Flatiron's Guide to Austrian Wine, Part 5: Austria Looking Forward
Austria is not just a tiny place with time honored traditions and amazing terroir. It is a model for the future of wine. Their remarkable renaissance, taking them from bulk wine blenders to quality wine wunderkinds, was just the beginning. For a glimpse of the future of wine, look no further than Austria!
Austria’s crisis, only 35 years ago, was in fact a stroke of luck. The screw up by a few unscrupulous producers (discussed in a previous blog) offered them a reboot, a start over, a clean slate. They took this opportunity and ran with it, positioning themselves as forward thinking, technologically advanced, stewards of the land.
Austria is home to the highest percentage of organic vineyards anywhere on earth. En masse, the producers here are focused on sustainability, not as click bait, but as a way of life. They are even leading the charge to combat climate change with the widespread adoption of regenerative farming.
They have been dubbed the Loire Valley of the East, and the title is apt as the similarities are many. Both regions have cool climates, a plethora of grapes and varied terroir, are hotbeds of experimentation and natural winemakers, and most importantly were under-appreciated, and remain undervalued.
The Loire Valley helped set the stage for our modern era’s relationship to wine, redefining the values and relationships drinkers have with their buying choices. Austria is undoubtedly benefiting from their in-roads and their creating a market where you can drink wine that means something to you. The irony of this nickname, as we will see below, is that the Loire Valley’s push into organics and, especially, biodynamics, would not have been possible without Austria’s own history of organic and alternative farming approaches.
If you care about wine as a cultural product, Austrian wine is for you. Austrians are making wines they want to drink and enjoy with friends and family. Their Heurigers, the traditional wine taverns that serve as both wine bars and meeting places, are an example of this.
These micro-scale producers make fresh wines to drink, to eat with local foods, and in the ancient country-style. Wine is -- as it has been for eons -- an integral part of Austrian life and it is tied to a sense of place and community. If you are looking for a glimpse of this kind of life from over here in America, there’s no better option than Austrian wine.
If you care about wine as an agricultural product rather than an industrial-factory-made-brand name-beverage, Austrian wine is for you. Their model of family owned, small scale farms and wineries keeps the focus on a sustainable future. Decisions tend towards long term goals when you have to worry about your kid ingesting the chemical sprays on your property, or land being healthy enough to farm for the next generation, rather than hitting short term, bottom-line goals dictated in a boardroom.
If you care about wine that is a delicious thing to drink, endlessly fascinating, interesting young or aged, worthy of contemplation and that pairs with food, Austrian wine is definitely for you. There is a wealth of artisanal, handmade wines, from unique indigineous varieties, on incredibly diverse terroir. Wine is food here, and the potential for suitable pairings is unrivaled.
Farming in Austria
Farming has come up a lot in these blog posts about Austria because wine at its core starts as an agricultural product.
Our planet has a delicately balanced ecosystem, a farm or vineyard, is not a naturally occurring phenomenon and its existence forces it out of balance. A conscientious farmer does everything they can to work with nature, rather than against it.
Most of the world’s vineyards are farmed “conventionally” (that is, with industrial chemical and mechanical interventions to fight disease, increase yields etc.), which is a relatively new phenomenon in the history of wine. As a widespread phenomena, it dates only to the post-WWII period, when all of Europe faced mammoth problems.
One chief problem was a shortage of food. Another economic one was an over abundance of nitrogen that had been accumulated for bomb-making. A genius idea was put in action to re-educate farmers to use nitrogen as fertilizer, increasing crop yields and helping to feed the planet. The post-war chemicals industries invented other chemicals to safeguard crops from pests and diseases.
Being able to control the output on a farm through science rather than labor had other major effects. People were freed (or forced) to leave the farm and seek wealth and adventure in the cities. Farms expanded and consolidated, mechanization was employed, people were removed from the process of growing food, agribusinesses were born and moved the decisions of a farm away from the individual towards a boardroom and a bottom line.
The forced abundance also took a toll on soil health, degrading natural ecosystems. Plants lost much of their ability to grow sans external inputs. Herbicides are used to kill anything but crops and fields turned into carpet bombed dead zones, releasing carbon into the atmosphere and causing excessive runoff that muddies waterways or seeps into groundwater.
