Flatiron's Guide to Austrian Wine, Part 1: Tiny Country, Mighty Wines!
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. Vienna, its capital, is the only major city in the world with economically important vineyards within its limits.
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 country’s total vineyard area is only slightly smaller than that of Piemonte in Italy. A vast majority of vineyards and wineries are family owned, even the few cooperatives that do exist, like Domaine Wachau, have incredibly high standards. There are tight controls on maximum yields, and exacting tasting panels for approval of quality wines. This means extra attention is paid to every vine and every wine.
But don’t confuse those exacting standards with bloated price tags.
The whole range of wines from collectable to chuggable, red to white, or rose to sparkling, offer value. At the high end of the spectrum, Grüner Veltliner has repeatedly beat Burgundian counterparts in blind tastings, but always fetch a fairer price.
And on the other side, even the most affordable bottles of Zweigelt and Gemischter Satz show character and snap. While white grapes put Austria on the map, red wines, especially from Blaufränkisch are now gaining attention from pizza pairing gluggables to cellar worthy gems. Unlike other top regions, no matter what your budget is, you will rarely need to dish out more than $100 for a terrific bottle of wine.
It’s an exciting time to discover the wines of Austria. The dynamic styles produced by the technically proficient graduates of the Klosterneuburg juxtapose the experimental natural winemakers breaking the mold in every region.
Whatever your tastes there is something for you in Austria and we hope you will enjoy reading about them as much we know you will enjoy drinking them.
Up Close and Personal: History
Austria is the dividing line between Eastern and Western Europe, making it central to the forces on either side. Grape growing was introduced by the Celts with Romans expanding plantings, around their legionary fortress of Carnuntum, the largest outside of Rome.
Cistercian monks arrived in the 10th century, bringing their Burgundian varieties and a new methodical skill set along with them. Bavarian dioceses and abbeys started the construction of the Wachau terraces in the 11th century and still control vast tracts of vineyards today.
Last century was a raucous one for Austria. It saw the end of its empire, two World Wars, annexation to Germany, and the transition to republican democratic rule while the Cold War raged right at its border. One result of all this was that Austria lost about half of its vines, with the transfer of Moravia to what became the Czech Republic and Sopron, Burgenland’s best vineyard, to Hungary.
But it hasn’t been all geopolitics in recent Austrian wine history. There was also the infamous Austrian wine scandal of 1985, which turned out to be a blessing in disguise or at least a major turning point. After a few unscrupulous producers were caught adulterating wine (no one was hurt), sales of Austrian wines were brought to a screeching halt. In response, Austria adopted some of the most stringent wine regulations anywhere, leading to the high quality standards that we are so used to from Austria today.
Straight From the Source: Terroir
Where are the grapes grown?
(map courtesy of Austrian Wine)
Austria’s wine growing region is set to the far east of the country. This eastern sliver of vineyards span an impressive variety of breathtaking landscapes. This is the only part of the country where viticulture is viable. The rest is dominated by snow covered peaks and deep valleys either not warm enough or too short a growing season to make quality wine.
A trip along the slow churning Danube will take you through its most famous regions.
Starting in the north, with UNESCO World Heritage’s terraced vineyards of the Wachau. This iconic spot leads us through to the Kremstal, and on its north bank a pain opens up for the daunting Heiligenstein in Kamptal.
We then mosey through into Vienna, dubbed the “Paris of the east” and with vineyards ringing the city.
When you head south of the river, as it heads into Hungary, the bucolic vineyards of the Burgenland splay around the shallow, reed-laden inland sea of Neusiedl.
Just a few hours further and you’ll find yourself on timeless rolling hills of the Steiermark before the Slovenian frontier.
What are the regions?
1. Niederösterreich or “Lower Austria”
A catch all of the largest and most diverse set of subregions, including the most well known: Wachau, Kamptal and Kremstal. There is also Traisental, Weinviertel, Wagram, Carnuntum and Thermenregion.
2. Wien or “Vienna”
As we noted at the beginning of this post, Vienna is the only city that relies on its wineries. There are nearly 650 hectares of vines and 141 wineries producing wine for the thirsty Viennese masses.
Located right along the border, the Burgenland shares a lot of its history, culture and grape varieties with Hungry. This is red wine country, but it’s historically famous for its sweet wines from Rust and is now a hotspot of the natural wine scene.
