It’s no surprise to anyone who has read anything I have written about Austria in the past (and hopefully to those who have enjoyed the wines) that I absolutely love working with the wines from this country. Aside from the outstanding quality being frankly one of the best-kept secrets in European wine, it is also things like the producers’ commitment to good practice and responsible winemaking which I find inspiring.
A commitment to sustainability
Sustainability is understandably at the top of our agenda at The Wine Society currently and will continue to be too. Whilst New Zealand is famed for its progressive approach in this field, Austria deserves far more of the spotlight than it gets for the work that so many of the producers put in to ensure minimal impact on the planet whilst still making truly delicious wines. It has been apparent to me since I started work with the wines from this beautiful central-European country that prudence, care and responsibility are high on the agenda; perhaps stemming from the wine scandal in the mid-eighties which gave rise to a renewed attitude of not cutting corners, with processes and quality under the microscope, vital for the industry to bounce back.
The importance of good relationships
It’s fair to say that the industry has more than bounced back since the dark times of the 1980s, with the country now producing some of the most consistently good wines in Europe. However, the focus on quality and substance has perhaps meant that marketing has fallen by the wayside. While it is still undoubtedly true that much of the good stuff stays in the country, we do now have better access than ever to the outstanding wines made here. This, as far as The Wine Society is concerned, has been largely to do with building up personal relationships with wineries and suppliers, something we pride ourselves on. Through taking the time to build these relationships we have managed to access wines which may otherwise not have crossed the Austrian border, meaning that a lot of the good stuff is now more widely appreciated.
The Bründlmayer collection
This was evidenced recently by a tasting I was lucky enough to do with Weingut Bründlmayer, long-standing supplier to The Wine Society and producer of our excellent Exhibition Grüner Veltliner. I raised the idea of doing a producer focus in our Fine Wine Collection with their General Manager, the fantastically talented Andreas Wickhoff MW, who was thrilled with the idea and granted me special access to their back-catalogue of older vintages to taste from and make an exclusive selection for members. The resulting collection of wines is superb and one that I am very excited to share with you all.
Bründlmayer are a prime example of the quality and professionalism in Austrian wine, with sustainability at their core. In fact you don’t have to look far to realise how important responsible winemaking is to this excellent Austrian estate, as their website has the information front and centre. Willi Bründlmayer saw to it that synthetic fertilisers were no longer used back in 1979 and switched to working in a consciously ecological way, following the Austrian Programme of Sustainable Agriculture, which encompasses all natural resources: soil, sun, water and plants. The winery has carried official organic certification since the 2019 vintage, despite having worked sustainably for decades.
A forward-thinking approach to sustainability
On a recent trip to Austria (in March 2022) I was able to catch up with a good number of suppliers that The Wine Society has now worked with for some time, a few of whom reminded me of how impressively forward-thinking their approaches to sustainability are.
Gerhard and Brigitte Pittnauer, of the Burgenland region in eastern Austria, are considered natural wine pioneers of the area. Their determination to make wines which have as little interference as possible is noble and deceptively difficult to execute well. It is only through a thorough understanding of so-called conventional (and not always low-impact) winemaking that Gerhard has an excellent understanding of what can be stripped away from the process, and when, without negatively impacting quality. Making wine in a way which uses biodynamic practices and subsequently no harsh chemicals in the vineyard and a very much hands-off approach in the winery, requires vast skill to do well. Unfortunately it is not rare to find winemakers around the world with an admirable desire to work in this way but who lack the awareness of the challenges involved. They would do well to learn from Gerhard.
‘The estate was undeniably a true pioneer of organic winemaking in Austria’
Another winery I highly admire, not only for their delicious wine but for the way in which they make it, is Geyerhof. Josef and Maria Maier are the new, young generation of this Kremstal winery, which has a history dating back almost 800 years. Winemaking has been a part of their family’s life for more than 14 generations, each of whom has put their own stamp on this historic property. Josef’s parents worked hard to be able to pass the business on to him with all the ingredients to ensure it thrives, never forgetting that agricultural health is paramount. The estate was undeniably a true pioneer of organic winemaking in Austria, having converted their practices to organic as far back as 1988. They have always appreciated that grape growing needs balance, or else we move too far into monoculture, with so many vineyards being established as the result of trees and other plants being pulled up for vines to be planted. Geyerhof combat this by giving up vineyard space (and subsequently income) in order to plant trees and hedgerows, in fact more than 13% of their total land holdings are now nature conservation areas – a move which would make a huge contribution to the planet should all other wineries do the same. They also raise cattle, pigs, chickens and bees, helping to promote biodiversity and have done wonderful work in recent years helping to re-introduce species into the local area which had not been seen there for decades.
Sustainability is multi-faceted too. The wonderful boutique winery in the Wachau’s Spitzer Graben sub-region, Grabenwerkstatt, have been working for the last few years on bringing a new lease of life to otherwise derelict vineyards. Rather than moving elsewhere and planting new vineyards, they have approached the owners of unloved and abandoned vineyards in the area, painstakingly rebuilt the stone terraces and brought new life to vines in some cases more than 70 years old. In this part of Austria, the vineyards are incredibly steep and only workable by hand, with an immense level of fitness required to climb up and down the hillsides to tend the vines. The approach of bringing life once again to these sites and doing so in a biodynamic way not only has less of an impact on the planet than planting in new places and working with machines, but also means that the quality of wines they are producing is very special indeed. It’s a win-win situation. Michael and Franz of Grabenwerkstatt are joining us in the UK for a special members event in early September where they will doubtless tell us more about their unique approach.
I could write for hours about all the excellent, small and mostly family-run wineries in Austria and how they are working away behind the scenes, with sustainability at the heart of what they are doing. Rest assured responsible winemaking is at the forefront of my mind when it comes to working with these producers and it makes Austria an easy choice when you want to enjoy a glass of something truly delicious, which has also done a little bit of good for the planet.
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