Austria is, by world standards, a tiny wine producing nation, with only some 1% of world output. Wine has been made here for at least 3 millenia, and today Austria produces world-class dry white wines which are widely praised by the wine press the world over. There are also serious reds being made by talented growers, and some of the best sweet wines on earth.
Austria has its own range of unique grape varietals, and these will be found in all these styles of wine. With high demand at home (average annual consumption is 33 litres/head), and limited prduction, not much gets exported. Austria is a wine country of great originality and its own unique wine culture like no other on earth, influenced largely by tavern culture in which wine-making families make a wide range of wines for sale to customers. The active state-funded Austrian Wine Marketing Board promotes Austrian wines the world over, and exports are rising - especially to Asia and the US. Yet Austrian wines remain hardly well-known in the UK
For administrative purposes, Austria is divided into four main winegrowing regions, these being sub-divided into a total of 18 different winegrowing areas. Some information about each of these 18 follows; this is more detailed for those areas we represent.
The Wachau is the region along the banks of the Danube at the eastern end of the larger region known as Niederösterriech (Lower Austria). It is centred around the Baroque masterpiece of Melk, and stretches along the Danube for some 30km, encompassing towns including Spitz-an-der Donau, Joching, Weissenkirchen, Dürnstein, Loiben, and Mautern. Undoubtedly one of the most treasured of Austria's winegrowing areas, the Wachau produces some of the best white wines in Austria, including world-class Rieslings and some of the best Grüner Veltliners you will ever taste. Not only are the wines sublime, but the countryside too is beautiful, with apricot orchards and steep terraced vineyards on both sides of the river melting harmoniously into mediaeval villages, with the Danube itself - some 200 metres wide here - providing a majestic backdrop to the beauty of the region.
Here too is history, with centuries of winemaking and architecture bringing an inimitable atmosphere and vivacity. There are ancient castles, including the Hinterhaus at Spitz, and a fortress at Dürnstein, where Richard the Lionheart was held in the 12th century. This is indeed winemaking country par excellence. The region blooms during the apricot season in the springtime (Apricot, or Marillen brandy is another regional speciality) - and this is a wonderful time to visit - but anytime is the perfect time to savour the wonderful wines from this most delightful of regions. The Wachau has 1,390 hectares of vines, planted in soils of weathered primary rock, sand, and loess. In addition to Riesling and Grüner Veltliner, other typically Austrian varieties grown here include Neuberger and Gelber Muskateller. The "Vinea Wachau Nobilis Districtus" is the local association to which most local winemakers belong, and which defines the classification of Wachau wines, Steinfeder, Federspiel,and Smaragd.
The geology in the Wachau is based around soils derived from primary rock, known here as urgestein. This is composed largely of granite, gneiss or mica-schist, although the composition varies somewhat throughout the region, with slate in the west around Spitz, more loam in around Weissenkirchen in the central Wachau, and then in the east around Krems, and the gateway to the Kremstal, some limestone. The climate in the Wachau varies quite significantly over short distances and is quite interesting. At the western end, around Spitz, it is cooler, as here cold winds can blow down from the mountains, so the wines here are more fragile and have more of a nervy steely character than in the east, where the land is flatter, and where the climate is starting to become affected by the Pannonian climate of the great Hungarian Putsch which lies not far to the east - near the Austrian/Hungarian border, around the Neusiedlersee this is much more pronounced, with bitterly cold winters and hot arid summers. Everywhere in the Wachau, the climate is moderated by the proximity of the river, although it can be very dry in summer and limited irrigation is permitted. Because of the differences in the climate, the harvest date also varies, being a bit earlier in the east than around Spitz.
Goldenes Schiff, Spitz - old on the outside, modern & comfortable within, this hotel is located near the river in Spitz and has a pleasant restaurant. Parking immediately outside. Open in Winter, when many places are closed. Ask for a room with river views.
Barock Landhof Burkhardt, Spitz - amazing old hotel in a baroque building in the heart of Spitz, up the hill a 5-minute walk away from the river. Atmospheric, quiet, large gardens and parking. Breakfast only, no evening meals. Good value and highly recommended.
