Austria’s Old World Wines Make a New World Market Comeback
Austria is one of the oldest wine growing countries in the world, with archeologial evidence of wine production dating back nearly 4000 years ago. Grape seeds have been found in urns within the country as early as 700BC. Austria was noted by the Romans for fine wine production during Celtic times (400BC), and viniculture flourished in the country during the Roman times (9BC), with evidence of the now popular Grüner Veltliner grape having grown along the Danube in that era. By the end of World War 1, Austria was the third biggest wine producer in the world.
But as the country’s wine production increased, the quality of wine and the ethics of the Austrian wine industry decreased. By the early 1980s, wine production in Austria had become a highly volumized industrial industry with its poor quality wines largely sold in bulk to Germany. The wines of the time were light, watery and acidic and were simply not selling. In a desperate and illegal move, unethical wine brokers within the country discovered that the addition of a small amount of diethylene glycol, more commonly found in antifreeze, imparted sweetness and body to the wine, making it saleable at a higher price. The “antifreeze scandal,” which involved only a few brokers, was uncovered and halted by the Austrian government. But the damage had been done and exports collapsed as some countries banned Austrian wine altogether.
In a move that saved the country’s wine industry, Austrian Parliament created what many believe are Europe’s strictest production regulations, which among other things restricted yields and placed an emphasis on quality, as opposed to the low standards that permitted the scandal to happen in the first place. Young winemakers, attracted to the emphasis on quality over quantity, brought new enthusiasm and cutting edge techniques to Austria’s wine production. The country went about producing more red wine and a dry style of white wine that would prove to be popular in the market beginning in the 1990s. Wine producers were encouraged to embrace production that expressed the local terroir, and return to their ancestral roots by growing the country’s longstanding old world grape varietals.
Today, Austria produces high quality wines that are taking the new world by storm, with Grüner Veltliner leading the way in the country’s vinicultural popularity. Relatively new to the American market, Grüner Veltliner (pronunciation of the umlaut ü is a cross between GROO-ner and GREE-ner, and Veltliner is pronounced as it appears, VEHLT-ly-ner), often referred to as GV or ‘Gru-Vee’ to aid pronunciation, is a refreshing white wine that is somewhat similar to a Pinot Grigio or a dry Reisling, yet worlds apart. The wine’s typical trademark is a fruity-spicy aroma reminiscent of freshly ground black peppercorn. It’s fragrant, with a streamlined style and an animated palate with a juicy, melting finish. A versatile food wine. Grüner Veltliner pairs exceptionally with Austrian and Asian cuisine, fish, vegetarian dishes, and light meats or simply as an appetizing aperitif. The wine has been embraced by consumers, merchants and restaurateurs in the United States.
Grüner Veltliner makes up more than 35 percent of Austria’s grape production and has become the country’s rising white star in the past ten years. The popularity of the wine has been fueled by both oustanding vintages as well as the wine’s great value. Sommoliers love Grüner Veltliner for its food pairing felxibility. Wine lovers enjoy the varietal for its ease of drinkability as well as its ease on the pocketbook.
As popular and exciting as the Austrian whites have become, the country’s contemporary reds are starting to take hold in America as well, with a focus on, Zweigelt (pronounced TSVYE-gelt), Austria’s most widely grown red grape. Zweigelt is a red wine variety originating from a 19th century Austrian crossing of two older varietals, Blaufränkisch and St Laurent. The zweigelt grape was developed in 1922 by professor Zweigelt at the Klosterneuburg Wine Station and School of Oenology south of Vienna. The grape combines the bite and fruity character of the Blaufränkisch grape and the full body of St. Laurent. The resulting wine is ruby red with violet highlights with sweet amarelle cherry on the nose and melting fruit on the palate. The wine embodies soft tannins, juicy acidity, and a long-lingering finish. It’s perfect for accompanying pasta and classic spicy meat dishes as well as game, risotto or cheese. In recent years, the variety has reached near cult status in Austria and is quickly rising in popularity in the United States.
During a review of Zweigelt wines featured in a 2007 column in the New York Times, wine critic Eric Asimov stated: “It is no exaggeration to say that we were greatly excited by the Zweigelts. They had a freshness and grace that marked them as wines that would go beautifully with a wide range of foods. What’s more, they had an exotic spice and floral character, predominantly aromas of cinnamon and violets, that made them distinctive and unusual.”
Both popular varietals Grüner Veltliner and Zweigelt have been nurtured with care and brought to a vibrant new life by young winemaker Werner Michlits with his innovative and fresh brand biokult, made with 100 percent certified organic grapes. The Michlits family is one of the most creative and influential organic wine growing families in Austria. Their products and their production methods are revolutionary for the region. Not only have they been able to understand and implement the use of non-trimmed vines in the region, but the use of biodynamic methods and the translation of these into new production standards are awe inspiring. The family owned cattle herd of over 50 Angus beef combined with organic/biodynamic wheat production are the most important tools to improve the soils and the vines that grow on them. Over the last few years the soils have been able to regain their original vigor and diversity.
In the cellar Michlits has chosen to go in new creative ways. He was inspired by the way the egg appears in nature. From his point of view the egg is nature’s ideal form for growing organisms. In this sense he invested into concrete, egg-shaped tanks. Michlits believes that the wines need to stay in these tanks to develop the finest aromas and, most importantly, the highest rate of natural stability. His understanding of nature’s laws and the logical deductions from this has proven right. Biokult wines have proven to be highly stable without any major fining agents or induced stabilization processes. The wines stay in the tanks for over nine months, again a parallel to nature. During their stay in the tanks the wines develop their complete aroma profile and can be bottled with the least amount of sulfur necessary.
All biokult wines are certified by Bio-Austria, Austria’s largest organic association which defines clear production requirements that exceed European Union organic requirements in many points. Where organic is stated on the label, the contents must naturally also be organic. Only the words “from organic cultivation” or “from organic agriculture” are clear label declarations. Additionally, biokult wines are made with organically grown grapes that adhere to USDA certified organic production standards.
The Michlits family has understood the use of traditional wine-growing and wine-making techniques and has developed them in modern ways since their first vintage in 2005. Biokult wines embody typical Austrian wine style: pronounced fruit paired with refreshing, harmonious acidity. Their search for establishing the best conditions and thus letting nature do its best work for the wines without too much human intervention is both modern and innovative yet harkens back to old world production methods. The family has quickly become a world-renowned producer of high quality organic wines from Austria.