A journey through Austria (1) – introduction

Last week, I joined a group of sommeliers, educators and people in the wine trade for a short but intense trip through the vineyards of Austria. The coming days and weeks, I will be posting a few highlights of this magnificent and underrated wine country, starting with a brief general introduction to some key aspects of Austrian viticulture.

Viticulture in Austria, as in most central European regions, dates back to Antiquity and survived in the middle ages thanks to the clerus, notably the Cistercian monks coming from Burgundy. The major cesure in the modern history of Austrian wine making, however, is the ill-famed wine scandal that broke out in 1985. High concentrations of diethylene glycol, a (toxic) compound similar to what is added to fuel to prevent it from freezing, and meant to give wines more smoothness and body, were found in Austrian wines. The sales understandably plummeted. “Never waste a good crisis”, the Austrians must have thought, and they seized the moment to elaborate what is probably one of the strictest wine legislations in the world.

Today, Austrian wines have reached a high level of quality and a worldwide reputation, albeit predominantly among more knowledgeable wine consumers. In 2014, just over 20% of the total production was exported, but while the export has stabilized in terms of volume, it has steadily risen in terms of value, indicating that the more expensive wines find their way to international markets.

Tement
The Zieregg vineyard of winery Tement in south-eastern Steiermark, overlooking the Slovenian border

Austrian vineyards, totalling just short of 50.000 hectares (a surface comparable to Champagne in France), are situated between 47 and 48 degrees latitude, implying a cool to moderate climate, with freshness and elegance as an essential hallmark – even in the full-bodied reds from Burgenland. Macro- and meso-climatic influences for Austrian wine, other than vineyard latitude, are the warm currents from the Pannonian plain, cold air from the north, Mediterranean (Ilyric) influence (mainly in the Steiermark), proximity of the Alps, and the tempering effect of large water masses, like the Neusiedlersee and, of course, the Danube. These factors will be discussed in more detail in the posts on separate wine regions.

 

Austria’s main wine regions ((c) austrianwine.com)

In terms of geology, and without going into too much detail here, we can say that Austria has a wide diversity of soil types: primary rocks that surfaced through collisions of tectonic plates (granite, gneiss, schist, quartz, …), alluvial material and debris carried by rivers (gravel, …), weathered rock (löss, sand,…) and organic (limestone) deposits originating from the big sea that once covered what is today the Pannonian plain. These soil types obviously have an impact on the vine and the wine it produces. That is not to say that we can smell or taste schist, for example (for the record, I smelt and licked a piece of schist – it tastes of nothing, I can assure you), but that the water, heat and nutrient retention capacities of the soil are determining the vine’s metabolism and hence the taste of the wines.

Geology of Austrian winegrowing regions ((c) austrianwine.com)

The country produces a broad range of wine styles, from crisp, aromatic or complex and ageworthy whites, over fruity or more robust and tannic reds, to lusciously sweet wines (Austria’s “liquid gold”) with great acidity and balance. I tasted around 260 wines in the 5 days of the trip, and while there were some mediocre wines, the overall quality was impressive. I hasten to add that many of the wineries we visited are not exactly representative of the bulk of the market, as they mainly produce premium and ultra-premium wines, but they do show the greatness that Austrian wines are capable of.

Like many other winegrowing nations, Austria can boast a few “signature grapes”, native to the country and not that frequently cultivated elsewhere. In white, by far the most important grape is grüner veltliner, yielding wines with high acidity yet complex texture. For reds, there is sankt-laurent and blaufränkisch, and of course the crossing of those two, zweigelt (named after the professor who did the crossing). But more international varieties shine just as brightly. Riesling gives outstanding results, notably in Wachau, Kamptal and Kremstal. Some pinot noirs definitely attain Burgundy quality. And the sauvignon blancs of Steiermark are an international reference point on their own.

Conscious of its assets, Austria has set up a strict system of protected denominations of origin, the so-called “DAC’s” (Districtus Austriae Controllatus). Besides that, there is also the hierarchy in terms of sugar ripeness, much like the German one (Kabinett, Spätlese, Auslese, etc.), but a detailed discussion of this would lead us to far. Eager readers may want to have a look at the website of Austrian wines for more details.

In terms of winemaking practices, there is a growing consciousness of the need to work in a sustainable way, which has led to the creation of a certification “Nachhaltig Austria“, whereby sustainability is defined not only in ecological, but also in social and economical terms. Moreover, 10% of the vineyard surface is cultivated organically, making Austria the world leader, as explained in a report on the ProWein website. That is no mean achievement in a country with a relatively cool and in many places also humid climate!