Weingut Schweighofer, Loiben - family-run winemaking establishment with Heurige and comfortable rooms. One of our suppliers.
Weingut Lagler, Spitz - Hotel set amidst vineyards. One of our suppliers.
Jamek Restaurant, Joching - Sublime food and wine in highly atmospheric surroundings. If you only treat yourself once during your trip, do it here.
Landhaus Bacher, Mautern - charming old hotel with top-notch restaurant with dazzling wine list.
Apricot Trees in Wachau
St. Quirin Church at Loiben, surrounded by vineyards
The Kremstal is the region lying along the banks of the Danube, bordering and to the east of the Wachau, centred around the town of Krems. One of the oldest wine centres in Austria, Krems has always been associated with wine, and its' mediaeval character has been very well preserved. Today one can stroll through its its narrow romantic streets, taking in the Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque architecture.
The 2,170 hectares of vines in the Kremstal produce wines dominated by Grüner Veltliner and Riesling, with characteristics not unlike those of the Wachau. Grüner Veltliners are very approachable, with soft fruit and a pepper note. Notable vineyards include the Kremser Pfaffenberg, below the Baroque Monastery at Göttweig. In addition to the reputed whites, Kremstal wines also include some very good reds.To the wines
The Weinviertel is located in the north-eastern part of Austria, near to the border with the Czech & Slovak Republics. This is the largest winegrowing region in Austria, with more than 15,000 hectares of vineyards, the principal grape varieties grown being Grüner Veltliner and Welschriesling, although other white varieties such as Riesling, Weissburgunder and Chardomnnay are also grown. Reds too are made from Zweigelt and Blauer Portugieser. The region has many charming wine villages and towns, many with "Kellergassen", streets lined with cellars resembling struccoed houses. Interesting towns include Retz, Eggenburg, Falkenstein, and Poysdorf, possibly Austria's most picturesque wine town.To the wines
This is the picturesque region around Langenlois, Austrtia's largest wine town which is located to the west of Vienna, and which takes its name from the river Kamp. As with the Wachau and Kremstal, the primary grape varieties are Grüner Veltliner and Riesling, grown on some 3,800 hectares of primary rock, loess, and clay soils. Winegrowing history here goes back a long way; the local museum in Langenlois has exhibits showing that this region has been populated by man since the stone age, and the Heiligenstein vineyard is mentioned in the Zwettl Abbey register of 1280, which refers to it as "Hellenstein", or hell stone, on a mountain where the sun "burns like hell". During the day, the hillsides are heated by the sun's rays, whilst at night they are cooled by the fresh breeze from the Waldviertel to the north.To the wines
This is a region in Lower Austria to the south-east of Vienna, south of the river Danube. Excavations from 4000 years ago testify that wine was grown here in pre-Roman times; over the centuries, terraced vineyards have been dug into the loess soils. Today some 680 hectares yield mostly Grüner Veltliner wines which are fresh, fruity, and zesty. Modest amounts of Chardonnay and Riesling are also grown. The region is centred around the wine villages of Nussdorf, Getzersdorf, and Reichersdorf, which are surrounded by vineyards stretching to the Alpine foothills. This is a pretty region, and vineyard walks are rewarded with views over glorious countryside.To the wines
To the north-west of Vienna, along the Danube, and centred around the town of Tulln, lies Wagram, previously known as Donauland. This is a wine-growing district of some 2,730 hectares, producing wines including Grüner Veltliner, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Noir, Zweigelt, and the regional speciality Roter Veltliner. In the eastern part of the Donauland is Klosterneuberg, with its imposing 900-year old monastery (which houses the largest winery in Austria) and the famous research centre and school of viticulture.To the wines
South-east of Vienna, and to the north of the Neusiedlersee is the district known as Carnuntum, with its 890 hectares of vines. Deep soils, cooling winds from the Danube plains, and the tempering influence of the lake combine to produce a climate ideal for the cultivation of Grüner Veltliner, Zweigelt, and Blaufränkisch. It is these latter red wines in particular for which Carnuntum is rapidly becoming known; monumental Zweigelt and Blaufränkisch, bursting with fruit and ripe tannins, plus quality Cabernet Sauvignon, make this a region to be watched.To the wines
