The history of Austrian wine reads like a sensational novel. It’s pages are riddled with intrigue and murder, with oppression of the poor and the deposition of the villian, with suffering, redemption and triumph. And the history is long, reaching nearly as far into the past as the wine regions of France and the Mediterranean.
The Tumultuous History
The first records of Austrian wine, dating back to 700BC, lie in the gravesite of former Celtic dwellings near Zagersdorf, in the form of grape pips and wine urns. These Celtic people primarily would have used wine for their religious rituals, and cultivated wine for the spiritual blessing and offering it represented to them. Presumably, like the rest of us, they also enjoyed the effects of wine.For many years, wine culture puttered along without drawing much attention to itself. In 1 BC, however, they caught the eye of the Roman Empire. The emperor turned his head and noticed that the wine they so loved to drink grew well in this region. Rome promptly took control of the market. They authorized new vineyards and encouraged viticulture for many years, until a famine caused an empire-wide food shortage. Emperor Domitian made the assumption that growing grapes took farmers away from tending to food crops, and passed a ban on all cultivation of wine grapes.
For two centuries, deserted grape fields slowly vanished into woodlands, or were ploughed over to make room for other food crops. It wasn’t until 280 A.D. that Emperor Marcus Aurelius Probus realized this ban was severely restricting what could be a profitable market for the Roman Empire. He authorized new vineyards to be planted, and worked to restore the dilapidated wine trade. The Romans loved the golden diaphanous wines that journeyed from the north, and created a substantial market for them.
The following two centuries saw the reemergence of wine in Austria. Unfortunately, it wasn’t to last long. In 488 AD the crumbling Roman Empire withdrew from the region, and with them took the wine market, and caused a mass migration of the farmers themselves. The vines once again were left deserted and unattended.
Many years later, the Frankish conqueror Charlemagne saw the same vision that Marcus Aurelius Probus did, and while wine enjoyed yet another brief season of rejuvenation under his influence, this also was swept away when the Magyars invaded Eastern Europe. The Magyars burned, killed, and destroyed the area, and whatever fields were left untouched were needed for food, rather than wine.
It wasn’t until the Christian church began to nurture the Austrian vitaculture, and the populace at large, that wine really began to make headway. There were still some setbacks, of course, such as the Thirty Years War and the heavy taxation of the 17th century, but vitaculture was now certainly and steadily improving.
Under the reign of Maria Theresa and Joseph 11 in the late 1700’s, imperial decrees were passed to encourage the Austrian tradition Heurigen. The decree itself allowed for all winemakers to sell their food and their wine all the year round, which until that point had been prohibited, restricting wine sales to certain times of the year when the newly harvested wines were ready for consumption. The word Heurigen, derived from German, means new wine.
The tradition, Heurigen, was the practice of inns to hang flowers or tree boughs outside their door to announce the new season of wine had arrived, and wine was once more being sold. This idyllic practice is yet followed today, though rather than a sprig of flowers, you’ll see a chalkboard sign set out with the names of the new arrivals.
The Austrian Scandal of 1984
Wine love and wine production steadily increased over the 18th and 19th centuries, until Austrian wine had made quite a name for itself. It was exported to the United States, the United Kingdom, and especially to Germany. Austrian wine had grown so much in popularity that it became a high volume industrialized business, becoming the third highest producer worldwide. It is at this point that we see the greed of bureaucrats topple the industry.
When the 1980’s saw harvest after harvest of thin acidic wines–certainly not the quality or taste that the Austrians generally produced, merchants were desperate to continue bringing in revenue. Their market value was low, and lowering with each year. So, some wine merchants came upon an idea. They began to add diethylene glycol to their wines to sweeten the taste and make it marketable again. Diethylene glycol is the base ingredient in the common sweet blue windshield cleaner–antifreeze.
It’s uncertain how long this went on undetected. They were found out when one of the merchants claimed the antifreeze on a tax return. And investigation ensued, and within months the entire wine industry in Austria had toppled. Innocent vintners and family owned wineries went bankrupt, and the perpetrators were given severe sentences.
In the end, however, perhaps the scandal itself did more good than bad. It forced the Austrian government to install strict wine regulations, which are today some of the most stringent in the world. It also gave desperate vignerons the opportunity to bring in new stock and new techniques in an attempt to salvage their livelihood. In fact, while Austria fails to produce or export the amount of wine it did in years past, it has excelled in quality. This has put it on numerous best wine lists, and drawn the praise of journalists around the globe. In fact, it consistently places ahead of France in quality of sweet wines. The emphasis that Austria perpetuates among its vignerons is now only quality without compromise.
The exceptionality of Austrian wine is drawn in great part from the versatility of the wine, as it pairs wonderfully well with all manner of foods. The most notable of the Austrian wines, and the one most important to the taverns traditions of Heurigen, is the Gruner Veltliner. Traditionally, this young wine is sold in the spring, a frothy green-gold, and drawn straight from the barrel into the pitchers themselves. For exporting purposes, Gruner Veltlines is bottled and sent around the world, though the flavor is not quite the same as the Heurigen wine. Still, this grape variety holds true to the common visage of Austrian wine–light, fresh, pleasant–a drink of spring time, to be had in the woods of Vienna while listening to a symphony.
The climate of Austria bears many of the same characteristics of Burgundy, France. Spring comes early, followed by a warm, sunny and somewhat dry summer. Autumn days are long and mild, and the nights cool. Harvest frequently extends to late October and early November. They have warm sunny summer, and long, mild autumn days and cool nights.
Austria’s wine growing regions only total about 113,000 acres, managed by small family wineries that have been tending vines for centuries. Of the 35 grape varieties authorized for wine production, 63% of production is white. Red wines are increasing, slowly, but the true Austrian traditional vignerons lost their love to the white, and it is for these that Austria was thrust onto the international wine stage.
Unfortunately, for those of us who are excited to go out and find some Austrian wine to try, the names themselves are as forbidding as any German wines. They are also extremely difficult to find these days, usually carried only by wine merchants or exclusive wine clubs.