Austrian bubbly has had a rough time lately, but new regulations might just put it back on track
“The velvet was flowing like a river! Let’s have another bottle of the velvet!”
If things had gone differently in a marketing meeting for sekt a couple of years ago, you might have heard such exclamations around Austria on New Year’s Eve.
The meeting came at a difficult time for Austria’s sparkling wine. Big winemakers had been chipping away at quality control measures for years. It had become possible to produce “Austrian sekt” with grapes from outside the country.
This “wrong strategy” had led to a “deadly price spiral,” according to Georg Schullian of the Austrian Wine Marketing Board. Sekt’s reputation suffered, he says, and over the years customers have drifted away to other varieties of bubbly.
What’s in a name?
But help was at hand. In 2013, sekt got its own lobby group, the austere-sounding Austrian Sekt Committee, which immediately set about uncorking a rosier future. First item on the agenda: Do we really need to call it sekt?
“The term sekt in the head of the consumer can be anything,” says committee chairman Benedikt Zacherl, “it’s the bottle you can buy in a German supermarket for €1.49, or the Schlumberger Dom for close to €30.”
Therein lay the problem. The committee kicked around several ideas, but Samt (velvet) was considered the best. Conveniently, Samt was also an acronym for sekt Austria méthode traditionnelle – the in-bottle fermentation process used to create champagne and high-end sekt.
“It was a nice idea,” said Zacherl, “but we asked ourselves – would you sit in a restaurant and order a Samt of Bründelmeyer, or a Samt of Schlumberger? No, this just won’t work.”
Don’t mention the s-word
In the end, they chose another path – chasing the coveted “denomination of origin” status, which would tightly control production methods, ensuring that anything calling itself Austrian sekt would be made of Austrian grapes.
The new rules were signed into law earlier this year, making the marketing men very happy. Schullian says it will transform the image of sekt, making it a “premium product” once again.
Yet rehabilitation cannot happen overnight. Schlumberger, one of the biggest and oldest producers, doesn’t mention the word sekt on its labels. Bründelmeyer hides it in the small print. And on a 50-minute tour of Schlumberger’s cellars in Vienna’s Döbling district, the recorded guide declines even a solitary mention.
Part of the reason of course is that sekt, like all other sparkling wine, is in thrall to its glitzy French competitor.
The French invented the méthode traditionnelle after all, and its terms are inescapably un-German – cuvée, assemblage, dégorgement. No matter what the method, you still can’t call it champagne. A conundrum for any producer.
But Zacherl insists that fine sekt can more than match an equivalent champagne in taste: “It’s not a problem, we don’t fear the comparison.”
He simply wants to ensure that sekt is appreciated and understood – whether it’s a waiter recommending a particular variety, or a consumer considering which type they prefer. His enemy is the nonchalant shrug, the careless order.
So, when you’re popping corks this New Year’s Eve, for Zacherl’s sake, make sure you treat the bubbly with respect.