South of Vienna is the district known as Thermenregion, which takes its name from ancient thermal baths (Baden is today still a spa town). Thermenregion is centred around the wine villages of Gumpoldskirchen, Traiskirchen, Sooss, Guntramsdorf, Tattendorf, and Perchtoldsdorf. This is heurigen country par excellence, with many establishments frequented by visitors from nearby Vienna. The district is often compared with the Côte d'Or in France due to similar soil formation and climate. Many grape varieties are grown here but of particular interest are the rare indigenous Rotgipfler and Zierfandler, which give exotic wines with quince and orange aromas, have good body, and age extremely well.To the wines
Technically, the sub-zone known as Neusiedlersee extends around the eastern side of the lake of the same name. Nuesiedlersee - Hügelland is the region around the western side of the lake, centred around Eisenstadt and extending away from the lake as far as Wiener Neustadt. The area around the Neusiedlersee, a shallow steppe lake straddling the Hungarian border, is one of the most amazing places on earth for the production of sweet botrytis-affected wines. Only here, around the lake, and in Hungary's Tokajhegyalja does the Botrytis cinerea, or noble rot, attack grapes so reliably every year. Other great sweet wine regions in Germany and France also make superb sweet wines, but not dependably every year, as the fungus does not attack elsewhere as reliably as it does here; meaning that the sweet wines from this region are more plentiful and hence generally cheaper than exalted examples from better-known sources. Austrian sweet wines are also much less known in the UK, although this is a shame, as they are amongst the best in the world. A variety of other top-quality red and white wines are also found here, from both Austrian and international varieties.To the Burgenland wines
In the far east of Austria, alongside the Hungarian border to the south of the Neusiedlersee, is the district of Mittelburgenland. This is a region of forested hills, with deep clay soils, and winegrowing here is very much focused on red wine grapes, and in particular one variety - the Blaufränkisch, so much so in fact that the district has earned the nickname "Blaufränkischland". Some exceptional red wines are produced here from this variety, with its racy structure and marked acidity. Also found are smaller quantities of Zweigelt, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot, which are sometimes blended with Blaufränkisch.To the Burgenland wines
To the south of Mittelburgenland lies Südburgenland, another district with a strong emphasis on red wines. Here too the Blaufränkisch thrives in the iron-rich soils, and expresses itself with a fascinating spiciness. Südburgenland is also known for the regional speciality "uhudler" - a simple wine made from a near-extinct grape variety vitis labrusca.To the Burgenland wines
This is a hilly region in the south-east of Austria, adjacent to the Slovenian border. A wide range of wines are made from both Austrian and international varieties. Classic styrian wines include the fresh fruity Welschriesling, the aromatic Gelber Muskateller, racy weissburgunder, and the fragrant Sauvignon Blanc.
This pretty region has for the most part gently undulating countryside, punctuated here and there with strange rock formations that are the last indicators of its volcanic past. The volcanic soils and cooler climate give wines which are spicy and aromatic. Varieties grown include a mix of modern international (Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay) and traditional (Welschriesling, Weissburgunder, Zweigelt, Traminer). Most winegrowers here are part-timers; average plot size is only around 0.5 hectares (just over an acre).To the Styria wines
Western Styria is a bit of an oddball district, producing nearly exclusively one wine, a salmon pink Rosé known as Schilcher made from the Blauer Wildbacher grape. This has high acidity, but correct winemaking techniques allow the creation of wines of elegance and sophistication, leading to Schilcher's current cult status. Schilcher is not seen much outside the region, other than in Viennese bars. Small amounts of sekt and traditional reds and whites are also made. The countryside is idyllic, much of it pristine forest. The photo shows the klapotetz, a wooden windmill designed to make a clacking noise to scare birds away from the grapes.To the Styria wines
Vienna is the only major capital city in the world with significant wine production nearby. The vines still extend, however, into parts of the city itself, as they have done for hundreds of years. Today, in and around Vienna ar some 680 hectares of vines, planted mainly on slate, gravel, loam and loess soils. Main varieties are Grüner Veltliner, Pinot Blanc, Chardonnay, Riesling, Zweigelt, and Cabernet Sauvignon. Most of the wine is destined for the city's heurigen, and is intended to be drunk young. Sales of higher quality bottled wine are however increasing, and some exceptional wines are being made. Best areas: Heiligenstadt, Nussdorf, Sievering, Grinzing, and around the Bisamberg hill.
