History lessons

Travels in Wine / Austria

Travels in Austria: Castles, Riesling and Notes on a Scandal

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Rosie Allen Rosie Allen

They say to understand the present (and have a glimpse of the future) you need to know the past. Our content editor Rosie Allen got a good grounding in Austria's vinous history in the suitably historic settings of a gothic castle!

Visionary winemakers, a raging natural-wine debate and revelations on a scandal aren't what I was expecting when I joined buyer Freddy Bulmer on his first buying trip to Austria earlier this year; but I was completely blown away by the passion, innovation and incredible wines I discovered in this gorgeous country.

Austria, a land of mountain, mists and magical wine
Austria, a land of mountains, mists and magical wine

Notes on a wine scandal

'Don't mention the war … or the wine scandal!' is the advice I was given before making the trip to the land of stunning mountainscapes, schnitzel with noodles/raindrops on roses/whiskers on kittens and seriously good wine. My colleagues were only half joking; the weight of history really does press heavily on Austria's wine industry.

Vines have been found here dating back over 60 million years, but it's the 20th century that saw the biggest upheavals for the industry, and not just the legacy from two world wars (between which Austria became one of the world's largest wine exporters). Burgenland, in Austria's south-east, bordering Hungary, was once a unified province, ruled over by the Emperors of Austria-Hungary. After the First World War however, the region was divided, but with the area's main city electing to remain part of the Hungarian state. Because the largest commercial centre now fell under Hungarian rule, a distinct divide between the cultural identities of these two factions of the country emerged, exaggerated further by the Iron Curtain of the Cold War, when Hungary came under Soviet control. You can still sense this distinct difference in the wine and food cultures here today; in wine-tourism terms, that means you'll be served schnitzel at wineries in northern Austria and Hungarian-style goulash in Burgenland. In gastronomic terms, it's what I call a win-win!

Austro-Hungarian cuisine – early fusion cooking?!
Austro-Hungarian cuisine – early fusion cooking?!

And what about the scandal? Diethylene glycol is a toxic chemical found in some brands of anti-freeze, and it threatened to destroy the once-illustrious (though, throughout the 70s and early 80s, increasingly quantity-led) reputation of Austria's wine industry. In the mid-1980s, the Germans, big importers of Austrian wines, found out that some bulk producers were using the chemical to enhance the body and sweetness of their wines on an enormous scale. The discovery, during routine tests, led to the collapse of Austria's export market (with many countries banning the import of Austrian wine completely, and merchants removing wine from shelves), the destruction of huge quantities of wine, prison sentences and fines for those involved. Worst of all, though, was that Austria's reputation for winemaking prowess was left in tatters; it's taken decades of tireless commitment from the country's best winemakers to recover.

A chance to start again

Happily though, Austrian winemakers are a resilient lot. Far from 'not mentioning' the catastrophe, they seem happy to go into details – for them, the scandal was a chance to emerge from the ashes of the old industry with a distinct new purpose: to craft excellent, artisanal wines with a totally unique sense of terroir. Only the truly-dedicated were able to survive the near-collapse of the industry, and it's these visionary producers that are guiding Austria towards a wine future that looks more dynamic and distinctive than ever. It also led to a meticulous set of quality control measures being drawn up, to make sure the country would never be brought to its knees in this way again.

Austria's beautiful vineyards have a bright future ahead of them
Austria's beautiful vineyards have a bright future ahead of them

Today, winemakers focus most of their attentions on dry styles of white wine (grüners and riesling) and spicy, snappy reds (blaufränkisch, zweigelt, pinot noir), a departure from the traditional, sweeter styles of wine that were adulterated with the illegal sweetening agent during those dark days. Most of the wine produced is bought by the home market, with the very best winemakers beginning to make their mark with overseas buyers. We're truly proud to say that we are among those championing Austria's glorious revival in the UK.

Riesling and religion: unearthing history at Schloss Gobelsburg

The beautiful, imposing facade of Schloss Gobelsberg
The beautiful, imposing facade of Schloss Gobelsberg
Freddy meets Michael Moosbrugger of the beautiful Schloss Gobelsburg
Freddy meets Michael Moosbrugger of the
beautiful Schloss Gobelsburg

We pulled up to Schloss Gobelsburg, a stunning if slightly formidable Baroque castle nestled in the Kamp hills near midnight, where the darkness and mist lent an otherworldly feel to its turrets and towers . As owner Michael Moosbrugger ushered us through a huge wrought-iron door, the bells of the bell tower opposite rang out ominously, and a ferocious-sounding dog bellowed somewhere in the dark; we were relieved to be shown to our rooms (fully upholstered with fairy-tale style sculpture, beautiful fabrics and tiles) to rest before a long day of tasting ahead.

Luckily, morning light softened the gothic splendour of the castle, revealing beautiful stone carvings, statues and paintings, and a much more inviting atmosphere. Over breakfast Michael gave us the history of the estate, explaining the vital connection between the monasteries in the development of the wine industry here. The monks who had once owned the estate and surrounding lands put in a lot of the groundwork that led to such delicious wines today, assessing which grape varieties best suited the soils here, and the best way to grow them, he explained. For him this means that the nation's history is as every bit a part of the wine's terroir as the soil or climate.

and so to bed... gothic splendour at Schloss Gobelsburg
and so to bed... gothic splendour at Schloss Gobelsburg

Now, it was time to try the wines. A beautifully simple but vibrant grüner led on to a polished, steely, stone-fruited grüner-on-steroids from Michael's Steinsetz vineyard just south of Gobelsburg. Lusciously sweet, honeysuckle-scented rieslings and juicy, peppery reds followed (see here for ones that we now stock), all showcasing Michael's deftness in creating traditional, but far-from-boring, Austrian styles. While the natural wine movement loudly occupies much of the conversation around the country, Moosbrugger is happy to block out the noise; his wines are no-nonsense, delicious examples of why traditional Austrian winemaking really is a gift to the wine world.

Freddy looks pretty happy with the riesling at Schloss Gobelsburg
Freddy looks pretty happy with the riesling at Schloss Gobelsburg

> Find the wines of Schloss Gobelsburg

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