A vicious cycle ensued of dependency on chemicals in order to grow anything. All of the negative environmental effects from polluting water, carbon release from bare soil and farm machinery were exacerbated generation after generation. These have had major consequences on our planet and have led conventional farming to be a major culprit in climate change.
Farmers in Austria realized the negative impact these treatments were having on their land and the environment. As early as 1927, before conventional farming was rampant, Rudolph Steiner established the first organic farm. His work has since become the foundation of the sub-specialty of biodynamic movement. Organic farming has the simple objective of having the least effect on the ecosystem as possible to preserve the quality of soil, water and air.
Many of the ideas were simply the methods their grandparents used, now given fancy names: no or less chemical inputs, mulching, compost, cover crops, animal husbandry and with less polluting machinery.
The drawback of these methods is the high cost. Chemical inputs are cheap, and they offer high yields, more uniform crops and less vintage variation. Alternative methods, like organics, cost far more, as labor skyrockets, and inputs such as compost, animals, and the natural sprays themselves are not cheap and each uses more human input than chemical or fuel. Wine geeks may love following producers’ efforts through vintages great and challenging. But boardrooms prefer regular, predictable, production. Quality can potentially improve with these alternative methods, raising the value of crops. But it's a far more expensive investment -- and much riskier -- than conventional farming.
Smaller farms, like those in Austria, have the advantage of being able to work the land themselves, compared to large operations which have to invest in a workforce. Government policy has been formulated to reward farmers for quality rather than quantity. And as the effects of climate change are felt more strongly than ever, many farms that had employed conventional methods are quickly turning face and embracing organic farming.
Rudolph Steiner took his organic farming ideas and went a step further by formulating the principles of biodynamics.
His main concept is to create a closed loop system, one where all elements needed to sustain an ecosystem are available within it. So, the grape grower also keeps cows, which eat the farm’s own products, and in return create the fertilizer the farm needs. It is difficult to implement, needing animals and special plants, compost and special preparations.
Steiner’s philosophy has been picked up and promoted by some of the wine world’s most elite growers. Nicolas Joly, for instance, practitioners believe these efforts make their vines healthier, giving them the ability to tolerate more disease or climatic variations (including drought and heat) and produce higher quality grapes.
Naysayers criticize its mystical-sounding methodology of following moon cycles, ionizing water and coded preparations to increase vine and soil health. I’ve spoken with enough microbiologist cum viticulturists who have studied and observed the increased vitality of soils on biodynamic farms and I side with the mystics.
Farmers have also started looking at other elements of their operations: like water usage, fuel consumption, packaging, shipping, treatment of workers. These are the concepts behind sustainability certifications. Farming is more than just plants in the ground, but being aware of the effects from the support systems.
Because of their small size and family owned status, farmers like Bernhard Ott, whose compost pile is pictured above, have embraced the ethos of organic viticulture at a higher rate than any other wine producing country or subregion.
On top of that, the government has offered extensive tool kits to assist farmers towards more impactful sustainable practices with certifications of their own. Even conventional farmers follow a set of integrative practices aimed at reducing the amount of chemical inputs to cause as little damage as possible.
Wine growers might not be farming with the sole purpose of saving the planet, and organic farming is only one of many approaches needed to combat climate change. But it's certainly a step in the right direction and one I feel needs to be employed by as many farmers as possible if we are going to have a fighting chance of survival.
Into the Cellars of Austrians
A lot of changes have been made in the cellars of Austrian winemakers in the last 40 years. This is a country which has seen investment in new, high tech equipment: stainless steel tanks, temperature control, state of the art presses, expensive oak barrels, lab equipment and shiny new facilities.
But as is the case with organic farming, some steps forward are made by looking backwards. Winemakers are relying on the technology of the past more and more, realizing the best wines are made gently, by hand with time as the key ingredient. They are employing gravity instead of pumps for moving wine around, allowing wild yeasts to ferment wine, instead of factory formulated strains, and investing in large traditional barrels which can be used hundreds of times and moving away from new French barriques.
Another extension of the organic and biodynamic movement is towards “natural wine”. You’ve probably heard the term before, but this is a hotly debated category of wine, without legal definitions. The ethos is based in making wine with as little intervention as possible, from organic/bio farmed grapes, with natural yeasts and nothing but sulphur added (some say no sulphur at all).
