Austria: Sometimes less is indeed more

Austria’s winemakers are a contented lot: Exports of bottled wine have risen sharply, an excellent vintage will be presented at ProWein 2008, the names of the winegrowing areas have been streamlined, the DAC designation is gaining increasing recognition and bio wines are booming.

Despite the fact that deliveries of Austrian wine to Germany, its most important export market, have been falling for the last few years, no one in the Austrian Viniculture Association, in the regional committees or at the Wine Marketing Board in Vienna is showing any sign of concern. On the contrary, they are extremely satisfied with this slight shrinkage in volumes. And the reason? Whereas Austria previously exported wine in bulk in tanks to Germany, German importers are now opting primarily for bottled wines from Austria.

This certainly suits the Austrians who, two years ago, were set to ban bulk exports of un-bottled wine, even though this would have led to a significant fall in export volumes. The motivation for the ban was the considerable dissatisfaction with cheap wines of dubious quality and often uncertain origin lining the shelves of discounters. The only thing certain was that the bottles were filled in German “Weinkellerei” estates (which buy in grapes to make wine, rather than owning their own vineyards). Although the ban was ultimately blocked by an EU veto, the Austrian producers were so sensitised by the disagreeable episode – as were the German partners in the industry – that they focused more on the 0.75 litre bottle as a result.

Accordingly, bulk exports in 2006 amounted to a mere 13 million litres while exports of bottled wine of 22 million litres accounted for almost two thirds of the total figure. There was an even more marked difference in the prices. According to the latest figures for 2007, bulk exports of wine achieved an average price of just under EUR 0.60 (per litre), compared to the price of around EUR 1.94 attained by bottled wines. It should be noted, however, that the export figure for bottled wines is without doubt inaccurate as it fails to take into account extensive small-scale imports by German dealers as well as the carefully packed luggage compartments of tourist’s cars. Willi Klinger, for the past year Managing Director of the Wine Marketing Board in Vienna, believes that around five million litres leave the country as “small-scale exports” – at prices significantly above the officially quoted level of just under two euros.

So, an excellent outlook for continued positive development on the German market, whose importance to Austria is clearly illustrated by the growing number of registrations for ProWein in Düsseldorf every year. Visitors to the Austria hall in 2008 are likely to find over 250 exhibitors, including virtually all of the country’s elite producers such as Feiler-Artinger, Schloss Gobelsburg, Hirtzberger, Jurtschitsch, Knoll, Kollwentz, Kracher, Loimer, Nigl, Pfaffl, Prieler, Tement, Triebaumer and Velich. Added to these is a range of producers who have emerged over the last few years but who Willi Klinger believes “are still undervalued” when compared to the extremely high prices commanded by some of the top wines. Examples of producers in this category include the ALEXS vineyard run by the Schreiner family in Gols, Robert Goldenits from Tadten, Toni Hartl from Reisenberg, Markus Huber from Reichersdorf, Franz Leth from Fels/Wagram, Franz Prechtl from Zellendorf and Herbert Zillinger from Ebenthal.

A good vintage
Everyone will be bringing a good vintage with them. After the outstanding 2006 vintage in Austria and its associated problem of lower yields (the Grüner Veltliner variety, in particular, reported large falls), Josef Pleil, President of the Austrian Viniculture Association, can this year redress the balance with a smile on his face: “In autumn, we had ripe, healthy grapes with moderate sugar concentration and good acidity structure. All the hard work out in the vineyards was rewarded with very fruity wines that are a joy to drink. The yield of a just over 2.5 million hectolitres is also right on the money and substantially above the average yield for the last few years.”

However, the situation did not look so promising at first due to the occurrence of cold nights, frost, heat, drought, heavy rain and hail at different periods throughout the year. The grape harvest started early, in many areas as early as August. As a result, a large part of the grape crop had already been harvested by the time the heavy rainfalls came in early September. What remained on the vines managed to escape unscathed by the wet conditions and benefited from a long golden October. The last grapes were brought in during the first half of November, still in excellent condition. Once again, this means that the full range of quality is available, from tangy, firm wines ready for immediate drinking to wines rich in extracts all the way to top-class noble sweet wines in the whites. The reds will offer intense aromas with fruity overtones.

Although Austrian winegrowers also reported cases of sunburn, just as their German counterparts did in July, the extent of the damage was contained by concerted summer pruning. Unfortunately, it was not possible to provide any such protection against the heavy hail experienced in some areas. Severe damage was reported in the Thermenregion south of Vienna and the Kremstal area, where the important Winzer Krems cooperative alone had to abandon harvesting around 200 hectares of vineyards. “However, the reconfiguration of our selection of wines meant that it was and still is possible to continue supplying the trade with customary good quality,” explains Ludwig Holzer, export manager for the cooperative.