Climate change is obviously not unheard of here either, but Austria may perhaps be counted among the wine regions that are likely to benefit from slightly warmer temperatures. Where problems would arise, solutions are already being sought in the form of later ripening clones, or adapted vine training, irrigation, and canopy management practices.

The following posts will each highlight a region or a set of regions within Austria, discussing the main wine styles and sometimes individual wineries. Next up: one of the coolest (literally at least) spots in the country, the Weinviertel. Stay tuned!

Grape varieties: ABC or alfa to omega?

A recent Facebook exchange with fellow blogger Peter Kupers sparked some thoughts. The exchange was about fer servadou, a grape variety native to the South-West of France, that also goes by the names of “mansois”, “braucol” and “pinenc”, depending on the region and AOP. Peter called it an “obscure” variety, to which I reacted that “obscure” was hardly the word for a variety that is well enshrined in at least a handful of AOPs (Gaillac, Marcillac, Madiran, to name the most important ones). I had to admit, though, that there are only a few hundred hectares planted with fer servadou, which, in a country with over 750.000 HA of vines is indeed rather insignificant. This website lists it as a “modest” varietal (a term that I much prefer to “obscure”, in any case).

This brought me to the question of (grape) diversity in the wine world, and whether wine drinkers care about it at all. Peter’s point was that your average wine consumer has almost certainly never heard of fer servadou, and would most likely favour a bottle of good old cabernet sauvignon when faced with the choice.

Bars and supermarkets obviously tend to reflect this situation. At a small new year’s gathering with colleagues this week, the wine choice in the pub we went to was unsurprisingly limited to two whites and two reds.  Sauvignon blanc and chardonnay for the whites, merlot and cabernet sauvignon for the reds…

Grape-hc-cConsidering that the authoritative book “Wine Grapes” (Robinson-Harding-Vouillamoz) lists over 1.300 varieties, from international stars to little-known indigenous grapes, the poverty of the offer is in some sense remarkable. It therefore comes as no surprise that there are dissident voices. The most famous one, alluded to in the title of this post, is the US-based “Anything But Chardonnay” movement, reacting against the lake of dull, uninteresting chardonnay wine that was flooding the American market. However, the proposed alternatives are hardly mind-blowing either: “Anything but Chardonnay emphasizes other viable choices to expand the selection of white wines, especially in the summer, including: Sauvignon Blanc,Riesling, Pinot Grigio (Pinot Gris), Chenin Blanc, Viognier, among others“.

An interesting and funny initiative that I recently came across is the Wine Century Club. Membership of this club is only possible if you solemnly pledge to have tasted at least a hundred different grape varieties (in fermented form, that is, and either as a monovarietal or in a blend) – the sole punishment for lying about this being the wrath of Bacchus himself. I checked for myself (what did you expect?) and ended up just short of 200… which means that even for a regular and relatively curious taster like myself, there remains a bewildering range of grapes that I have not tasted and probably never will taste – Italy alone has over 300 native varieties! Moreover, looking at my private cellar, I confess I do not always practice what I preach: the usual suspects tend to dominate…

The question is how much of a problem that is. One could look at it from another perspective, and hypothesize that if certain grapes are overlooked, there may well be a good reason for it. Maybe we’re not missing out on much. Do they really have such a unique taste profile? Besides, terroir and vinification ensure a lot of diversity, even with a limited variation in grapes. To take the example of Chardonnay: not only does it vary enormously according to soil and climate, but the winemaker’s choices can produce anything between a crisp, mineral Chablis-style and a bold, fat and oaked style – which has led some to the conclusion that the ABC era is over.

On the other hand, the search for “forgotten” grapes is interesting in its own right, as part of the movement towards more food diversity and “slow food” (think of the forgotten vegetables that are reappearing these days), and we should not let mass market imperatives drive our taste. This being said, the quest could even prove to be an economically useful one, bearing in mind the by now undeniable reality of climate change: varieties that were grubbed up before because they ripened too late or had low sugar content, are being rediscovered. Petit verdot is a point in case in Bordeaux. Likewise, Torres is reviving indigenous varieties in Spain to anticipate rising temperatures. One wonders what regions like Burgundy, which is largely based on two monovarietals, will do when it gets hotter…

As with all things living, diversity is the best option we have, and we should cultivate it as much as we can. But, as wine lovers, we should also not despair about what we will most likely miss out on, or feel guilty when we enjoy the odd glass of chardonnay or riesling (apologies to fierce fanatics of the latter for putting these two on the same line).  Cheers!