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The Ultimate Cheat Sheet on Austrian Wine

Maybe Austrian wine isn’t exactly “under the radar,” but it’s probably still “somewhat adjacent to the radar” for most consumers. People have probably heard of Grüner Veltiner, the savory, sometimes shpicy white grape. There are great picnic-quaffer 1-liter bottles nearly everywhere. But Austria also makes top-quality Grüners, incredible Riesling, some distinctive Sauvignon Blanc, and its native red Blaufränkish is reminiscent of Pinot Noir in its ability to transparently reflect terroir with potential as a world-class wine. Yet Austria still languishes in the back of many folks’ minds.


wine region map of Austria

I’ve always enjoyed wines from Austria, but after a visit to Burgenland in 2022, I returned more passionate than ever. So, here’s the primer you need to encourage more exploration in the world of Austrian wine.

 

Why is Austrian wine so awesome?

 

Wine is an integral part of their lives – come on, the capital city, Vienna, is named “Wein,” and it is the only major city in the world with significant vineyards within city limits. The country’s focus is on quality, not quantity; its total wine-producing area is smaller than Piedmont in Italy. And there are many family-owned vineyards and wineries, high standards, tight controls on maximum yields, and tasting panels for quality wines. Plus, there’s something for everyone: gluggable to collectable, white, red, rosé, orange, dessert, sparkling, natural, relatively affordable for the quality… you hardly need to drink anywhere else.

 

Austrian Wine History in a nutshell:

 

Austria’s wine legacy is defined by a lot of comings and goings. There are records of grapevines there since the Celtic times, with viticulture heartily encouraged when wine-loving Romans passed through. When they left in the late 5th century, however, vineyards were largely abandoned. But then wine-loving Charlemagne came through, then wine-savvy monks came through, and so by the 16th century, there grew to be a whopping 150,000 hectares (ha) under vine, 3 times versus today. At the time, sweet wines were prized, so the first Austrian star was the sweet wines of Rust – Ruster Ausbruch.

 


composite photo of botrytized grapes medals town of Rust Ruster Ausbruch label

But the boom didn’t last for long. In the 17th century, invading Turkish armies destroyed much of the vineyard lands, then the devastating root louse phylloxera swept through, and so by 1914 there were only 50,000 ha of land under vine. Then there was the breakup of the Austro-Hungarian empire, then WW1, then WW2… all stunting the growth of the Austrian wine industry. In spite of that, viticulture was developing since the 1860s, and in 1922 Fritz Zweigelt crossed the grapes St. Laurent and Blaufränkish, creating his eponymous variety. Unfortunately, he leaned politically on the wrong side of history, but Zweigelt remains most planted red in the country.

 

The modern era began with the culture of heurige (“heuh-rig-uh,” local taverns associated with wineries,) and advances in mechanization and efficient winemaking, alongside the massive ascendance of Grüner Veltliner. Unfortunately, in the 1980s, the sudden popularity of Austrian wine caused problems; in 1985 there was a massive scandal involving wine adulterated with diethylene glycol (a component of antifreeze) to mimic the sweet and unctuous feel of naturally-vinified dessert wine. This scandal caused a complete collapse of the industry amidst embarrassment, making Austrian wine disappear from global shelves for a number of years. However, the disgrace caused the country to firmly pivot and adopt very strict regulations to put the focus back on high-quality winemaking, and in the 1990s, successful industry blind tastings of Austrian sweet wines against Sauternes, and dry whites against top Burgundies, cemented the return to quality. Since then, it’s only been getting better.

 

Regions:

 

Viticulture is really only viable on Austria’s eastern border, as the rest of the country is too mountainous and snowy. (There are a handful of producers popping up in the west, though, stay tuned.) The wine-growing area is divided into three main regions, Niederösterreich (Lower Austria, perhaps confusingly in the north,) Burgenland, and Steiermark (Styria) to the south. The small region of Wein surrounds Vienna, with around 650 ha of vines and 145 wineries.

 

Niederösterreich has rugged terrain and is most known for the high-quality subregions of Wachau, (with its UNESCO World Heritage-designated terraces,) Kremstal, and Kamptal. Burgenland shares a lot of history and culture with neighboring Hungary, is known more for red wines, and is kind of a natural wine hotspot. It also hosts, on the banks of the large lake Neusiedl, the town of Rust with its historic sweet wines, still delicious.

 

In Southern Steiermark, the rolling hills favor mostly white wines from French varieties, and some producers are making crazy good Sauvignon Blanc here. Some say Riesling could thrive on the hillsides, but for now, traditional plantings reign.



composite photos of vineyards in Burgenland Austria

 

Climate & Soil:

 

Austrian winelands generally have a cool, continental climate: short, hot summers, long, cold winters, and rain throughout the year. Though landlocked, there is significant water influence, from the Danube River, Lake Neusiedl, and even the Mediterranean Sea aways to the south, which powers weather patterns. In the north, the cool and dry climate is great for Grüner and Riesling, with big diurnal shifts in temperature letting the grapes ripen during the day, and then cooling off at night to preserve acidity. Austria is also subject to the hot gusts of winds across the Pannonian plain from Hungary, which is mitigated by cold alpine breezes from the west.

