Austria - Big stir on the edge of the Alps

The sea is a decisive factor for Austrian wines. You might not believe it, but many of the best locations used to be the beds of primeval oceans. Internationally, Austria’s wines are regarded as being of high quality. The quality offensive was triggered by, of all things, a foodstuff scandal.

Layers of earth that rise and fall again, erode and mix are amongst the good ingredients for better wines. Plate tectonics such as those in the Alps are therefore a big bonus. The edge areas of the mountain chains in the east of Austria swirl like a whirlpool and mix “almost all the major geological units” together, enthuses Dr. Maria Heinrich, from the Federal Institute of Geology in Vienna. “This makes the Austrian wine landscapes so varied.” The substratum consists largely of limy deposits from an ocean that withdrew eleven million years ago, giving some regions in the east of the country superb soil. The cultivation areas lie in climatic conditions between the relatively dry north and the warm and humid south.
Photo: Vineyard Kremstal in Lower Austria © ÖWM / Egon Mark
Photo: Seewiese Kärnten © ÖWM / Weinbauverband Kärnten
Photo: Straden in Southeast Styria © ÖWM / Gerhard Elze
Photo: Heathens gate in the vineyard Carnuntum in Lower Austria © ÖWM / Herbert Lehmann
Photo: Vineyard Neusiedlersee © ÖWM / Armin Faber
Photo: Vineyard South Styria © ÖWM / Armin Faber
Photo: Wien Neuwaldegg © ÖWM / Armin Faber
Photo: Vineyards in Wachau © ÖWM / Anna Stöcher

The Danube – Riesling meets granite

The Danube in the north flows through Lower Austria from west to east and is fed by, amongst others, the rivers Krems, Kamp and Traisen. In the opposite direction, warm winds stream into the steep, prehistoric rock valley. From autumn, these alternate with cold, night-time down draughts and lead to the desired changes between cold and warm that guarantee acids, fruit aromas and full body, especially for white wines.

Extreme conditions prevail in the best locations. About 300 million years ago, a flash flood washed volcanic rock onto the Heiligenstein in Kamptal. The terrain is so precipitous that not even sand that blows there stays in place. The walls of the lime gravel terraces of the Traisental fall away similarly steeply. After the last ice age, the grapevine migrated from Asia Minor to Europe along the warm river beds. It thus arrived in Austria substantially earlier than in the current main winegrowing countries. The favourable cultivation conditions were already recognised by farmers in the Bronze Age, who harvested Vitis vinifera grapes here. As well as Grüner Veltliner, Riesling is rooted deeply and with great success in the soil of the World Cultural Heritage site of Wachau along the Danube. The wines develop a steely tone that is only brought about by very special terroirs.

The climate for Veltliner

The Weinviertel, or Wine Quarter, lies north of the Danube up to the three-country triangle with Slovakia and the Czech Republic. On the gentle hills of the largest Austrian winegrowing area, many white wines flourish in cold winters and hot summers. But the Veltliner is the flagship variety. “A scientific study” explains Willi Klinger, boss of Austrian wine-marketing, “verified the special character of the Grüner Veltliner from the Weinviertel”. With the typically peppery finish, this is generally somewhat more rustic than in the top locations on the Danube, where the most expensive bottles are sold at extremely high prices straight after filling. With 6,500 hectares under Veltliner grapevines, the Weinviertel not only has around half of all Austrian Veltliner, but also the biggest stock in the world. Even if Californian supermarkets are selling local Veltliner wines, the variety remains largely restricted to Austria.
Photo: Vineyard in winter © ÖWM / Lukan

Pannonia, the climate machine

Pannonia – the Roman province that, in antiquity, included parts of what is now Austria, Hungary and Slovakia – begins south of Vienna and stands for a warm, sometimes warm and humid climate, influenced by the water area of Lake Neusiedl. These location factors stand for wines with body. While expanding the power of their empire, the Romans maintained military sites in the region and cultivated wine on a larger scale, although not necessarily in higher quality. Varieties such as Traminer were probably already selected from wild grapes back in antiquity. It is now difficult to say which grapes the Romans planted. The professional soldiers tended to drink white wine. The former military base of Carnuntum now stands for red wine. Zweigelt, a cross between St. Laurent and Blaufränkisch and the most-planted variety, gets along in many sites but is often at its best here.

