Like other European wine countries, Austria has centuries of experience turning grapes into wine. Before the Christian era, the native Celts cultivated and fermented the fruits of the vine, and Austria's wine production, if often interrupted, has been constant since the time of the barbarian invasions.
But unlike most other European winemakers, Austria's industry bears a painful and recent scar. In the 1970's and 80's, a large portion of Austria's product was under contract to large German companies dedicated to low-priced, sweet white wines. Unfortunately, when natural growing conditions and the low prices enforced by these contracts made it impossible to keep up with German demands, certain vintners in Burgenland resorted to "improving" their wines with the non-poisonous but illegal additive diethylene glycol, properly used as an anti-freeze. The chemical artificially sweetened and added body to the adulterated wines, which were largely incorporated into wines labeled as 100% German produced.
When the adulteration was revealed, the reputation of Austria's wines was ruined overnight, and export demand virtually dried up. Austrian wine sales plummeted 80 percent the following year. Virtually all companies that had participated in the adulteration went bankrupt, as did a huge percentage of innocent companies that were not involved. Oddly, the scandal affected Germany's reputation much less than Austria's.
To deal with the disgrace, Austrians took full responsibility and started from scratch. They rewrote wine regulations to the world's strictest standards and rebuilt their wine industry with a whole new outlook. Though there had always been a number of Austrian winemakers concentrating on high quality rather than volume, their philosophy now became the status quo in the long, hard process of rebuilding and economic recovery.
The results of the last fifteen years' struggle have been little short of miraculous. A new generation of winemakers dedicated to quality virtually re-created the category of Austrian wines by making stylish, complex, dry white table wines which could by definition not be compromised by additives. Many of the country's best traditional wines had been sweet, botrytized dessert wines, but demand for these fell off dramatically and is only now beginning to revive as the country's reputation becomes stable enough to support confidence in them.
The new dry Austrian wines, consistently described by experts with adjectives like "thrilling," "racy," and "squeaky clean," pair wonderfully with modern and ethnic cuisines, and have not only restored the country's wine reputation but are well on their way to elevating it. With a growing coterie of devotees worldwide, Austrian wines continue to improve, and consumer and critical recognition of their excellence has pushed prices of the finest Austrian wines into the same price brackets as those of white Burgundy and other distinguished white wines. Though the revived industry is still young, Austria's white wines today can fairly be called world class, a process we expect will continue. For the most part Austrian wines are easier to find in restaurants than in wine shops, but imports have doubled in the last three years and should become easier to find.
The high Alps prevent viticulture in its western half, so Austria's wine country is naturally confined to the easterly, less mountainous regions. Not surprisingly in central Europe, Austria's wine country has a continental climate, cold winters with an average temperature around 33 degrees F., and risks of late spring frost. But with climatic influences of the Atlantic airstream from the west and the Mediterranean to the south, Austrian summers in the wine country are hotter and dryer than might be expected, and a long, warm, relatively dry growing season allows determined vintners to produce powerful wines that are surprisingly high in alcohol. Late ripening varietals such as Riesling are often harvested as late as October and even early November. To the west, Wachau records Austria's highest daily variation in temperature, with warm days and cool nights that allow its wines a fine acidity.
Styria and Burgenland have the warmest climates with the highest number of sunlight hours per year, and Styria the highest summer rainfall. Some areas, particularly in the Weinviertel, receive as little as 16 inches of rain per year and may require summer irrigation, also often needed in Burgenland (though autumn fogs in Burgenland still allow the desirable growth of botrytis in most years).
The most common vine training system is the "high culture" system of Lenz Moser, where vines are raised high above the ground to avoid late spring frosts. Most of Austria's vineyard holdings are small. The mean is about 2 1/2 acres (1 hectare), but over half of all vine growers own less than that, so good organization and cooperation between growers are essential. Only about 7,000 landowners bottle wine under their own names, though all must contribute to the government-sponsored wine marketing service, a centralized agency that promotes Austrian wines worldwide.
