- Q & A
Austria is becoming an increasingly important wine-producing country in central Europe with an annual production of about 30 million cases, 30% more than Germany. The wines themselves are fuller bodied than the Germans and generally drier. Like Germany, Austria produces primarily white wines, however their success with certain reds, particularly because of the warmer climate, is much greater than Germany's.
The Celts were probably the first to grow grapes in Austria as early as 500 BC. Viticulture continued under the Roman Empire. After a succession of raids and domination, as was the case in most of Europe during the Dark Ages, vines began to appear and become part of the landscape by the 1300s. Under the influence of the monks, most of the plantings occurred around Krems on the Danube west of Vienna. Austria's total area under vine was about 10 times what it is today. So great was this surplus production that a series of protectionist measures was undertaken in the 14th, 15th, and 16th centuries, prohibiting the sale of foreign wine in Lower Austria.
Austria's vines are planted on both sides of the Danube, which cuts through the country from West to East. The climate is generally drier and warmer than Germany. The Wachau is considered the country's finest wine region. It is the furthest point to which the Atlantic airstreams penetrate the Danube Valley; it is the only region in Niederösterreich that benefits from its moderating effects. Kremstal, Kamptal and Donauland are other fine dry white wine regions, but with some excellent reds now being made by experimental winemakers.
Reds are also produced in the Weinviertel and the Thermenregion, though white grapes predominate. Steiermark produces citrusy Chardonnay, often labeled Morillon, some using oak and some without, and Sauvignon Blanc. Burgenland is one of the top red wine producing areas featuring Zweigelt at its principle grape and some fine dessert wines.
Like Germany, most of the vineyards are cared for by part-time vine-growers, 21,000 of the Austrian total of 36,000 owning less than 2.5 acres of vines. Co-operatives produce about 14 per cent of all Austrian wine.
Full-bodied, dry white wines with pronounced acidity are what the Austrians prize the most. Except for Burgenland's great sweet wines, most whites are fermented dry. Stainless steel or large, old wooden vats are used for fermentation and aging so that wood plays a relatively minor role in most whites except for an occasional Chardonnay. Chardonnay producers in Burgenland and Styria often use barrels for both fermentation and maturation.
Austria's most planted variety is its very own Grüner Veltliner, which accounts for more than 36 per cent of Austria's total vineyard area. It is particularly important in Lower Austria, Vienna, and Burgenland. The next most important variety is Welschriesling. It can produce sweet wines of great quality in Burgenland and many fine dry wines too, notably in Styria. Müller-Thurgau is fast declining in importance, but it is still the country's fourth most planted vine variety.
The indigenous red wine grape Zweigelt is now the country's third most planted variety and is found in all districts. Weissburgunder (Pinot Blanc) is another widely planted white wine variety. Chardonnay has become popular here, as it has in the rest of the world. Both Traminer and Gewürztraminer are widely planted, as is Pinot Gris. Cabernet Sauvignon is a relatively new arrival, concentrated in Burgenland, but Blauer Burgunder (Pinot Noir) is showing some success in the warmer climates.
All of Austria's vineyards are in the eastern part of the country and sixty percent of the wine comes from Lower Austria, which confusingly is in the northeastern part of the country.
Burgenland's four wine regions were part of Hungary until 1920. Mittel Burgenland is famous for its robust Blaufränkisch red wines and Süd Burgenland produces some good reds and dry whites. Burgenland produces more than a third of all Austrian wine, and most of the best reds and sweet whites.
Styria is a mountainous viticultural district with more in common with Slovenia over the border than with the rest of Austria. It is officially divided into south, Süd-, south east, Süd-Ost-, and west (and West- respectively) districts which combine to produce less than five per cent of an average Austrian vintage. The city of Vienna, or Wien, is given its own status as a wine region, climatically a particularly favored enclave within Lower Austria.
