Regional guides

The ultimate guide to Austrian wine

Austria is considered by many to be one of the best-kept wine secrets in Europe. Its wealth of indigenous grapes and quality-conscious, small family producers make it a treasure trove for those wanting to expand their wine horizons with delicious, food-friendly bottles.

The Ultimate Guide to Austrian Wine
Pretty village in the Wachau, a UNESCO world heritage site

Austrian wine at a glance:

  1. Austrian wine is some of the most quality-focused in Europe. For wine lovers this means you’ll find well-made artisan wines at prices representing brilliant value across the spectrum, from weekday wines to fine wines for laying down.
  2. Grüner veltliner is Austria’s most famous export, making delicious crisp, fresh-tasting white wines with notes of ripe apple and a characteristically intriguing twist of white pepper. You can find delicious examples of these at entry-level price points, or expect to pay a bit more for more concentrated examples with ageing potential.
  3. The key red grapes of Austria are blaufränkisch, zweigelt and St Laurent, and the main white varieties are the aforementioned grüner veltliner and riesling.
  4. Broadly, the main winemaking regions of Austria to know are: Niederösterreich (Lower Austria) (28,145 ha), Burgenland (13,100 ha) and Steiermark (4,633 ha), with the smaller Wien (Vienna) region around the capital city (which incidentally is a great base to explore Austria’s beautiful wine regions from).
  5. Austria’s wines are remarkably food friendly: grüner veltliner especially has an affinity with both classic Austrian dishes (like schnitzel and potato salad) as well as seafood, chicken, pasta dishes and lightly spiced aromatic dishes (you can see why it’s such a hit with sommeliers in London’s restaurant scene), while red wines such as blaufränkisch and zweigelt have the juicy red fruit to pair well with pizza, pasta and charcuterie.
Watch our Artists of Austria video
Explore our range of Austrian wines

Austria: a best-kept secret

Austria is considered by many to be one of the best-kept wine secrets in Europe and for the last few decades it has been very much in the shadow of neighbours Germany and Italy when it comes to recognition for its wines. But Austria has an incredibly long and fruitful history of winemaking, with evidence suggesting that vines were in existence in Austria more than 60 million years ago and were also cultivated by the Celts and the Romans. Although Austria was the third largest producer in the world for a period in the early 20th century, a wine scandal in the 1980s caused the world to turn its back on Austrian wine and the industry was almost destroyed overnight. A small number of producers were determined to bring the wine industry back from the brink and through their hard work, talent and unwavering commitment to quality over the last 30 or so years, Austria is now producing some of Europe’s most consistently good-quality wines from unique indigenous grape varieties.

Here we’ll explore the key grapes and regions and discover what makes Austrian wine a must try, whether you’re looking for something simple and refreshing, or top-notch fine wine and everything in between.

Farmhouse in Austria

Exploring Austria’s key grape varieties

Austria boasts a handful of brilliant indigenous grape varieties which are unique (though you will find blaufränkisch going by the name of kékfrankos over the border in Hungary). Around two thirds of plantings are of white grapes and one third of red, but it is the native grapes in particular which help to make Austria special in its wine offering. Thanks to the importance of grüner veltliner in particular, Austria is able to offer some seriously good fine wine alongside great styles for regular enjoyment any day.

You’ll find the usual international varieties in Austria too, but here I’ll focus only on the most important native grapes along with riesling, pinot blanc and pinot noir, which have a particularly important history in this part of the world.

Austria’s key white grape varieties

Grüner veltliner

Austria’s most significant grape variety by far, this up-and-coming white grape has been key in getting its wine back on the map in recent years. Much like chardonnay, grüner veltliner has a remarkable ability to reflect its terroir, with each glass vividly painting a picture of the vineyard in which it was grown. This is just one element that makes this a fascinating grape with huge potential to continue to impress in the world of fine wine.

Grüner can produce charming wines , from simple, refreshing ‘straight-up’ styles (with stone fruit, citrus and a twist of pepper with bright acidity) along with impressively structured fine wines with great energy, depth and structure, concentrated flavours and great capacity for ageing.

