A guide to Austrian Wine

Overview of Austrian Wine Production

Austria is a small country by wine-making standards, it accounts for less than 1% of a total world wine production with 46,000 hectares planted overall. Nevertheless, in terms of quality and value Austrian wine is notable versus its more famous competitors in Europe such as Burgundy and Italy.

There are several reasons  for this: history, climate, terroir and one of the strictest and newest wine regulatory regimes in the world following the 1985 diethylene glycol scandal when several Austrian wineries were found to be adulterating wine with this toxic substance. 

Still, if you do not live in Austria, Germany or Switzerland (or do not have friends  who live there ),  it is quite unlikely that you have come across Austrian wine since only a fraction of it is currently being exported (with more than 90% into other EU states).

A blind tasting of international wines carried out on 30 October 2002, organised by the fine wine dealer and collector Jan-Erik Paulson, and hosted by Jancis Robinson MW and Tim Atkin MW, highlighted the quality of its Grüner Veltliner grape. Austrian Chardonnays and Grüner Veltliners were compared to some of the world’s most prestigious Chardonnays from Burgundy, California, and Australia.The tasting panel featured participants such as the wine writer Steven Spurrier, of Judgement of Paris fame.

Seven of the first ten places were occupied by Austrian wines, with Knoll, Bründlmayer (2x), Velich, Prager, Loimer, and Freie Weingärtner Wachau, beating Louis Latour and Baron Thénard (Burgundy), Gaja (Italy) and Mondavi (California), The highest-rated Chardonnay of the tasting, placed third, was the Chardonnay Tiglat 1997 by Velich (Burgenland, Austria).

First place in the tasting was awarded to a 1990 Grüner Veltliner "Vinothekfüllung" Smaragd, Knoll (Wachau, Austria) with an average rating of 18.09 points, followed by a 1997 Grüner Veltliner "Ried Lamm", Bründlmayer (Kamptal, Austria) with 17.78 points. The first non-Austrian wine in the rating was a 1998 Byron Chardonnay, Nielson Vineyards, Mondavi (California) in fifth place. All three categories of wines tasted were won by Austrian wines.

History of Austrian Wine

Archeologists have confirmed that people had been planting grapes in Austria since before the Roman Empire and with its arrival the wine growing became even more organised. After the fall of the Roman Empire, most of the current wine growing regions in Austria were abandoned and only with the arrival of the Cistercian monks, the Burgundian viticulture methods were reintroduced and enhanced. The Austrian wine making industry thrived first under the Babenberg and then Habsburg rule with its peak in the 16th Century, when the total wine growing area was three times more than nowadays. Following this there  was a short decline in the 17th Century due to the siege of the Turks, but Maria Theresia and her son Josef II revived wine production again.

The 1985 diethylene glycol scandal

In 1985 the huge scandal with the illegal additive diethylene glycol (a primary ingredient in anti freeze) made the Austrian wine making industry instantly infamous, however in a long run it served a very good purpose.

The scandal involved several Austrian wineries which illegally adulterated their wines to make them appear sweeter and more full-bodied in the style of late harvest wines. The practice was uncovered by German wine analysis labs who performed quality tests on wines sold in Germany. The first wine discovered to contain DEG was a 1983 Rüster Auslese from a supermarket in Stuttgart, analysed on June 27, 1985 and a 1981 Welschriesling Beerenauslese from Burgenland was found to contain 48 grams per litre of diethylene glycol meaning that one bottle could have been lethal or irreversibly damage the kidney, liver and brain. Many of the adulterated wines were found to originate in Wagram in Lower Austria, where a consulting wine chemist was prosecuted. 

On July 9th 1985, the Federal Ministry of Health in Bonn issued an official health warning against the consumption of Austrian wines, and the news quickly spread around the world.

At the time Germany was the most important export market for Austrian wine with the wines of a similar style to those produced by Germany itself, notably semi-sweet and sweet white wines, but sold at a lower price.  Some Austrian exporters had entered into long-term contracts with supermarket chains to supply large quantities of wine at a specified quality and in poor vintages much of the grape harvest did not reach sufficient ripeness levels. This meant that the wines would be less sweet and more acidic than desired and this led some unscrupulius wine producers to modify the wines. By using diethylene glycol, it was possible to alter both sweetness and the body of the wine. .