4. Steiermark or Styria
The far south puts us back in white wine country with a long history of excellent wines from mostly from French rather than Austrian varieties. The soft, rolling, hillsides are more reminiscent of Tuscany than the dramatic Alpine peaks that define most of the country.
It’s what's inside that counts: Soil Types
Each region varies in soil types and makes wines which are clearly defined by them.
In subsequent posts, as we diver into each region and subregion, we will go into specifics for each region.
But, for our purposes here, it’s important to note that the main soils are:
- Grüner loving loess - a loosely compact conglomerate of blown sediment.
- And notable pockets and veins of granite, gneiss, schist, limestone, clay, loam, sand, volcanic, alluvial and even iron ore.
Some regions contain all of them, others have just a few soil types in spades. But, as we wine lovers know, each imparts its own imprint on the wines.
In the coming weeks, we’ll be doing a deeper dive on what this all means for particular wines and vineyards. Keep watching the blog if you want to know more!
Blowing in the wind: Climate
The central European country has a cool continental climate with a short, hot summer, long cold winters and rain throughout the year.
Vine growing is relegated to its far eastern edge, as noted in the map above, and wedged between the foothills of the Alps and the borders of the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary and Slovenia.
Every vineyard microclimate feels the effects of cold Alpine air, combating the hot gusts off the Pannonian plain. How warm each site is depends mostly on how far it is from one or the other.
Even though Austria is landlocked, water is a mitigating climatic feature almost everywhere. Lower Austria lays along the Danube river, which starts at the confluence of two rivers, and flows through Vienna into Hungary and eastern Europe. It’s wide slow moving flow keeps vines warmer in the winter when otherwise they could be damaged by low temperatures, cools them off in the summer and helps with irrigation in dry vintages.
We will discuss the quirks of Neusiedlersee in detail in an upcoming article, but its presence is what put Burgenland on the map, allowing the perfect conditions for sweet wines nearly every year.
Mediterranean weather patterns influence Styria in the south, and Atlantic fronts move down in the far north of the Weinviertel.
This is cool climate wine growing, although climate change has been threatening that status for years. Each subregion has specific microclimates affected by rivers, lakes, elevation and rainfall. Most vineyards are planted on south and east facing slopes to catch as much of the sunlight and heat as possible. However, with continuously rising temperatures more vine growers have been experimenting with north and west facing vineyards to regulate alcohol levels.
Bunches of Joy: Grapes
With a cool climate comes the expectation of white grapes, and Austria follows suit, although red is swiftly gaining ground in reputation.
Across Austria, wine growers can boast quite an eclectic collection of indigenous and international varieties. The most sought after tend to be relegated to a single region where they’ve found their niche and are able to express themselves best.
We’ve gotten an overview of the geography and history, but it’s time to dive into how these wines taste and behave. Let’s break this down by grape.
A true Austrian treasure. Grüner is rarely planted outside of its home country, but is revered the world over.
Mainly grown in the Lower Austrian region (Niederösterreich) with some vines in northernmost Burgenland, it holds 30% of the country’s vineyard area.
Grüner is dynamic making it known for easily quaffable fresh and fruity wines. But, it just as easily becomes Austria’s most famous long-lived, mineral-laden beauties and some delicious sekt (wine made with bubbles).
Wines from Grüner Veltliner have continuously taken top marks in blind tastings against Chardonnay from Burgundy and California, displaying a richness and concentration sans the oak barrels its competitors rely on.
It’s flavors range from stone fruit, fresh pear, lemon, green herbs, arugula, and spicy white or black pepper. The best versions can age for decades and develop complex notes of honey, toast, chutney and wax.
Perhaps the king of white grapes, but in Austria Riesling is relegated, like the rest. You’ll find it on the peaks of high, rocky, steep vineyards in the Wachau, Kamptal and Kremstal.
What they lack in area, these wines make up for in pure, clear, undeniable quality.
The best examples show the beauty that can come from a perfect marriage: these wines bring the acidity of the Mosel, matched with the density of Alsacian Grand Crus, but are always dry and ready to age for decades. They often benefit from 5-10 years of bottle age, but your patience is greatly rewarded with a kaleidoscope of flavors and textures.