Innovations in the naming of wine regions
As part of a strong range, Austria will also be presenting some new improvements alongside its well established offerings. Changes in Austrian wine law have lent a hand in this context. The name Donauland has been deleted from the map of winegrowing regions. Originally comprising a group of vaguely-aligned winegrowing areas along this great River Danube, the creation of a centralised identity for this region had always proved problematic. In recognition of this fact, the Wagram region, which was formerly part of the area between Krems and Vienna, has now been granted a separate identity. The areas of Klosterneuburg, which were previously part of this region and are located in the immediate vicinity of the federal capital, are now officially an independent appellation (Großlage) and their wines are marketed under the Lower Austria (Niederösterreich) name of origin. The head of the regional wine committee, Leopold Blauensteiner from Gösing, is extremely pleased about this regulation because “it recognises the fact that our landscape offers unique and geologically fascinating loess terraces, which represent an ideal substrate for our main varietal Grüner Veltliner.”

The “DAC” appellation of origin
The focus of the DAC concept, at least for the time being, is not to create a new quality category but to translate existing qualities into a system of origin that is promising in a global context and easy to understand. The Weinviertel area, which previously enjoyed somewhat limited popularity, is doing extremely well under the DAC system and, as committee boss Roman Pfaffl from Stetten asserts, has succeeded “in dramatically enhancing its image and achieving an enormous improvement in the quality of the Grüner Veltliner grape variety”. The acronym DAC stands for “Districtus Austriae Controllatus” and, in practice, it represents specific types of wine from different winegrowing areas. The wines themselves undergo a special test. Austria has followed the example of other countries that also identify their wines from specific quality wine origins by means of an abbreviation (AOC in France, DOC in Italy). The Mittelburgenland wine producers, with their most important varietal Blaufränkisch, have been members of Austria’s DAC family since the 2005 vintage. The small Traisental area located to the south of Krems has even put forward two varieties (Grüner Veltliner and Riesling) for this area classification. And ProWein 2008 will also mark the first appearance of Kremstal as a DAC area. This region, which encompasses 2,250 hectares of vineyards including the town of Krems and renowned wine locations such as Rohrendorf, Gedersdorf, Senftenberg and Furth-Palt south of the River Danube, will also be flying the flag for the Riesling and Grüner Veltliner varieties. The extent to which the DAC appellation has influenced the attitude of wine connoisseurs in the meantime is clearly illustrated by Thomas Klinger, export manager at top winery Bründlmayer in Langenlois, who remarks that “as Wachau outsiders, we always used to be confronted with the question as to why we didn’t have a wine from the best known area category of Smaragd. More recently, the question is: Why isn’t it a DAC?”

Bio wines are booming
Another striking feature of the Austrian wine industry is the growing trend for bio wine and, in turn, for biodynamic cultivation methods. Associations such as Bioveritas have been around for some time now. Producers like Nikolaihof in the Wachau area, Geyerhof in Kremstal, Wimmer-Czerny and Salomon in the Wagram area as well as Günther Schönberger in the Neusiedlersee-Hügelland area enjoy an outstanding reputation. However, the bio wine movement has now received a significant boost from the reorientation of other top vintners from a range of different producing areas. These include Hans Nittnaus and Gernot Heinrich from Gols, Josef Umathum from Frauenkirchen, Karl Fritsch from Kirchberg/Wagram, Fred Loimer from Langenlois, Niki Moser from Rohrendorf, Hannes Hirsch from Kammern, Franz Weninger from Horitschon and the Schlossweingut Graf Hardegg in the town of Seefeld-Kadolz. Following an adjustment phase, they are set to receive official recognition in 2009.
Most of the original “eco-stalwarts” along with the emerging biodynamic growers will be represented in Düsseldorf. Bio Austria, the umbrella organisation for all of these types of products in Austria, will be organising a range of events including joint presentations by members of Bioveritas. A special presentation featuring selected producers at the stand of wine magazine Vinum is also planned. The Austrians are looking to capitalise on the current “bio boom”. At present, around 1,700 hectares (3.5 percent of Austrian vineyards) have received biodynamic certification. According to Wine Marketing Board boss Willi Klinger, “in just a few years, we have arrived at a point where this area has at least doubled in size.”

Rudolf Knoll

The author is editor of European wine magazine Vinum, where he is also responsible for Austria. He has written several books on Austria’s wine regions and areas, including a German-language standard work on the Grüner Veltliner varietal.