The high-yield varieties of the nineteen fifties have since been replaced by better clones. The area brand “Rubin” stands for some of the best of these, often with the typical ink tone and dense fruit kernel. The wines have given the region a little boom in tourism. One can find wine stores and restaurants acknowledged by the Gault Millau guide. Back during the Cold War, Carnuntum, between the Alps and Carpathians, was a forgotten piece of land on the Iron Curtain. From some vineyards one could see the Czech border. “It used to be the back of beyond here”, remembers Gerhard Markowitsch, who grows a Chardonnay here that he exports as far as the USA and China.
Photo: Castle Deutschlandsberg in West Styria © ÖWM / Armin Faber

Monks, walls, market economy

Historically, the thermal region also used to exist as a buffer. After the downfall of the Roman Empire, viniculture fell into chaos. External influences such as the Migration Period (Völkerwanderung), and incursions by the feared Magyars and Turks were not beneficial in their effects. Even today, in this region, one can still see narrow-fronted linear courtyards, which are easy to defend against enemies. Fortified churches and fortified agricultural buildings are part of the landscape. From the 10th century, Cistercians from Citeaux founded the Heiligenkreuz Abbey and the Freigut Thallern. The Burgundy monks turned out to be a stroke of good luck, because they brought with them Pinot grapes and the most innovative wine growing technology of those times. In the Freigut Thallern, it is with pride that the monks show the vineyard, which is enclosed by a wall following the example of the “Clos’” in Burgundy.

The shell limestone soil of the former surf zone of the primordial ocean Tetris resembles that on the Rhone, which one can certainly recognise in contemporary Chardonnays. Monasteries also planted grapes in river valleys and set up terrace cultivation in other regions of Austria. Austria developed into a wine-growing country. In Vienna, citizens were allowed to possess their own vineyards from 1170, and many catering business switched over to the serving of wine – and were shortly afterwards subjected to a drinks tax. In the relatively warm 16th century, the vineyards extended from Styria to Salzburg. Grapes were even grown in Tyrol, where − in contrast to the neighbouring South Tyrol – winegrowing now plays almost no role. From 1784, every citizen was allowed without restriction to sell agricultural products. This market-libertarian ordinance is still reflected today in the wonderful wine restaurant culture, an important part of the Austrian wine economy.
Photo: Grapes vineyards Neusiedlersee © ÖWM / Kracher

Small country, big selection

In 1860, the world’s first viniculture school was opened in Klosterneuburg and this still world-renowned today. But plagues of vine pests, the world wars, the collapse of the Habsburg monarchy and the transplantation of high-yield varieties from the 1950s disguised the wine’s development potential. Autochthonous varieties such as Rotgipfler and Zierfandler thus disappeared almost completely. Better clones now provide wines with a striking profile of sweet fruits, flowery tones and a remarkable ability to age well. St. Laurent, from which great things are quite rightly expected for the future, also finds good conditions in this thermal region, where it can display its dense and elegant fruit well.

Burgenland has on the other hand become established as the top origin for Blaufränkisch. Austria’s highest-quality autochthonous variety loves the loamy soil in the continentally hot climate and demonstrates this with mineral-rich and full-bodied red wines. Origins such as Eisenberg are world-famous, although ambitious red wines have only been cultivated here since the end of the seventies. The Uhudlers from the somewhat secluded Südburgenland, on the other hand, tend to be known mostly by aficionados. These unruly wines − pressed from hybrids of varieties that grow on their own roots − smell of wild strawberries and were for a long time reputed to send people somewhat mad. The 320 square-kilometre surface of Lake Neusiedl evens out the temperature differences and supplies a lot of moisture to the air, which favours Botrytis. High-quality sweet wines grow around the lake and its flat pools. Ruster Ausbruch from the west shore is one of Austria’s best sweet wines. Welschriesling was traditionally the main grape variety for medium to full body dessert wines and white wines. Burgundy and bouquet varieties have moved up.
Photo: Vienna - Leopoldsberg © ÖWM / Gerhard Trumler

In white wine paradise

Also, a few decades ago in Austria’s southernmost winegrowing area on the border to Slovenia, mixed farms were still struggling with rather simple wines such as Welschriesling. But the region is a paradise for whites. The climate, which is certainly influenced by the Mediterranean, is characterised by lots of heat and rain, which flows away quickly in the steep locations. Traminer and Muskateller grow here traditionally and they have never been better. But even if the boom has faded somewhat, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay, which is called Morillon here, belong to the best in world with their complex lightness. Many vintners would like to have a Lagen system such as the one in Burgundy. One can see the beginnings of this in the association Steirische Klassik.

Styria has profited more from the global wine boom than virtually any other region. In some places, the creations of star architects have been erected where simple farmhouses used to stand. The purist rectangular prism of Erwin Sabathi even made it onto the cover of an art magazine. “About once a week a German colleague will come to take a look at it”, says the vintner. As well as this jet-set charm, there are also the Wildbacher varieties. The pink Schilcher wine was perhaps already known to the Celts. Well made wines from the sensitive, West Styrian grape boasts gripping acids, tannin, strawberries, elderberries and cassis.
Photo: Vienna Nussberg © ÖWM / Gerhard Trumler

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.

Matthias Stelzig