No matter how you feel about the idea of natural wines, Austrian producers seem to have a knack for them. Proponents argue natural wines are the clearest interpretation of terroir, as there is no artifice marring the translation of soil to your glass. They also say the wines taste more “alive” than conventionally-made wines.
While there are natural wines out there with flaws that might have been avoided by technical measures (the chief complaint you’ll hear from natural wine skeptics), there are now hundreds of incredibly vibrant examples of natural wines from Austria here in the US.
Other Styles of Wine in Austria
Austria is a staunchly traditional place with some institutions that have been in place for over a thousand years. One reason the experimental nature of Austrian winemakers is so thrilling is because it goes against that historical grain. Now every style of wine in the world can be found in someone’s cellar in Austria.
Orange wine is made when white grapes are left in contact with their skins, taking on some of their color and tannin. This was how all wines were made until the last 200 years or so, but they are now making a comeback. A lot of natural winemakers are experimenting with the method, so many consumers equate orange with natural. But orange wines don’t have to be natural, and in fact some conventional producers also use the technique to give texture to their wines.
Petillant-Naturel, Methode Ancestral or Pet Nat is a type of sparkling wine. Bubbles are trapped in the bottle when a still fermenting wine is sealed in a bottle -- CO2 is a byproduct of fermentation and these make the wine frizzante. It’s a style of wine that has existed, probably by accident, since the invention of the bottle, but in practice in France and Italy for hundreds of years. These are fun, slightly fizzy, sometimes a little sweet, or yeasty or both. They aren’t generally made for aging but are wines that don’t take themselves so seriously and are pretty chuggable.
Single Varieties Versus Blends
In Europe, where wine has been made for thousands of years, the style and make up of wines is dictated by tradition. Even in the new world we see these trends setting in with Cabernet Sauvignon in Napa Valley and Malbec in Argentina. Some of these styles are based on single varieties that come to define a place, such as Sauvignon Blanc in Sancerre. But many others are based on traditional blends, like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and company in Bordeaux.
Austrians have their own traditions in every sub-region. With the plethora of grapes in the country, many producers are experimenting either by blending new combinations of grapes or isolating grapes that had only blended before. Claus Presigner’s Puszta Libre, a blend of Zweigelt and St Laurent, is a perfect example. This is a carbonically macerated red in the style of Beaujolais and the grapes far more interesting as partners than on their own.
In the other direction, Gemischter Satz is a traditional field blend of white grapes where everything is picked and co-fermented for an easy drinking wine. Some winemakers are now isolating those grapes to showcase on their own, like Zahel’s Orange T. This zippy white from the indigenous Orangetraube can’t be listed on the label as it isn’t officially sanctioned for single varietal wines.
With so many options to choose from, the possibilities are endless, and we will be seeing more and more examples in the coming years.
Natural wine is here to stay, and some of the best examples are coming from Austria, where top producers, like Tschida and Franz Strohmeier are making low-intervention wines of impressive precision, finesse, and purity.
In the fuzzily-defined world of "natural wine," Austrian superstar Christian Tschida has few, if any, peers. This is probably because his wines seem to transcend the genre, being almost too clean, pure, and precisely structured to compare to the "glou-glou" wines that dominate natural wine bar lists. In fact, Tschida's top wines are age-worthy and serious, with wonderfully fine tannins and crystalline clarity.
So these are "classical" wines that belong at the dinner table (or in the cellar), yet they are typically only found in natural wine bars. Why? Because, paradoxically, these elegant and seemingly obsessively-made wines are the product of an extremely low-tech and low-intervention approach.
This means no chemicals in the vineyards, of course, but the cellar work here is what's shockingly minimal: the grapes are foot-stomped (or crushed with a basket press), with the resulting juice put in large Stockinger barrels. That's it, really! No racking. No sulfur. Bottled by hand, which basically no one ever does, because it's insanely time-consuming.
Tschida farms 11 ha of old vines located in Neusiedlersee, Burgenland. The climate is cool, with soils of gravel, schist and limestone, though Christian thinks the concept of "terroir" is boring. Whatever, man!