Riesling

Originating from Germany, riesling has been cultivated around the Danube in Austria for many centuries and although not technically a native Austrian grape it has certainly found a great home from home here. Austrian riesling tends to be dry or occasionally slightly off-dry. It is a key variety in the regions west of Vienna, along the Danube and can make wines with a haunting minerality and stone-fruit aromas. The best examples develop more depth and complexity with ageing and thanks to the often high acidity, can improve in bottle for many years, making Austrian riesling a great discovery for fans of this enigmatic grape.

Weissburgunder (pinot blanc)

Weissburgunder, or pinot blanc, is thought to have come to Austria from Burgundy in the 13th or 14th century, brought here by Cistercian monks, who were keen viticulturalists. Now mostly found around the Burgenland region, pinot blanc can be fairly bland if yields are not controlled, however the best examples can have a refined and focused character, with Chablis-esque texture.

Roter veltliner

Not to be confused with grüner veltliner, to which it is not related, roter veltliner is an old native variety which can produce lovely fresh and simple-tasting wines, if sometimes lacking in a distinct personality. Found mostly in the regions of Wagram, Kamptal and Kremstal as well as Weinviertel (in small quantities), it’s a difficult grape to cultivate, being sensitive to frost during flowering and prone to rot; due to this it’s largely being pulled up and replaced with the more popular grüner veltliner.

Austria’s key red grape varieties

Maier Maria and Josef
Josef and Maria Maier from the historic Geyerhof estate in the Kremstal inspecting their grapes

Blaufränkisch

Blaufränkisch is particularly associated with the region of Mittelburgenland, so much so that the region is nicknamed Blaufränkischland! It is a late-ripening red grape which produces medium to full- bodied wines with notes of black cherry, plum and blackcurrant. Many premium examples need time to soften and open up, but in the right hands it can produce generous and good-value wine at a relatively inexpensive price.

Blaufränkisch accounts for just 3009ha or 6.5% of Austria’s total plantings, so despite its being synonymous with quality Austrian red wine, it is still relatively small scale. The grape has spent its history inadvertently moving from one country to the next in central Europe, due to shifting borders, particularly in the last couple of hundred years. The first records of the variety date back to the 18th century in the town now called Maissau in Lower Austria but which was then called Limberg and was a part of Germany! It has very much set up camp in this general area though and straddles the Austro-Hungarian border and is known as kékfrankos in Hungary.

Zweigelt (blauer zweigelt)

Zweigelt is the most-planted red grape variety in Austria (13.8% of total land under vine). It tends to be red fruited and juicy leaning towards medium-bodied, although some top-end, oak-aged examples are fuller-bodied. Its generally soft tannins can make it more easily approachable in its youth than blaufränkisch and means it more readily lends itself to simple, fruit-forward inexpensive red wines.

A crossing of blaufränkisch and St Laurent (see below), zweigelt was developed in the 1920s by Professor Fritz Zweigelt. Since the second world war it has steadily increased in popularity, thanks to its ability to produce both simple, charming and inexpensive wines while also lending itself to the more serious oak-aged wines of Neusiedlersee DAC.

Sankt Laurent (St Laurent)

St Laurent completes the trio of Austria’s most famous native red varieties and accounts for just 1.6% of the country’s overall plantings (around 732ha). It’s a member of the pinot family and produces fragrant, red-fruit scented, medium-bodied wines with fresh acidity. In the right hands it can make elegant wines, similar to a spicy pinot noir, however it is notoriously difficult to cultivate and so is considered too much of a challenge for many winemakers to tackle.

Pinot noir

Despite Austrian pinot noir production being in its relative infancy, it’s already proving well-suited to the climate, producing similarly fresh, lifted and precisely-focused pinots to those that Burgundy currently lays claim to (though at a much friendlier price). Pinot is a difficult grape to work with, notoriously finicky and susceptible to diseases, so be sure to follow a good producer to make sure you get good quality in the bottle. While it’s most-closely associated with Burgenland, Austria’s red wine hub, there is also excellent pinot noir to be found in regions such as Kamptal.

Heiligenstein

Austria’s climates and how they affect winemaking

Overall, Eastern Austria has a moderate continental climate, with fairly hot summers and sometimes very cold winters. In good vintages, it has a reasonably long and steady growing season, allowing for balanced wines with lovely fresh acidity balancing the ripeness of the fruit.

