Article By: Bill Nesto, MW
Austrians, however, have totally renovated and moved forward their wine industry, from the low-cost-driven sweet wine industry that prevailed in the 197Os and early 198Os to the dry, mid-priced wines that characterize today’s industry. The pivot point for this change was 1985 when unethical producers adulterated wine with di-ethylene glycol. Though the adulteration caused no physical injury, the market for Austrian wine crumbled like a house of cards.
“In the aftermath”, Hans Nittnaus of winery Hans & Anita Nittnaus, explained, “we had to find a new way. For the first ten years, we tasted all the wines in the world trying to discover what we had to do. Our first step was to imitate Bordeaux. Here in Burgenland where it is warm enough to mature most red grapes, we planted Cabernet Sauvignon and later Merlot. In the last 7 to 8 years, however, we have been moving away and searching for our own style. Now we are finally finding it.” Another factor holding back Austria in the 197Os and 198Os was its location on the edge of the Iron Curtain. Austria had one foot in the east and one in the west. Culturally it was on the fringe. Tourism was at a low ebb. Its business environment had difficulty expanding east or west. This changed in the early 199Os when Austria found itself on the edge of a Europe expanding east. As a result, its culture and economy blossomed.
Mountains occupy most of Austria. The spine of the Alps extends from Austria’s western border two thirds across the country. Between there and the eastern border of Austria are the wine zones. The Alps shelter vineyards from westerly storms. The high hills of Moravia to the north protect them from harsh weather patterns coming from that direction. The most violent storms come up from Italy and Slovenia. The vineyards along the eastern border of Austria are unprotected from cold winter and hot, drying summer winds that move off the Pannonian Plain, a vast flat area stretching out into the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia, and Slovenia. Overall the climate bears some resemblance to that of Alsace, though, Burgenland, Austria’s warmest region, is too warm for Riesling. With the exception of Steirmark to the southeast, Austrian wine regions lie within a 9O minute drive to Vienna. Though the steep slopes of Steiermark at high elevations, 5OO meters above sea level, have earned a reputation within Austria for crisp, aromatic Sauvignon Blanc, most attention focuses on the wines from appellations straddling the Danube Valley and Lake Neusiedl.
The unchallenged star of Austrian appellations is the Wachau. Its vineyards are dramatically perched on steep slopes that rise from the Danube as it flows from Spitz to Durnstein. Most vineyards are on south-facing slopes, on rock-walled terraces hewn from parent rock. Riesling dominates the hillsides and terraces. Gruner Veltliner occupies the more skirts and flats that expand down to the Danube. Detritus from the hills, loess blown in from the Pannonian Plain and fluvial deposits comprise this rich fertile soil which is ideal for Gruner Veltliner. Throughout the Wachau, it is not easy to make Smargd, the Wachau designation for wines made from the grapes that yield dry wines over 12.5% alcohol. Federspiel weighing in at over 11.5% and Steinfelder at over 11% are the norm. Towards Spitz at its western end, the region is cooler. The wines have finesse and acidity. The most concentrated wines come from the eastern end near Durnstein where drying winds from the east help desiccate the harvest. A Master of Wine candidate working for Domaine Wachau at Durnstein, told me that in blind tastings it is easier to pick out the producer than vineyard origin. He was, however, able to blind identify single vineyard wines of the estate. This is evidence that within the microcosm of the Wachau, nuances of terroir are detectable in the wines.
To the west of the Wachau is Kremstal. Exposures here are varied and slopes are less dramatic. Large vineyards stretching out on plains contain beds of soft loess soil perfect for Gruner Veltliner. Flat expanses of loess increasingly dominate the Kamptal region to the west. Here summer temperatures are higher. Both regions have hills that rise out of the plains. The rocky and sandy soils on their slopes are ideal for Riesling. The wines of Kremstal and Kamptal can vie in quality with those of the Wachau. Further west along the Danube, in the Traisental and Wagram wine regions, the land flattens somewhat and the soil gets more calcareous. Gruner Veltliner increasingly dominates. The wine industry is rather young here, developing only in the last 2O years. The wines are lighter in weight and less expensive. To the northwest of Wagram and north of Vienna is Austria’s largest wine region in terms of acres of vineyard, Weinvertel. Its rolling countryside extends to the Czech and Slovak borders. Weinvertel is the source of light, fresh wines, mostly white. Gruner Veltliner dominates white wine production. Blauer Portugieser dominates red.
