Welcome to Austria!
Just by accessing this guide it suggests that you are after something a little different, and if you like elegant, often spicy, light but concentrated wines then you have come to the right place.
Austria's indigenous grapes may sound unfamiliar but give it a unique place in the wine world, producing some wonderful thought-provoking pure wines. The place names will probably be new to many too as these wines have not enjoyed the same exposure as their neighbours' and have been described by Jancis Robinson MW as, 'the best kept secrets of the wine world'. Now is the time to discover these wines and spread the word!
A brief history
Austria has had a long history of making distinctive fine wines. More than 60 million years ago wild vines were already in existence across Austria, and there is evidence that vines were being cultivated for the production of wine by the Celts even before the Romans.
Austria was, rather surprisingly, the third largest producer of wine globally in the 1920s, mainly producing and exporting simple light white wines. However, this thriving industry was nearly brought to its knees in the 1980s when a scandal broke.
Some bulk wine producers were enhancing the sweetness and mouthfeel of light bulk wines by adding diethylene glycol (a common ingredient in antifreeze) to their wines. This scandal had two major impacts - firstly, it led to a massive decrease in production with only the most committed wineries focused on rebuilding Austria's reputation continuing; secondly, it initiated the most wide-ranging quality control measures being implemented to ensure that this sort of disaster could never happen again.
The scandal that could have ended the industry instead reinvigorated it, with those remaining determined to show the world how good Austrian wine could be - a major shift of emphasis from 'bulk' to 'boutique' was underway. In 2002 Jan-Erik Paulson, a leading authority on mature wines, especially Bordeaux and Austria, arranged a 'judgement of Paris'-style blind tasting, with some of Austria's top white wines, pitched against great white Burgundies. Jancis Robinson MW and Tim Atkins MW were just two members of the expert judging panel who ended up placing six Austrian grüner veltliners in to the top eight wines. The rest, as they say, is history and Austrian wines and their reputation have gone from strength to strength to such an extent that no self-respecting sommelier would leave a grüner veltliner off their wine list today.
Click to enlarge map
Map of Austria
Firstly it's important to see that Austria's wine regions are confined to the east of the country where the Alps settle into the great Pannonian Plain, running north to south along the many borders from the Czech Republic in the north to Slovenia in the south.
The climate here is continental, characterised by cold winters, hot dry summers, and often a large diurnal temperature flux with hot days, and cold nights. This is perfect for ripening a large range of grape varieties and retaining acidity and fresh aromas in white wines.
Broadly there are three major regions: Niederösterreich, in the north; Burgenland; and Steiermark to the south. Within these regions are a further 16 smaller DACs (Districtus Austriae Controllatus).
- Niederösterreich (27,128ha) is known for high-quality white wine production, and most of the vineyards are focused along the banks of the Danube and its tributaries. Nearly half of all vines in this large area are grüner veltliner although world-class rieslings are also produced. Sub regions to look out for here include Kamptal, Kremstal, Wachau, Wagram, and Weinviertel.
- Burgenland (13,840ha) is the area of vineyards focused around Lake Neusiedl - Central Europe's second largest lake which straddles the Austrian-Hungarian border. Full-bodied and rich red wines are produced under the influence of the hot continental climate. The complex soil structure throughout the hills surrounding the lake, the various aspects available and large diurnal temperature change allows fine mineral-driven reds to be made. The reds produced use local grape varieties which are suited to the terroir - look out for blaufränkisch, zweigelt and St Laurent. The natural humidity caused by the lake can also lead to high levels of botrytis making this an excellent source of high-quality dessert wines.
- Steiermark (Styria) (4,240h) the smallest Austrian area is developing a great reputation for its steely sauvignons and fresh aromatic white wines. Although many of the best wines are made in such small quantities that they are never exported; this is a region to watch!
White grape varieties account for two-thirds of the vineyard plantings in Austria. There are 22 varieties recognised for quality wine production which cover indigenous varieties such as grüner veltliner and international grapes such as sauvignon blanc.
(Often referred to as just grüner, pronounced 'groo-ner')
This is the most widely planted variety in Austria accounting for nearly 30% of Austria's vineyards. It is indigenous to Central Europe and can produce a large range of styles, from high-yield fresh simple wines, to complex oak or lees-influenced rich fine wines. Some producers are also now making sparkling grüner.
Grüner veltliner is often referred to as a 'spicy' wine, with white-pepper notes a common descriptor. Citrus and orchard-fruit flavours are also commonly found in these crisp and usually bone-dry wines.
Despite the abundance of wonderful Austrian rieslings available it only actually accounts for around 5% of the country's vineyards, although this is growing. Riesling came to Austria from the ancient vineyards around the Rhine to the vineyards around the Danube.
Riesling's common style in Austria is bone-dry, elegant and steely with fresh citrus flavours. These wines are often drunk young and whistle clean; however they can age wonderfully.
Chardonnay gained importance in Austrian vineyards at the end of the last century when great- quality wines were gaining global recognition. Production has always been limited though and it is often labelled under the local name of morillon.
Produced in the Steiermark region in the south of the country, these wines are growing in popularity. They are usually less aromatic than Loire equivalents and are often quite austere, tight and mineral, making very elegant aperitif wines. Production however is small and local demand is high, making it less attractive at the moment for British wine drinkers.
Scheurebe is a highly aromatic grape variety originating from Germany. The majority of the plantings are in Steiermark and the wines often have very aromatic peach and blackcurrant-leaf notes and can match brilliantly with spicy foods.
There are 13 red varieties classified for winemaking in Austria that account for around 1/3 of the vineyard area. Indigenous varieties dominate, although modern producers are beginning to plant more international varieties.
Zweigelt (pronounced TSVYE-gelt)
This new variety - having been crossed in the 1920s using St Laurent and blaufränkisch - makes up nearly 15% of Austria's vineyard plantings and is the most widely planted red variety. Zweigelt often produces fine lighter red wines, which have precise sour cherry and redcurrant flavours, fine tannins and often a spicy linear finish.
Blaufränkisch (pronounced blaou-FREN-kish)
This late-ripening indigenous variety can create wines with dense tannins, high acidity and concentration that can age well for many years. Generally the wines have notes of blackberries, ripe cherries or plums. The vines need warm long summers to fully ripen but in good years can achieve great complexity and depth.
These wines are often confused with pinot noir as they they can have a similar profile: red-berry perfume, light elegant and crisp. However, St Laurent is often used to add elegance to a blend.
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