Broadly speaking the country’s wine-producing areas can be split into:

  1. Cooler-climate areas of the west and north (influenced by cooling winds, the proximity of the Alps and the influence of the Atlantic) which produce white wines and delicate, light-bodied reds.
  2. Warmer-climate areas of the south and east (influenced by the warmth of the Mediterranean) which are better suited to making fuller-bodied red wines.

Below, I have selected the key sub-regions within the key regions, to provide some background on what you can expect from the wines that they produce.

Austrian map

Austria’s key wine regions

Austria is a landlocked country in central Europe which borders Italy to the south west, Switzerland to the west, Germany to the north west, Czech Republic to the north, Slovakia to the north east, Hungary to the east and Slovenia to the south. The beautiful city of Vienna in the north east of Austria is the perfect base for visiting the country’s best vineyards as all the key winemaking regions are to be found in the east, with the mountainous westerly part of Austria being much more famous for its skiing than for wine!

On the broadest scale, the three main wine-producing regions of Austria are Niederösterreich (Lower Austria) (28,145ha), Burgenland (13,100ha) and Steiermark (4,633ha), with Wien (Vienna) (637ha) being more well known due to the fact that it is in and around the city of Vienna, rather than because of its scale which is actually quite small.

Niederösterreich

What to expect from wines from Niederösterreich:

This is the biggest regional wine-growing area in Austria with 28,145ha under vine and is home to eight winegrowing regions which can be named on the bottle, provided the wine meets certain quality standards. This region is in the north-eastern corner of the country, bordering Czechia and Slovakia and surrounds the region of Wien, with the city of Vienna at its heart.

Climate and topography: The region of Niederösterreich can roughly be split into three main climate areas which can give an idea of wine style – Weinviertel in the northern area, the region of the Danube and the rivers which flow into it, all west of Vienna and finally Pannonian Niederösterreich in the south east of Vienna. The first two are of most significance in terms of wines that we sell.

Soil: It is hard to generalise too much when it comes to the soil types in this part of Austria. However, the key soil type which impacts the style of wines produced is ‘loess’, a type of soil made up of wind-blown sediment and makes up the soils in around half of the vineyards in this area.

Grape varieties: Riesling and grüner veltliner are neck and neck as the two most significant grape varieties here and although this region is most famous for its white wines, it is also a good region for cooler climate, elegant red wines too.

Wachau DAC

What to expect:

Generally speaking, Wachau DAC can offer opulent riesling and grüner veltliner which should accurately reflect the terroir of the vineyard. The wines should be complex and ageworthy, with top examples needing a few years from vintage to become approachable. Many have a marked viscosity,but more wines are now being made in a more delicate, fresh and modern style.

Key producers to look out for:

  • Grabenwerkstatt
  • Domane Wachau

The Wachau Valley is Austria’s most westerly major vineyard area, and as well as being a World Cultural Heritage site, is considered to be the classic fine wine region of Austria. However, as the quality in other regions has improved in recent decades, Wachau doesn’t stand head and shoulders above the rest of Austria in the way that it once did. The wines here can be spectacular, but they often come with a price point to match so having the inside track (from The Wine Society of course!) is really useful when it comes to getting great value for money.

Climate and topography: The Wachau Valley is carved out of the landscape by the Danube, which has a significant impact on the microclimate. The vineyards here are steep and terraced, meaning that working everything by hand is unavoidable.

The Spitzer Graben (Side Valley) of the Wachau

Grape varieties: Grüner veltliner and riesling are the two most important varieties by far in this region; the best examples can famously age for decades. This is partly due to the dramatic changes in temperature from night to day (known as the ‘diurnal range’), which means that the wines can achieve full ripeness while maintaining remarkable acidity (vital for ageing). Much like Burgundy, the region is made up of countless microclimates, thanks to the varying degrees of steepness in the vineyards and the wide variety of vineyard aspects over the north and south sides of the Danube. As you head west through the valley, from Krems to Spitzer Graben, the climate becomes cooler and more extreme.

Quality system in Wachau DAC: The Wachau has historically had its own wine quality classification system, which is not found anywhere else in Austria. Rather than the Erste Lage classified vineyards elsewhere in Austria, the Wachau system is much more similar to that found in Germany as it takes into account must weight (weight of the grape juice) and alcohol percentages:

‘Steinfeder’ is the name given to light, fragrant white wines, with a maximum alcohol of 11.5%.

