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The Wines of Austria

In recent times, Austrian wine has been experiencing a surge of interest around the world. In Australia, consumers are confidently discussing the merits of grüner veltliner and blaüfrankisch where five years ago only wine aficionados were aware of the particularities there. In the US too, there is a heightened awareness; exports are on the rise and Austrian wine is enjoying a purple patch.

Austria has, of course, had a very long wine history. Evidence suggests indigenous grape varieties have been used to produce wine there for centuries, and even in modern times it has been an important industry. For instance, Austria was the world’s third largest producer of wine in the early Twentieth Century although, at that time, it mostly made bulk wine of limited quality.

In 1986 the Austrian Wine Marketing Board (AWMB) was created to breath new life into an industry that was in significant need of rejuvenation, and the last five to ten years has seen its success in an extraordinary flourishing of the wine culture in Austria. By 2011, at the twenty-fifth anniversary of the board’s inception, the AWMB had already succeeded in repositioning their whites within the highest echelons of celebrated wines, and their reds were beginning to be redefined also.

The developments are instructive: raised standards of production have seen an increase in quality, boosting sales and returning more money to the industry, which in turn improves production values. Nowhere is this more obvious than along the Danube, in the Wachau for instance, where manicured vineyards run down the slopes to the banks of the river, and well-kept estates devoted to quality are thriving, and reinvesting in their commitment.

A recent survey by the Austrian Wine Board noted two distinct trends in the industry which clearly illustrate the way it is developing. Firstly, there is a continuing decrease in the number of wineries operating in Austria. This is accompanied, however, by a general increase of the size of the wineries in operation. What this means is that there is an improving level of professionalism in the wineries that remain in operation, and that they are expanding enterprises.

Austria has sixteen distinct wine producing regions, and a little over 45,000 hectares of land under vine, predominantly in the east and southeast of the country. These can be separated into three discrete groups; Lower Austria which produces about 59% of Austrian wine, Burgenland (30%) and Styria (9%), although there are still some vineyards around Vienna (2%), and some small unaffiliated vineyards dotted about. While production is mainly of dry wines, sweet wines of exceptional quality are being produced in the south of the country, and becoming more widely recognised.

What is most interesting is Austria’s emphasis on indigenous varieties, and the way domestic consumers support this. The country’s major focus is on white wine, which makes up about two thirds of total wine production. Of the twenty four varieties of white grapes grown for quality wine production, grüner veltliner is unquestionably king, accounting for about a third of the total Austrian wine production. The species is native to the region, and is also widely grown across Slovakia and the Czech Republic.

Grüner veltliner dominates production in Lower Austria, along the Danube, as it runs east across the middle of the country. While müller-thurgau, pinot blanc, riesling, chardonnay and sauvignon blanc are also produced, grüner veltliner is more planted than all other white varieties combined. Made in a wide variety of styles, it can be light and spicy where it’s enjoyed as young wine, or strong and powerful, capable of significant aging. Recently, there had been a trend towards maturing these wines in oak barrels, which also sees them develop significantly.

Further south in Burgenland, where the Pannonian Basin is warmed by southerly winds from Hungary, the emphasis shifts towards red varieties. Zweigelt and blaufränkisch are the two native varieties that prevail here, (and are also produced in Lower Austria). Zweigelt has fruity aromas and a velvety roundness that gains finesse as it ages. This makes it a perfect grape for blending, and it is often used in combination with blaufränkisch or cabernet sauvignon. Blaufränkisch itself it makes a wine that is intensely fruity when it is young but which softens into deeper complexity as it ages, but its finest characteristic is its capacity to reflect the soil that it is grown in; a savoury minerality that carries the flavours of the vine’s site.

It is in Burgenland that Austria’s desert wines are also made. Neusiedlersee is a vast inland lake that emanates a humidity and regularly generates a harvest of botrytised grapes. These sweet whites are made predominately with welschriesling, a local grape which is not, in fact, related to riesling at all, as well as pinot blanc and chardonnay. The sweet reds are made with blauer zweigelt and Blaufränkisch, as well as pinot noir. These wines are far less known outside Austria, and definitely merit investigation.

In Styria, the major white variety is welschriesling, and the major red variety is blauer wildbacher. Welschriesling makes a refreshing wine that is popularly drunk when young, and also makes an excellent base for sparkling wine. The red grape, Blauer wildbacher has a distinctive grassy bouquet, and is mostly used to make a rosé style wine. Also drunk young, it is an easy drinking wine with good acid structure.

Austria’s devotion to local grape varieties is impressive, and consumer support of the domestic industry in general no less so. Their inclination for drinking these wines young and fresh is also interesting. As the fame and reputation of these wines becomes more widespread, and the export markets increase, there is an opportunity for consumers worldwide to try styles they may not have encountered before. Moreover, given that many of these wines will also age, despite the Austrian preference for early drinking, it is a real opportunity to explore a new diversity of variety and quality.

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