Known for crisp whites, earthy, high-acid reds, and rare yet delicious dessert wines, Austria’s viticultural scene has come a long way since the 1985 antifreeze scandal (don’t worry-- we’ll explain below!) Austria is also home to Riedel, one of the world’s most renowned wine glass makers. Get to know this gorgeous, cool-climate country through our Austria 101 below.
A Bit of Austrian History
Evidence of viticulture in Austria dates back thousands of years, with records of Gruner Veltliner and Welschriesling present along the Danube since the time of the Romans. The nation’s wine industry boomed in the 1500s, though war and elevated taxes caused a quick demise, followed by the arrival of devastating mildews and phylloxera in the 19th century.
The 20th century posed an even bigger downfall for Austria’s wine industry. High yields gave way to diluted, bitterly acidic wines, which many wine brokers discovered could be made sweeter and fuller-bodied by adding diethylene glycol, a common ingredient in antifreeze. The scandal was then unearthed when one winemaker attempted to claim the cost of the chemical addition on his taxes.
Although the amount of the chemical in the wine was less dangerous to human health than the actual amount of alcohol present within the juice, the Austrian wine business totally collapsed, until strict laws and regulations were put into place in the 1990s, in conjunction with producers moving towards red wine and dry white wine production. Quality over quantity became the mentality, and soon enough, Austria was back on the wine world’s radar.
Today, Austria is the 16th largest producer of wine in the world, exporting more high-quality bottles than ever before. White wine production comprises about 70% of the country’s output, with Gruner Veltliner reigning king as the most widely planted grape variety. Welschriesling and Muller-Thurgau are the second and third most widely planted white varieties, though they occupy marginally less vineyard holdings than Gruner Veltliner, which dominates 36% of Austria’s vineyards. Pinot Blanc, Chardonnay, and Riesling are also present, though in much lesser quantities.
Zweigelt, a cross between Blaufränkisch and St. Laurent, dominates Austrian red wine production, making up nearly half of the country’s red wine output. Zweigelt’s parent, Blaufränkisch, is also a common variety, producing darker-fruited, earthy wines. (Blaufränkisch also plays a big role in the Egri Bikaver (Bull’s Blood) wines of Hungary.) Pinot Noir and St. Laurent are also found in smaller quantities.
Austrian wines are marked by the region’s cool climate, giving way to wines of energetic, high acidity. The country’s many steep hillsides, including the presence of the Alps, play a role in viticulture, as well as Lake Neusiedlersee and the Danube River, which help moderate climate (and the former of which creates essential for the creation of botrytized dessert wines.)
Like most European wine countries, Austria has put various classification systems in place. Currently, three systems are used. The first is the traditional classification system, based off of Germany’s classification system. The second is specific to the wines of Wachau, and the third designates regional appellations called DACs.
The national classification system, similar to that of Germany, classifies wines based on the sugar content within grapes at harvest. Designations are Tafelwein, Landwein, Qualitätswein, Kabinett, and Prädikatswein, which covers Spätlese to Eiswein. Designations within Pradikatswein include Spatlese, Auelese, Beerenauslese, Ausbruch, Trockenbeerenauslese, and Eiswein.
Wachau’s classification breaks wines down into three categories, all of which must be vinified dry.
- Steinfeder - Meaning stone feather, named after a type of grass that grows within Austrian vineyards, deems that wines must have a maximum of 11.5% alcohol. These wines tend to be light and easy drinking.
- Federspiel - Named after a falconry device, wines must clock in between 11.5% and 12.5% alcohol and have a minimum must weight of 17 degrees KMW. Wines are slightly richer than Steinfeder bottlings.
- Smaragd - Meaning ‘emerald,’ named after a thriving vineyard lizard, wines must have a minimum of 12.5% alcohol and a maximum of nine grams per liter of residual sugar. These are the cream of the crop dry whites in Austria in the country.
The third classification breaks wine down into DACs, similar to the French AOC system. There are currently 13 DACs in Austria. (List provided by Austrianwine.com)Weinviertel DAC
Niederösterreich - Wachau, Kremstal, and Kamptal are found here. This is where most of Austria’s world-class, highest quality whites are produced, specifically from Gruner Veltliner and Riesling.
Burgenland - Neusiedlersee, Mittelburgenland, and a few other growing zones are located within Burgenland. Red wines and sweet, botrytized wines are most commonly produced within this region.
Wien - A mere 600+ hectares of vines exist around the country’s capital, Vienna, mainly dedicated to Chardonnay, Riesling, and Pinot Blanc, as well as some red varieties.
Styria - Comprised of Südoststeiermark, Südsteiermark, and Weststeiermark. Wines produced in Styria are usually white, crafted from Welschriesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, and/or Pinot Blanc.
Because of Austria’s cool-climate, unique terroirs, and strong emphasis on quality over quantity, the country should be explored by red, white, and rosé lovers alike. It’s important to shout out how insanely food-friendly the wines are, too, due to the high acidity present within the juice. Value-driven, versatile, and super delicious, we can’t think of a more fun country to explore.