There is almost a ring of vineyards around Vienna's city center, within easy reach of a direct tram ride. Viennese will often on a nice day take the tram out to go for lunch in a wine bar (Heuriger) ideally one attached to a winery in a vineyard district. If you are visiting Vienna for business or tourism, take the time to do the same
A cross of St. Laurent with Blaufränkisch, developed at Klosterneuberg in 1922 by Professor Fritz Zweigelt, who gave it his name. Zweigelt wines are a deep cherry-red, with aromas of cooked sour cherries, and sometimes chocolate. They smell just fantastic. On the palate they are dry, with pronounced cherry/raspberry flavours and often a spicy earthiness. It ranges in quality from a light wine right through to powerful blockbusting examples; it grows well in most places, but particularly good examples are found in Thermenregion and near the Neusiedlersee. Generally considered the best Austrian red grape.
A dark-berried variety which produces wines of real character, which are deeply fruity and with fine acidity, good tannins, and with flavours of liquorice and derk berries. Superb chunky examples are made in Burgenland and Thermenregion.
An Austrian variety which is believed to be in some way related to Pinot Noir, and which shares many of the characteristics of that grape. The wines have aromas of sour cherries & dark berry fruit, and resemble more powerful versiuons of Pinot Noir. In good years it can produce truly excellent wines, particularly in Burgenland and Thermenregion. Hard to grow as it suffers from blossom-drop and Botrytis, and consequently has become less popular with growers. Often used in blends with other varieties.
|Blauburgunder (Pinot Noir)|
|Blauer Wildbacher (Schilcher)|
| One of the more notorious events of recent Austrian Wine history was the scandal of 1985. The early 1980s had been marked by a succession of vintages in which favourable climatic conditions and intensive viticulture combined to produce extremely high yields, and a substantial amount of wine was made which was of such poor quality as to be virtually unsaleable. Much Austrian wine was at this time sold into the German market in bulk, but this market demanded riper (and thus sweeter) wines than these low-end products, which were light, dilute, and acidic. A cunning chemist discovered that adding a small amount of diethylene glycol to wines such as these added a certain body and sweetness to them, and rendered them more palatable. Diethylene glycol was considered safe, and was very difficult to detect by the authorities. Tankerloads of doctored wine were shipped off to Germany masquerading as quality wine, with forged documentation supporting its supposed provenance. One has to question the intelligence of those perpetrating the fraud, however, as the scandal came to light when of one of them claimed for the the cost of the ethylene glycol on his income tax return. A number of prosecutions followed, and the resulting publicity sent shockwaves through the world of Austrian wine, tarnishing its reputation on an international scale. Some countries banned its import altogether. The scale of the fraud was not really that large, with only a couple of dozen people involved; however the reaction was significant, and memories of the scandal refuse to go away. Mention "Austrian Wine" to many and time-worn jokes about anti-freeze will often be recited. |
Following the scandal, the Austrian Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry imposed strict new laws to regulate the industry, with the intention of preventing further malpractice, restoring confidence in Austrian wine, and repairing the damage done to export markets - especially Germany, Austria's largest customer. These new laws, reinforced by later amendments stipulating upper limits to yields, today define the Austrian wine classification system.
With the benefit of hindsight, the scandal is now seen by many as a catalyst for change and as a positive event. Those responsible were middle-men; this part of the Austrian wine trade has all but disappeared, and nowadays many more growers deal directly with customers. But more important is the effect on quality; the strict new laws, plus other regional classification systems (such as that in the Wachau) were inspired by the need for change and the desire to improve quality in the wake of the scandal. It is important to remember that the scandal itself was just a symptom of the poor quality culture that already pertained in some parts of the trade before 1985, and this issue too has been addressed as today winemaking styles have changed, away from flabby sweet wines made in imitation of sweet German wines, towards the dry whites so highly praised today, and a greater proportion of quality reds.
