From the Wachau’s Grüner Veltliner to Vienna’s Gemischter Satz, Austrian wines have reinvented themselves onto the global stage.
In the theater of wine, Austria is a character actor. It’s not France, not Italy or Spain – the top three – who together produce almost half of all the world’s wine. But a player it is all the same, offering a dramatis personae of variety and interest, from the fresh, young tavern wines to the great Grüner Veltliner and Chardonnays that took the top four spots at the now legendary London Tasting of October 2002. And not far behind are the signature reds – Blaufränkisch and Zweigelt – that are good enough for anybody’s dinner table.
And from June 9-11, they’ll be there for the tasting at the biennial VieVinum, Austria’s largest wine fair, hosting more than 600 exhibitors at the Hofburg Palace in Vienna. Nearly 800 international wine experts, merchants, journalists and sommeliers are expected to taste the latest selections crafted by some of the world’s most talented winemakers. Here, the vast majority are from Austria – nearly 500 producers – which makes this fair extremely seductive for those open to the romance of this appealing wine country in the foothills of the Alps.
This is also an anniversary, as VieVinum marks 20 years since its test run event to showcase Austria as a born-again wine country in the process of reinventing itself. While viticulture has been thriving here for more than two millennia – even the ancient Celts and Romans knew this region was ripe for grape growing – modern Austria had become known mainly for its relatively uncomplicated wines, imbibed at local Heuriger and Buschenschank wine taverns.
To Scandal and Back
However, a major scandal in 1985 – the discovery that a few wineries had doctored their wines with diethylene glycol to increase sweetness – caused the country’s wine reputation to plummet and its export markets to dry up. In the end, however, the disaster was a blessing in disguise, as a new generation of winemakers – many the sons and daughters of old-school producers – set out to create excellent, top-quality wines that would not only win over prejudiced palates, but could compete seriously on an international level.
Over the next decade, innovations were fast and furious: Vineyard grape yields were reduced; new methods were adopted; young producers apprenticed abroad and brought their knowledge back home. Ultimately, Austria’s new wine laws became some of the toughest in the world.
By that first VieVinum in 1998, many Austrian wines had already found themselves on lists at renowned restaurants worldwide and regions like the Wachau and Kamptal were being heralded by the global media as the new holy terroirs.
Today, Austria’s place as one of the wine world’s most celebrated niche countries is undisputed. And while the proof is in the bottle – or bottles – to be poured in the Hofburg palace in June, a short, guided tour can only enhance your appreciation of Austria’s distinctive wine culture.
As with any region, Austrian wine is revealed in the details, in all their diversity. Austria grows 46,000 hectares of vineyards, producing less than one percent of the world’s wine in four main wine regions: the federal states of Niederösterrreich (Lower Austria); Burgenland; Steiermark (Styria) and Wien (Vienna). Within these are 16 specific wine regions (including Vienna, which is both a city and a state), each lending its own “sense of place” (a particular character from the soil and climate – the terroir) to the grape varieties growing in them.
Ten of the 16 regions hold Austria’s DAC (Districtus Austriae Controllatus) status – with the particular regional name and the grape varieties considered “typical” of that region. The DAC system (like France’s AOC) was developed since 2003 to help convey the specific regional identity of a wine, especially from those regions eager for recognition with wine consumers.
Savor the Flavor
Located in the very center of Europe, Austria has a cool climate dominated by white grape varieties – a full half by the flagship Grüner Veltliner (pronounced Grew-ner Velt-leen-er), thoroughly at home along the Danube in Niederösterreich. Here lie the specific regions of Wachau, Kamptal DAC, Kremstal DAC, Traisental DAC, Wagram and Weinviertel DAC, all of which draw on the grape’s complexity and range of varietal characters: from light and peppery-fresh, to medium-bodied with fruit and spice, to mineral-laden powerhouses.
Situated approximately an hour west of Vienna, the Wachau, Kamptal and Kremstal in particular host soaring vineyard sites – several on sun-soaked stone terraces – with an array of soils and micro-climates that give individual character to the wines.
Says winemaker Willi Bründlmayer from Langenlois in the Kamptal, these conditions underscore the fine differences between his single vineyard wines:
“My Grüner Veltliner from the Lamm vineyard is more opulent, soft and rich because the site faces south, with a layer of loam soil,” explains Bründlmayer, whose 1997 Gruner Veltliner “Ried Lamm” placed second in the breakthrough London Tasting. “There, the evening air is warmer than in the other vineyards, so the fruit ripens faster and gives exotic flavors.” His Grüner Veltliner from Käferberg, on the other hand, has higher levels of acidity and spiciness, as the vineyard faces southeast, with rocky soils and cooler evening temperatures. There, the grapes stay on the vine until well into November.
