Austria, like so much of Europe, celebrates a long history of winemaking, and many chapters of European winemaking will be familiar to the connoisseur. In Austria, winemaking is credited to the Celts — dating back to the 8th century BC — as is evidenced by numerous excavations along the Amber Road, an early trade route between the Baltic and Mediterranean Seas. This early viticultural industry was greatly expanded during Roman times, as the Donau River (or Danube) marked the northeastern limit of that Empire. Following the Roman collapse in the 5th century, barbarous tribes, such as the Goths and the Huns, ravaged the landscape.
When Charlemagne finally restored order in the mid 8th century, grapes were classified either as Fränkisch, if esteemed (such as Blaufränkisch), or as Heunisch if seen as inferior (after the dreaded Huns, from which, ironically, Riesling descended). Charlemagne took an active role in revitalizing the region’s viticultural heritage, and many vineyard regional demarcations set up at that time remain in effect today. It is difficult to imagine, but during this time the land under vine was ten times the amount of today and its product more widely exported. So great was the surplus that the selling of foreign wines was prohibited from the 14th through 16th century. Yet the emperor would not allow even an historic vintage of notoriously poor quality to be destroyed. He decreed that this acidic, unpalatable wine be used to mix mortar for the construction of churches (St. Stephens is one such example, still standing today).
The 19th and early 20th centuries were marked by war and destruction, after which the modern Austrian wine industry emerged. Post WWII Austrian wine laws were modeled on the Germanic system and initially the bulk-wine industry prospered. However, it took no more than one or two generations for the many special cru vineyards of more quality-oriented producers to become recognized, with Lower Austria’s Grüner Veltliner emerging in as the noblest of the native varieties.
In the 1980s, when a very small number of wines sold primarily in the bulk market were discovered to have been doctored by poisonous diethylene glycol — added to under-ripe wines to increase body and sweetness — the government halted wine exports, reducing the volume of Austrian wine sold outside the country to a mere 5% of its previous quantities. Austria not only recovered from this scandal, but today has emerged as one of the most impressive, quality-oriented wine regions, operating under some of the most exacting wine regulations in existence. The generation that came of age and was educated during and immediately after this crisis now leads the quality movement in Austrian wine.
Historically, Austria was most known for the sweet wines produced around Lake Neusiedl. The first official Trockenbeerenauslese (TBA) wine dates to 1526. The shallow lake provided (as it does today) ideal conditions for botrytis. However, once Hungary was incorporated into the Hapsburg Empire, the sweet wines of Austria were eclipsed by Tokaji wines. Despite this, that first vintage of Austrian TBA was savored slowly over 300 years, the last bit consumed in 1852!
These incredible dessert wines are still produced today, along with so much more. Foremost among the country’s exports are complex, age-worthy whites made from Grüner Veltliner and Riesling varietals, along with reds from Zweigelt and Blaufrankisch, among others. Austria is now most recognized for these wines of finesse.
Austrian wine culture and tradition emphasizes balance over extremity and freshness over concentration. This is formally enforced in the country’s wine laws – requiring dry wines of quality classification to carry levels of acidity that balance any residual sweetness. Moreover, Austria is considered one of the ‘greenest’ wine regions in Europe in terms of sustainable, organic and biodynamic grape growing.
Austrian wines offer an authentic, unique sense of place. Austria’s border with Germany provides a common language and a shared appreciation for the Riesling grape. Similarly, the borders with Slovenia and Italy provide a common link to aromatic, bone-dry white wines. Austria’s wine regions share a latitude degree with Burgundy and the Loire Valley in France, thus also exhibiting similar vintage variation and turn-of-harvest seasons as those renowned wine-producing areas.
Austria’s wine regions lie between two climates: the continental influences from the north, and the warmer “pannonian” climate from the east. Soils range from ancient primary rocks, slate and limestone to loess, clay and sand. Average annual rainfall is highest in the southern regions, lowest in Burgenland, and moderate in Lower Austria.