Fruits span the rainbow depending on the site, style and vintage, from green melon, lime and herbs, yellow peaches and lemons, orange zest and marmalade, pink grapefruit, even a touch of cherry on occasion. But the real beauty lies in the non fruit notes. Especially with age, you can get stony minerality, petrol, honey, toast, salt, marzipan and so much more.
Far from its home in the Loire Valley, Sauvignon Blanc has found a foothold in the rolling limestone hills of Styria with a few vineyards in Burgenland and the Niederösterreich (Lower Austria).
Globally, consumers have divided this aromatic variety into two distinct styles: Sancerre and New Zealand. But what if I told you, there is more this grape can do? The loud varietal characters are present but are balanced with a clear sense of place, not piercingly green, or passion fruit laden, but delicate and mineral driven.
Weissburgunder or Pinot Blanc
Weissburgunder is the secret weapon Austrian whites.
It was brought over with the Cisterian monks in the 10th century and is grown in small pockets in all the wine regions.
Similar to Chardonnay, but with softer flavors and acidity, it can make great simple quaffing wines. But grown in the best plots it makes some of the most surprisingly concentrated and long lived wines in the country.
It’s not exported often so bottles are hard to find outside of Austria, but not to be missed if you can lay your hands on one.
Morillon or Chardonnay
Chardonnay is another grape brought over by the Cistercian monks so it’s had a long time to make a home for itself.
Grown across the country, it is made in styles that range from light, unoaked, and Chablisean to big, broad and toasty.
There are some beautiful examples, Burgenland, Vienna, Lower Austria and especially the Steiermark.
Muskateller - Muscat Blanc a Petit Grains
Muskateller is the most sought after variety from the large, ancient family of the muscat grapes.
Most other countries make some version of sweet wine from it, the most famous being Vendange Tardive in Alsace. But Austria makes the best dry versions with great examples from most reputable producers.
The overtly floral bouquet is tempered by its light body and bright acidity, making it a refreshing option on a hot summer day.
Very few hectares of Furmint are present, but it's making a comeback.
It’s the most important grape in Tokaj, making it an essential across the border in modern-day Hungary. But Furmint was also grown readily around the shores of the Neusiedlersee (Burgenland)
Vines first succumbed to phylloxera and then lost the rest of territory when Hungary became a separate country and the region was divided. New plantings are popping up all over the Burgenland region with exciting dry and sweet examples to be found.
Welschriesling, not to be confused with Riesling, makes simple and refreshing wines for early drinking just about everywhere.
Neuberger is an indigenous variety, highly sensitive to temperature and soil types, as well as, unfortunately, disease. But produces delicious wines that are spicy and floral with nutty notes after just a few years of age.
Roter Veltliner is not related to Grüner Veltliner and is another indigenous variety. It's got lower acidity and with thick skins ranging in color from greenish-yellow to red giving the wines a lot of density and texture.
It’s not the most widely planted, but Blaufränkisch is the indigenous red variety most capable of producing top cellar-worthy wines.
It is a grape which has the conflicting attributes of being both brazenly terroir transparent yet always reflecting its own varietal typicity. It’s potential laid untapped for generations as it was relegated to the poorer Burgenland, where wine production targeted mostly local consumption.
Even once it was recognized as a grape worthy of investment it went through an awkward teenage stage of being over ripened, extracted and oaked to mimic the international style so sought after at the time.
Now, the current generation finally has it figured out; In the right site, with careful farming and a deft touch in the cellar the grape’s potential is finally being realized.
Depending on its soil it can run the gamut from cool blue fruit to crunchy bing cherry and ripe raspberries but it always has a brooding Chinese five spice note.
Soil also dictates the quality of the tannins but acidity is very high and balances the intense fruit profile. With climate change it has the potential to become Austria’s most important grape.
Zweigelt or Rotburger
Zweigelt is a crossing of Blaufränkisch and Sankt Laurent and today is the most widely planted red grape.
Although capable of making oak aged, opulent wines, it’s best suited for early consumption. It is almost always violet in color with notes of cherry and raspberry, pepper and pleasingly mouth watering sweet tarts. The crunchy acidity lends way to easily navigated tannins.
Some carbonic styles have the joie de vivre of Beaujolais. Sparkling wines made in a pet nat style are increasingly popular and as an everyday pizza pairer it’s hard to beat.
