Some of the cellar walls at Nikolaihof in Wachau were built by the Romans. Schloss Gobelsburg in Kamptal is still owned, though no longer operated, by Cistercian monks. In 1985, it emerged that a few Austrian wine brokers had been adulterating their light and acidic wines with diethylene glycol to increase body and sweetness. This ‘antifreeze scandal’ hit the international headlines, almost completely destroying the reputation of Austrian wine. In the following years, Austria turned away from medium-sweet mass-market wines and, like the phoenix rising, reinvented itself as a producer of quality wines.
The lie of the land
Austria’s four wine regions of Niederösterreich (Lower Austria), Burgenland, Wien (Vienna), and Steiermark (Styria) are all in the east of the country, bordering on the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, and Slovenia. Lower Austria, Burgenland, and Styria are divided into districts, of which there are, including Vienna, a total of 16. Burgenland sits on the edge of the vast Pannonian Plain, and is much flatter than the other three regions. Soils are very diverse, even within a single region; but the most important or prevalent soils are a varying thickness of loess over gneiss in Lower Austria, sand over limestone in Burgenland, and clay over limestone in Styria.
Austria is a landlocked country with a frankly continental climate marked by cold winters and hot summers. Autumns are long, enabling grapes to ripen and sweet wines to be made. High diurnal temperature variation throughout the growing season promotes concentration of sugar and phenolics while preserving natural acidity. In Lower Austria, the Danube and its tributaries moderate temperatures, as does, in Burgenland, the Neusiedlersee (Lake Neusiedl), which also creates the conditions for noble rot. Burgenland in particular also benefits from warm easterlies from the Pannonian Plain. Many vines in Austria (although not those dedicated to the finest wines) are trained high on the Lenz Moser system, which offers some frost protection and reduces labour costs.
Austrian wines are mostly dry white wines, although sweeter white wines are also made. 26 varieties are permitted for quality white wine, but the best are made from Grüner Veltliner, Riesling, or Chardonnay, with Grüner by far the most planted variety. In valleys like Wachau and Kremstal, Grüner tends to be planted on moisture-retaining loamy soils, and Riesling on higher, drier stone terraces. Other important white varieties are Welschriesling (unrelated to Riesling), Pinot Blanc (Weißburgunder), and Sauvignon Blanc. Red wines account for ~30% of production, and are most often made from Blaufränkisch and local varieties such as Zweigelt (Blaufränkisch x Saint Laurent). Although plantings are fairly small, Pinot Noir (Blauburgunder) punches above its weight on the export market. In total, 14 varieties are permitted for quality red wine.
There are three separate classifications operating in Austria. The traditional classification is modelled on that of Germany, with four principal levels based on must weights: Tafelwein, Landwein, Qualitätswein, and Prädikatswein. The bulk of production is either Qualitätswein or Prädikatswein; given the choice, many producers prefer to label their wine as Qualitätswein to circumvent a German style of labelling. In addition to Kabinett (which in Austria is included under Qualitätswein rather than Prädikatswein), Spätlese, Auslese, Beerenauslese, Trockenbeerenauslese, and Eiswein, there are two additional styles, Ausbruch (‘break out’) and Strohwein (‘straw wine’). Traditionally, Ausbruch is made by adding grape must or late harvest wine to shrivelled botrytized grapes to ‘break out’ the sugars and facilitate fermentation. These days most Ausbruch is made just like Trockenbeerenauslese, but with a minimum must weight of 27°instead of 30° on the Klosterneuburg Must Weight Scale. For each classification level, minimum must weights are higher than in Germany. As in Germany, chaptalization is permitted for Qualitätswein, although not for the higher level of Kabinett. Unlike in Germany, the addition of Sußreserve is not permitted for Prädikatswein.
In addition, most of Austria’s 16 wine regions adhere to a geographical appellation system, Districtus Austriae Controllatus (DAC), first introduced in 2003 and comprising three ascending levels: Gebietswein (regional wine), Ortswein (villages wine), and Riedenwein (single vineyard wine). As with other geographical appellation systems, each DAC has specific requirements intended to bring out the particular characteristics of a recognized regional style. The DACs include Kremstal (for Riesling and Grüner), Kamptal (Riesling and Grüner), Traisental (Riesling and Grüner), Wiener Gemischter Satz (various white varieties in a blend), Weinviertel (Grüner), Leithaberg (Grüner, Pinot Blanc, Chardonnay, Neuberger, Blaufränkisch), Neusiedlersee (Zweigelt: 100% Zweigelt for Klassik, and at least 60% for Reserve Cuvée Blend), Mittelburgenland (Blaufränkisch), and Eisenberg (Blaufränkisch). The DAC system is still in a state of flux.