Franz’ vineyards buzz with wild biodiversity. He uses only organic treatments in the vineyard, and eschews copper sulfate for whey to treat disease. Sometimes he doesn't treat the vines at all, preferring instead to let nature take its course! Yields are very low.
Strohmeier also bottles with little or no sulfur added, feeling that it inhibits the wine's fullest expression. He lets his wines rest in barrels for a long time so that they are perfectly stable.
Of course, none of that would matter very much if the wines weren't delicious. Strohmeier's wines aren’t just very tasty, they are also deliciously articulate expressions of Styria’s stony, herbaceous terroir.
I will never forget my first Werlitsch wine and I will never have another wine quite like it. Three years ago I wandered into Ten Bells with a friend who was meeting up with one of the owners. She poured me a sparkling wine--it was magnificent, slightly smokey, almonds, green apple, salt, toast, dried pear, white pepper and a bit of black. It wasn’t a Champagne, it wasn’t a Pet Nat, but it was alluring, textural, dense and lifted at the same time.
It took 3 years to track another bottle of Werlitsch down and this time I was able to taste through the whole line up and was blown away by every single wine. The series is mostly Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay, from single parcels across the property, distinguished by aspect, elevation and vine age. Farming is biodynamic and Ewald is as excited to show off his earthworms as he is his vines.
In the cellar everything is moved by gravity with no temperature controls and with natural yeasts. This means fermentations can take anywhere from a couple of weeks to over a year, and are a huge factor in the intensely layered complexity of each of the wines. Almost no sulphur was ever used and after 2015 there is none. But the wines are very clean thanks to their patient producers allowing them to sit as long as they need till stable.
These are wines that demand time and patience of the drinker as well. The current release of the entry level wine is already 3 years old and is only JUST ready to start drinking. The top wines from the oldest vines are ten years old and are really singing. He manages to tame the wild side of Sauvignon Blanc, while putting its structural components on full display. Each one is a masterpiece and the stuff dreams are made of.
If you’ve been dabbling at all in the natural wine scene you may have noticed a pattern. Some producers go directly from whatever non-wine career they’re pursuing into the just add-grapes-to-the-vat approach to winemaking. It rarely turns out well. Claus only achieved his goal of being a world class natural winemaker after years of incremental changes and improvements.
Claus, a surfer at heart, wasn't born into wine making like most of his neighbors, but chose this path after taking a wine making class in high school. After a stage in California at Limerick Lane, he returned to Gols, a small ancient village in northern Burgenland's Neusedlersee, and became winemaker for Nittinhaus. By age 20 his own wines were already receiving awards and accolades. The pressure was on 4 years later he struck out on his own.
He has slowly collected his 40 hectares of vineyards and gradually adopted biodynamics in the vines. Then he reduced his work in the winery, doing less and less every year. With healthy enough fruit, the final stage was reducing sulfur. He added less at bottling every vintage until, in 2017, he added none at all.
His obsession is Blaufränkisch, which is apparent when you taste even his entry level example, it's just so good. He has sought out plots of old vines and is slowly replacing his other varietals in the vineyards he thinks Blaufränkisch will thrive.
Stylistically he’s already mastered a classic expression of his favorite grape which has allowed him to experiment with methods and styles. Dope is an unlikely use of old vines as an incredibly vibrant rosé aged in amphora. The white and orange wines he makes are no less thrilling, textural and ageworthy.
Austria's Preisinger has taken his time and gotten it right.
No other major city in the world besides Vienna features it’s own thriving wine region. Traditionally Viennese wines were simple field blends called Gemischter satz. They were made for the masses and sold in the heurigers of the city, wine taverns where friends and family came to relax and socialize. Zahel is a small family estate working to elevate the quality and notoriety of these beloved city wines.
They manage to strike a balance between following the traditions of their region and experimenting with new styles to keep them relevant. Center stage of their line up are four different Gemischter Satz, each with a personality, showcasing the varied terroir from their four vineyards which ring the city. Following that are the first ever Viennese sekt or sparkling wine and single varietal wines with grapes never before isolated out of the traditional blends.
Vineyards are farmed biodynamically, another rarity for Viennese vineyards. With vines in peoples literal backyards they feel it is imperative to avoid chemical spray and a healthy ecosystem surrounding their city. These are little wines in the big city and a real treat.