As a result over 27 million litres of wine (36 million bottles) were destroyed by the German authorities by pouring it into the ovens of a cement plant as a cooling agent instead of water.

In the months that followed the discovery of the adulteration, several wine makers and dealers were arrested by the Austrian police and the first prison sentence, of one and a half years, followed in October 1985. One of the convicted Wagram winemakers, Karl Grill, proprietor of Firma Gebrüder Grill, committed suicide after being sentenced to a prison sentence.

The short-term effect of the scandal was a complete collapse of Austrian wine exports and a huge dent in the reputation of the Austrian wine industry as well as in Germany similar in scale to the VW diesel engine emissions scandal uncovered in 2015.  it took the Austrian wine industry over a decade to recover. Much stricter wine laws were also enacted by Austria on August 29, 1985 which is now one of the strictest standards in the world and since then a term “Qualitätswein” or “Quality wine” is applied to all wines produced in Austria. But it took the Austrian wine industry many years to recover (2001 wine exports recovered to pre-1985 levels) and it still has an impact on the reputation of the country's production despite it happening over 20 years ago.

Austrian grape varieties

Officially there are 35 grape varieties which can be grown in Austria: 22 white wine  varieties and 13 red wine varieties. Volume wise, 2/3 is presented by white and 1/3 for red. 

Grüner Veltliner

Grüner Veltliner accounts for approximately half of the white grape variety volume but other important varieties to mention are: Welschriesling, Weissburgunder (Pinot Blanc), Riesling, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Gelber Muskateller, Grauburgunder (Pinot Gris) and indigenous grape varieties like Rotgipfler and Zierfandler.

Grüner Veltliner has been recognised to be a white grape capable of producing wines with a great richness, complexity and ageing potential equalled only by by top class Chardonnay and Riesling wines.  Grüner Veltliner has similar aromas but can often show more fruit and freshness than Chardonnay.

Zweigelt is the most well known Austrian red grape variety and it accounts for almost 50% of the total red wine production. At the same time Blaufränkisch, St.Laurent, Blauer Burgunder (Pinot Noir), Blauburger and Blauer Portugieser are also important to mention. 

“Qualitätswein” is produced from the grapes grown in three federal states of Austria: Niederösterreich, Burgenland and Steiermark and they are defined as wine growing regions.

Austrian Wine Producing Regions

Vienna with its 612 hectares is a standalone region with its flagship Gemischter Satz, a new trendy wine produced from a variety of grapes, which are grown, harvested and fermented together.

Niederösterreich is the largest wine growing region and it includes the following eight specific wine growing sub-regions:

  •  Wachau
  •  Kremstal
  •  Kamptal
  •  Traisental
  •  Wagram
  •  Weinviertel
  •  Thermenregion
  •  Carnuntum

The first six sub-regions are predominantly white wine producing areas with a focus on Grüner Veltliner, Riesling and Weissburgunder.

Pinot Noir, Thermenregion vineyard, Austria

Although, Thermenregion is mainly a white wine producing sub-region focusing on indigenous Rotgipfler and Zierfandler it is also famous for the red Burgundy style wines and this is where excellent Pinot Noir and Sankt Laurent  (St. Laurent) wines come from. 

Carnuntum, which is situated next to Burgenland and Pannonian plains, enjoys a lot of sunshine hence the focus here is on the red wines predominantly made of Zweigelt and Blaufränkisch. 

Burgenland is a home of full-bodied red wines thanks to long and hot Pannonian summers. There are four sub-regions:

  •  Neusiedlersee
  •  Mittelburgenland
  •  Leithaberg / Neusiedlersee-Hügelland
  •  Eisenberg / Südburgenland

Neusiedlersee is the largest sub-region in Burgenland and the one which boasts the many top wine producers, several of which are internationally recognised and awarded.  Zweigelt is a key grape variety in this region.

Mittelburgenland is a Blaufränkischland and the vast majority of wines produced there are based on this grape variety.  Leithaberg / Neusiedlersee-Hügelland offers good selection of white (Weissburgunder, Chardonnay), Red (Blaufränkisch) and sweet wines (Ruster Ausbruch is the most well known out of all). 