The quality classifications that exist today in Austria are a legacy from the second world war, when Austria adopted a classification system loosely based on the German system, but were reinforced by new laws following the scandal of 1985. The Wachau in particular has created its own system. These systems are described below. A new system, the "DAC" (Districtus Austria Controllatus) is currently being trialled in the Weinviertel region. This is an origin-based system, more like the French AOC. If successful, this may be rolled out to other regions in time.
|Austrian National Classifications|
| Tafelwein |
|Produced from within Austria, can be inter-regionally blended or from one region, with a minimum must weight of 10.7° KMW. A statement of vintage or grape variety is not permitted, the only exceptions to this being (1) Bergwein - from vineyards with a slope of more than 26%, and (2) Bottled Heuriger wine - where a stament of vintage is required.|
|Part of the Tafelwein group, but the grapes must all come from within one wine growing region with no inter-regional blending allowed. It must have a minimum must weight of 14° KMW, the dry extract excluding sugar must be at least 17g/litre, and a maximum alcohol level of 11.5% and 6 g/l residual sugar. No statement may be made about wine district or specific vineyard.|
|The grapes must all come from a single wine district, and the minimum permitted must weight is 15° KMW. The wine is allowed chaptalisation to a maximum of 19° KMW for white wines and 20° KMW for red wines with minimum alcohol levels of 9.0%. Dry extract excluding sugar must be at least 18.0 g/litre.|
| Kabinett||These wines are regarded as Qualitätswein, but have a higher specification - they must have a minimum must weight of 17° KMW, they may not be chaptalised, residual sugar content must not exceed 9g/litre, and maximum alcohol content is 12.7%. |
| Prädikatswein ||This term is used to describe a range of wines from Spätlese to Eiswein, which are generally regarded as being sweet. A separate table is shown below with details of the prädikatswein categories. In all cases, no chaptalisation is permitted, and all residual sugar must result from interruption or natural termination of the fermentation process, and therefore be natural. In addition to the ban on chaptalisation, no enrichment with any other substance (must, grape juice, concentrates) is permitted.|
|Spätlese ||Spätlese wines should be made from completely ripe grapes, and have a minimum must weight of 19° KMW. The wines are not released for sale until March 1st following the harvest.|
| Auslese||Auslese wines are made from selected completely ripe and botrytised grapes, and have a minimum must weight of 21° KMW. Grape selection should be rigorous, with all faulty or unripe grapes removed. The wines are not released for sale until May 1st following the harvest.|
| Beerenauslese (BA)||Beerenauslese wines are made from selected over-ripe and botrytised grapes, and have a minimum must weight of 25° KMW. Grape selection should be rigorous, with all faulty or unripe grapes removed. The wines are not released for sale until May 1st following the harvest.|
|Ausbruch||Ausbruch wines (principally from Rust on the Neusiedlersee) are made only from over-ripe botrytised grapes which have been shrivelled and dried through botrytis whilst still on the vine. A quantity of freshly pressed grape juice or late harvest wine from the same vineyard may be added to the grapes to assist in the pressing operation to extract the maximum sweet juice. The minimum must weight is 27° KMW. The wines are not released for sale until May 1st following the harvest.|
| Trockenbeerenauslese (TBA)||Normally the sweetest wines, Trockenbeerenauslese wines are made from completely botrytised, shrivelled grape berries, and must have a minimum must weight of 30° KMW. The wines are not released for sale until May 1st following the harvest.|
|Eiswein||Incredibly long-lived Eiswein is made from grapes which are frozen when harvested and pressed; the contents are concentrated because the water remains in the pressed grape skins as ice. Eiswein must have a minimum must weight of 25° KMW. The wines are not released for sale until May 1st following the harvest.|
Most of Austria uses Germanic wine classifications (Kabinet, Spätlese etc.) but the Wachau uses its own system to classify its wines. This is controlled by the local "Vinea Wachau Nobilis Districtus" association, run by key growers. There are three categories: Steinfeder, Federspiel and Smaragd.
