Despite its geographic handicap of being landlocked, Austria is a beautiful country. Most of it is mountainous, with the Alps dominating the landscape and dictating the climate with cold winters and relatively warm summers.
What can be considered lowlands amounts to about a quarter of its territory. The second biggest river in Europe, the Danube, runs through it, adding to its allure. Aside from its natural beauty, Austria’s man-made appeal centers around historic and culture-rich cities like Vienna, Salzburg, Linz and Innsbruck, where music, art, wining and dining intermingle harmoniously.
Seven years ago, I was invited by one of my favorite wine importers, Gregory Condes Wines, to Austria. The culmination of the visit was the celebration of the 222nd anniversary of one of the historic wineries of Austria’s Kremstal wine region, Salomon Undhof.
Vienna was our base. Vienna! With its cultural and artistic legacy of such genius minds like Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Gustav Klimt and Sigmund Freud, the city sets certain expectations and delivers them. “Gallantly civilized” is what comes to mind when experiencing Vienna. With its royal architecture, perfectly manicured parks, centuries-old theater and symphony houses, cafes steaming with freshly brewed coffee and decadent sachertortes, schnitzel houses and the omnipresent tunes of Mozart and Strauss floating through the air, Vienna is it for me.
Austria hadn’t been a country of note on the international wine stage until the mid-80s. Its wines were mainly designated for local consumption or bulk export, mostly to Germany. Ironically it was a disastrous incident that drew the world’s attention to Austrian wines. The year was 1985. Out of sheer greed (as my grandma used to say, “Greed is the source of all the evil in the world”), a handful of dishonest winemakers decided to add diethylene glycol to their wines and ship it to Germany. Yes, you read it correctly. DG, the same poisonous ingredient that goes into antifreeze and gets rid of unwanted spouses in True Crime documentaries. What it does to wine in smaller quantities is it adds artificial sweetness and a full-bodied mouth-feel. The Germans uncovered the scam during the quality tests, the proverbial s**t hit the fan and the news spread around the world. Heavy prison sentences were issued, 37 million bottles of wine were poured out, and one of the culprits committed suicide.
Despite the initial severe consequences of the scandal, the Austrian wine industry persevered and turned things around. With the help of the country’s government, some of the strictest, most quality-oriented wine laws in the world were implemented. It took over a decade for the efforts to pay off. And they did pay off. Not only that, the industry recovered, but its strict, draconian regulations elevated the quality of Austrian wines to the highest class in its history, making them an envy of many world wine regions of higher pedigree.
It wasn’t until 2002 that Austrian wines, especially the whites, gained huge international recognition. During a highly publicized blind tasting organized by the fine wine dealer Jan-Erik Paulson and hosted by the one and only Jancis Robinson OBE, ComMA, MW, Austrian wines, led by its indigenous grape Grüner Veltliner, astonished the expert tasters. Seven of the 10 first places were taken by Austrian whites. The secret was out.
Austria’s Wine Regions
In 2003, the first-ever Austrian Districtus Austriae Controllatus (DAC) was introduced. It is a legal delamination system that connects specific regions with a particular grape variety. The system imitates the French appellation model.
The country is divided into three major wine regions: Niederösterreich (Lower Austria), Burgenland, and Steiermark (Styria). And then there is Vienna.
Niederösterreich encompasses eight sub-regions: Wachau, Kamptal, Kremstal,Traisental, Wagram, Weinviertel, Thermenregion and Carnuntum. These are mainly white wines appellations with Wachau, Kamptal and Kremstal being the stand-outs.
Burgenland lies in the warmer east. Specializes in red wines and sweet wines, most notably famous Ausbruch, a dessert wine made from botrytized grapes grown around the lakeside town of Rust. Its sub-regions include Neusiedlersee, Leithaberg, Mittelburgenland and the newest appellation of Rosalia.
Steiermark. This picturesque, bucolic region is known as The Green Heart of Austria. It comprises three DACs: Weststeiermar, Vulkanland Steiermar and Südsteiermark. Here again, the white grapes dominate; Pinot Blanc, Marillon, Traminer, Muscat and most notably world-class Sauvignon Blancs from Südsteiermark.
