Austrian wine has changed a great deal over the last few decades—for the better. The improvement took place because of a terrible event, the Austrian diethylene glycol wine scandal of 1985. German wine laboratories discovered that some Austrian producers had added diethylene glycol, a substance used in some forms of anti-freeze, to bulk wines they shipped to Germany, ostensibly to give them better body and a sweeter feel. No one got sick, but a number of Austrians went to prison, and Austrian wine exports collapsed. The positive effect of this was a thorough house cleaning by Austrian wine authorities and a move by the industry away from sweet bulk wine toward upscale dry wines. The industry recovered and is making an array of impressive wines today. Austrian wines have a fresh energy to them.
Austria is no clone of Germany. It is situated further south, and the wine producing areas are tangibly warmer than Germany’s. Wine is produced only in the eastern section of the country, the west being taken up by the alpine region. Austria grows over 30 grape varieties, primarily white, but red wines are on the increase, and now account for a solid third of production. The flagship white grape is the native Grüner Veltliner, accounting for a third of the country’s plantings. Other whites include Neuburger, Rotgipfler, Zierfandler and Roter Veltliner. Reds include Zweigelt, Blaufränkisch, St. Laurent and Blauer Wildbacher. International varieties like Pinot Noir and Chardonnay also have their place.
Austria, like Germany, has a system of wine quality levels based on must weight (juice sugar content before fermentation). The system is slightly different.
- Kabinett, standard must weight for quality wines
- Spätlese: higher must weight
- Auslese: select grapes with higher must weight
- Beerenauslese: further selection of individual berries
- Ausbruch: grapes shriveled by botrytis (noble rot)
- Trockenbeerenauslese: completely botrytised grapes
- Strohwein or Schilfwein: made from grapes dried on straw mats.
The geographic classification system in Austria takes some explaining. For starters, there are four generic districts, covering the whole country. Three are labeled in red on our map, the other is the capital Vienna, or Wien in German. From north to south, these are
- Niederösterreich meaning “Lower Austria,” the “lower” referring to its position downstream on the Danube River
- Wiener Gemischter Satz, the capital city, Vienna
(If the German language is unfamiliar to you, take a second to note the placement of the I and E in “Wien,” pronounced “VEEN,” or Vienna. The word for wine is “Wein,” pronounced VINE.)
Within the four generic regions are sixteen wine producing regions. Nine fit within the classification of DAC, meaning “Controlled District of Austria,” roughly the equivalent of the French AOC or Italian DOC levels. Each DAC specifies the grape varieties or wine types that are allowed to use the DAC name on their labels. An additional seven regions (within two of the four generic regions) do not come within the DAC rules, for various reasons. In the case of Wachau, for example, the appellation has its own system of quality levels that pre-date the DAC system.
The nine DACs are:
- Weinviertel DAC (Grüner Veltliner)
- Mittelburgenland DAC (Blaufränkisch)
- Traisental DAC (Riesling and Grüner Veltliner)
- Kremstal DAC (Riesling and Grüner Veltliner)
- Kamptal DAC (Riesling and Grüner Veltliner)
- Leithaberg DAC (Grüner Veltliner, Weißburgunder, Chardonnay, Neuburger and Blaufränkisch)
- Eisenberg DAC (Blaufränkisch)
- Neusiedlersee DAC (Zwiegelt)
- Wiener Gemischter Satz DAC (minimum of three white grape varieties of one vineyard, harvested and produced together) – the name means “Mixed Vienna Group.”
If a producer makes wine from a grape that is not authorized in the DAC, the wine must be labeled under the name of the larger generic region. So a Pinot Noir from the Weinviertel (which only authorizes Grüner Veltliner) would be labeled “Pinot Noir, Niederösterreich.”
The non-DACs are:
In Steiermark (all of Steiermark):
Let us take a look at these sixteen regions. We will start in Niederösterreich and work our way down and around, through Vienna, through Burgenland, and finish in Steiermark.
Wachau is Austria’s most prestigious wine appellation. A UNESCO world heritage site, it is a region of crystalline rock soils on steep terraces perched on gorges of the Danube. Summer is hot and dry here, but the river gives relief. Riesling and Grüner Veltliner are the major two grapes, both generating age-worthy wines. The indigenous white grape Neuburger is here, as well as Gelber Muskateller (Muscat Blanc) and Sauvignon Blanc. Before the DAC era (which Wachau opted out of), Wachau created its own quality code, the Vinea Wachau, dividing dry white wines into three categories: Steinfeder, aromatic, light-bodied wines up to 11.5% alcohol, Federspiel, with 11.5% to 12.5% alcohol by volume, and Smaragd, for rich late-harvest, dry wines.
Kremstal DAC has distinct growing zones. In the west, by Wachau, are the rocky soils of the Kremstal river valley and the historic town of Krems, producing mineral-rich Riesling and spicy Grüner Veltliner. East of Krems is an area of deep loess soil, the home of a softer, more elegant Grüner Veltliner.
