Austria is well known for Mozart, Schnitzel, Sacher torte, and The Sound of Music, but are you aware of its viticulture? During the 19th century, Austria’s wine industry boomed, but many setbacks in the 20th century almost eradicated it. But, like the phoenix from the ashes, it has reemerged riding on the back of its unique and popular grape: Gruner Veltliner. Over the last decade, wines produced from Zweigelt and Blaufrankisch have started to make waves in the United States, bolstering Austria’s place in viticulture. But, to take a closer look, we need to start at the beginning: a perfect place to start.
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History of Austrian Wine
Wine came to Austria via the Celts in 700 BCE. The Romans further advanced winemaking in the first century BCE by improving production techniques. After the fall of the Roman Empire, however, winemaking stagnated.
In the 9th century, Charlemagne encouraged winemaking and instituted new guidelines. Cistercian Monks further advanced wine production by introducing Burgundian methods in the dark ages, and by the 15th century, vineyards covered most regions of Austria.
Austrian winemaking continued to thrive until the late 1800’s when mildew and phylloxera devastated the vines throughout the country. The further decline occurred after World War I and the collapse of the Habsburg Monarchy when 30% of Austrian vines were lost when portions of Austria were annexed to other countries.
The Soviets further plundered winemaking with the collapse of Nazi Germany after World War II. As a result, the wine industry started making low-quality, mass-produced wine after WW2.
The greatest embarrassment to Austrian wine culture occurred in the mid-1980s when it was found that some winemakers added ethylene glycol to their wines to increase their complexity. As a result, the Austrian industry fell into shambles, and exports dropped substantially.
So, how do you solve a problem like a bad reputation? In 1986, the Austrian Wine Marketing Board was established. After that, strict wine laws were increasingly put in place, culminating in 2009 with the passage of the Austrian Wine Act. The government-guaranteed wine regulation and quality, and Austrian wines were well on their way back. Let’s take a closer look at Austrian wine today.
Austrian wine is now synonymous with Gruner Veltliner, their native grape. This grape represents their most planted and exported wine. It remains the anchor of Austrian wine; however, sales of Gruner have grown stagnant. New and interesting red wines made from Zweigelt and Blaufrankisch receive rave reviews and may indicate the start of the second wave of exports from Austria. Let’s dive further into this beautiful country and the grapes they use.
The land of Austria involves thoughts of the Alps and great skiing (primarily in the western part of the country). Austria’s east and south regions are perfect for Vitis vinifera and are where most of the country’s wine is produced.
Austria’s largest wine region is Niederosterreich, located in the northeast part of the country. This area lies along the Danube and contains the capital city, Vienna. It is the heart of white wine production, mainly Gruner Veltliner comprising 44% of the planted grapes.
Eight specific DAC (Districtus Austriae Controllatus) are located in this region. Six of the 8 DAC focus on white wine: Wagram, Traisental, Wachau, Kremstal, Kamptal, and Weinviertel.
These regions focus not only on the outstanding Gruner Veltliner but other white grapes, including Riesling, Pinot Blanc, and Chardonnay. In addition, reds rule in the southern regions of Carnuntum and Thermenregion.
South of Niederosterreich is Burgenland, where the red wines from Blaufrankisch, St. Laurent, and Zweigelt reign supreme. Five DAC exists in this region.
The DAC of Mittelburgenland leads to full bodied dark fruit driven reds while the DAC of Neusiedlersee, Leithaberg, and Eisenberg produce more minerally and tannic wines. Within Neusiedlersee lies the special region of Seewinkel.
This region has a unique humid microclimate due to its proximity to Lake Neusiedle, which leads to the development of botrytis on the grapes in the region. Called noble rot, grapes affected develop high sugar levels and give rise to the production of quality dessert wines called Ausbruch. The 5th DAC called Rosalia is aptly named given its production of rose wines.
Located just southwest of Burgenland is Steiermark (Styria) which contains 3 DAC. Vulkanland Steirmark makes spicy white wines due to its volcanic soils. (May this region live long and prosper)! Sudsteiermark is known for its Sauvignon Blanc production and Weststeiermark makes red wines from Blauer Wildbacher.
As the only country capital in the world that makes high-quality wines, Vienna is known for its table wine called Wiener Gemischter Satz: a field blend of white grapes.
Now that we discussed the regions let’s take a closer look into the unique grapes from Austria.
Gruner Veltliner makes the most important wine in Austria and accounts for 31% of all grapes planted in the country. This grape is believed to come from a crossing between Traminer and another unconfirmed 2nd grape.
The grape is easily grown throughout the Niederosterreich and is regulated by the Austrian government to limit production and maintain quality. The Gruner grown in the region of Weinviertel are the most well-known and are of the highest quality. These wines are the spiciest and peppery, along with higher acidity than other Gruners. Gruner made in the rest of the Niederosterreich is generally riper with stone fruit notes and a bigger body.
Wiener Gemischter Satz
Wiener Gemischter Satz is a field blend grown in Vienna and is served in every tavern across the city as a table wine. It is made from many varietals, including Gruner Veltliner, Riesling, Traminer, and other whites.
Recently, this blend has been produced for exportation, and this wine may be found in the US in the future. Other white wine varietals planted throughout Austria but mainly in the Niederosterreich and Steiermark are the international grapes Riesling, Pinot Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, and Chardonnay.
Red grapes are mainly grown in the lower Niederosterreich, throughout the Burgenland, and in the Steiermark. The Zweigelt grape was created in the 1920s by Professor Fritz Zweigelt when he crossed Blaufrankisch and St. Laurent.
Zweigelt is the most widespread red grape in Austria, accounting for 14% of grapes planted. It is mainly grown in Burgenland. Wines produced from this grape are usually well structured and balanced with dark fruit notes. Consequently, these wines are sometimes compared to pinot noir.
Blaufrankisch is a traditional Austrian grape mainly grown in Burgenland and southern Niederosterreich. This grape accounts for 6.5% of all vines in the country. It was first known to be produced in the 1700s and tends to make wines with high acidity and tannins characterized with cherry or berry notes.
The additional red grape, St. Laurent, was named for St. Lawrence day, the day that grapes begin to change color. Wines made from this grape are usually dark and big-bodied with cherry notes. The final red grape, Blauer Wildbacher, is closely related to Blaufrankisch and usually made into rose wines called Schilcher-the signature wine in the Weststeiermark.
Austrian Wine Regions
As you can see, outstanding wines are being made in Austria from unique grapes that grow very well throughout the country. Furthermore, Austria’s wine industry is well-regulated and guarantees that wines made here are of high quality.
As always, it is also important for the wines to be delicious, and as you explore them, you will agree that they truly are! So before I say so long, farewell, Auf Wiedersehen, goodbye, you should get your Schnitzel, play a little night music, and enjoy some truly fantastic Austrian wines.
Imagine finishing your night with a Sacher torte, watching the sound of music, and enjoying amazing Ausbruch. You will agree with me that the Austrian hills are truly alive with the sound of viticulture!