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Austria Red & White. Part I

text and photographs © 2013 Tom Cannavan

This is part I of this report. Part II visits Burgenland and Styria.

My journey through Austria - at least the eastern edge of this landlocked country - was a brilliant demonstration of how pivotal Austria was to Europe and the near east. Visiting the charming family estate of Zuschmann-Schöffmann in the north brought me within 35 kilometres of the border with the Czech Republic, whilst we stood with Georg Prieler of his eponymous estate in Burgenland looking over nearby hills in Slovakia, then after dinner in a Heuriger near the Grozser Wien estate, a road sign informed me it was just one kilometre to the Hungarian border.

Today Austria is a proud and impressive country of just eight million inhabitants, of whom almost one quarter live in the magnificent capital city of Vienna. But the sheer scale of the boulevards and public buildings confirms the power that once lay here, when the Austro-Hungarian empire laid claim to vast territories of central Europe. The Hapsburg's and Esterházy's no longer rule, and once outside Vienna's suburbs the tranquil, pastoral countryside shakes of the busy confidence of the city to reveal a thoughtful, gentle people who seem very much in touch with agriculture, nature and the seasons.

Vinegrowing in Austria is everywhere in the eastern half of the country, far from the alpine heights of the west. But traditionally viticulture has been on a very small scale, with grapes grown and modest wines made by farmers for whom wine was just one - and often not a very significant one - of several crops they grew or animals they reared. Basic family winemaking dominated the Austrian wine scene, and still does today, though there are far more estates focused purely on wine and making products of hugely better quality.

map The great Valleys of Wachau and Kamptal to the west of Vienna have risen to prominence thanks to top producers like F.X. Pichler and Emmerich Knoll, but my visit would cover hundreds of kilometres east, north and south of Vienna to visit some of the younger generation of winemakers that are stamping quality on Weinviertel, Carnuntum, Burgenland and Styria. Whilst tasting broadly, I would focus on the indigenous grape varieties in each region that are now intrinsic for winemakers intent on expressing the best of their distinct terroirs.

Geography and climate

Austria just couldn't be more continental. Slap bang in the middle of Europe, it enjoys a classic continental climate of hot summers, cold winters, good diurnal shifts (day to night temperatures) and generally moderate but sufficient rainfall. The significant influencing factors on localised winegrowing conditions are the mountains, the altitude of vineyards, and the rivers and lakes. Great lakes like the Neusiedlersee have a huge influence on vineyards planted near them, altering humidity and temperature, and creating conditions for Botrytis. Through the centre of the country, the great Pannonian plain to the east provides warming conditions, suitable for the production of red wines in particular.

In terms of soils, vineyards around the Danube enjoy fertile, loamy soils, whilst glaciers and ancient seas have left areas of complex geology including clay rich in marine fossils and areas of chalk, sandstone, shale and limestone. Many areas are planted on steep slopes, sometimes terraced, allowing each vine full exposure to the sun.

Grapes and wine styles

grapes It is Austria's speciality white wine grape, Grüner Veltliner (top, right), that has helped introduce many wine lovers to the country's wines over recent years. A cross of Traminer and the near extinct St. Georgen, it is also Austria's most widely planted variety, accounting for one third of country's vineyard area. Riesling, Welschriesling, Weissburgunder (Pinot Blanc), Müller-Thurgau, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc are planted in significant volumes, but the country has no fewer than 22 grapes classified for production of white wine. Most of the rest have less than 1% of the total vineyard area each, including some that are often bottled as single varietals, like Grauburgunder (Pinot Gris), Muskateller and Traminer.

It is white wine that has always dominated in Austria, but a pair of local red wine grapes are now the focus for many producers and some specific regions, and there are wines being made of very high quality. Indeed red wine grapes now constitute one third of Austria's vineyards, with 13 varieties classified for the production of quality wine. Blaufränkisch (bottom, right) is seen by many as a potential ace in the pack, capable of ageing and the speciality of the Carnuntum area that I visited on this trip. The related Zweigelt is another quality indigenous variety (the offspring of St. Laurent and Blaufränkisch) that is drunk eagerly by locals and increasingly overseas too, whilst plantings of St Laurent itself have been increasing. French varieties from Cabernet Sauvignon to Syrah are quite widely planted, but it is perhaps Pinot Noir (or 'Blauburgunder') that may have the greatest potential of all.

With a total vineyard area of 46,000 hectares Austria is a significant producer, but then the Bordeaux region of France alone has more than double that. The great majority of Austria's wine is dry, in both white and red, and the relatively small amount of rosé and sparkling wine that is produced. Although my visit and Austrian production focuses on dry styles, the 'liquid gold' of the country's sweet wines is still very much in force: Auslese, Beerenauslese, Trockenbeerenauslese and Eiswein (ice wine) are categories familiar to drinkers of German sweet wine, but in Austria another Botrytis-based sweetness designation of 'Ausbruch' sits just below Trockenbeerenauslese, and 'Strohwein' is made from ripe grapes dried and allowed to shrivel on straw mats. Red wine production has doubled in just two decades.

DAC

As described above, Austria has a renewed focus on expressing regionality and typicity in its wines. Districtus Austriae Controllatus is a relatively recent system that attempts to formalise this. Of Austria's 16 wine growing regions, only eight have so far adopted DAC. In most cases a local committee has agreed a single grape variety that best expresses their region, and will produce DAC wines from that grape and bearing the name of the DAC region, for example 'Weinviertel DAC'. Kremstal, Kamptal and Leithaberg have successfully lobbied to be allowed more than one grape to represent their region within the rules of DAC.