‘Federspiel’ is used for more standard dry white wines of the area and must have an alcohol percentage of between 11.5-12.5%.

‘Smaragd’ is the category for the top white wines of the area with alcohol at 12.5% and above, harking back to the now perhaps outmoded view that bigger is better and while the region used to boast big, rich and viscous rieslings and grüner veltliners, these are now less fasionable.

Krems with vineyards in background

Kremstal DAC

The town of Krems an der Donau is situated on the Danube in the wine region which bears its name. Due to its central location amongst the vineyards which line the Danube west of Vienna, this can be a perfect area to base yourself for winery tours. Kremstal DAC borders the Wachau on the west and Kamptal DAC on the east and can be an excellent region to look to if you want a taste of the Wachau without the price tag.

Grüner veltliner and riesling are the key grape varieties here, but Kremstal really specialises in anyday value. In order for wines to be labelled as Kremstal DAC they must be made from these white grape varieties but a small amount of weissburgunder (pinot blanc) and some red varieties are found too, which must be labelled as the more generic ‘Niederösterreich’. The most premium dry examples of grüner veltliner and riesling may be labelled as Reserve.

The Society’s Grüner Veltliner comes from this region and is produced for us by the winery which is owned by the town of Krems – Weingut Stadt Krems.

What to expect:

This is a region where you can find value at all price points, with the finest wines of around £25-30 being on a par with wines of a much higher price point from elsewhere in Europe. Smart, fresh, dry and deliciously spicy, grüner veltliner and riesling, can range from under-£10 bottles to premium. The best examples will age well, but most will be approachable young too. The small amount of red wine produced is fresh, lifted and vibrant.

Key producers to look out for:

  • Weingut Stadt Krems
  • Weingut Rainer Wess
  • Geyerhof

Kamptal DAC

Outside of the Wachau, Kamptal is considered to be historically one of the best wine-producing areas of Austria. The main town is Langenlois, home to an excellent wine hotel and some of the best names in Austrian wine, as well as 3907ha of vineyards. Much like Kremstal, the key grape varieties are grüner veltliner and riesling and only these varieties may be labelled as Kamptal DAC or Reserve.

This region is home to the legendary Heiligenstein mountain, which gives its name to arguably the most famous and certainly among the best-quality single-vineyard sights of Austria. Heiligenstein is a hot, dry area with steep terraced vineyards which lead down to the Danube, in which is planted riesling; currently the only grape variety which may be labelled with Heiligenstein on the label. Next to the Heiligenstein vineyard, on the same mountain is the Lamm vineyard, which produces some of the country’s best grüner veltliner, which can be powerful yet with lifted acidity, with the best examples having an ethereal, smoky, mineral-driven aroma.

This region is home to many premium wines which have a remarkable ability to age, such as the single-vineyard wines from Schloss Gobelsburg, but there are some slightly more affordable examples too, which can be excellent value at around £12 a bottle.

The Society’s Exhibition Grüner Veltliner comes from Kamptal and is produced for us by Weingut Bründlmayer.

What to expect:

Excellent single-vineyard riesling and grüner veltliner which has power and concentration without being too heavy, as well as superb simpler wines, which may be blended from off-cuts of the single-vineyard sites and can offer an excellent-value option for relatively complex and delicious wine. Top examples are remarkably good value and, with age, are known to take on a style not dissimilar to white Burgundy.

Willi Bründlmayer
Willi Bründlmayer of Weingut Bründlmayer

Key producers to look out for:

  • Weingut Bründlmayer
  • Schloss Gobelsburg
  • Weingut Jurtschitsch

Wagram

Wagram borders Kamptal to its west and stretches right to the border of Vienna on its east, where the historic town of Klosterneuburg is situated, home to the Klosterneuburg monastery which is Austria’s oldest winery and the home of the world’s first school of viticulture. Originally called Donauland, this region was renamed Wagram in 2007 and is now home to 2,720ha of vineyards, most of which are planted with grüner veltliner and riesling, plus a little roter veltliner along with red grapes such as zweigelt and St Laurent.

