Serenely grown in lush majestic hills, Austria has one of the most interesting histories within the wine industry. With evidence of grape growing dating back to 4000 years ago, Austrian wine has most certainly had its share of struggles. After a long history of being affected by wars and outbreaks of powdery and downey mildew, things got even more interesting with the infamous “Antifreeze Scandal” of 1985. That year, it became public that certain wine brokers were altering the wines with diethylene glycol in order to add sweetness and body. Their exports were then banned from numerous countries, resulting in a very difficult time for Austrian winemakers and an inevitably bad reputation around the world. Although this was looking like the end for Austrian wine altogether, fate would prove otherwise. Due to this scandal, Austria laid down new laws for winemaking processes in regards to minimizing yields and discouraging bulk wines. In the end, quality standards increased and Austrian wine was eventually put back on the map. This event turned out to be a symbolic step for them and Austria is now one of the most respected countries in the world for quality wine production.
The wines of Austria are generally ruled by the country’s classic white varietals. Grüner Veltliner is Austria’s signature grape and has fresh and distinct notes of white pepper and green salad. Rieslings are next in line of importance, which are typically dry and full bodied with notes of white peach and bold minerality. On the red side of Austria is Blaufränkisch with its soft tannins, crisp acidity, and notes of pepper and sour cherry zest. St. Laurent is another Austrian specialty that is quite similar to Pinot Noir. When Blaufränkisch and St. Laurent are blended together, they create Austria’s splendid signature red called Zweigelt.
There are two main areas of wine production in Austria, with several subregions within them. Niederösterreich in the northeast is the larger area with the major subregions of Wachau, Kamptal, and Kremstal. Using steep terraced vineyards, these regions produce complex Grüner Veltliner and Riesling. Rieslings here are commonly a bit more full-bodied than those of Alsace or Germany. Just below that, Burgenland is the other main area and is on the eastern side of the country that borders Hungary. Neusiedlesee and Neusiedlersee-Hugelland are two major subregions that receive consistent amounts of Botrytis from their proximity to Lake Neusiedl. Located on the rolling hills southwest of the lake are the subregions of Mittelburgenland and Südburgenland. It is here where Austria’s finest reds, especially Blaufränkisch, are produced and aged in new French oak.
With its remoteness to any marine influence, Austria is quite steady with its Continental climate. Because of this, wine regions are blessed with short and cold winters, long and warm summers, and very long harvest seasons. The Alps cover most of the west side of the country so vineyards are typically only found in the eastern hills and plains.
Similar to Germany, Austria also has a very complicated way of classifying their wines by quality and sweetness levels. The first major difference from the German system is that in Austria Kabinett level wines are in the category of Qualitätswein, having a maximum of 13% alcohol and with no added sugar. When a quality wine has particular attributes, it is then bumped up into the Prädikatswein classification system. Starting with the first level is Spätlese, meaning “late harvest”, which is intense and full-bodied. Auslese, meaning “selected harvest”, is a step above that and is known to have a very penetrating bouquet. Next level up, and as the first level in the sweet wine category, Beerenauslese refers to “selected berries” and is a rich dessert wine that usually has the influence of Botrytis. Adjacent to that level is Eiswein, or Ice Wine, which is produced by harvesting grapes once they have frozen on the vine. Leaving the grapes on the vine until as late as January, the frozen water is pressed out of the must and only the grapes’ sugar and acidity are left. Another neighboring level is Strohwein which is a dessert wine made from late harvest grapes that were dried on top of straw mats for three months. Next up, Ausbruch is dessert wine that is made from only botrytized grapes and has a minimum sugar level of 27 degrees KMW. Lastly, the highest level of the Prädikatswein system is Trockenbeerenauslese. Made from “selected dried berries” that are left on the vine until they have dried, this is Austria’s sweetest and most expressive dessert wine.
Through war, through mildew, through scandal and banishment, Austria is the ultimate success story in the history of wines. As one of the world’s favorites, Austrian wines are proof that terrible situations can be turned into epic victories.