|Steinfeder||These are the simplest wines. Named after a local strain of grass that grows in the rocks among the vines, Steinfeder (literally "Stone feather") wines are light wines to be drunk young. They have a must weight between 73° and 83° Oeschle, and at most 10.7% alcohol. These wines can be most attractive when the grapes used are fully ripe. However, these are really wines to be quaffed in the region at a heurige on a hot summers evening, rather than being serious wines appropriate to be exported. |
|Federspiel||Next is Federspiel, which is approximately equivalent to Kabinett in the Germanic system. The name Federspiel comes from a device used in falconry to lure the hawk back to the glove. These wines are rather more serious, and represent the largest part of the Wachau's output. They have a minimum must weight of 83° Oeschle, and reach 11.5% alcohol. Nearly always dry, Federspiel wines benefit from at least a few months in bottle. |
|Smaragd||The best class of Wachau wines, Smaragd are usually dry, and have not normally been through the second (malolactic) fermentation. "Smaragd" translates as "emerald", and refers to a species of lizard which likes to bask in the sun between the vines on a hot summers day. Smaragd wines are made from fully ripe grapes, with minimum must weight of 90° Oeschle, and 12% alcohol. Maximum 9g/litre residual sugar. They are produced in smaller quantities than the other two classifications, and better ones can be quite hard to get hold of. They will keep well, and many benefit from a few years bottle aging. Get to know them well; they represent the very best that Austria has to offer in the way of dry whites, and are up there with the very best white wines the world produces.|
Firstly, the basics. It is the sugar in grapes which, when the must is fermented, turns into the alcohol the wine will contain. When all the sugar has been converted, the primary fermentation is complete. If there is insufficient sugar to obtain the desired alcoholic strength, more can be added through a process known as chaptalisation. On the other hand, fermentation can be terminated prior to the completion of the fermentation, leaving residual sugar in the wine. This results in a degree of sweetness which depends on the residual sugar level. Generally speaking, the riper the grapes, the higher the sugar level, meaning higher alcohol levels may be obtained without chaptalisation.
Throughout the wealth of material published about Austrian wines, including the catalogue of wines on this website, you will see many references to KMW. This is simply a must-weight scale indicating the sugar content of the grapes at harvest time. It is used in the definition of the different quality categories. The KMW system was developed by August Wilhelm Freiherr von Babo (1827-1894), and expresses the sugar content of the must as a percentage of weight. It can be converted to the more widely used scale, Oeschle, by multiplying by a factor of 5.
Sweetness, although it can be measured by residual sugar, is of course a sensual experience, and is therefore subjective. Most Austrian wines are quite dry. Some, especially speciality wines such as Beerenausleses and Trockenbeerenausleses, many of which come from Botrytis-friendly regions such as the Neusiedlersee, are very, very, sweet. Of the dry ones, there are quite a few which have residual sugar levels which elsewhere in the world would have the wines labelled "sweet", "halbtrocken", or "lieblich" - but they simply don't taste "sweet". The effect of a few grams per litre of residual sugar is to enhance the fruit in the wine, to give it extra depth, to add to it another dimension, yet which is not deserving of the term "sweet". Sure, drink a steely dry Chablis, and follow it quickly with a late-harvest Austrian Riesling with a modest residual sugar level, and you may find the Riesling has detectable sweetness, but without the comparison it would not seem thus. This is mirrored in Germany, with producers such as Leitz, Hasselbach, Loosen, and Donnhoff producing this fruit-driven style of wine with residual sugar levels at the upper end of what is permissible as "Trocken" or even beyond. I like to drink dry white wines - dessert wines apart, I would almost always plump for "dry" - and yet none of the fruit-driven wines from Austria or Germany with this modest residual sugar level either seem overtly sweet or have in my view suffered - quite the opposite - I feel this style has more flavour, and is much more food-friendly, with an extra depth of flavour not always available in bone-dry wines - which of course have their place. So if you like dry wines, don't be put off by the thought of a modest amount of residual sugar at levels one would normally equate with wines which are not "trocken". In many cases we list in the wine catalogue the residual sugar levels.