Rust is a key city in this area as it is famous for its Ruster Ausbruch, a sweet, concentrated wine produced from grapes affected by noble rot (Botrytis cinerea) as a result of the areas climatic conditions. Rust was granted the status of Freistadt (free city) by Emperor Leopold I in 1681, partly because of his wife's love of the local sweet wines. 28,000 litres of Ruster Ausbruch as well as gold had to be handed over to acquire the status. 

The fungus penetrates the outer wax layer of the grapes and induces a shrivelling and concentration of taste and aromas of the finished wine. Cover vegetation balances the relatively high temperatures  of the Pannonian climate, whilst well ventilated leaf canopies and autumn fogs from the Neusiedlersee ensure that the grapes dry quickly after rainfall which means ideal conditions for the development of noble rot. 

Late ripening white wine varietals with good acidity  and high susceptibility to Botrytis are ideally suited to the production of Ruster Ausbruch, including  Welschriesling, white pinot, Furmint and Yellow Muscat. The grapes have to be carefully picked by hand to ensure quality and gentle treatment, a process knwon as "breaking out". A must weight of at least 30 degrees KMW at harvest is required for Ruster Ausbruch and the finished wine has a optimal alcohol content of 12%. Wines that have passed through a panel of blind tasting can bear the label, "Cercle Ruster Ausbruch", with the Ruster wine Charta signed in December 2005 by leading producers in the area.

Südburgenland is the smallest region however it also offers a good selection of white and red wines and also local sparkling speciality called Uhudler (made of Isabella grapes, which are permitted to grow only in this region).

Steiermark is undoubtedly the most beautiful region and the one, which offers one of the best Sauvignon Blancs in Europe if not the world. It consists of the following three sub-regions: 

  •  Vulkanland Steiermark
  •  Südsteiermark
  •  Weststeieremark

The first one is not only the home for Traminer, which is a regional speciality, but also for Burgundy style white wines like Grauburgubder (Pinot Gris), Weissburgunder (Pinot Banc) and Chardonnay. In addition to the wine growing industry this is the Spa and hot springs paradise. 

Südsteiermark with its’ rolling hills and fine weather is reminiscent of Tuscany, however the focus here is on aromatic grape varieties like Sauvignon Blanc and Gelber Muskateller. Other white grape varieties like Welshriesling,  Chardonnay (called here Morillon).

Westeiermark is a Schilcher (Blauer Wildbacher) region. This is very old grape variety is a great source for zesty sparkling Roséwein.

Recommended Austrian Wines

Some of my personal favourites from Austria:

  • Familie Johanneshof Reinisch, Thermenregion - Merlot Dornfeld, Pinot Noir, Pinot Noir Grillenhügel, Pinot Noir Holzspur, Premiere (a red young wine cuvée), Riesling , Rotgipfler, Rotgipfler Satzing, Rotgipfler Auslese, Sauvignon Blanc, St. Laurent, St. Laurent Frauenfeld, St. Laurent Holzspur, Sparkling Pinot Noir Brut, Steingarten (a red wine cuvée), Zierfandler Spiegel, Zweigelt, Zweigelt Frauenfeld
  • Schneider winery, Tattendorf - Excellent St.Laurent, Pinot Noir
  •  Weingut Familie Auer, Tattendorf - Excellent Reserve St.Laurent, Pinot Noir

Falstaff Rotweingala

The Falstaff Rotweingala in Hofburg is focused on the top wine producers and each of them sends 3 of his top red wines, which are then assessed by Falstaff committee in advance and then selected for the wine tasting. At the 2015 event there were 121 winemakers invited to attend the event with 350 wines.

Among the top winemakers were the wineries Netzl, Kollwentz, Gernot and Heike Heinrich, Preisinger, Scheiblhofer, Werner Achs, Umathum. In the Falstaff awards for the top Austrian Wines 1st place went to Netzl winery from Göttlesbrunn. Franz Netzl and daughter Christina, run one of the most prestigious wineries in Carnuntum Weibauregion and their Cuvée Anna-Christina 2013. Second place went to Kreutzer and winemaker Albert Gesellmann with his Bela Rex 2013 Cuvée. Third place went to Winzerhof Ronald Kiss from Jois for the Gamay Jungenberg 2013. 

