Austrian Wine and Its Regions, An Introduction - Learn More From Online Wine Experts
With millennia of grape-growing history and centuries of wine production, one would think that Austria would be a more prominent household name in the world of wine. With France and Italy dominating the American perception of European winemaking, it is easy to overlook the incredible wines of Austria. There is a large focus on the production of white wines, Gruner Veltliner alone makes up for over 30% of the vineyards. Another reason behind this oversight may have to do with the fact that Austria hasn’t given much attention to international varieties. Instead of hopping on the hype train, the vast majority of production, especially quality production, is focused on indigenous grapes.
The two most important white varieties in Austria are Gruner Veltliner and Riesling. Gruner is one of the most approachable styles of white wine in the world. Gruner Veltliner is dry, light, and refreshing often giving flavors of citrus and a slight herbal quality. Gruner is typically a wine best drunk young, there are of course exceptions with some very well-made wines able to age gracefully for 10+ years. The Rieslings of Austria, unlike many of their German counterparts, are generally made in a completely dry style. Riesling, in general, can age exceptionally well. Some of the best Austrian producers even age their riesling for long periods prior to release. For example, Nikolaihof ages the ‘Vinothek’ for 17 years before release, where it can then easily age another two decades. The two most important red varieties are Zweigelt and Blaufränkisch. Zweigelt just happens to be an offspring of Blaufränkisch, it provides a light red wine that has a distinct cracked pepper aroma similar to that of Syrah.Blaufränkisch produces a slightly more supple and robust wine with a distinguished red and black fruity character. With both Zweigelt and Blaufränkisch, typically these would be consumed in their youth to show their full fruity character.
There is a bit of a dark cloud that hangs over the winemaking history of Austria. In the middle of the 1980s, a lot of the wine that was being made was coming from overstretched vineyards. This overproduction caused the wines to be thin and even a little watery. To try to bolster their wines, a handful of Austrian producers were adding diethylene glycol, anti-freeze, to their wines. This certainly added body to the wine, but not in a way that the vast majority of producers wanted to be associated with their wines. With this unfolding scandal quickly becoming a national embarrassment, the winemaking community acted quickly to implement strict regulations. Because of this, Austria now has some of the most rigorous testing policies and regulations in the world, guaranteeing a more pure product focused on higher quality wine. That little silver lining to the dark cloud benefits consumers to this day.
Top Wine Regions of Austria
Perhaps the most highly regarded growing region in the country. Wachau is home to some of the most electric white wines in the country and the world. The Wachau has a labeling system that is unique to the rest of the country. Producers are allowed to use the label terms: Steinfeder, Federspiel, and Smaragd. These labels are essentially letting consumers know the ripeness of the grapes when they were harvested. Steinfeder wines have the lowest level of potential alcohol in the grapes when harvested, followed by Federspiel, and Smaragd being the ripest of the bunch.
Kamptal and Kremstal
Kamptal and Kremstal are neighboring districts that are positioned along the Kamp and Krems rivers, both of which feed into the Danube. In these regions, you are likely to encounter labels with the word Reid placed before the name of a vineyard. This term is meant to describe that the wine inside is produced entirely from grapes grown on the single vineyard, similar to “estate” in California. Both regions produce Riesling and Gruner Veltliner. Gruner in particular achieves its peak here producing a very prominent white pepper aroma.
Sitting just south of Vienna, the Thermenregion extends south through the hills along the border of the Vienna Woods. The region takes its name from the hot springs scattered throughout. The region is largely focused on white wines as far as volume is concerned, but in the south, there is high-quality Sankt Laurent and Pinot Noir produced. The most prominent white varieties are the indigenous Rotgipfler and Zierfandler, both of which are often produced as varietal wines and blended.
This is a very large region, composed of 6 smaller regions mostly known for producing red and sweet wines. In the southern portions of Burgenland, the majority of vineyard acreage is dedicated to Blaufrankisch with smatterings of Zweigelt. In the north of Burgenland around the lake, Neuseidler see, extremely well-made sweet wines dominate the quality wine scene. The humidity that is caused by the lake creates the perfect environment for Botrytis Cinerea to thrive. Botrytis is a fungus that dehydrates grapes and thus concentrates the sugars and is present on the vast majority of the world’s best sweet wines (French Sauternes, German TrockenBeerenauslese, and Hungarian Tokaji). On opposite sides of the lake, you have two of the most important dessert wine-producing towns of Illmitz and Rust. The wines are lusciously sweet with a hint of savory from Botrytis.
Today Austria is home to some extremely sought-after producers that make extremely age-worthy wines. Some notable producers to keep an eye out for:
- Prager - Wachau
- Nikolaihof - Wachau
- FX Pichler - Wachau
- Emmerich Knoll - Wachau
- Franz Hirtzberger - Wachau
- Schloss Gobelsburg - Kamptal
- Hirsch - Kamptal
- Nigl - Kremstal
- Bründlmayer - Kremstal
- Stadlmann - Thermenregion
- Heidi Schrock - Rust Burgenland
- Kracher - Illmitz Burgenland
Austrian Food and Wine
Austria is famous for its schnitzel and sausages, with good reason, but the cuisine is quite diverse. Paprika is a staple seasoning in Austrian households, it isn’t nearly as spicy as a lot of peppers can be (habanero, cayenne, even ghost pepper) but it does add enough of a kick to dishes that call for a bright energetic wine to match the vibrancy of the dish. Offal, wild game, and freshwater fish are widely used ingredients in classic Austrian cuisine, all of which play well with local white wines. As you experience the diverse foods of Austria you start to realize why the wines they produce are so heavily focused on white varietals and lighter reds. The food can be quite rich which calls for high acid Rieslings. It can be a touch spicy, which does exceptionally well with a slightly richer Gruner Veltliner to match some of that flavor profile. The richer meat dishes often have sauces that play exceptionally well with a lighter-bodied fruity red like Zweigelt. The common wine phrase “if it grows together, it goes together” comes to mind, particularly when thinking of Austria.