Austria’s Wines Come of Age

At this year’s VieVinum, the young Austrian vintner class congregates with other winemakers from Europe and beyond

News | Justin McCauley | June 2010

Exploring the Hofburg palace is in itself an enjoyable activity – the vast winter residence of the Habsburgs possessing one of the most stunning interiors in Vienna. However, when hosting the annual VieVinum international wine festival, the palace’s lush, aristocratic atmosphere is taken to a new level.

The VieVinum, held on May 29-31, is a prestigious celebration of Austria’s wine industry, as well as a showcase for wineries the world over. Often overshadowed by traditional European wine producers such as France and Italy, Austrian wines are on the rise again. After the advent in recent decades of New World wines – most notably from the United States, Australia, South Africa and Chile – the industry has opened up more and more to smaller countries, allowing Austria to once again take its place alongside the great winemakers of Europe.

Austria’s achievements in viticulture are nothing new; Austrians have been producing wine for centuries, and has been on the map since the 16th century. By the 1920s, Austria was the third largest wine producer in the world. However, by the 1980s the Austrian industry was in shambles after untenable, high-volumes of production began to result in bad wine, as well as questionable manipulation practices typified by the notorious (at least in wine circles) antifreeze scandal, in which wine makers introduced small amounts of the chemical to add body and sweetness to the wine.

However, walking around the Hofburg’s massive ballrooms and dining rooms, these hiccups seem long forgotten. Dozens of Austria’s most prominent wine producers were present, and many of the clientele were already raving about what they had encountered in their first round of tasting. In an interesting development, well-manipulated cuvées of indigenous Austrian varietals, as well as a general knack for Pinot Noir, have elevated Austrian reds to the heavyweight ranks.

The vast majority of Austrian grapes are destined for white wine production, with Haupttraube Grüner Veltliner accounting for roughly a third of the annual harvest. With unique and exciting varietals such as Welschriesling as well as top-notch classics such as Riesling and Chardonnay, Austria’s reputation for producing quality dry whites has already been secured. However, many younger producers have been intrepid in their pursuit to create elegant reds.

In recent years, relative newcomers have saturated the Austrian market with Rotwein made from autochthonous berries like Zweigelt and Blaufränkisch. Moreover, vintners have had successes with non-indigenous grapes such as Saint Laurent and Pinot Noir. "Sicilian monks brought Pinot Noir to Austria in the 17th Century, and we’ve been cultivating it ever since," one enthusiastic oenologist at the VieVinum told The Vienna Review.

Indeed, although known for its whites, many of the Austrian wineries in attendance were showcasing their reds. Walking around the enormous ballroom which housed the wines from Burgenland, it was clear that these were not your average group of aging, traditional-minded wine proffers. Young, creative and energetic, Austria’s new school of vintners are forging a modern identity for Austrian wine which goes beyond dry summer whites.

Moritz, a young oenologist working for Paul Achs, explained to The Vienna Review that for many in Burgenland, it’s about quality over quantity. "Paul is actually shrinking his vineyards from 19 to 17 hectares, in an effort to better control and care for each grape." He went on to state that Austria, as a landlocked, cold weather country, shares little with the southern, Franco-Italian wine culture so revered. "We are a northern country as far as wine is concerned," Moritz said. Indeed, Austrian techniques do have their origin in German methods, although the new vintners have been experimenting with more contemporary approaches. Achs himself is young, and took over the winery from his parents some years ago.

After a complete tasting at Paul Achs (decent wines, however the oak overpowered the fruit) we moved on to another Burgenländer producer, Claus Preisinger. There, the oenologist explained Preisinger’s history, philosophy and method, which were similar to that of Paul Achs: small vineyards, small productions, all local grapes, and few entry-level wines. In many ways this breed of Austrian wines are similar to that of boutique wines – small productions, high prices, and niche markets.

Preisinger’s wines were some of the best to be tasted that day; all were particularly harmonious, with the Pinot Noir being exquisite. "We age in used barrels, so the wood doesn’t overpower the fruit," said Preisinger’s cellar manager. The oak was just enough to subdue the tannins, without overpowering the other characteristics. During the tasting, Claus Preisinger himself came and had a brief word; like Paul Achs, he was also very young, forty at most. He began a little over ten years ago, making wine in his parents’ downstairs cellar.