Some highlighted wines from the event:

  • Leopold Aumann (https://www.aumann.at/de) from Tribuswinkel. This is one of the best winemakers in Thermenregion and his Merlot Classic 2013 (Price €9.60!) was excellent. His Badnerberg 2012 (Sankt Laurent and Merlot) were very good, but at considerably higher price of €31.
  • Weingut Amsee (http://www.wein-amsee.at) from Gols. Cabernet Sauvignon Alter Satz 2012 (€39) and Blaufränkisch v36 2012 (€34) were both excellent. The Cabernet was kept for 36 months in new barrique and Blaufränkisch in a mix of new and old.
  • Weingut Juris (http://www.juris.at/en/weingut/) from Gols, chief winemaker (Axel Stiegelmar) has consistently good wines year after year. The Ina'mera 2011 (€28, cuvee of Blaufränkisch, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot) is recommended with the 2012 and 2013 vintages are also great. The Pinot Noir Hochreit 2013 and Pinor Noir Breitenteil 2013 (both €31 Euros each), Pinot Noir Setzluss and Haide at the same price. All four Pinot Noirs are named after particular vineyard the grapes are harvested from. 2013 vintage is not yet released, but 2012 available and he has a nice wooden box with those 4 different wines (http://shop.juris.at/de/weine/pinot-noir-lagen/pinot-noir-2012-lagen-holzkiste.html), The Pinot Noir Breitenteil 2012 was ranked third in Austria last year in the grape category and Ina'mera 2012 also third in the Cuvee category.
  • Weingut Johann Gisperg (http://www.weingut-gisperg.at) from Teesdorf . Very good St. Laurent and Pinot Noir year after year and the price/quality is top notch. The St. Laurent Reserve 2013 (€15.70) and new cuvee Contrast 2012 €16.5 (SL, Rösler, Zweigelt, Merlot) are also recommended. The Pinot Noir Reserve (€16.5) and St. Laurent Reserve are highly recommended as Johnann is one of the best Burgundermachers in Austria.
  • Weingut Dopler (http://www.tattendorf.at/dopler/) from Tattendorf. Another Burgundermacher. His SL Reserve 2012 (€17) was a winner last year in the St. Laurent category and it is still available for sale. His Pinot Noir Reserve (€17) and Cuvee Lindberg (€19.50, PN+SL) are also very nice.
  • Weingut Kerniger (http://www.keringer.at/Deutsch/Frame%20Weingut.htm) from Mönchhof. The Grande Cuvee 2013 (€12.5, cuvee of Zweigelt and Rathay), Cabernet Sauvignon "100 days" 2013 €16 and his flagman Massiv 2012 (€32, cuvee of BF, Rathay, ZW and CS. this wine has won multiple awards). 
  • Rotweingut Maria Kerschbaum (http://www.weingut-kerschbaum.at/htm/home/start.php) from Horitschon, Mittelburgenland - the Blaufränkischland.  Both Blaufränkisch are mind-blowing: Blaufränkisch David's Show Reserve 2012 €20.9, Blaufränkisch Reserve Dürrau 2012 €24.2. The cuvee K11 Grand Reserve Kerschbaum 2011 €36 was also super.
  • Winzerhof Kiss (http://www.winzerhof-kiss.at) from Jois. This winemaker has always been consistently good, but in the last few years he has started to pick up the trophies - one after another. This year he presented Renommee 2013 (€14, cuvee of ZW and CS), CS Neuberg 2013 € 23 and Blaufränkisch Jungenberg 2013 €25. CS Neuberg is a winner of CS category for 2 years in a row and Blaufränkisch Jungenberg is a winner in the category BF this year. All wines are excellent although still young and will benefit from ageing of at least 1 year in a cellar. He also has a very nice BF DAC Leithaberg 2013, which is a smaller brother of Jungenberg and quite enjoyable been now and costs €15.
  • HST - Hannes Steurer (http://www.hannessteurer.at/sortiment) from Jois. All 3 wines have excellent price/quality ratio. Renommee (€14, ZW+CS), HST 2013 (€13, ZW+BF) and CS M1 2013 €22.
  • Stiegelmar (http://www.stiegelmar.com/en) from Gols. One of the favourites amongst non-Burgundermachers (along with Juris - another Stiegelmar). The Cabernet Sauvignon Kalbskopf 2013 €18.1, Stiegelmar 2012 (€19.4, ZW+BF+CS) and Zweigelt Ungerberg 2012 €34 are excellent.