What to expect:

There is a lot of diversity in style in this spread-out region. Some producers such as Bernhard Ott produce opulent, spice-laden, single-vineyard grüner veltliner and riesling which can pair perfectly with roast chicken and pork. This is a warmer area than the regions to the west and so it becomes easier to find more affordable wines which are ripe and with simple charm.

Key producers to look out for:

  • Weingut Bernhard Ott
  • Stift Klosterneuburg

Weinviertal DAC

This is by far the biggest wine region within Lower Austria, with 13858ha under vine, almost half of which is grüner veltliner (6700ha). However, despite the dominance of grüner, there are a number of other varieties to be found here, such as riesling, blauer portugieser, pinot blanc, pinot gris and traminer. This is a large and diverse region which produces some excellent top-end wines, however many lack the finesse of other regions such as Kamptal, Kremstal and Wachau. One real strength of Weinviertel is the region’s ability to produce wines which can offer superb value. Many of the country’s most delicious sub-£10 wines come from here and the local grüner veltliner is famous for having a particularly peppery aroma and is called locally as ‘Pfefferl’ as a result!

What to expect:

  • Good-quality entry-level wines made from a number of varieties including grüner veltliner and riesling amongst others. The grüner can offer instant gratification, with simple charm and a hallmark pepper-pot twist.

Key producers to look out for:

  • Familie Mantler
  • Weingut Gruber Röschitz

Burgenland

The Burgenland region is situated in the furthest eastern point of Austria, on the border with Hungary, a country with which it interlocks like puzzle pieces. If you drive from Vienna to the Mittelburgenland region you can drive into Hungary, through the city of Sopron and back out the other side back into Austria. This part of Austria also shares a lot of history with western Hungary and over the years, the border has shifted regularly.

With a total of 13,100ha under vine, this area is known as Austria’s red wine country, with grapes such as blaufränkisch, St Laurent and pinot noir reigning supreme. That being said, some grüner veltliner can also be found here in a much riper style than would tend to be found in Lower Austria.

Burgenland is home to a number of different climates and offers a range of terroirs within its five sub-regions (Leithaberg DAC, Neusiedlersee DAC, Mittelburgenland DAC, Eisenberg DAC and Rosalia DAC). The Leitha Range, Lake Neusiedl and the heavy clay soils of Mittelburgenland all provide unique settings and conditions from which to make wines that are completely different from one to the next. Here I’ll be looking at the most significant to us at The Wine Society: Mittelburgenland DAC, Leithaberg DAC and Neusiedlersee DAC.

Grape harvest at Hans Igler
Clemens Reisner from Weingut Hans Igler

Mittelburgenland DAC

Mittelburgenland is, as the name suggests, in the middle of the Burgenland region, which borders Hungary to its east and north. 2,104ha of vines are planted here and the key variety by a long way is blaufränkisch, of which there are three quality levels permitted: Mittelburgenland DAC, Mittelburgenland DAC with a named vineyard and Mittelburgenland DAC Reserve. The climate here can be very hot in the summer and very cold in the winter but the heavy clay soils help to store water for the hotter months so blaufränkisch is perfectly suited and can produce wines which at the top-end are firm, dark and often need ageing to soften and at the entry-level, black fruited, spicy and brilliantly juicy.

Mittelburgenland is home to Weingut Hans Igler, who produce The Society’s Blaufränkisch.

What to expect:

Some wines can be a little over oaked here, as there is still a feeling amongst many winemakers that the top wines should spend rather a long time in new oak barrels. Aside from this, when it is done well, blaufränkisch can be deliciously juicy, dark fruited, medium-bodied and utterly charming.

Key producers to look out for:

  • Weingut Hans Igler

Leithaberg DAC

Leithaberg consists of 3,097ha of vines on the western side of Lake Neusiedl and produces both red and white wines, commonly from blaufränkisch for the red wines and often chardonnay for the whites. It is an ancient wine growing area which was populated by the Celts many centuries ago. Birgit Braunstein’s Leithaberg vineyard which sits atop a hill facing the lake has an ancient Celtic burial mound at the top of it and grape seeds have been discovered in Celtic graves in the region –some of the oldest evidence of viticulture in central Europe.

