Picture: Christian G.E. Schiller with Michael Hoeffken, Assistant Winemaker at Weingut Leo Hillinger
I participated in the 2010 European Wine Bloggers Conference (EWBC) that took place in Vienna earlier this year. The main sponsor of the EWBC was the Austrian Marketing Board that used the event to showcase wine producer Austria to the 200 wine bloggers from around the world.
Austria has about 50.000 hectares of vineyard, equivalent to about half of Germany’s total vineyard area and one fifth of France’s vineyard area. Almost all of it in the east of the country. “In the west we ski, in the east we make wine”, says Willi Klinger, head of Austrian Marketing Board. About 70 % of the production is white wine and 30% red wine. About 75 percent of Austria’s production is consumed in Austria and 25 percent is exported.
The Wine Scandal of 1985
Austrian wine culture is ancient; people have been producing wine in Austria for 4000 years. But everything changed in 1985, when Austria was rocked by the “antifreeze wine scandal”. Some vintners were caught illicitly sweetening their products with glycol. As a result, the market for Austrian wine, especially the semi-sweet styles then in favor, evaporated overnight. Yet the scandal initiated a revolution that has propelled Austrian wines on to the world stage. It led to a broad rethink, with an emphasis on higher-quality production and innovation that soon became noticed. Young winemakers, drawn by the new emphasis on quality over quantity, brought cutting-edge techniques and farsightedness to vineyards and cellars, revolutionizing both.
The Austrian Wine Marketing Board was created in 1986 as a response to the scandal, and Austria's membership of the European Union has prompted further revisions of her wine laws, notably the new DAC system of geographical appellations launched in 2002. The Austrian Wine Marketing Board is now ably led by Willi Klinger. “The Austrians are very good in terms of marketing” he says, “we were able to make the World believe that van Beethoven was an Austrian and Hitler a German”.
At present there are three systems of wine classification: the traditional system based on the German scheme, a different classification used only in the Wachau, and a new system of regional appellations called DACs that is being introduced now.
Picture: Julia Sevenich, America-born Wine Journalist in Austria
First, Austria’s traditional wine classification system is similar to the one in Germany. It is based on the Klosterneuberger Mostwaage (KMW), which measures the sugar content of the grapes at harvest in a way similar to the Öchsle scale, where 1°KMW is about 5°Oechsle. Accordingly, there is Tafelwein (can come from more than one region), Landwein (a Tafelwein that comes from just one region), Qualitätswein (that can - as Tafelwein and Landwein - be chaptalised to 19°KMW for whites, 20°KMW for reds), Kabinett (no chaptalisation allowed and no addition of sterilized juice allowed - in contrast to Germany), Spätlese ( >19°KMW), Auslese ( >21°KMW), Beerenauslese ( >25°KMW), Ausbruch ( >27°KMW), and Trockenbeerenauslese ( >30°KMW, completely botrytised grapes), Eiswein ( >25°KMW, concentrated by being harvested and pressed when frozen), Strohwein or Schilfwein (>25°KMW, made from grapes dried on straw mats).
Second, the Vinea Wachau Nobilis Districtus of the Wachau region has three categories, all for dry wines, with an increasing level of alcohol in the wine: Steinfeder, Federspiel and Smaragd.
Picture: Christian G.E.Schiller with Ewald Gruber jun., Weingut Ewald Gruber
Finally, the new Districtus Austriae Controllatus (DAC) system tries to group wines typical for their region together. DAC wines always have a clear taste profile. There are now 7 DACs: Weinviertel DAC (Grüner Veltliner), Mittelburgenland DAC (Blaufränkisch), Traisental DAC (Riesling and Grüner Veltliner), Kremstal DAC (Riesling and Grüner Veltliner), Kamptal DAC (Riesling and Grüner Veltliner), Leithaberg DAC (Grüner Veltliner, Weißburgunder, Chardonnay, Neuburger and Blaufränkisch), Eisenberg DAC (Blaufränkisch).