DAC label And what of the eight regions who have not adopted DAC? Most have stuck with existing structures, whilst others are being gently encouraged to adopt DAC. But the whole picture does seem rather unclear when viewed from outside, with whole non-DAC regions, and even regions within the system producing both DAC and non-DAC wines simultaneously. DAC is equivalent to other European protected regions of origin and is meant to make it easy for consumers to recognise a broad wine style, but for the moment it is rather confusing. Perhaps that will change when most regions adopt DAC or the concept is better known.

The Estates and Wines - North

My all too brief visit to Eastern Austria took in two regions to the north, Weinviertel and Carnuntum, and two to the south, Burgenland and Styria. Reports from the more southerly regions follow in part II of this report.

Weinviertel

It was the briefest of visits to the wine region that is Austria's largest, but which rarely falls under the spotlight. With over a quarter of Austria's vineyards, Weinviertel is the volume powerhouse of the country, particularly for Grüner Veltliner, which is also the focus of the Weinviertel DAC. Around two-thirds of all plantings are Grüner. Stretching from the Danube to the Czech border, Weinviertel, meaning 'wine quarter', was historically producer of wines for local consumption, made on mixed agriculture farms where sugar beet or corn was a more important crop. Quality was variable and prices low, and in those fertile soils just about all and every style of wine was made. The past decade has seen not only the introduction of the Weinviertel DAC as a general quality move, but it has seen some of the small producers take wine a lot more seriously, sometimes abandoning the other parts of their farming business to concentrate solely on wine.

Generally a region of rolling farmland, vineyards are still dotted around sporadically and it is rare to find large areas of contiguous vineyard. For the best producers, not only of Grüner Veltliner but of Pinot Noir, Riesling and Traminer too which are also favoured, exploring hillsides and soils away from the loamy-rich fertile plains is one key to quality, as are reducing yields and moving to organic farming or more sustainable use of chemicals.

Zuschmann-Schöffmann

The charming but difficult to pronounce estate of Zuschmann-Schöffmann is one where the younger generation have moved a family farming business away from pigs, wheat and sugar beet, to concentrate on wine. Else Zuschmann's parents still farm nearby, but as viticulturist she and winemaker husband Peter Schöffmann have been remodelling the business for 10 years, and are now one of very few organic farms in the region. They also offer comfortable and modern bed & breakfast accommodation and a 'Heuriger', an informal farm restaurant based around their home-grown wines and produce.

"Agriculture alone is too difficult," explains Else. "I believed our region is underdeveloped in terms of tourism and as Peter was a chef, having the heuriger was an easy choice." Indeed Peter left life behind the stoves to study winemaking after he and Else met. "15 years ago Weinviertel had a poor image for wine - it was all about volume, not so much about quality," he tells me "Growing grapes and making wine was such a small part of business that it wasn't easy to persuade local farmers that high quality wines were possible." Zuschmann-Schöffmann is one of the pioneering estates, and the couple agrees that the big differences are all in the vineyard: lowering yields, planting at higher density, and in their case, converting to organic farming. "We are in our first year of certification, and all of our new plantings are at 6,000 vines per hectare, the old way was maybe 3,000 - all based on the size of the tractors available." Says Else. They are also reducing use of sulphur drastically "because the grapes are healthy," and using techniques like battonage (stirring the lees) to make a different style of wine.

Else and peter are huge fans of red wine, particularly Burgundy. They are one of very few local producers making red wines in Weinviertel - "It is rarely seen north of the Danube," says Peter. One third of their output is red wine currently, but they would like to increase it a little, though Grüner Veltliner will remain their focus.

for tasting notes on 7 wines from Zuschmann-Schöffmann

Carnuntum

two producers Also part of Niederösterreich (or Lower Austria), Carnuntum draws tourists from nearby Vienna because of its rich archaeological history and Roman remains. But 910 hectares of its prime soils are now given over to wine, with a strong focus on red wines that benefit from the warming effect of the Pannonain plain. Blaufränkisch and particularly Zweigelt are the focus here, and this is one of the exceptions to the DAC system where a group of the highest quality growers has instead created the 'Rubin Carnuntum', a classification of Zweigelt wines. Wines appearing under the Rubin label follow a similar concept to that of DAC, with the single Zweigelt variety meant to define and focus the region. Interestingly the producers have decided that wines branded as Rubin are mid-price, mid-quality level and all producers have ranges above and below, as well as wines made from other varieties and blends.

Carnuntum lies immediately south of the Danube where free-draining gravel over lime and loam soils is influenced not only by the Pannonian micro climate, but by their proximity to the river. Both combine to provide and trap warm air, making possible the full ripening of red wine grapes - including Bordeaux varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc.

I did not visit individual estates here, but winemakers Johann Markowitsch of Weingut Lukas Markowitsch and Christina Netzl from Weingut Franz & Christine Netzl (right) took me on a tour of the region's vineyards before we returned to a local hotel for a large range tasting of over 40 wines from more than a dozen estates.

for tasting notes on 43 wines from Carnuntum


Go to Part II - Producers in Burgenland and Styria visited