Though it grows both red and white grapes, Austria's climate is better suited to white wines, which represent 80 percent of the production. The varietals in its vineyards reflect its placement in the middle of Europe, with northern, eastern and western European influences all represented. The shining star among its white wines is the unique indigenous Gr'ner Veltliner, which comprises 36% of all vineyard plantings. It is followed in quality (but with only 3,850 acres, not quantity) by Riesling, both mostly vinified in the modern dry (trocken) style. Pinot Blanc (Weissburgunder), Pinot Gris (Grauburgunder), and Sauvignon Blanc are also used in delicate, clean wines of some distinctinction.
Gruner Veltliner grows easily in Austria and has traditionally been a staple in the casual heurigen, wine gardens in the Viennese suburbs which serve simple food and long drafts of fresh, simple wines, usually from the most recent vintage, as a particularly pleasant and typical way to pass a long summer evening. But when vineyards are managed to reduce yield and grapes are allowed to ripen fully, Gruner Veltliner can also be crafted into powerful, long-lived wines of great zest and personality, with tastes and aromas of green and white peppers, grapefruit and minerals, accented by floral, tobacco and spice scents. Like other Austrian wines they are also higher in alcohol than the German wines to which they are often compared, going up to 13 percent and more. The finest grade of Gruner Veltliners are full-bodied and spicy, exotic dry wines that combine the body and richness of Alsatian wine with the lovely floral aromas associated with Germany, and a balance reminiscent of the restraint and delicate dryness of the Loi.
The lower quality white Muller-Thurgau grape, here called Riesling-Sylvaner, covers Austria's second highest percentage of vineyard land. It can be pleasingly aromatic but with the modern emphasis on fine wines its influence is declining. Other whites include the confusingly named Welschriesling, which is not related to true Riesling but which in Austria (alone, it seems) makes very good wines; Chardonnay (here called Morillon); and the Zierfandler and Rotgipfler varietals, specialties of Gumpoldskirchen in the Thermenregion area. Muscat (Muskateller) and Gewerztraminer are used for regional specialties.
Most Austrian red wines depend on regional varietals naturally adapted to the climate, with the largest percentage coming from the warmer Burgenland area. Traditionally they tend to be medium- to full-bodied, less serious wines, and are rarely exported due to their relative scarcity. Many show solid character but are less respected than the white wines.
The most planted red, with a surprising 10 percent of total vineyard area, is (Blauer) Zweigelt, which has moderate tannins, good overall fruit character, and a characteristic nose of black cherries and chocolate in the best versions. Blaufr'nkisch, the second most planted variety, has a deep color and good acidity, but Austria's top quality red grape is St. Laurent, which resembles Pinot Noir. A fine St. Laurent will be bone dry and acidic, with a complex, slightly herbaceous nose and a light red/purple color.
Blauer Portugieser, another indigenous grape much planted in Lower Austria, is the third most popular red varietal, with Blauer Wildbacher another regional red. Recent years have also seen the introduction of true Pinot Noir, here known as Blauer Spatburgunder, and Cabernet Sauvignon.
The Austrian wine classification system is similar but not identical to that used in Germany. In style, today nearly all non-botrytized wines are fermented completely dry, or trocken. The most basic table wine is Tafelwein, followed by Landwein, not seen much but slightly more regional in character. At a higher level are Qualititatswein (including Kabinett) and the finest, Predikatswein.
Predikatswein is subdivided into six categories according to the must weight of its unfermented juice (the higher natural sugars giving a higher must weight). In order these are Spatlese, Auslese, Beerenauslese, Ausbruch, Trockenbeerenauslese, and Eiswein. Beerenauslese and Trockenbeerenauslese wines are affected by noble rot, or botrytis cinerea, concentrating their flavor and sweetness. The Ausbruch category is unique to Austria, indicating grapes that are allowed to raisin slightly on the vine. As in Germany, Eiswein grapes are picked while frozen; in Austria as in Germany they are required to have at least the same must weight as Beerenausle.
Wachau's system is distinct from other Austrian regions but is likewise based on sugar content of the must: Steinfeder, the lightest category named for a local "feather grass," contains around 11% alcohol and is always drunk young. Federspiel, a more substantial wine with 12.5% alcohol, is usually aged three to five years. The highest level for Wachau white wines is the prestigious Smaragd ("emerald") category, named for the emerald green lizards that live in the stone walls of the vineyard terraces. Smaragd wines reach the level of German Spatlese with at least 12.5% and up to a powerful 15% alcohol content.
