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- History - A history of Austrian wine and winemaking

History of Austrian Wine

Grapes in Austria have an ancient history. Celts here planted vines as early as 3000 years ago, although it is not known whether they ever made wine. We do know, however, that viticulture grew under Roman occupation and flourished during the Middle Ages. Monasteries played a large role of winemaking, and monks themselves brought Pinot Noir and Riesling to Austria. Wine production reached its peak at the end of the Middle Ages, when Austrian vineyards covered an incredible ten times more land than they do today.

Austria was hit hard by Phylloxera and a series of harsh winters at the end of the nineteenth century, but growers conducted continuous experiments aimed at producing hardier grapes. The main result was Grüner Veltliner, which represents the most important variety in Austria today. Although production had declined from its peak, the Austrian government passed a comprehensive new German-influenced Wine Law in 1972 and the industry was healthy moving into the 1980s.

Scandal

The story of the Austrian wine industry today must unfortunately begin in 1985, when a small number of Austrian winemakers added a chemical called diethylene glycol to dessert wines in order to make them taste sweeter. Due to the close relation between diethylene glycol and deadly automobile antifreeze – technically monoethylene glycol, but more commonly called just ethylene glycol – the incident blew up in the international press. The adulterate chemical was actually harmless in the concentration present, but sloppy reporting was widespread and people around the world came to believe that Austrian wine is doctored with antifreeze.

Needless to say, Austrian wine suffered a huge shock. Exports in 1986 fell to only a fifth of their pre-scandal level, and the industry took more than a decade to recover. The incident did have some positive effects, however. To combat the negative image of Austrian wine, the government took immediate steps to make wine laws stricter. In line with the government agenda, Austrian winemakers generally began to emphasize quality over quantity in hopes of salvaging Austria’s reputation. Quality today is generally high, and Austrian wines have again begun to find themselves on American wine lists and store shelves.

- Overview - An overview of Austrian wine today.

Overview of Austrian Wine

Although Austria has a history of red wine production, today it grows almost entirely white varieties. As a result of the cold climate, most of the grapes here are cold resistant and early ripening. Grüner Veltliner is the most widely known grape, with the hardy Swiss hybrid Müller-Thurgau coming in second. Riesling is grown only rarely, and red wines such as Spätburgunder, Portugieser, and Blaurer Zweigelt make up less than a tenth of production.

The antifreeze scandal of 1985, in which a few growers sweetened their dessert wines with a close chemical relative of automobile antifreeze, led to a complete overhaul of Austria’s wine laws. Today they are modeled on the German system and are among the strictest in all of Europe. Each wine is classified by varietal, region of origin, and Prädikat, or sugar content. Like German wines, Australian bottles are often referred to by their officially designated degree of sweetness – here, Spätlese is the driest quality wine and Trockenbeerenauslese is the sweetest.

The anti-freeze scandal also eliminated overproduction overnight. After 1985, quality became much more important than quantity, and Austrian wines have improved dramatically as a result. Although Austrian Riesling and red wines are rare, they can stand proudly alongside their French and German cousins. And Austria’s botrytized wines are unquestionably among the greats in the world. Today Austrian wines are slowly regaining international attention and acclaim, and the anti-freeze taint on the country’s reputation is largely a relic of the past.

Geography

Austrian vineyards are located entirely in the eastern half of the country, away from the Alps. The east is so far removed from the Atlantic, however, the climate is continental, with are harsher and colder winters and hotter and dryer summers than in most of Western Europe. More than half of Austria’s wine comes from the large region of Niederösterreich, or lower Austria. The soil here is rich in shale, the Danube moderates temperature, and the Riesling predictably excellent. More surprising are the 1,600 vineyards inside Vienna, Austria’s capital. For historic reasons, Vienna is accorded status as its own wine region rather than as a part of Niederösterreich.

Temperature

Although the winters can be harsh, the summers in Austria’s wine region is generally warm, dry, and swell-suited to viticulture. In Burgenland, mists rising from the nearby Neusiedlersee create conditions ideal for noble rot.

Topography

Austria’s wine territory is large and encompasses all forms of terrain. Vines are grown on steep river banks, on flat planes, on terraced valley walls and on rolling hillsides.

Terroir

In the north, the soil is mostly schist, limestone, and gravel. In the south, there is more sand, with a high clay content in the volcanic region of Styria.

Important Varietals

Grüner Veltliner

Chardonnay

Cabernet Sauvignon

Merlot