Vienna is a city wedded to agriculture. Only London has as much space dedicated to plants, but for public parks not for agriculture. Twenty four percent of the land within Vienna city limits, 7OO hectares, is dedicated to growing grapes, vegetables, cereals, and other crops. Much of this produce is sold within city limits. Many wineries run restaurants called Heurigen. In order to take advantage of tax advantages, these restaurants must restrict their menus to homemade cold dishes. This is the perfect venue for them to unleash the simple, young wine, of the vintage, mostly white, called Heurige. Until the 199Os, the image of the Heurigen was quite low, a place for wineries to get rid of their lowest quality wine. During the more prosperous and cosmopolitan 199Os, these restaurants began offering finer food and wines. In 2OO6, Fritz Wienninger of Winery Wieninger helped found WienWein (“ViennaWine”), an association of Vienna wine producers united to make top-quality wine. Gruner Veltliner dominates in vineyards of Vienna. Burgundian varieties such as Pinot Blanc, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are common in Vienna. Monks from Burgundy established monasteries here in the Middle Ages, bringing with them the Burgundian varieties. Vineyards are in two hilly areas. One area is on the left or north bank of the Danube. The outstanding site here is Bisamberg hill. The other hilly area is southwest of the city on the other side of the Danube. The outstanding site here is Nussberg hill. The soil composition in the former area is loam, loess and sand. The wines produced are lighter and lower in acidity that those from Nussberg and nearby expositions, where fossil limestone soils give the wines more structure, notably more acid. Both areas are windy. During the harvest period, this wind helps concentrate chemical components of the grapes.
At Austria’s farthest eastern reach is Burgenland. The continental climate there provides vines with Austria’s warmest summer temperatures. The most notable wine areas here surround all but the southern tip of Lake Neusiedl. This southern tip hangs into Hungary’s Sopron wine district. Lake Neusidl is large but very shallow. It supplies heat to the surrounding areas increasing the temperature by several degrees. The flat sandy coastal marshes and plains that surround the lake provide the ideal environment for botrytis infection. The drying sun and hot, dry easterly winds halt the infection providing the perfect environment for noble rot. The wineries on the west side of the lake, particularly around the town of Rust, identify their top botrytis wines by the name, Ausbruch. The venerable tradition of Ausbruch parallels that of Hungary’s Tokaji. Originally Ausbruch, like Tokaji, was based on the Furmint vine variety. Today the grape mix of Ausbruch is Welschriesling, Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc, and Traminer. Ausbruch is made only in years that allow significant enough botrytis infection of the noble sort. On the east side of Lake Neusidl, producers, though legally allowed to use the Aubruch name, tend to describe their sweet botrytis wines using the Germanic terminology of Auslese, Beerenauslese and Trockenbeerenauslese. Alois Kracher (1959 – 2OO7) brought international attention to his winery, the sweet wines of Austria, and to Austrian wines as whole. The Kracher winery at Illmitz, now under the direction of Gerhard Kracher with the assistance of his grandfather Alois Kracher, Sr., uses a number scale, the higher the number, the more exotically sweet the wine. Illmitz not only is near the lake but also amid a cluster of small lakes. Nearly every year, botrytis wines are possible there.
The greatest surprise of my visit was the quality of the red wines emanating from around Lake Neusidl. The Ernst Triebaumer estate in Rust caught my attention with the concentration and structure of their Blaufrankisch wines. The variety resists botrytis and benefits from the limestone soils in the vicinity of Rust. The hard work and skill of the Triebaumer family also no doubt plays a role in the quality of their wines. A Triebaumer Merlot-Cabernet Sauvignon blend also proved to be one of the most memorable wines.
On the east side of Lake Neusidl about nine wineries have joined in a group, called Pannobile, which every year, produces a wine, Pannobile, using traditional grapes, grown on the loess and loam dominant soil. More and more, the Pannobile blend focuses on Blaufrankisch. One of the founders of the Pannobile group, Hans Nittnaus, shared with me his interest in the southeast-facing foothills of the Leithaberg hills on the west side of lake in back of Rust. The soils are a mix of primary rock containing mica-slate and gneiss and shell limestone. Because he owns vineyards there, Nittnaus is also a member of the Leithaberg group, which numbers about 15 wineries. Leithaberg red wines, like those of Pannobile, are made from indigenous red varieties. Blaufrankisch predominates. Some red wines from the St. Laurent variety that I tasted showed the elegance of Pinot Noir, one of its genetic parents. Unfortunately, like Pinot Noir, it is difficult to grow and sensitive to botrytis. For Burgenland producers, Zweigelt, a 2Oth century crossing of Blaufrankisch and St. Laurent, is their grape of choice for less expensive quaffing red wines. Zweigelt is in fact Austria’s most planted red variety. The wines tend to be deep colored and flavorful, but low in acid and somewhat bitter. The wine reminds me of Piedmont’s Dolcetto. Here in Burgenland, international white varieties such as Chardonnay and Pinot Blanc are more in evidence than Gruner Veltliner and Riesling.