Austrian labeling allows for some variation, and there are at least a couple of traditions at work. In some areas a town name (with 'er added) will be followed by the name of the vineyard and the varietal, whereas other areas follow a brand/varietal/region sequence, e.g., Gross Morillon Ried Nussberg 1993. As with all wine labels written in German, a little knowledge of the language helps a lot in deciphering the contents.
Austria has four separate wine areas with a total acreage of about 140,600 acres (56,930 hectares). The smallest is centered around the capital of Vienna (Wien), with about 1,800 acres of vineyards in surrounding areas. As the only European capital with its own important wine district, set in the hills to the west of the central city, Vienna carries on a tradition of selling a lot of its local wine in the wine taverns called heurigen in the surrounding villages. Much of this wine is light, fresh and fairly acidic, even sometimes a bit spritzy, not too serious and made to be consumed young.
Most of the country's other three wine-growing regions are located within fifty miles of Vienna. Especially in areas influenced by the Danube (Danau) River, Nieder'sterreich, or Lower Austria in the northeastern plain, is the most productive wine country, responsibile for about 60% of the total wine produced. This area includes the Weinviertel, or Wine Quarter, which borders on the Czech Republic to the north and Slovakia to the east. Here is where most of the country's Gruner Veltliner vineyards are found.
At the base of the mountains to the west of the wine country (but in the center of the country itself) are the smaller sub-regions of Wachau, Kremstal and Kamptal, traditionally the country's finest provenance for dry white wines of Riesling and Gruner Veltliner. Though they comprise Lower Austria's westernmost and smallest wine district, the spectacularly steep hillside vineyards of Wachau rising above the Danube are renowned for their picturesque beauty and wine quality. The stark surroundings... the severe granite, gneiss and schist that substitute for vineyard soil, and the exceptionally dry climate are perfect conditions for great bone-dry, minerally Gruner Veltliners and Rieslings. Close by on the Danube, Kremstal and Kamptal share many of the Wachau geographic and style characteristics.
The remaining sub-regions of Lower Austria include Donauland just west of Vienna, also the site of the famed Klosterneuburg viticultural institute; Carnuntum, a diverse winemaking region; and Thermenregion, an area of hot springs and spas centered on the village of Gumpoldskirchen, which traditionally specializes in long-lived, slightly sweet wines of the Rotgipfler and Zierfhandler (also called Spatrot) varietals. Its industry suffered substantially in the 1985 scandal and is just beginning to revive.
In the east-central portion of the figure-eight-shaped configuration of Austrian viticulture, Burgenland bordering on Hungary makes one-third of all Austria's wine, and as the warmest microclimate it also grows and produces most of the red wines. It includes the famous Neusiedlersee, a large lake whose humidity regularly induces botrytis (noble rot) in the surrounding vineyards, consistently allowing winemakers to produce Beerenauslese and Trockenbeerenauslese wines of good acidity and character. Since the 17th century, the town of Rust here has specialized in Ausbruch, a Hungarian-influenced wine similar to the famous Aszu. Ausbruch is made from botrytized and unaffected grapes allowed to oxidize slightly in cask together. Its sweetness falls between that of Beerenauslese and Trockenbeerenausles.
The southernmost Austrian wine country (the southeast of Austria itself) is Styria (Steiermark), a mountainous region with vineyards as high as 2000 feet (600 meters) above sea level. It borders on Slovenia, with sub-regions Weststeiermark, Sudsteiermark and Sud-Oststeiermark. The austere, barely ripe Styrian wines are known for freshness and high acidity, making them a popular choice for the Austrian palate. Sudsteiermark produces good versions of Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay (cultivated here for over 100 years), Pinot Blanc.
In summary, Austrian winemakers have shown substantial wisdom in restoring a tarnished reputation. By crafting and cooperating with stringent new regulations to an unprecedented degree, they have elevated the quality and status of their wine industry in a remarkably short time. Today's dry white Austrian wines are especially suitable to modern lifestyles as they need little aging and pair very successfully with popular foods. With patience (and depending on evolving tastes within wine markets) we may also see a return to Austria's tradition of great sweet wines. Whether or not this develops, aficionados should find it worthwhile to seek out modern Austrian wines as they become increasingly accessible.