Austria is known for making excellent dry white wines, in particular from Grüner Veltliner. But Austria is not only Grüner Veltliner from the Weinviertel, it is a country with a range of different wine regions producing a diversity of wine styles, including some great noble-sweet wines and increasingly serious red wines.
Grüner Veltliner: Austria’s own variety, which is capable of making full flavoured, spicy whites often with a distinctive white flower and cracked pepper edge to them. It is a particularly food-friendly wine. Grüner Veltliner accounts for about 1/3 of Austria’s wine production. Most of it is grown in the northeast of the country, along the Danube to the west of Vienna, in Wachau, Kremstal and Kamptal. In the deeper clay soils in the Weinviertel to the northeast of Vienna, Grüner Veltliner develops more of a spicy, peppery character.
Riesling: Riesling performs very well but accounts only for 3% of Austria’s vineyard area.
Weissburgunder (Pinot Blanc): Makes lovely gently aromatic dry white wines in southern regions such as Südsteiermark.
Welschriesling: Austria’s second most planted white grape and not related to the true Riesling. Fresh, simple fruity dry whites are the norm. The Welschriesling is also used in the noble rot dessert wines of the Neusiedlersee.
Picture: Wiener Schnitzel
It is the whites that get most of the attention, but the reds have quietly been improving. Like in Germany, in Austria there has been a revolution going on in terms of red wines in recent years. In both countries, red wine now accounts for about 1/3 of the wine production.
Zweigelt: The most abundant red grape. Bred at Klosterneuburg in the 1920s and now accounting for nearly half of Austria's red wine. Zweigelt makes good wines ranging from simple cherry fruit gluggers to more substantial reds destined for ageing.
Blaufränkisch: Common in the Burgenland. Blaucfraenkisch makes spicy, sturdy, berry fruited reds which can have some tannic structure. Probably Austria’s best red grape.
Portugieser: This red grape makes soft, approachable, juicy wines mainly for early consumption. The most widely planted red grape but not for top quality wines.
St Laurent: Came from France in the mid-19th century, and seems to have substantial Pinot Noir parentage. Makes soft, slight herby, expressive reds; it’s a bit like Pinot Noir.
A Gemischter Satz wine is made from a blend of grapes that are grown together in the field, and then picked and fermented at the same time. Not too long ago, this age-old Austrian tradition was about to die, threatened by the mania for "single varietal" bottling. But luckily, the tradition was maintained, the grapes remained planted in mixed vineyards of Gruener Veltliner, Riesling, Muscat, Ottonel, and other grapes.
Picture: In a Heurigen with WienWein
Typically, Gemischter Satz wines do not specify the grapes within. Field blends are different from more typical blended wines – cuvees - like Bordeaux, where the various grapes are grown separately and vinified separately. The favorite of the EWBC 2010 participants in a tasting of Austrian wines was a Gemischter Satz wine from Vienna.
Austria is divided into 4 main wine regions - Niederösterreich (Lower Austria) with 30.000 hectares, Burgenland with 15.000 hectares, Steirerland (Styria) with 4.000 hectares and Wien (Vienna) with 600 hectares, which are split into 16 districts. All of Austria’s wines are grown in the eastern part.
Niederoesterreich (Lower Austria)
Lower Austria, the pre-eminent wine zone, has these regions: Wachau, Kremstal, Kamptal, Traisental, Wagram (formerly Donauland), Weinviertel, Carnuntum and Thermenregion. In the West of Vienna, Wachau (the narrow valley of the Danube around Melk), Kremstal (downstream of the Wachau, centred on the town of Krems) and Kamptal (to the north of Krems lies Langenlois, which is the main town of Kamptal, the valley of the river Kamp) are well known for Grüner Veltliner and Riesling. Most of the country’s leading dry whites come from here. The Weinviertel lies in the northeast corner of Austria, between the Danube and the Czech and Slovak borders. The biggest single wine region in Austria is home to half the Grüner Veltliner in the country. I like very much the red wines from Netzl, Markowitsch and Glatzer in the Carnuntum, which is south-east of Vienna.