Many of the big names in Austrian red wine production offer a similar range. Pinot is crafted as the crème de la crème of many wineries, and most also offer an extraordinary cuvée called Pannobile, a blend of Zweigelt, Blaufränkisch and Saint Laurent with considerable aging potential. Most also offer straight Zweigelts and Saint Laurents, as well as experimental blends of indigenous and foreign-born berries. In a sense, the Austrian philosophy invokes the spirit of the garagistes in that their approach blends regional and international tastes, crafting wines that have considerable potential but are quite drinkable while young.

Another facet of Austria’s viniculture is modern updates such as glass corks. A majority of Austrian wines have traditionally been made for early consumption, resulting in a screw-cap trend within the country. Often falsely interpreted as a sign of low quality, screw caps simply indicate that the wine in not an ager, and is meant to be consumed within the first couple of years. However as more and more wineries begin to produce noble wines suitable for aging, proper corks are becoming more prevalent. As Preisinger’s oenologists told predicted, many wine makers will switch to glass corks to avoid the persistent problem of eroding cork during the aging process. "It’s horrible when you age an expensive wine for years," one said, "only to open it and have the first glass be full of cork."

While the wines of Austria were (predictably) the central focus of the festival, plenty of other countries were represented, some with considerable zeal. There was your token assortment of Italian and French wineries, and a considerable amount of German vintners. There were also U.S., Argentine, Chilean and Portuguese stations. But most interesting – with Austria being a sort of bridge between Western and Eastern Europe – was the attendance of quite a few Eastern wine makers, particularly Hungarian and Serbian.

The Serbian attendees were by far the most engaging, friendly and lively of the vendors. While the Westerners stood calmly until patrons neared their stalls, the Serbs approached first offering good wine with a smile. The Serbian wine industry has been active for around thirty years, but only really took off in the past ten. The north of the country produces whites similar to those of Austria. One Serbian oenologist, Evena, admitted that these wines are not likely to contend internationally, "you can’t really compete with Austrian whites." However, Serbian reds, produced in the southern half of the country, have gained some notoriety and are starting to compete regionally.

Keller Janko, one of Serbia’s biggest wineries, produces Smekerevka, a round and unique white made of an autochthonous cuvée. Another was the Despot, a strong red blend of Cabernet, Merlot and the indigenous Prokupac produced by Spasic Winery, which was reminiscent of a high-alcohol Californian. Most impressive was the Kovačević Winery’s Aurelius, a straight Cabernet-Merlot cuvée which was complex, harmonious and very similar to a Super Tuscan.

Admittedly, many of the Serbian wines lacked the complexity and balance of their Austrian counterparts, but there were some standouts, and the young industry has considerable promise. At the VieVinum, moreover, the Serbs seemed to have the most fun. "A lot of people have bad preconceptions about Serbia, and that affects interest in our wines," said Evena, "but I think they’ll find in the end that we produce good, quality products."

The festival was full of other products to tantalize the taste buds, such as sparkling wine, olive oil, even juice. Wetter Obstbrände & Fruchtsäfte displayed a range of ten different, high quality apple and pear juices. In addition, they also produce a line of delicious (and strong) liquors, perfect as a digestiv. Listening to the young man explaining his family’s craft, it became apparent that nearly as much precision and skill went into making these splendiferous juices, as went into wine. On another note, the Wetter station turned out to be considerably popular for those in need of a refreshing beverage after several hours of tasting!

For three days, the wine lovers of Vienna flocked to the Hofburg to both support their compatriot vintners and to indulge in an intricate and luscious passion. The atmosphere was predictable to a point: well-dressed socialites, cultured intelligentsia and businessmen, waltzing around playing aristocrat. But deep down, that’s what you want at an event like this, people striving (and many effortlessly achieving) refinement. This year’s VieVinum was, most importantly, an opportunity for people to come together, take in some culture, discover new producers and enjoy some great wine – mission accomplished.

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    the vienna review June 2010