Wines labelled as Leithaberg DAC can be made from chardonnay, grüner veltliner, weissburgunder (pinot blanc) or Neuburger for the white wines or Blaufränkisch with no more than 15% zweigelt, St Laurent or pinot noir blended in. The unique Leitha limestone in the region is thought to give the wines a unique salty note.

What to expect:

Full-bodied wines with a certain mineral drive and salinity. The best wines are full but still maintain excellent acidity. The white wines are broad, saline and concentrated and the red wines have great depth and freshness and good blaufränkisch from here should be a little reminiscent of pinot noir but much denser and more concentrated. The red wines have a relatively good potential to age, and in fact many of the top examples need a few years to settle in bottle before being approachable.

Key producers to look out for:

  • Birgit Braunstein
Village of Moerbisch at Neusiedlersee
Village of Moerbisch at Neusiedlersee

Neusiedlersee DAC

Lake Neusiedl is a vital part of the climate of the Neusiedlersee region of eastern Austria. Not only has it given the region its name but the vast expanse of shallow water (at its deepest it is only 180cm deep) helps to regulate the temperatures in the surrounding vineyards throughout the year. With Leithaberg on the east of the lake, Neusiedlersee is situated to the north and the east of this great expanse of water. Of the 6,675ha of vineyards here, 1,812ha are planted with zweigelt, making this the key grape of the region. This region often sees hot dry summers and very cold winters and the proximity to the lake means that as the water heats up through the summer it radiates heat through the evening and helps to draw out the growing season too, leading to riper fruit.

Only wines made from zweigelt and matured in the cellar for more than a year before release can be labelled as Neusiedlersee DAC. However there are also lots of wines in the area made from pinot noir, St Laurent and blaufränkisch – these can only be labelled as generic ‘Burgenland’. Don’t let this put you off though, as many are superb!

What to expect:

Fresh, ripe and vibrant red wines with silky tannins and a juicy core of cherry and blackberry fruit. Neusiedlersee DAC zweigelt should be full and multi-layered, with fresh acidity; the best examples have great potential to age. There is an ever-growing natural wine movement here so you can also find less-usual wines such as pet-nat and wild-fermented, unfiltered wines from a number of different grape varieties.

Key producers to look out for:

  • Weingut Gerhard & Brigitte Pittnauer
Michael Moosbrugger of SchlossGobelsburg , the godfather of the Erste Lage system
Michael Moosbrugger of Schloss Gobelsburg, the godfather of the Erste Lage system

Vineyard classification – Erste Lage

Austria is home to one of the newest and most rigorous vineyard classification systems in the world – and it’s not even finished yet! Erste Lage crudely translates to first location or ‘premier cru’. As it stands, grand cru or ‘Grosse Lage’ does not yet exist as the long period of assessment to see which vineyards will be elevated to this level is still ongoing.

In 1992 the Österreichische Traditionsweingüter was founded; a small group of winemakers from Krems and Kamptal, with the aim of understanding the unique profiles of the top vineyards in Kremstal and Kamptal with the idea to classify the very best sites, which are capable of producing the finest wines in the regions of Kremstal, Kamptal, Wagram and Traisental. It wasn’t until 2010 that the first classifications were finalised, with 53 vineyards in the aforementioned areas crowned as Erste Lage. These ‘premier cru’ sites can only be labelled as such if the entirety of the fruit comes from one single vineyard and must be either grüner veltliner or riesling. Since then, the area has been expanded to also include vineyards in Wien and Carnuntum; however, it is worth noting that this does not include the wines of the Wachau, which have their own system.

Tastings are ongoing to decide on which select few vineyards will be classified as Grosse Lage and the list should be finalised in the coming few years.

According to Michael Moosbrugger of SchlossGobelsburg , the godfather of the Erste Lage system, the best grüner veltliner and riesling wines from these classified sites are approachable to drink when they are in their first couple of years from release but then close down. They should be approached again after six or seven years from release, at which point they will continue to age remarkably well, similar to much good-quality white Rhône.

Discover our range of Austrian wines
Read more about pairing Austrian wine with food
Freddy Bulmer

Society Buyer

Freddy Bulmer

Freddy joined the Buying Team in September 2015 and is responsible for Austria, Eastern Europe, Australia and New Zealand as well as being buyer for beer and cider.

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