Vienna, the capital, has its own DAC. It stands alone, mainly because of its size (with its minuscule 1,574 acres of vineyards). It is the only capital city in the world with its own wine appellation. It is best known for its Wiener Gemischter Satz, or in layman’s terms, Viennese field blend. White grape varieties like Grüner Veltliner, Riesling and Traminer are grown, harvested and vinified together to result in an easy-drinking, alluringly aromatic and affordable style of wine.
Austrian Grape varieties
It is the case among all European wine countries that a wide gamut of both indigenous and international grape varieties are grown in the vineyards. Austria is no exception. There are 26 white grapes registered for the production of wine and 14 red. The proportion of white to red is two-thirds to one-third, respectively.
We’ll focus on four signature, native grapes that Austria is most known for: Grüner Veltliner (white), Zweigelt (red), Blaufränkisch (red), and Sankt Laurent (red).
Grüner Veltliner is undoubtedly Austria’s pride grape. It is the grape that initiated the country’s international stardom. Its genetic parents are uncertain. Traminer grape is possibly one of the contributors. Grüner Veltliner wines offer a wide range of flavors depending on the micro-climate of the vineyards, wine making techniques and the style of wine.
One thing is certain; at its best, it can be astonishing: complex, highly concentrated, texturally sublime, with the impressive aging potential. Its flavors span across a wide range: from citrus aromas like lime and grapefruit to tropical fruits of papaya, ripe banana and passion fruit. Savory notes of white pepper, edamame, garden herbs and green pepper with a touch of salinity. Its food pairing versatility is brilliant, specifically its ability to match seamlessly with two difficult vegetables: artichoke and asparagus.
Blaufränkisch. This is the most complex of all three reds in question. It is a late-ripening grape that elegantly combines juiciness and freshness. The wine is characterized by black pepper, strong woody aromatics recalling tree bark, black cherry and wild blueberry flavors. Its firm tannins can be a bit aggressive when young but become lush and velvety with age. The grape is mainly grown in Burgenland and Niederösterreich.
Sankt Laurent. Named after St. Lawrence’s Day - August 10th – around the date the grapes begin to change color. This is a bit of a finicky of a grape. It is difficult in the vineyard, ripening unevenly, low-yielding and sensitive to even moderate weather changes. It has a bit of a brutish personality, rough around the edges with barn-yardy characteristics and gritty tannins. But there is fruit to compensate for its savageness: sour cherry and blackberry notes.
Zweigelt. This third member of the Austrian red trinity is actually the genetic offspring of the two grapes described above. Its offspring characteristics manifest themselves in an easy-going joyfulness and charm. The fruit here is freshly picked raspberries, cherries, plums with a touch of floral aromatics of lavender and violets. Its body is the lightest of the three, with softer tannins. Its versatility in food and wine pairing is impressive.
These are just the grapes that represent Austria’s wine making from its most unique perspective. As I said earlier, there is a plethora of other grapes, both local and transplants. You can’t talk about the Austrian wine industry without mentioning its magnificent Rieslings, Sauvignon Blancs, Traminers, Muscats, Chardonnays, Pinot Noirs, Cabernet Sauvignons and Syrahs, just to mention a few.
Austria’s newly acquired reputation for high-quality wines stands disproportionally to the volume of its production. It accounts for only one percent of all total world production with around 114,000 acres under vine. The industry comprises mainly of small, boutique wineries making it an antithesis of mass production. That translates to a very hands-on approach to the craft; attention to detail that leads to a heightened awareness of the quality. That combined with the general affordability of the wines, makes Austria one of the best choices on the current wine market.
Finally, if one should talk about a dynamic connection between a country and its wines, Austria is a good example. There is a certain similarity between Austrian culture and the style of its wines, a certain affinity of sensibilities between the two. Both the wines and the broadly understood culture of the country exhibit a certain understated elegance and grace.
Cezar Kusik Wine Contributor Polo Lifestyles 2021