Grüner Veltliner wines are mainly dry, matured in either steel tanks or large oak casks; the smaller barriques are used less frequently and very selectively. Riesling is the other showcase white grape in the Danube valley, albeit there is much less to go around. It is planted in just 4.2 percent of the country’s vineyards. But talented producers like Knoll, Nikolaihof and Prager, all in the Wachau, create stunning, sleek and minerally versions.
Other top Grüner Veltliner and Riesling producers include Domäne Wachau and F.X. Pichler (Wachau); Jurtschitsch, Eichinger, Loimer and Schloss Gobelsburg (Kamptal); Malat, Sepp Moser and Salomon Undhof (Kremstal); and Markus Huber and Bernhard Ott in Wagram.
In the Steiermark, Sauvignon Blanc is the showpiece grape, especially in the southern Südsteiermark region, where producers Tement, Polz, Gross, Sattler and Wohlmuth take advantage of the ancient soils – shell limestone, marl and clay among them – to craft wines from un-oaked “klassik” to barrique-matured single vineyard versions.
Equally palate-thrilling are Chardonnay (known here as Morillon), Weissburgunder (Pinot Blanc) and Gelber Muskateller. The Vulkanland region – formerly Südoststeiermark – is home to the excellent Traminer, particularly from the volcanic-rich soils around Klöch, while over in the Weststeiermark – which recently became the newest DAC appellation, Schilcherland DAC – the indigenous red Blauer Wildbacher grape becomes the traditional Schilcher, a rosé-style wine with generous acidity.
In Vienna, the emphasis is not on region or grape, but rather on the region’s wine style – Wiener Gemischter Satz DAC. This translates as ‘Viennese field blend’, and is an old traditional wine made from grapes planted – mix & match – together in a single vineyard, then harvested and fermented together as well. Once common across Europe a century ago, this style has been revived by an ambitious group of Viennese winemakers who have lifted it from its former “plonk” status to today’s sophistication.
“Wiener Gemischter Satz is our identity, it’s our history,” says Fritz Wieninger, a top Viennese producer who spearheaded the movement. “We produce other excellent wines here, of course. But Wiener Gemischter Satz is our signature wine.”
Other top producers of Wiener Gemischter Satz DAC – which must be made from a minimum of three grape varieties – include Edlmoser, Christ, Fuhrgassl-Huber and Mayer am Pfarrpflatz.
Red wines, mostly dry, are produced in virtually all of Austria’s wine regions, but key are Niederösterreich’s Thermenregion, just south of Vienna, Carnuntum, situated between Vienna and Austria’s eastern border with Slovakia, and especially the Burgenland appellations of Leithaberg DAC, Neusiedlersee DAC, Mittelburgenland DAC and Eisenberg DAC.
Zweigelt, the most widely planted red, accounts for around 14% of Austria’s vineyards. Long considered an easy-drinking wine, it has been undergoing a profile boost lately as yield reduction and meticulous barrel ageing have resulted in wines with more depth, often with cherry notes and a round, supple texture. Rubin Carnuntum and Neusiedlersee DAC wines, for example, reflect the high quality of today’s Zweigelt.
Austria’s flagship red variety, however, is Blaufränkisch, which is now treated as a kind of Wunder-grape with Burgundian flair. So precise and elegant is its expression, that it’s used for the DAC red wines of Leithaberg, Mittelburgenland and Eisenberg. The grape has even been coaxed to near-revelation status by Roland Velich in Burgenland, whose “Moric” single vineyard wines in Neckenmarkt and Lutzmannsburg come from vines up to 100 years old.
Other important red varieties in Austria include Sankt Laurent and Pinot Noir, which has been gaining recognition recently as a quality, price-friendly alternative to French Burgundies.
“Pinot Noir has really developed well here, especially in Burgenland and the Thermenregion,” says Willi Klinger, managing director of the Austian Wine Marketing Board. “But even in mainly white wine regions, like the Kamptal or the Steiermark, excellent Pinot Noirs are being made.”
And then there are dry red cuvée (blend) wines from indigenous (Zweigelt, Blaufränkisch or St. Laurent) or international (like Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot) varieties that are showing extremely well – particularly around the town of Gols in Burgenland.
And we haven’t even begun talking about Austria’s underrated sparkling wines (Sekt), dessert or natural wines… but you can discover them for yourself at VieVinum. Ultimately, our thanks must go to the Romans who brought their vines with them to Vindobona, and to the current generation of young growers, who have grafted the latest cellar technology onto nature’s gift of climate and terroir. Perhaps best of all, most of the vineyards are within an hour’s drive of Vienna and always pleased to see you. Go test and taste and buy what you find ab Hof (direct from the grower).
Now that’s a civilized way to go native.