Anti-terror operation against antifreeze
Austria is doing well, but there always has to be a fly in the ointment. In 1985, after a short-sighted expansion of cultivation area, the country suffered from an overproduction of five million hectolitres, mostly thin little wines. In neighbouring Germany, meanwhile, the wine-drinkers appreciated sweet tipples. Resourceful vintners achieved a sweetening effect by adding the antifreeze diethylene glycol – and at the same time upgraded the wines to late vintages.
When the lid was lifted on this illegal practice, the scandal quickly had repercussions. In raids, an anti-terrorism unit found illegal tanks and other evidence of fraud. Handcuffs clicked shut and millions of litres of wine were confiscated. In Germany, the major consignor and Berlin Finance Senator Elmar Pierroth had illegally cut these wines with domestic wines. Even Federal Minister of Health Heiner Geißler fell under suspicion. Overnight, both Austrian and German wine became virtually unsellable abroad. Many states angrily imposed import bans. In Japan, Australian wine was even rejected by mistake. In Austria, some main culprits went to jail and the country gave itself strict laws on wine, and gradually made a name for itself for high-quality wine. In the neighbouring country, nobody was actually brought to account and the laws on wine still promote mass-produced goods.
Origin instead of sugar content, preservation order instead of speculation
Nowadays in Austria, the scandal is often regarded as a blessing. Increasing prosperity, the global trend of wine-drinking, effective marketing and well distributed EU funding have also helped, however, to get the wine industry back on its feet. In the nineties, the first vintners, such as Christian Neumeister from Straden, aimed right for the top: “Everything seemed to be possible then.” A lot was, too. The domestic customers rewarded this with deep loyalty.
Austria has adjusted its wine policy several times, such as by creating profitably-sized businesses by rational conversion or the merging of areas. The total quantity is now lower and the prices per litre higher than in 1985. The wine law, like that in Germany, originally only regulated the sugar content of the grapes, which does not on its own say anything about the wine. Now in Austria, following the French model, origins and typical styles count, and these vary from generic superior table wine to wines with a strictly delimited regional origin. The highest recognition is the Districtus Austriae Controllatus (DAC), of which there are only nine so far. General yield limits (67.5hl/ha) protect against cheap suppliers. Controlled production can be recognised by test numbers and banderoles. Following the glycol debacle, integrated cultivation enjoys extra funding. For sparkling wine, a classification is being worked out which will once again be oriented towards the industry leader champagne.
A good example of the interplay of marketing and sensible rules can be found in Vienna, the only capital city that is also a winegrowing area. In 2005, the reputation of Viennese wines had been rather tarnished by excessively unsophisticated new wines. The vintners used mixed batches, even though it goes against all expert opinion to pick vine stocks of different grape varieties and ripening times in the same vineyard. Now, the Viennese excel with complex Cuvées. So much so that vineyards are sometimes auctioned. As more and more real-estate brokers simultaneously started to look very closely at the prestigious areas on the Danube, winegrowing was quickly put under a preservation order.