Long thought to be a relative of Pinot Noir for its similar body and aromatics, Sankt Laurent is now known to be an unrelated and indigenous variety.
It’s mainly grown in Burgenland and Thermenregion for pretty, delicate wines, sometimes oak aged, with soft tannin. It never produces a lot of sugar, meaning it's always going to be light in body with low alcohol.
Pinot Noir was brought by the same Cistearcian monks with the rest of the Burgundy varieties and mostly grown in Burgenland and Thermenregion.
There are beautiful examples especially on limestone soils with careful winemaking.
Cab Franc is easier to ripen than Cabernet Sauvignon but only grown by a few people in the Burgenland.
It’s usually included in Bordeaux-style blends with Merlot, but a 100% version by Christian Tschida is worth seeking out.
Are Austrian wines kind of like German Wines?
No! While Austrians do speak German, and have an entangled history with its western neighbor, they are not the same place. They do not have the same terroir, grow few of the same grapes, but most importantly they make distinctly different styles of wine.
One big difference between Austrian and German wines is most Austrian wines are dry. As of 2019 it appears that 2/3 of German wine is dry, and a third are sweet/off-dry. But, historically it was dominated by sweet and off-dry wine making. So, it's a style that is still quite popular, especially among Germany’s export markets.
Austrians too, made famous sweet wines, but now those are relegated to a tiny portion of annual production with dry wine the standard everywhere.
Besides a border, the countries do share a certain affection for order, classification and rules.
They both subscribe to the Prädikat Qualitatswein, a system designed to ensure quality wines and clear labelling of styles. German producers today still regularly use the Prädikat system while Austrians have nearly abandoned the first three levels and make miniscule amounts of the latter three. But, there’s still a trick to understanding Austrian wine before taking a single sip. Like German wines, it’s all on the label.
How do I read an Austrian wine label?
Wine labels in Austria are usually pretty easy to navigate. A quick read of a label can tell you all sorts of things about what the wine in the bottle should taste like.
Name of Producer
1. "Berger" is the producer listed above.
Origin - Where the grapes are grown.
The example above has two different locations mentioned:
2. Kremstal - The wine region
3. Ried Wieland - “Wieland Vineyard” - the vineyard name, a more specific origin.
Labeling wines with their origin is regulated by the EU, and each member country has adopted their own labelling laws to meet the overarching guidelines.
Those strict rule changes we mentioned earlier really come into play when we are discussing a place. Each region, sub region and vineyard in Austria has a special combination of factors that give the majority of wines made there a distinct character. If a wine says it's from a place, it should taste like that place.
if a vintage is stated on a label all of the grapes must come from the year the grapes were picked.
A wine must contain 85% of the stated variety.
5. Grüner Veltliner
There are over 40 varieties approved by the government to produce quality wine in Austria. We went over some of their characteristics above, but we will dive deep into how each place affects the style, character and quality of their grapes.
There are many levels of quality, this can be the most confusing part to decipher on a label, but often is the most helpful in determining the style of wine in a bottle.
6. Banderole - The red/white/red stripes, representing the Austrian flag on the capsules of wine bottles. Only allowed for Qualitätswein level wines.
7. DAC - Indicated typical style from a specific place. Only for Qualitätswein, more information below and in later blogs.
8. Ried Wieland - specific vineyards, only allowed on Qualitätswein wines.
Qualitätswein (PDO) - The top tier of quality. Grapes must be from a single region, an approved grape variety and show typical characteristics of the place. Pradikät, DAC and Sekt wines are in this category.
Landwein (PGI) - from a single wine growing region and from an approved grape variety like Blaufränkisch from Burgenland. The middle tier of quality. Some wines that don’t fit the regional typicity of the top tier are declassified into this more generic category.Wein - Generic wine, with no appellation listed (equivalent to VDF or Vin De France), lowest quality, rarely seen in the US.
Can be listed on the front or back label
A good indicator of how full or heavy a wine will be. Over 13.5% are generally fuller bodied, under 11% are usually very light bodied.
- Borrowed from the Germans and based on the must weights, or amount of sugar in a grape when it is picked, which is relative to the potential amount of alcohol the wine could produce.
- Kabinett is the first level in Germany and is no longer used on current Austrian labels, but you might see it on older bottles. Lowest level of potential alcohol, light body, lightly sweet.
