Unlike Italy, Spain, and most of all, France, Austria’s history of winemaking may not be as widely known as those of its continental European neighbors. But wine has been a part of the culture of this landlocked country for centuries – according to some archaeologists, as early as 4,000 years ago. Evidence of grape remnants dating back to 700 B.C. have been identified in the eastern region of Burgenland, as have early Celtic flasks from 5th century B.C. Salzburg. Cultivation was delivered a real boon during the days of the Roman Empire, especially under Emperor Marcus Aurelius Probus, who had lifted the ban on grape farming north of the Alps instituted by Domitian, an early predecessor. In fact, it was during the Empire’s rule that Austria’s signature and most important grape, Grüner Veltliner, likely made its welcomed debut.
After the Empire’s descent and the multiple invasions that followed, Austria’s winemaking suffered dramatically; however, the
Austria’s best vineyards are based in the country’s eastern regions, as the west is home to the Alps. Lateral to central France and situated south of Germany, its climate is almost classically continental due to Atlantic airstreams coming from the west and a hint of Mediterranean warmth from the south. These factors add up to a somewhat early spring followed by warm, dry summer. Harvests generally take place in early Autumn with the exception of grapes such as Riesling, which require a bit more time on the vine to realize its optimal potential. All harvests, however, are completed by late Autumn to escape the typically long, cold Austrian winter.
There are three major winemaking regions in Austria, each with its own sub-regions. Niederösterreich is nestled in the upper northeast corner of the country and directly enjoys the benefits of the Danube River and its tributaries. Home to over 60% of Austria’s vineyards, Niederösterreich lays claim to eight sub-regions: Kremstal, Kamptal, Traisental, Wagram, and the most famous, Wachau, to the west; Thermenregion and Carnuntum to the south and west, and Weinviertel to the north. Weinviertal, the largest sub-region, is dedicated almost exclusively to the Gruner Veltliner grape which is cultivated not only for fresh, light whites but also for sekt, Austria’s own version of sparkling wine. The sub-region is also notable for being the first in Austria to earn its own appellation, here called DAC (Districtus Austriae Controllatus), in 2003. (DACs, of which there are now ten in the country, are more aligned with France’s AOCs, and are based on varietals. This is a departure from Austria’s previous wine regulations which were based on Germany’s classification criteria of region and ripeness.) Carnuntum’s main varietals are Zweigelt, used in its eponymous dry red, Rubin Carnuntum, and Blaufränkisch, which yields a much more supple and inspired red. Thermenregion grows a diverse slate of fruit, many of which are blended into popular rustic tavern wines. The sub-region also cultivates Zierfandler and Rotgipfler, often used together to create rich, savory whites, as well as St. Laurent, a native red, and Pinot Noir. Kremstal, Kamptal and Traisental all hold DACs of their own for Riesling and Grüner Veltliner, with Wagram known for both its Grüner Veltliner and Pinot Noir production. Finally, Wachau is in a category all its own for producing truly world-class Grüner Veltliner and Riesling. Oddly enough, Wachau does not have its own DAC but instead, has remained loyal to the ripeness-based Vinea Wachau Noblis Disrictus classification, applicable only to wines that are made solely from Wachau grapes.
Situated just below Niederösterreich on the east-central border is Burgenland. Due to its warmer climate, the four Burgenland sub-regions – Neusiedlersee, Leithaberg, Mittelburgenland and Eisenberg – can accommodate more red varietals. The Neusiedlersee DAC is home to several popular sweet wines, as is proximity to Lake Neusiedl promotes the presence of Botrytis cinerea, or noble rot, which encourages the concentration of sugars in the fruit used in these delicious offerings. The town of Rust, which is closest to the lake, is renowned for Ausbruch, a sweet wine, while nearby Seewinkel is home to Trockenbeerenauslese, or TBAs, which are equally popular dessert wines. Both areas use multiple botrytized varietals for these wines, including Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, and Welschriesling. In addition, Neusiedlersee produces Zweigelt-based reds. The Leithaberg, Mittelburgenland and Eisenberg DACs also produce elegant and appealing reds from Zweigelt and Blaufränkisch, with Leithaberg adding Chardonnay and Weissburgunder-driven whites for good measure.
South of Burgenland lies Steiermark, or Styria, the smallest of Austria’s three main winemaking regions. With its abundance of grassy hills, its three sub-regions – Weststeiermark, Südsteiermark and Vulkanland Steiermark – all produce especially pleasant and fragrant white wines as well as rich Chardonnays. It also produces Morillon, a popular rosé which is gaining a following beyond Austria’s borders. Weststeiermark holds its own DAC for Schilcher, a unique pink wine touched with personality and spice.
Austria’s modern wine industry is growing and thriving. With improved varietals and a heightened emphasis on quality, the country’s winemakers are producing impressive global competitors that continue to showcase its history as well as its limitless potential.