There are biodynamic vineyards all across Austria, but no one embraces the ethos as whole heartedly as the Meinklang family. This family lives and works on a mixed use farm and is a living, breathing example of a closed loop system with animals, plants and humans living in harmony.
Located on the eastern side of lake Neusiedl as well as across the border into Hungary to support their huge herd of cattle. The cattle provide much needed compost, as well as their adorable labels.
Dozens of wines and ciders are released every year. Some are single vineyards or single varietal, but the options are endless from blends, to sparkling, to dessert wines. No matter what the style, they all capture a lively essence of the earth, and are some of the best values to be found in natural wines.
Hager’s story is one that has been told again and again throughout Austria’s modern history. He grew up on a mixed-use family farm where grapes grew, some made into simple wines for the family Heuriger and the rest sold to the local co-op.
But once he inherited the farm his passion for wine was ignited and a lot of changes were implemented. Vines took center stage over the other crops and were converted to biodynamics. Winemaking moved all in house and slowly the conventional methods were eschewed for a more hands off natural approach.
Now Hager, like many of his contemporaries, makes a line up of classic and modern wines. His Grüner Veltliner from Kamptal is a shining example of the wines from the region. But a Pet-Nat and Eiswein, among other treats show his talent as a thoughtful winemaker always looking to try new things.
Martin and Anna Arndorfer take everything seriously, but most of all each other. Martin was born in the vineyards, Anna in the cellar. Unlike most young adults, itching to get as far away from home as possible, these two wanted nothing more than to stay put and make beautiful wine. They're a match made in heaven.
After grad school, they formed their own winery in a cold, rocky pocket of Austria's Kamptal. They “produce wine for pleasure and with pleasure” a philosophy we think everyone can appreciate in our current climate. Farming is certified organic, but they prefer to avoid dogmatic beliefs or titles; the goal here is to let the vineyards speak through the wine. Winemaking is “natural” with no additives and low sulphur but not “hands-off”: every move is thoughtful and intentional.
The star of the show is their rosé is a creative and truly Austrian concoction. Zweigelt, macerated on the skins for a few hours, pulls a vibrant magenta color and just enough wildberry character to balance the crunchy, cranberry acidity. This juice is then fermented on Grüner Veltliner skins, extracting their signature aromatic green herbal, stone fruit, and sizzling white pepper character. Frictive, energetic fruit is backed up by a suave elegance; this wine is spritely and serious at the same time. Maybe it's the combination of pedestrian Zweigelt and noble Grüner or maybe it's just the mastery of an insouciant style in the hands of artisans.
Other Cutting Edge Producers in AustriaMany of the winemakers we’ve already highlighted in other blogs consider themselves “natural”, so I’ve listed them below with links to the blogs which profile them. These producers are:
- Weingut Martin Muthenthaler
- Peter Veyder Mahlberg
- Bernhard Ott
- Dorli Muhr
- Michael Gindl
Flatiron's Guide to Austrian Wine
Austria is a beautiful country, ancient, yet modern and accessible with wines to match. The people are welcoming and generous, jovial, and wine is an integral part of their lives. The key to Austrian wine is quality and consistency, rather than quantity. No other country can boast such high standards across the price spectrum and throughout all of their regions.
The Wachau Valley is the epicenter of Austria’s greatest wines. In fact, to many wine consumers, the wines of the Wachau are the wines of Austria.
While that sentiment sells Austria short, ignoring many diverse and excellent wine regions, it’s not baseless. The Wachau’s vineyards, defined 1,000 years ago by local monks, are still recognized today for producing some of the world’s greatest white wines.
With such diversity it can be hard to summarize the region’s wine style. But to us, the heart of the matter is that Lower Austria gives us authentic wines, whether they are age-worthy bottles that radiate intensity or simple but tasty wines that you can easily imagine drinking at some roadside Heurigen in the fall sunlight with friends. And best of all, they do this at incredibly fair prices.
Few things are as exciting as realizing you are experiencing an undiscovered phenomenon. You vibrate with the energy of the thing, you can’t wait for it to infect everyone else. Today, that’s me and Burgenland, a wine region, finally fulfilling its potential, just waiting to hit the mainstream.
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