The Wachau operates a separate classification, the Vinea Wachau Nobilis Districtus. This has three ascending categories, all for dry wines, defined by the maturity of the grapes: Steinfeder, Federspiel, and Smaragd, the last, Smaragd, named after an emerald lizard of the vineyards. Outside Wachau, the Association of Austrian Traditional Wine Estates is working with the German VDP to classify the vineyards of the Danube region (‘Donauraum’), including Kamptal, Kremstal, and Traisental.
Lower Austria is the country’s largest and most important wine region, accounting for eight of the sixteen districts and over half of production. The extreme west of the region boasts the small and premium district of Wachau, with vineyards on steep terraces that stretch along the Danube from Melk to Krems. Wachau can be divided into Upper, Middle, and Eastern—or ‘Lower’, but the locals, being Catholic, prefer ‘Eastern’. The cool continental influence is stronger in Upper Wachau, while the warm Pannonian influence is stronger in Eastern Wachau, where the valley is also wider. Wachau is famous for its rich and concentrated Grüners and Rieslings. The district is home to a large but highly rated co-operative, the Freie Weingärtner Wachau. Immediately to the east of Wachau is Kremstal, where the Danube valley opens up into gently rolling hills. Like Wachau, Kremstal is especially noted for its Grüners and Rieslings, which qualify for the Kremstal DAC. To the north-east of Kremstal is Kamptal, which stretches out around Langenlois with the best vineyards on steep south-facing terraces overlooking the River Kamp. These vineyards are especially suited to Riesling, with both Rieslings and Grüners qualifying for the Kamptal DAC. Closer to the Danube, the side valley opens up and black varieties become more common. Wagram stretches from Kamptal to Vienna along the Danube. The deep loess soils are particularly suited to Grüner although other varieties are also planted. Founded in 1114, Klosterneuburg Abbey in the east of the district is one of the oldest and largest wine estates in Austria. To the west of Wagram and south of Wachau, Kremstal, and Kamptal lies the small district of Traisental. Grüner, Riesling, and other varieties are cultivated on steep terraces overlooking the River Traisen, with Grüners and Rieslings qualifying for the Traisental DAC.
The Weinviertel (‘Wine Quarter’) is the largest district in Lower Austria and indeed Austria, accounting for about half of plantings in Lower Austria and one-third of plantings in Austria. The land is mostly flat and fertile and given to Grüner, which is made in a fresh and fruity style. However, there are some more interesting terroirs being cultivated by quality producers such as Graf Hardegg and Pfaffl: at Graf Hardegg, I tasted a 25-year-old Grüner that had developed notes of fennel, honey, toffee, toast, and cognac, and still looked youthful. Many other varieties are cultivated in the Weinviertel, but in much smaller quantities. Sekt is made from Riesling and Grüner in the far north-east around Poysdorf.
South of the Weinviertel and of the Danube lies the hilly district of Carnuntum. With its deep soils and warmer climate, Carnuntum is particularly suited to black varieties, with Blaufränkisch and Zweigelt dominating plantings. To the south-west of Carnuntum is Thermenregion, named after Roman thermal baths. Thermenregion is noted for a white wine blend of indigenous varieties Zierfandler (Spätrot) and Rotgipler. Black varieties are also cultivated, Portugieser first among them.
Vienna is fiercely proud of its 640ha of vineyards. Land on the left (northern) bank of the Danube is mainly planted to Grüner, Chardonnay, Riesling, and Pinot Blanc, and on the right bank to black varieties. Though it has its crus, Vienna is noted for Gemischter Satz DAC, a blend of several varieties cultivated en foule in the same vineyard. Punters can drink the latest vintage of Gemischter Satz by the jug in one of the city’s many wine taverns or Heurigen, which are signposted with sprigs of pine over the door.