 

The soil is comprised of mostly loose windblown sediment called loess, which retains moisture well and can lead to a creamier, richer, fruitier expression of Grüner. There are also pockets and veins of granite, gneiss, schist, limestone, clay, loam, sand, volcanic, alluvial, and even iron ore! (Such variety of terroir, and increased attention to it, is one reason why the potential of Blaufränkish is expanding.)

 

Grapes:

 

Grüner is by far the biggest player, followed by Riesling. Other whites are Sauvignon Blanc, Grauburgunder (Pinot Grigio,) Weissburgunder (Pinot Blanc,) Welschriesling (not the same as “regular” Riesling,) with twenty more authorized for quality wine. The reds are focused on the indigenous Blaufränkisch and Zweigelt, with Sankt (St.) Laurent also notable, (although there is more Merlot than St. Laurent planted now,) and eleven more reds in the mix.

 

Deciphering Austrian Wine Label Terms:

 

Tricky, but important. Quality wine production is governed by the DAC, Districtus Austriae Controllatus. This designation means a wine shows typicity of its region, and it has regulations for grape varieties, grape cultivation and harvesting, levels of alcohol and residual sugar, aging and sensory characteristics, logos and labelling, and designations (i.e. “Reserve”). Told you they got strict! There are currently 18 DAC appellations. Wachau was not originally in the system (it joined only in 2020,) though it had its own labelling terms which you’ll still see on many labels: Steinfeder, the lightest style, with maximum 11.5% abv; Federspiel is midweight with more power and elegance, at 11.5-12.5%; and Smaragd is the richest and fullest-bodied, minimum 12.5%.

 

Just a few more: “Ried” denotes a dingle vineyard, “erzeugerabfüllung” designates a producer-bottled wine and “gutsabfüllung” is an estate-bottled wine. Like Germany, Austria also has Prädikatswein, which are designations for different must weights, loosely tied to sweetness, i.e. Auslese and Trockenbeerenauslese. And you may see “gebietswein” for regional, light-bodied wines, and “ortswein” for more complex village wines. Phew, I think that’s enough there.

 

Suggested wines:

 

Still with me? Great! This whole post is just a surface skim – it was hard not to go down the rabbit hole of detail. But I wanted to whet your whistle and encourage you to seek out more Austrian wines. And the best way to do that is to introduce you to some of my personal favorites.


Composite photo of Austrian winemakers Kollwentz Schrock Sommer Muhr Velich Prieler

Niederösterreich:

 

Bernhard Ott (Wagram) – serious and complex Grüners, especially the Am Berg and Fass 4, with long lees aging.

 

Franz Hirtzberger (Wachau) – Franz Sr. and Jr. (now running the show) are known for classic, concentrated Grüners and Rieslings from carefully cultivated terraces.

 

Emmerich Knoll (Wachau) – powerful, weighty, persistent, but never overblown whites from historic vineyards. You can’t miss their ornate label featuring St. Urban, the patron saint of vineyards and winemakers.

 

Dorli Muhr (Wagram) – this woman has a vision, and it’s clear and powerful. Her array of elegant and complex Blaus was what first blew my mind on how terroir-reflective the grape is. Small production, so if you can find any here, grab her wines STAT.

 

Setzer (Weinviertel) – look for their top wines from limestone sites, giving those Grüners a Chablis-like lift and saltiness.

 

Hirsch (Kamptal) – an early pioneer of artisanal winemaking, Hirsch’s Rieslings and Grüners show a rich but pure and crystalline expression.

 

Domäne Wachau (Wachau) – this co-op deserves mention for its availability and quality at a lower price point. A few have shown up in my “Top 25 Under 25” posts.

 

FX Pichler (Wachau) – traditional, admired, high-quality wines. Theirs were the first Austrian bottles that showed me what the country was capable of, when I first tasted them almost 20 years ago.  

 

Burgenland:

 

Kollwenz – an international grape specialist, their Chardonnays are serious and gorgeous enough to rival Burgundy. (I also got to taste a 50-year old Blau with Herr Kollwenz senior who made it; delicious, ethereal, complex, a very special wine. A man of few words, he just looked up and said, “gut.”)

 

Prieler – this family-run estate is well known for Weissburgunder (Pinot Blanc) though also makes personable Blaus, including some distinctive single-vinyeard offerings.

 

Heidi Schröck – one of the kindest, most genial producers out there, and a champion for the sweet dessert wines of Rust. These are hedonistic, sexy wines – a real experience.

 

Claus Preisinger – incredibly forward-thinking, Preisinger is the modern naturalist. Low intervention, use of amphorae, and a lot of sass; if you like that style, you’ll love these wines.

 

Moric – Roland Velich is a serious man giving serious attention to Blau, especially from old-vine vineyards. He also works low intervention, with native yeasts and large barrels, and his complex and bold wines demand attention.


Special shout-out to Leo Sommer; we didn't get to specifically taste his wines, but he taught me how to prune a vine after a glass of his faux pet-nat he called "Pet-Nicht".

 

Steiermark:

 

Tement – incredible quality Sauvignon Blancs; their entry-level is delicious and shows Savvy’s unique Austrian vibe, but their single vineyard offerings are compelling and truly mind-blowing.

 

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Additional resources: austrianwine.com is an amazing trade website, chockablock with information. And Stephen Brook’s “The Wines of Austria” is thorough, with detailed producer profiles.

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