- Spätlese - “late harvest”, picked a week after harvest, can be dry or sweet, medium to light in body.
- Auslese - “selected harvest”, riper than spätlese, often fuller in body, can be dry but almost always sweet, medium to medium plus in body. Sometimes there are botrytis infected berries in a bunch.
- Beerenauslese/BA - “selected berries”, ripe berries, infected with botrytis, always sweet, very rich and full bodied.
- Trockenbeerenauslese/TBA - “dried selected berries”, berries fully infected with botrytis and dried out into near raisins. Very sweet, full, unctuous, often high acidity and can age forever.
- Ausbruch - similar to BA and TBA, not used in Germany, now usually only applied to wines from Rust, called Ruster Ausbruch.
- Eiswein - “ice wine”, made from frozen berries, picked when the temperature is cold enough for long enough, rare in Austria with climate change.
- Strohwein / Schilfwein - “straw wine”, berries are dried on straw or reed mats and then pressed for wine, similar to Recioto in Italy, a rare, traditional treat.
DAC - Districtus Austriae Controllatus
- Modeled on the AOC or PDO systems of France and the European Union
- Labeled based on place and style typical of that place.
- Standards can include:
- Grape Variety(ies)
- Minimum alcohol levels
- Aging requirements, time or vessel usage
- Residual sugar
- Tasting or stylistic qualities
- Official DAC’s - we will discuss in detail in the subsequent blogs
Match Made in Austria: Food & Wine
Austrians love food, maybe almost as much as they love wine. Like in most European countries, wine is food, it belongs with a meal and therefore the wines are designed to complement not overpower dishes.
The common adage of “if it grows together it goes together” is helpful in pairing wine and food. Traditional, Austrian examples include:
- Wiener schnitzel & Vienna Gemischter Satz
- Beef & Burgenland Blaufränkisch
- Asparagus & Kamptal Grüner Veltliner
Käsekrainer (cheese filled sausage, mmmm) & Federspiel Riesling
Hard Cheese & Ruster Ausbruch
Restaurants around the country are pushing the boundaries of gastronomic delicacies.
There is a playful sense of new and old, highbrow and lowbrow, rich and light food to be found. There are also a fair number of Japanese or Asian fusion restaurants who find symbiosis with the high acid, medium bodied wines.
Some favorite modern pairings include:
- Peking Duck & Eisenberg Blaufränkisch (totally life changing)
- Spicy Thai & Smaragd Grüner Veltliner
- Pizza & Carnuntum Zweigelt - especially with pepperoni or sausage
- Fried Chicken & Heiligenstein Riesling
- Creamy cheese & Styrian Sauvignon Blanc
The possibilities are endless, with the whites capable of cutting through rich dishes and standing up to fresh salads and the reds powerful enough for game or roasts.
We all know that vintages can vary quite dramatically from year to year. Being on the edge of two opposing weather systems, the Alpine cold and the Pannonian hot, means the temperature can be dominated easily, bringing along fluctuating rain, sun and heat from year to year.
The three main regions, Neiderosterich, Burgenland and Styria are all beholden to different climatic zones along with specific needs for the grapes they grow. This means one region might have an outstanding vintage, while another could be a little more difficult. When we address specific regions in the weeks to come we will go into more detail there. Luckily, there’s a trick!
Top vintages end in 9. The last three decades vintages ending in 9: 2019, 2009, 1999, have been outstanding across the board.
Other very good to excellent vintages to keep in mind and snap up if you have the opportunity: 2017, 2015, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2007, 2006, 2004, 2001, 1997, 1995.
Cold and wet vintages can be difficult. But from top producers who are super selective in the vineyards you can get high acid, mineral and refreshing wines, like those of Brundlmayer in 2014. Other cold vintages include: 2010, 2008, 2005, 1998, 1996
Hot vintages come with their own set of challenges: water stress, sunburn, high sugar and alcohol levels. With climate change these are more common, but great farmers are learning how to work with the heat and sun to produce concentrated but balanced wine, like in 2018. If you like wines with a richer profile and more weight look for wines from: 2011, 2009, 2003, 2000, 1992
Want to know more?
Each region in Austria has its own set of specialties. In the coming weeks we will have a series of blogs that explore them in greater detail including specifics regarding:
- Natural Wines
- And much more!
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