Guide to the Wines of Austria
Viticulture in Austria dates as far back as 700 B.C. The Celts used wine for rituals and for daily consumption, a tradition continued by the conquering Romans and later revitalized after years of neglect by Charlemagne. Austrian viticulture was also influenced by Cistercian monks from Burgundy who came to Austria in the Middle Ages bringing their grapes and winemaking knowledge.
Today, Austrian viticulture has been marked by a concerted legislative initiative to promote quality. More internationally traveled and educated winemakers are carrying on the traditions of winemaking. Their dedication has helped wines from Austria to make a leap in quality that has led to worldwide recognition. The United States and Germany are the top two countries for exports.
Austria is a moderate size country. It has four winemaking regions and 19 wine growing areas. About 118,000 acres under vines are cultivated by approximately 32,000 wine producers, 6,500 of whom bottle their own wines.
Winemaking is concentrated in the eastern regions of Austria: Weinland Osterreich, Steirerland, Wein (Vienna) and Bergland Osterreich, which like Germany is best known for producing white wines. The climate of Austria is comparable to the climatic conditions in Burgundy, France. Warm, sunny summers and long, mild autumn days with cool nights are characteristic for most of these areas.
Austria’s wine regions are influenced by Atlantic airstreams from the west, by the continental climate of the Hungarian Plain to the east, and by the Mediterranean to the south. The product of these influences is an early spring followed by a long growing season that is warm and dry. Indeed, it is so dry that vineyards on rocky soils require irrigation. The harvest for late-ripening grapes such as Riesling frequently extends into late October or early November. The climate of Austria’s winegrowing regions mingles southerly and northerly influences, which is reflected in the nation’s best wines.
The most popular white varietal in Austria is Grüner Veltliner, a grape variety justly identified with Austrian wine culture. It can be fresh and lively to concentrated and intense. This refreshing white typically shows nuances of grapefruit and citrus, with a touch of fresh, cracked pepper. It is a delightfully versatile companion to a wide range of cuisine.
A popular red varietal, Blauer Zweigelt, is velvety and light-bodied with characteristic cherry tones and soft tannins. A fresh and fruity wine, it shares similarities with the wines of Beaujolais.
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Understanding Austrian Wine Labels
Austrian and German wine laws have a number of designations in common. Confusingly, though, they often mean rather different things in the two countries. While the varietal name is the most important indicator of wine style on Austrian wine labels, understanding a few other terms can make identifying a wine’s style much easier.
Auslese, Beerenauslese, Trockenbeerenauslese and Eiswein – As in Germany, Austrian dessert wines are classified according to the sweetness of the grape juice at pressing. The lowest category of dessert wines is auslese, which are generally rich and moderately sweet. Beware though, the words “Auslese Trocken” on a label mean a high-alcohol dry wine. Beerenauslese is the next step up. These lusciously sweet wines have a raisiny or honeyed character from the botrytis fungus (“noble rot”) that is allowed to form on the grapes. The highest level of richness is trockenbeerenauslese, made from shriveled, botrytis-affected berries. These wines are densely concentrated and intensely sweet. As in Germany, eiswein is dessert wine made from naturally frozen grapes and must at least be of beerenauslese richness.
Kabinett – Unlike in Germany, Austrian kabinett wines must be vinified dry. They range in natural alcohol content between a minimum of 11 percent and a maximum of 12.7 percent. Chaptalization—adding sugar to the must just before fermentation—is strictly forbidden.
Qualitätswein – This designation is most frequently used for simple wines meant for everyday drinking (either dry or sweet). However, many of Austria’s best dry white wines are also labeled “Qualitätswein.” This is frequently the case in the Wachau region where vintners use their own private classifications, such as “Smaragd” and “Federspiel,” in preference to the legal ones.
Spätlese – Most German Spätlese imported to the United States are low in alcohol (below 11 percent) and slightly sweet, whereas the great majority of Spätlese from Austria are between 12 and 14 percent alcohol and fully dry.
Trocken – Since Austria joined the European Union on January 1, 1995, trocken means less than 0.9 percent residual sugar. This effectively means that trocken wines from Austria are always dry, since their crisp acidity easily masks this amount of sweetness.