Gruner Veltliner has been the driving force behind the growth of Austria’s domestic and international wine sales. It accounts for half of the total white grape production. Austrians prefer to consume it as young as possible. The demand encourages winemakers to bottle it as soon after fermentation as possible. Such early bottling could amplify the crushed white peppercorn spiciness which is Gruner Veltliner’s hallmark. In my tasting experience, I have smelled crushed white peppercorn in a wide range of young white wines composed of various varieties. As a result, I associate this smell with the fermentation aromas of certain strains of yeast fermenting under cold conditions. My response to smelling it in wine is not to recognize it as a varietal characteristic. Nor do I usually associate the smell with quality white wine. I find many Austrian Gruner Veltliners to be coarse in the mouth. The early bottling and the release of Gruner Veltliners could account for this. More maturation time, particularly some time in contact with the fine lees could smooth the texture out. My reasoned biases exposed, the category of Austrian Gruner Veltliner has yet to impress me to the degree that it has impressed nearly everybody else. Sticker price seems to me to vary according to alcoholic content and concentration more than to uniqueness of flavor. During this trip, I experienced some examples that far surpassed my overall assessment of the capacity of this varietal. They are the Gritsch Mauritsiushof 2OO7 Axpoint Federspiel and the Domaine Wachau 2OO6 Terrassen, Smaragd both from the Wachau and the Wienninger 2OO6 Preussen from Vienna.
Winemakers usually plant Gruner Veltliner on fertile, loess-rich flat plains. They seem more interested in its varietal expression than the way it can express different soils and expositions. On the other hand, winemakers regularly position Riesling on south-facing slopes and precisely defined soils usually rocky or sandy in type. Austrian winemakers therefore, seem to allow Riesling more opportunity to express terroir. They also tend to bottle Riesling wine later than Gruner Veltliner wine and leave it more time on the lees. Kremstal, Kamptal, and particularly Wacchau Rieslings can express terroir with just as much definition and grace as fine German and Alsace examples.
Burgenland wine producers feel that they have discovered synergies between Blaufrankisch and their terroir. The vigor of the Pannobile and Leithaberg groups is evidence of that. One winemaker told me that Austrians prefer deeply-colored, overripe and pruney red wines of the Amarone-Barossa Valley type. I hope Austrian red wines do not fall into the abyss of overripeness. The Triebaumer wines are dark and concentrated on the edge of overripeness, but not over the edge.
Austrian wine consumers are nationalistic in their wine tastes. Exports only account for 15% to 18% of production. The US export market, third in value behind Germany and Switzerland, has expanded despite the weakness of the dollar. Three importers have brought Austrian wines into the US marketplace with an enthusiasm that goes beyond business interest. Seth Allen, founder of Vin Divino, initially focused on importing Italian wines into the USA. His friendship with Alois Kracher opened his eyes to Austrian wines. Soon the Vin Divino catalog was swimming in Austrian wine. Agent Terri Theise was an early believer in Austrian wine. Working in tandem with importer Michael Skurnick, he brings in a sizeable number of quality producers. Importer Weygant-Metzler also brings a fine bevy into the US market.
In the US market, Austrian wines have moved quickly into the mid-market, in a manner not dissimilar to New Zealand. While New Zealand punched a hole into the US market with Sauvignon Blanc, Austria has done the same with Gruner Veltliner. In the same way, that New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs show consistency of style, Austria has not confused consumers with varying styles of Gruner Veltliner. The wine is always spicy and dry. In Boston and New York City metropolitan areas, Austrian wines are favorite recommendations of sommeliers in fashionable restaurants. Now that Austria has secured a beachhead here with Gruner Veltliner, I hope that we begin seeing some of their better Blaufrankisch wines in our market.