Austrian wine production mainly consists of dry white wines and some sweet white wines, however, red wine production is becoming more important and now makes up approximately 30% of the total of Austrian wine produced. There is archaeological evidence of cultivation of grapes in Austria from 4000 years ago and the wine industry grew strongly through the following centuries until the infamous “antifreeze scandal” of 1985 which effectively shut down the Austrian wine industry overnight. Perhaps the one blessing in disguise is that the Austrian wine industry is now one of the most tightly regulated in the world and has some of the strictest quality controls, which means that there has been a significant increase in the quality of Austrian wine. All wines at Qualitatswein level now have Austrian wine seal on the capsule as a guarantee of quality.
Austrian Wine Growing Regions
Austria has four main wine growing regions that are situated in a crescent around the eastern end of the country. The most northerly is Niederosterreich (or Lower Austria). To the far east close to the border with Hungary is Burgenland which runs south with Niederosterreich until it meets the region of Steiermark (Styria) in the south, The last main region is Wien (or Vienna) itself. These regions are divided into a total of sixteen separate wine growing areas (with the exception of Wien) which all have their own distinct climates and terroirs.
Austrian Wine Classification
To the uninitiated the whole subject of Austrian wine classification can look a bit daunting and complicated. There are presently three separate wine classification, a traditional, National Classification based on the German classification of sweetness of alcohol levels, another classification used in Wachau and the newest system, the DAC or Districtus Austriae Controllatus.
This is the oldest classification of Austrian wine and is based on the German wine classification system, although it was modified in 1985, and is based on the sugar content of grapes at harvest. The main categories are below and are shown roughly in increasing order of quality and sweetness.
Tafelwine – can be from more than region
Landwein – only from one region
Qualitatswein – wine can be chaptalised but can only come from one wine district
Kabinett – Qualitatswien with no chaptalisation
Pradikatswein – covers the following wines from Spatlese to Eiswine below, nothing can be added to the wines, no chaptalisation and most wines must not be released until after 1st May following harvest
Spatlese – wine not released until 1st March after the harvest
Auslese – sweeter, grape selection, bad grapes removed
Beerenauslese – even sweeter, grape selection, bad grapes removed
Ausbruch – made only from grapes affected by Botrytis (Noble Rot)
Trockenbeerenauslese – even sweeter, made from 100% Botrytis grapes
Eiswein – made from concentrated grape juice by harvesting and pressing the grapes when frozen
Strohwein – sweet wines made from grapes dried on straw mats
The Vinea Wachau Nobilis Districtus classification of Austrian wine, to give it its full name was introduced in 1984 by producers in the Wachau region in the Danube Valley in the north east of Niederosterreich. It consists of three categories all for dry wines.
Steinfeder – “Stone Feather”, named after the local steinfedergras, must contain no more than 11.5% alcohol and is usually light and delicately scented. Most is drunk locally.
Federspiel – must be between 11.5 and 12.5% aclohol and, in sweetness terms, is equivalent to a Kabinett. Strong in flavour, this is more likely to be exported.
Smaragd – named after the local Idex lizard, is category used for the most highly regarded wines, made from the best grapes which are picked at their ripest, the wines are therefore more flavourful and have higher alcohol levels.
DAC (Districtus Austriae Controllatus)
The newest classification of Austrian wine was pioneered by Weinviertel Wine Committee in Niederosterreich in 2003 to help position and market their quality Gruner Veltliners. Originally not only did the wines have to meet the Qualitatswein levels but to qualify for DAC status they also had to pass an a blind tasting panel and the taste had to reflect local character. This recognition and branding of top Gruner Weltliners with an identifiable name on the label made it a much easier for customers when choosing a bottle of Austrian wine.
Austrian Grape Varieties
Mention should be made of Austrian grape varieties. The most planted, and the most famous, Austrian grape variety is Gruner Veltliner which produces generally dry white wines. Riesling is growing in popularity, particularly for export markets as it is a “recognised” international grape variety and produces some of the best Austrian wine. However, Riesling falls behind the ancient grape variety Welschriesling, Muller Thurgau (or Rivaner), Pinot Blanc, Chardonnay and other grape varieties. The most dominant red grape variety is Zweigelt which is a Blaufränkisch / St Laurent cross created in the 1920s. Other most commonly planted red grape varieties are Blaufrankisch, Blauer Portugieser and St Laurent.