Benjamin Mitrofan-Norris on November 23, 2016 0 Comments Once home to a mighty, decadent empire, and today associated mainly with cafe culture, chocolate cake and dramatic, mountainous landscapes, Austria is a fascinating country which is well worth looking into. Situated in the very heart of Europe, it sits on the edge of the east and west of this continent, sharing landlocked borders with Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Germany, Italy, Slovenia and Switzerland. Because of this, it comes as no surprise that Austria is at once a country with a ferociously independent spirit and strong self-image, while having a gastronomic and viticultural identity which has been shaped and influenced over the years by its neighbors. Wine may not be the first thing that comes to mind when we think of Austria. Indeed, we normally think of this part of Europe as the heartland of beer drinkers, with huge, foaming steins served by barmaids alongside vast schnitzels and never-ending sausages. However, this stereotypical image doesn’t do this complex country justice — the Austrians adore their wines, and wineries and tasting rooms sit prettily alongside beer halls and breweries. Furthermore, most families lucky enough to own some outdoor space turn their hands each summer to winemaking, with grapes hanging haphazardly from creeping vines in most back gardens, and all guests being greeted with golden glasses of semi-sweet, deeply floral house-wine at parties and dinners. Wine here is democratic and homely, exactly as it should be. The Golden Years For a country which isn’t known foremostly for its wine production, the Austrians have a truly impressive wine history, which stretches back to the earliest days of Europe as we know it. The Danube river which carves its way through central Europe was always of great interest to the expanding Roman Empire, and was used as a vital trade route behind Gothic Germany and the Black Sea, on whose opposite coast sits Istanbul. As such, evidence of viticulture in Austria reaches back at least 2,500 years, when the Romans were establishing themselves there. Throughout the dark ages, monastic communities cut into the steep valley sides of the Danube around Vienna, to create beautiful and dramatic vineyards which were used for sacred wine production, as well as for viticulture for the general populous. They still exist today, and are the spiritual heart of this country’s viticultural tradition. However, it was in the 16th century when Austrian wine really took off in Europe, thanks to strong political allegiances between the Austrian Imperial family and the British — in times when France and Spain were not on speaking terms with the English royal family, they looked further east for the wines which filled the goblets of the royal courts. Whatever the nobility did quickly became fashionable elsewhere, and Austrian wines were the toast of England and her allies even until the Victorian times, when they were prized for their delightful aroma, and for the depth of flavor of their dessert wines. Back from the Brink Despite these centuries of celebration, fashion is a fickle and unforgiving business, and Austrian wines certainly fell from favor during much of the twentieth century. The second world war certainly didn’t help the country’s reputation abroad, but on top of that, the majority of Austria’s export wines were cloying, sickly sweet wines made with low quality Gruner Veltliner grapes which had been purposefully left to over-ripen. This was wine for people who didn’t really like wine, and having a bottle of Austrian plonk in your wine cabinet in the early 80’s was a social faux-pas you’d struggle to get over. This poor reputation abroad was cemented dramatically and scandalously, when in 1985, traces of diethylene glycol — a key ingredient in the production of anti-freeze — was found in Austria’s bulk wine exports. It had been supposedly used to add sweetness and body to their wines, and the general public was appalled. It seemed to many that the glory days of fine Austrian viticulture and produce were over. However, the past decade has seen a stunning return to form, which should see Austrian wines back where they belong — firmly on the wine lists of any self-respecting establishment. Austrian vintners have realized that their climatic conditions and enviable terroir is suited perfectly for the production of beautiful, crisp, acidic white wines made from Gruner Veltliner and Riesling, as well as other fine and complex wines made from native and imported grape varietals. A good Austrian Gruner Veltliner is a wonder to behold — minerality and bright, zesty fruit, with the clarity of mountain water and refreshing qualities which are hard to beat. Austria is once again finding its voice, and new fans are being converted all the time thanks to the excellence of the produce coming out of the country. A Land of Variety and Innovation Austria is home to many different types of wine — reds, roses and whites, beautifully intense dessert wines and bone dry table wines, and sparkling wines which would challenge any bottle to come out of Champagne. The reason for this is due to the fact that the terroir of Austria is truly exceptional. It enjoys a range of microclimates which vary dramatically due to proximity to the great river, the Alps and the sun-drenched plains, and the ancestral wineries know exactly how to use each to its advantage. No less than 35 wine-producing grape varietals are grown there, and the newly formed DAC appellation regulations are keeping things in check, and ensuring that quality is maintained for the future. One of the interesting features of 21st century Austrian wine culture is the prevalence of biodynamic farming. The founding father of biodynamics, Rudolph Steiner, was a native Austrian, and his influence on the organic revolution in farming was felt strongly in his homeland, and today organic, sustainable and biodynamic are all labels you’ll commonly find on even some of the larger wineries’ output. Viennese Wine No article about Austrian wine could pass without some mention of Vienna, and the beautiful and fascinating wines you’ll find there. In the hills above the splendid capital city, vineyards stretch for as far as the eye can see — but these are vineyards with a difference, producing a wine which is quite unlike any other major wine country’s classic examples. Wiener Gemischter Satz — Viennese blended wine — is a curiosity which is firmly back in fashion among Vienna’s millennial wine drinkers. It’s a strange one — many of the vineyards around Vienna were planted with a wide range of native and imported grape varietals, and they are picked more or less indiscriminately come harvest season, crushed and fermented to make a blended wine like no other. The idea is that on average, the overripe and underripe grapes in the mix, as well as the full-bodied and light-bodied will blend together to produce a balanced wine with a unique expression of the terroir. The results are generally very impressive — you end up with a firm wine with plenty of acidity and bite, which goes beautifully with local dishes like Wiener schnitzel. If you’re ever in this part of the world, seek out one of the lovely wine gardens or heurigans, and get yourself a glass. Zum Wohl!