Austrian wine has come a long way since the Antifreeze Scandal of 1985, when a handful of unscrupulous winemakers were discovered to be illegally modifying their wines with diethylene glycol (a component of antifreeze). After World War One, Austria was the world’s largest wine producer, with the industry predominantly focused on producing and exporting bulk wine to Germany. However, the Antifreeze Scandal devastated the Austrian market and forced the industry to abandon low standard bulk wine production in favour of quality wines. Since 1985, efforts to improve Austrian wine have, in the words of Conchita Wurst, Austrian winner of the 2015 Eurovision Song Contest, helped Austria’s industry to “rise like a phoenix” from the ruin created by the Antifreeze Scandal. Austria’s wine industry has since remoulded itself a supplier of high-quality, innovative and expressive wines that are now grabbing the attention and taste buds of international consumers.
I'm willing to bet that few readers of the Drake Vine will have tried Austrian wine before. And of those of you who say, "yes, I've tried Austrian wine", the chances are it was a Grüner Veltliner (GV for short). In the UK, US and other countries, GV can be found in a growing number of restaurants, and being offered by both mainstream and specialist retailers. Although it's made into wines of varying styles – including light, full-bodied and off-dry – most of the GVs I’ve encountered in the UK have been dry and crisp with fresh citrus and flinty flavour characteristics.
However, despite accounting for one third of all the vines planted in Austria, there’s a lot more to Austrian wine than GV. Austria isn’t a large wine producer by international standards. Its total planted area is 113,000 acres (45,900ha), less than half that of Germany's. Austria also ranks just sixteenth in the world in terms of the amount of wine produced.
As well as being relatively small, the Austrian wine industry is made up of many family-run and boutique wine producers which specialise in artisanal and small-scale production, rather than bulk wine. One consequence of this it that Austrian wine tends to retail at comparatively high prices internationally.
The relatively high price and artisanal character of Austrian wine dovetails with the image of Austria as a cool, clean and classy country that offers visitors everything from alpine skiing in crisp mountain air to music and museums in Austria’s sophisticated capital Vienna. It’s claimed that Vienna is the world's only capital city that is also a significant wine-producing region, with a total of 1,536 acres (622ha) of vineyards within the city boundaries.
However, across the 16 official wine districts that are spread across this area, there is a huge amount of diversity in terms of soil types, grape varieties, wine styles and the climatic conditions to which grapes are exposed. 35 grape varieties are officially recognised by the country’s classification system. They include those that are found internationally and those that are indigenous or regional. Of the international varieties, Austrian winemakers are working successfully with "aromatic" whites such as Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Traminer, Müller-Thurgau (also big in Germany), Muscat (known locally as Muskateller) and Pinot Blanc (Weissburgunder). However, it’s the use of indigenous varieties that’s helping Austria differentiate its offering to international consumers. The most famous local variety, Grüner Veltliner, is mainly grown in the northeast of the country and production is especially lively to the west of Vienna – in Kremstal, Kamptal and in Austria’s most famous wine region the Wachau. Forty miles (65km) to the west of Vienna, where the Danube passes 1600ft (490m) high cliffs, it is in the Wachau that the hills really do come alive to the sound of Austrian wine. Here the grapes are influenced by hot summers and cooling night-time air from the north. GV is the traditional Wachau grape, although Riesling is also widespread. The influence of cooling northern air helps to produce wines that are fresh and racy with good acidity.
In Austria and internationally, Grüner Veltliner – with its tendency to take on a spicy and peppery character – has developed a reputation for being a good companion with Asian cuisine – especially Thai and Chinese. It also waltzes well with oysters, sushi, asparagus and artichokes.
Other local Austrian white varieties include Zierfandler and Rotgipfler, used to make full-bodied, spicy and sometimes off-dry or sweet wines; Roter Veltliner, a rose coloured grape from which creamy whites are made; Neuberger, which gives rich, spicy wines, sweet, semi-sweet or dry; and Welschriesling (no relation of Riesling) with its green apple aromas.
Austria’s Red Renaissance
Burgandland has also been at the forefront of Austria's red wine renaissance, which began after 1985 as pioneer producers applied advanced red-wine making techniques to imported French varieties, as well as to Austrian ones.
Around 30% of Austrian wines are red, with the majority coming from Zweigelt, Blaufränkisch, Blauer Portugieser and Pinot Noir. The most widely planted red grape, Zweigelt, produces rich, cherry-fruited wines with a peppery character. However, Zweigelt is often used in red blends as a “workhorse” grape. Zweigelt was first developed in 1922 by Dr Zweigelt, who crossbred Saint Laurent with Blaufränkisch. Outside Austria, Zweigelt is being produced by winemakers in England, Canada, New York, Japan, and in other parts of Central and Eastern Europe.
Blaufränkisch by contrast, is firmer than Zweigelt, presents more acidity and tannin, and demonstrates great aging potential. Blaufränkisch flourishes in Austria’s Burgenland region, especially around Lake Neusiedl. Different styles are produced, including those that are mineralic, those that are opulent and those that are racy. According to Oz Clarke, the best examples of Austrian Blaufränkisch are “zesty, often unoaked, with flavours of blueberries, red cherries and red currents”. When part of red blends, “low yield Blaufränkisch brings structure and acidity”.
Pinot Noir and Blaufränkisch are among the many Austrian varieties being sold by Newcomer Wines, a London-based Austrian wine specialist that supplies UK restaurants and hotels, as well as selling directly to consumers. Although it's currently based in BOXPARK, a pop-up mall in Shoreditch, Newcomer Wines plans to open store in Dalston in 2016.
London's Newcomer Wines is just one example of the international impact of Austria’s wine revolution that looks set to gather pace. Whether fresh and racy, classy and opulent, or alternative, bold and expressive, it's clear that the "Do-Re-Mi" of Austrian wine is finally being heard well beyond the hills.