions. Austrian wine regions, within Burgenland, to look out for include Mittelburgenland, Leithaberg, Eisenbeg and Neusiedlersee.
Austrian Wine – Producers in Focus
Next it’s time to look at some of the winemakers who have helped to bring about this Austrian wine renaissance.
Zuschmann Schöfmann are located in Weinviertel. In the laid back countryside of this Austrian wine region, it seems only fitting to adopt natural, low-intervention methods. These passionate winemakers are certified organic, with a clear commitment to not only quality, but sensible management and sustainability.
Zuschmann Schöfman make a number of classic Austrian wine. An area of particular speciality is the Grüner Veltliner. They produce stunning examples of this grape variety in both still, sparkling and DAC level of quality. However, their portfolio is much broader, including Pinot Noir, Zweigelt and many others.
Next, are the Bauer Pöltl family. They are organic farmers and winemakers, in the Burgenland region. More specifically, from Horitschon, less than 10km from the Austrian-Hungarian border. Their wines are made by hand, believing in the concept of terroir, where the wines are a true reflection of the soil, region and surrounding eco system.
Daniel and Kathi work with nature and have seen the quality of their wines increase over time as they work with nature, as opposed to trying to control it with synthetic fertilisers and herbicides. This speaks to that classic attitude seen in Austria, Germany and Alsace. Trust the grapes, the terroir and the skills. Then, reap the rewards.
Andreas Gsellmann took over the vineyard from his father in 2005. Here, they cultivate 19 hectares of vineyards in the Neusiedlersee region. Neusiedlersee being one of the top regions in Burgenland. Andreas sought a biodynamic approach to farming, again an indication of the respect for the environment in the vineyard. They became certified organic in 2006 and biodynamic in 2011.
Like many Austrian winemakers, Andreas has a great respect for tradition and the accumulated knowledge passed down through generations. In his own words: “The traditional knowledge of my ancestors merges with my zeitgeist and lifestyle. This is how the authentic, tangible soul of the wine is formed.”
There you have a brief overview of the Phoenix of the old world wine nations. Austria has been restored to former glory. Whether it’s a trendy natural wine bar, or an esteemed collector’s cellar, you can expect to find a bottle or two of Austrian wine.
If you’re looking to try one, then feel free to browse our whole range here.
MacNeil, Karen. The Wine Bible. 2nd ed., Workman Publishing, 2015.
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