Burgenland is home to four DACs: Neusiedlersee, Leithaberg, Mittelburgenland, and Eisenberg. The Neusiedlersee district in the north of the region is reputed for its botrytized wines made from Welschriesling or a number of other varieties other than Riesling (sometimes in a blend). However, the Neusiedlersee DAC is exclusively for red wines dominated by Zweigelt. To the west, on the opposite shore of the lake, which is never deeper than 1.8m, is Neusiedlersee-Hügelland (‘Hill Country’). This district of diverse terrains produces sweet white wines (including the renowned Ruster Ausbruch, Austria’s best answer to Tokaji), dry white wines, and dry red wines. The Leithaberg DAC is for white wines made from Grüner, Pinot Blanc, Chardonnay, and Neuberger, and red wines made from Blaufränkisch. The DAC covers an area of limestone and slate soils connected with the Leitha Mountains, west of Lake Neusiedl. Chardonnay from certain Leithaberg vineyards, such as the limestone-rich Gloria, might well be mistaken for top Burgundy. Mittelburgenland, nicknamed ‘Blaufränkischland’, on the Pannonian Plain is the spiritual home of Blaufränkisch, which accounts for more than half of the district’s plantings. The other DAC for Blaufränkisch is Eisenberg (‘Iron Mountain’), to the south in the small district of Südburgenland, which is noted for its soils of slate and ferrous loam.
‘Weinland Osterreich’ consists of Lower Austria and Burgenland, which together account for more than 90% of Austria’s vineyard area. The main motive for this legal construct is to enable Landwein to be blended across a very large area.
Styria stands out for its small size, rugged terrain, and warmer and wetter climate, with marked diurnal temperature variation. The bulk of production is consumed locally. The soils of South-East Styria (Südoststeiermark) are largely volcanic in origin, lending themselves to the cultivation of varieties from the Traminer family, although, of course, other varieties are also planted. The wines are crisp, aromatic, and full-bodied with notes of spice and mineral. South Styria is very mountainous, with vineyards planted on steep, south-facing slopes. The district is reputed for its Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay (‘Morillon’) and noted for its ‘Junker’ (young, fruity wines). West Styria counts only 500ha of vines. It is known for Schilcher, a cult rosé-style wine of searing acidity made from the indigenous Blauer Wildbacher grape. From the 2018 vintage, all three Styrian regions can claim DAC status.
Like Alsatian Riesling, which it most resembles, Austrian Riesling is dry with high acidity, medium-to-high alcohol, and pronounced minerality. However, it is typically less austere and dominated by riper stone fruit. ‘Hints of lime’ is another common tasting note. Riesling from Kremstal and Kamptal is often fuller than that from Wachau.
The vegetal, peppery Grüner Veltlineris very much an Austrian speciality. It is produced in a range of styles and qualities, and is often reminiscent of Burgundy or Alsace. Grüner from Wachau is pale gold with hints of green. It is typically dry with notes of celery, white pepper, spice, and minerals. Depending on ripeness, fruit can range from apple and grapefruit to distinctly tropical fruits. Body is medium to full, acidity is high, alcohol is medium-high or high, and oak is typically absent. The best examples can develop honeyed and toasty aromas with age. Grüner Veltliner from Kremstal and Kamptal is often fuller than that from Wachau.
Blaufränkish is usually dark purple in colour with notes of red currants or cherries, blackberry, pepper and spice, and liquorice. On the palate, body is medium, acidity high, alcohol medium, and tannins firm and grippy. Some examples are aged in new French oak. Blaufränkisch is sometimes blended with other varieties such as Zweigelt, in which case it contributes acidity and structure to the blend. Owing to the red, iron-rich soils, Blaufränkisch from Eisenberg is typically spicier than that from Mittelburgenland.
Zweigelt is fresh and fruit-driven. It is often deep ruby in colour, with notes of red cherries and soft spice such as cinnamon and nutmeg. On the palate, it is light-to-medium bodied with a supple acidity reminiscent of Barbera (but less high), medium alcohol, and soft and subtle tannins. Oak is usually absent.
Top producers in Austria include Franz Hirtzberger, Knoll, Nikolaihof, FX Pichler, Rudi Pichler, and Prager in Wachau; Bründlmayer, Schloss Gobelsburg, and Loimer in Kamptal; Felsner, Malat, Sepp Moser, and Nigl in Kremstal; Graf Hardegg and Pfaffl in Weinviertel; Feiler Artinger, Gesellmann, Gernot und Heike Heinrich, Kollwentz, Kracher, and Poeckle in Burgenland; and Tement in South Styria. Although top Rieslings and Grüners can evolve with age, most Austrian wines are destined for early drinking, and there is not the same emphasis on vintage as in some other regions.