Kamptal DAC to the east of Kremstal makes wine from Grüner Veltliner or Riesling in a classic medium-bodied style and a rich, opulent dry reserve style. Riesling here grows on steep south-facing slopes, producing powerful mineral wines. Further south, toward the Danube, wider loess and loam terraces support full-bodied Grüner Veltliner, Pinot Noir, Pinot Blanc and the red Zweigelt. These last three must be labeled under the generic regional term “Niederösterreich”.
Traisental DAC authorizes Riesling and Grüner Veltliner for DAC labeling. This is a small area producing spicy Grüner Veltliner. Vines cling onto on narrow terraces with arid, calcareous gravel soils, giving the wines great concentration and full body. This is a climate transition zone, where the cool climate of the Alps meets the warmer stretches of the Pannonian plain, funneling in from neighboring Hungary.
Wagram, not a DAC, was previously known as Donauland (Danube-land). Vines here are planted on both banks of the river. A range of Grüner Veltliner styles are made, but the red Roter Veltliner is also popular (the two “Veltliners” are not genetically related). Red Zweigelt, Pinot Noir and Eiswein (Ice Wine) have their champions here.
Weinviertel’s DAC is strictly for Grüner Veltliner, but it produces a range of other wines as Austria’s largest wine region, stretching from the Danube in the south to the Czech border in the north, and all the way to the border of Slovakia in the east. The northeast concentrates on Grüner Veltliner, Welschriesling and Pinot Noir. The limestone cliffs in the north bring a mineral quality to the wines. Further to the south-east, the warm Pannonian climate creates an optimal growing environment for Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, and Pinot Blanc, and also Traminer, which supports a range of wines from dry through to dessert. On steep inclines in the south, approaching Vienna, Riesling basks in its aromatic glory.
Carnumtun, not a DAC, stretches from the borders of Vienna in the west to the border of Slovakia in the east. The vineyards are south of the Danube on three hilltops. The soil is dense loam, loess, and sandy gravels, favoring red wine production from the indigenous Blauer Zweigelt, along with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Blaufränkisch.
Thermenregion, not a DAC, is so named because of its thermal springs. The northern part, by the Vienna Woods, makes white wine from the indigenous Zierfandler and Rotgipfler varieties (rarely seen elsewhere), either vinified separately or blended with each other. In the south, the red wines Sankt Laurent and Pinot Noir are predominant. The Pannonian effect come into play here in force, resulting in a dry climate with an average of 1,800 hours of sunshine during the year.
The Wiener Gemischter Satz DAC is a codification of the centuries-old tradition in the capital and its environs of producing wine designed to be consumed fresh in the city’s traditional Viennese “Heuriger” wine taverns, amid much vivacious social interaction. The Vienna environs have over 1500 acres of vines. In the west of the City, carbonate-rich soils create ideal conditions for Riesling, Chardonnay and Weißburgunder (Pinot Blanc). In the southern parts of Vienna, calcareous, brown and black earth soils favor the production of full-bodied white wines and rich, supple red wines. Virtually all Viennese producers cultivate grapes for the traditional “Gemischter Satz,” different varieties planted and harvested together, and then crushed and vinified all as one mass. Grapes include Grüner Veltliner, Riesling, Chardonnay and Pinot Blanc among whites and reds like Pinot Noir and Zweigelt.
We move now south to Burgenland, where both climate and topography are radically different from the more northern regions. All four regions in Burgenland are DACs.
Leithaberg DAC is an all-rounder, authorized as a DAC to produce reds (from Blaufränkisch as the principal grape variety, with up to 15 percent Zweigelt, St. Laurent or Pinot Noir) as well as whites from Weißburgunder (Pinot Blanc), Chardonnay, Neuburger and Grüner Veltliner, either as single varietals of as blends. The soils on the east-facing slopes of the Leithagebirge mountain range are limestone and slate, creating a pure red Blaufränkisch, as well as complex white Weißburgunder, Chardonnay, and Grüner Veltliner.
Neusiedlersee DOC refers to the large shallow Lake Neusiedl, which promotes a wet climate perfect for the development of noble rot (botrytis cinerea) during the autumn for wonderful Beerenauslese and Trockenbeerenauslese dessert wines from Chardonnay, Scheurebe, Traminer and Welschriesling, the latter having the potential to produce exceptional quality levels. These wines are labeled “Burgenland,” since the DAC only applies to the red Zweigelt. The Zweigelt here is joined by its cousins Blaufränkisch and St. Laurent
Mittelburgenland DAC applies only to Blaufränkisch. This is the center of red wine production in Austria. The appellation also produces Zweigelt, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot. Neighboring Eisenberg DAC is also authorized for Blaufränkisch.
Steiermark (Styria) has more in common with the Slovenian vineyards across the border than it does with the rest of the Austrian wine lands. The three Styrian wine-growing regions each have their own configurations. In the undulating hills of Weststeiermark, Schilcher Rosé dominates. In Südsteiermark, Sauvignon Blanc and Gelber Muskateller are mostly prominent. In Vulkanland Steiermark, named for an extinct volcano, the grape of note is Traminer.