Weinviertel is Austria's largest wine district. Much of the land is flat, fertile, and very dry. The region typically produces relatively light, dry, white wines from Grüner Veltliner. Müller-Thurgau, Welschriesling and Weissburgunder (Pinot Blanc) are well represented with many an outstanding example.
Kamptal produces many of the nation's finest dry white wines. The most impressive of these are the Rieslings and Grüner Veltliners. Many fine Rieslings are also made here, notably on those vineyards close to the famed Wachau district.
Donauland stretches east along the Danube and is famous for the outstanding Grüner Veltliner produced here.
Kremstal is primarily dedicated to dry white wines. The best are Rieslings and Grüner Veltliners from Stein and Senftenberg where the rocky soils and microclimates are very similar to those in the Wachau. Not surprisingly, the top Rieslings and Grüner Veltliners are often indistinguishable from the best Wachau wines.
The Wachau is considered by many to be Austria's top region for dry whites. Riesling is the main grape here, followed by Grüner Veltliner. The vines grow predominantly on narrow terraces, which climb the steep hillsides up to two hundred meters from the bank of the Danube. A combination of irrigation and a fanatical approach to wine quality has enabled their full potential to be realized during the last 20 years.
The Wachau does not follow the usual German and Austrian Prädikat quality classification for its dry wines but instead uses its own names to distinguish between three levels of ripeness. Steinfeder wines are for early consumption while Federspiel wines benefit from one to two years' bottle age. Those labeled Smaragd are considered the best and can age for decades.
Burgenland is known for its full-bodied Weissburgunder (Pinot Blanc) together along with Traminer and Welschriesling. The palate covers all the styles from dry and racy to late harvest Trockenbeerenauslese, oftentimes besting their German counterparts. Mittelburgenland is in the central Burgenland district. Its warm climate makes it very suitable for red grapes, which account for 70 per cent of the production. Zweigelt, Pinot Noir and even Cabernet have shown promising success here.
Steiermark's climate is continental and is both the hottest and sunniest of Austria's four zones. It is appropriate for growing fuller-bodied whites. The best being Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. Riesling and Pinot Blanc are quite successful in the South and a few rosés are produced in the western part of the province.
Vienna claims to be the only capital city with a serious wine industry within its boundaries. Its best wines are made from Grüner Veltliner, Riesling and the Pinots.
Wine labeling laws in Austria are some of the strictest in the world. They share much of the nomenclature of the German Wine Law but standards in general and minimum must weights in particular are higher, although warmer summers mean that it is easier to achieve higher sugar levels in Austria than in Germany.
Qualitätswein is the name of a category, which includes the subcategory Kabinet and of a subcategory itself. To qualify as Qualitätswein, the wine must come from a single district specified on the label and must demonstrate the characteristics of the recognized grape variety from which it is made. The wine must have at least 9 per cent alcohol. As in Germany, wines are tasted, analyzed, and awarded a code that is the Austrian equivalent of Germany's AP number.
Regarded as merely a Qualitätswein in Austria, Kabinet wines, like Prädikatswein, may nevertheless not be chaptalized. Sugar cannot exceed .9%.
All Spätlese Prädikatswein must be from one wine district, must be vintage dated, and must have its must weight officially certified. As in Germany, no Prädikatswein may be chaptalized. No Austrian Spätlese may be sweetened by added Süssreserve; all alcohol and residual sugar must be the result of natural grape sugars. A Spätlese must be made from fully ripe grapes picked at minimum must weights.
- Auslese must weight is higher still and any unripe or unhealthy grapes must be excluded.
- Strohwein, Straw wine, made from overripe grapes, which are dried, on straw or reeds for at least three months.
- Eiswein, `Ice wine' should be made from grapes with a very high sugar level, which are picked and pressed while still frozen and fermented.
- Beerenauslese, a very sweet wine made from grapes that are affected by noble rot, or simply overripe are picked under the same conditions as Eiswein but are not frozen.
- Trockenbeerenauslese is a very sweet wine made from grapes with a must weight higher than all of the above that are naturally shriveled, overripe and affected by noble rot.