Burgenland encompasses four subregions: Neusiedlersee (Lake Neusiedl), Neusiedlersee-Hügelland, and Middle and South Burgenland. Burgenland is famous for its noble-sweet wines from the Neusiedlersee. The shallow Neusiedler See (Lake Neusiedl) is one of the few places on earth where noble rot attacks grapes reliably every year. Increasingly, Austria’ top red wines tend to come from the Burgenland.
Picture: Christian G.E.Schiller with Silvia Prieler, Weingut Prieler, Burgenland
Vines have been grown within the city walls of Vienna since the Middle Ages. Field blends known as Gemischter Satz are common here, and most wine is drunk young in the city's wine taverns (Heurigen).
Steiermark is an amalgam of South, Southeast and West Steiermark. The Suedsteiermark is lovely and many call it the Tuscany of Austria. It is best known for aromatic, savoury white wines from Weissburgunder, Morillon (Chardonnay) and Sauvignon Blanc; when I used to live in Croatia, I would always stop in the Suedsteiermark and have a couple of glasses of wine, before crossing the Slovenian border.
Picture: Christian G.E.Schiller with Gottfried Lamprecht from Herrenhof, Steiermark
Austria’s Top Wine Makers
When visiting Austria, you will find a huge number of top wine makers. And that not only in the top wine regions, but throughout Austria.
The Fallstaff 2010 Wine Guide has singled out the following wine producers and has awarded them 5 stars.
Weingut Bründlmayer, Langenlois, Kramptal
Weingut Gesellmann, Deutschkreutz, Burgenland
Weingut Gernot und Heike Heinrich, Gols, Burgenland
Weingut Franz Hirtzberger, Spitz an d. Donau, Wachau
Weingut Knoll, Unterloiben, Wachau
Weingut Kollwentz, Großhöflein, Neusiedlersee, Burgenland
Weinlaubenhof Kracher, Illmitz, Neusiedlersee, Burgenland
Weingut F.X. Pichler, Oberloiben, Wachau
Weingut Poeckle, Moenchhof, Burgenland
Weingut Prager, Weissenkirchen, Wachau
Weingut Tement, Berghausen, Südsteiermark
In terms of regional distribution of Austria’s top winemakers, 5 of the 11 top winemakers come from the tiny Wachau and Kramptal regions in the north, 5 from the Burgenland and 1 from the Steiermark in the south.
Sparkling Wine in Austria
Sparkling wine in Austria is called Sekt, as in Germany. Austria’s leading Sekt Estate is Schlumberger, which was established in 1842 in Vienna by Robert Schlumberger. Schlumberger was born in Germany, worked in Reims in a champagne house and married an Austrian, who brought him to the capital of Austria. There, he rose quickly and became the “father” of the Austrian Sekt industry. For over 150 years Schlumberger has been producing their Sekts in the méthode champenoise.
At the same time, like in Germany, there is an increasing number of ambitious winemakers, who have complemented their still wine portfolio with Sekts. Those Sekts are essentially all made in the méthode champenoise with the Welschriesling and Grüner Veltliner grapes giving the wine a golden hue color. Sparkling roses are made from the Blaufränkische grape. Many of the winemakers also producing Sekt are in the Kamptal, like Bründelmayer and Lenz Moser.
Schiller Wine - Related Postings
Austria's 13 Top Zweigelt Wines - The 2009/2010 Falstaff Selection
Austria's 17 Best Zweigelt Wines - The 2010 Wein.pur List
German Wine makers in the World: A. Schlumberger, Austria
Wine ratings: Austria's best red wines - 2010
Wine ratings: Austria - Falstaff Top Red Wines 2009/2010
Welcome to America: Franz and Christine Netzl Estate, Carnuntum, Austria
The 2010 European Wine Bloggers Conference (EWBC) in Vienna