Austrian white wine is not really on the radar of the majority of white wine drinkers. Despite producing white wines which can compete with some of the best in the world for quality Austria has long been the poor relation of central European wine.
Austria’s white wine industry took a severe hit in the mid-1980s with the so-called “anti-freeze” scandal when it was discovered that some producers were adding diethylene glycol to the wines to sweeten them artificially. In fact diethylene glycol is not the substance used in anti-freeze and is actually less poisonous than alcohol but the damage was done to the reputation of Austrian white wine.
The scandal followed almost a decade of wine over-production as demand from its neighbour Germany declined dramatically. As a result the Austrian wine industry was in danger of collapse. However, the Austrian government reacted to the crisis by tightening up controls on the wine industry; in fact, today it is one of the safest in the world. Add to that a significant reduction in production and the introduction of a classification system similar to the French Appellations Controlees and the Austrian wine industry is looking in better health today than it has for many years.
Gruner Veltliner is the most widely grown white wine grape in Austria. The best examples are found around the Danube where the wines have a fiery flavour with characteristics of black pepper. Gruner Veltliner is food friendly and gains complexity with aging and has the distinction of featuring in the first Districtus Austriae Controllatus or DAC (Austria’s equivalent of the French AOC) which covers Gruner Veltliner whites produced in the Weinviertal region. Other DACs such as Traisental, Kremstal, Kamptal and Leithaberg also include Gruner Veltliner whites.
Other Austrian white wines to look out for include Rieslings, especially from Wachau and Kremser. At their best, the Rieslings from these regions can compete with the best German examples but make sure you don’t confuse Riesling with Welschriesling. This similar sounding white wine grape is widely grown in Austria but produces fairly ordinary dry wines at lower quality levels although the highest quality Pradikatswein examples can be rich and elegant.
Austria’s wine growing area is divided into three major regions. Weinbauregion Niederosterreich (or Lower Austria) includes the districts of Wachau and Kamtal-Donauland, renowned for their Rieslings, Weinviertel, Donauland-Carnuntum, Thermenregion and Wien. Weinbauregion Burgenland features the districts of Neusiedler See and Neusiedler See-Hugelland, both known for their botrytized wines, Mittelburgenland and Sudburgenland. Weinbauregion Steiermark covers the south east of Austria and includes the districts of Sudsteiermark, known for producing fine delicate and fruity whites with high acidity, Weststeiermark and Sud-oststeiermark, where some of the best Gewurztraminer in Austria is produced.
Like German white wine labels, the labels of Austrian wines can seem impenetrable at first. However, the Austrian wine industry has actually come up with a labelling system measuring the quality and ripeness of the white wine which, although similar, is more reliable than that in Germany.
In both Austria and Germany the level of quality of white wine is based on degrees of ripeness which is measured by the amount of sugar present in the grapes at the time of harvest. In both countries the quality categories range from Tafelwein for the most basic to Trockenbeerenauslese. In between these two extremes lie, amongst others, Qualitatswein, Kabinett, Spatlese and Auslese plus an Austrian speciality Ausbruch which is an intensely raisiny botrytized wine.
Where the two measurements of quality differ is that in Austria the minimum degree of ripeness for each category is constant across all regions and white wine styles. However, in Germany the minimum degree of ripeness varies according to the grape variety and the region of production. This means that in Austria each category has a predictable and distinctive style whereas in Germany the wine drinker learns what to expect only by trial and error.
Austrian white wines should rank with those from Germany and Alsace as some of the most interesting wines in Europe but they remain largely unknown in the UK. There may be many reasons for this. Perhaps there is a residual suspicion of the wines still lingering decades after the “anti-freeze” scandal or maybe consumers prefer to opt for the relatively more familiar styles and labels from Germany and Alsace. It could also be the limited availability of Austrian white wines, partly due to the demand of the domestic market. Supermarkets seem to stock very few Austrian wines meaning consumers have to work harder to seek them out. Add to that the relatively high price of the wines – expect to pay around £20 for a good quality bottle – and it is probably little surprise that Austrian white wine remains sadly unknown and unloved by most of us.
Image by Mussklprozz.