Austria’s Wine Industry

There is much to learn about the development of Austria’s wine industry and how it came to be known around the world. Austria’s wine origins date back to the 10th century BCE when the first vineyards were planted. The industry really took hold in 700BCE under the rule of the Celts and Romans.[1]

Austria’s wine history has experienced tremendous changes that warrant further exploration. You may have already come across and indulged in a few wines from Austria as their popularity has been growing in recent years. 

Ancient Austrian Wine Industry

Winemaking in Austria is believed to have begun around 700BCE. The industry grew under the rule of the Celts and flourished under the Romans. The Roman emperor, Marcus Aurelius, overturned a decree prohibiting vineyards in the northern part of the Alps which really spurred production. In particular, the Australian flagship grape, Grüner Veltliner thrived.

However, the fall of the Roman empire laid havoc to Austria, and the viticulture industry all but collapsed. It was not until the 14th century that it found its feet again with encouragement from the Church, known for promoting vineyards and winemaking for sacramental purposes.

Like many European countries, Austria was also greatly affected by wars. In the 17th century, the country had more than 170,000 acres of vineyards. However, these were destroyed by Turkish invaders.

In the latter years of the 19th century, the wine industry was nearly annihilated as fungal diseases, such as powdery mildew and downy mildew invaded. Then in 1872, the industry was hit by phylloxera, decimating vineyards and ultimately paving the way for the modern wine industry. The 20th century was no better with the destruction from World War I and II.

The Saint-Germain Treaty was signed on September 10, 1919 altering Austria’s boundaries. In addition, on June 4, 1920, the treaty of Trianon was signed, separating Austria and Hungary.[2] These treaties reduced the country’s vineyards from 50,000 to 18,000 acres, as most were located in the newly formed Hungary. On March 30, 1921, Hungary enacted laws increasing taxes which affected Austria.[3] Despite these challenges, the country’s viticulture continued to improve and grow after the establishment of the viticulture college in Rust in 1933.

Modern Industry

The modern Austrian wine industry really took off after the destruction caused by phylloxera. This same destruction spread across most European nations in the 1860s and 1870s. The disease devastated a large percentage of vineyards, forcing farmers to replant of vines and hailing in the rise of the modern wine industry. Phylloxera really was a blessing in disguise. Prior to the disease, Austria and other European nations produced low-quality wines partly due to the poor vines they had cultivated. But when new, high-quality vines were planted, far more high-quality wines were produced.

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Austrian Wine Scandal

Most of the wine Austria exported to West Germany was either sweet or semi-sweet wine. These wines dominated Western German for a while, as they were often cheaper than German wines of a similar quality level. On June 25, 1985, a laboratory in West Germany performing quality control checks discovered that a 1983 Austrian Ruster Auslese contained the chemical compound diethylene glycol. They concluded that the bottle had been tampered with before being imported into West Germany.[4]

The low prices of Austrian wines may have led to suspicions about its components, and was ultimately confirmed by quality control tests. The news of this discovery spread to other international markets, resulting in an overnight collapse of Austrian wine exports.

Diethylene glycol is a lethal chemical found in antifreeze known for having a sweet taste. When ingested at even very low levels, it can lead to serious health effects, including kidney and brain damage, especially with regular consumption. “Some of the bottles would do that damage much faster. Fourteen grams per liter could possibly kill you, and a bottle of 1981 Welschriesling Beerenauslese from Burgenland had 48 grams per liter.”[5] 

Such high levels could definitely kill an individual if consumed in a single serving. The 1985 wine scandal badly tarnished the country’s reputation. On July 29, 1985, most of Austria’s wines were removed from shelves in West Germany and destroyed.

The Rise of the Austrian Wine Industry

Following the 1985 wine scandal, Austrian authorities implemented stricter measures in order to redeem the country in the world wine market. These measures were aimed at producing high-quality wines that could compete with wines from France, Italy, and California. One significant measure constituted the enactment of strict laws by the Austrian parliament and the creation of Districtus Austriae Controllatus (DAC).

On August 29, 1985, the Austrian parliament enacted strict wine laws aimed at protecting the 1985 harvest from the same fate as the previous exports. The Austrian Wine Marketing Board was also founded in 1986 to market the industry in a focused manner.[6]

The laws determined that wines were to be easily distinguishable and wine inventories strictly and regularly checked. Therefore, it would hopefully be impossible for such a devastating practice to occur again. And thanks to the measures implemented, Austria started producing high-quality wines that have been gaining popularity in the world’s wine market.

On October 22, 2002, Austrian wines flourished in the London Tasting, even beating wines from renowned regions such as Burgundy, Bordeaux, and Napa Valley. Austria has continued to produce fine wines, truly redeeming itself from the 1985 scandal. Today, low-quality Austrian wines can no longer be found as a result of strict laws governing their production.

Austrian wines are delicious and compatible with most foods. If you have not tasted Austrian wine, you might miss partaking in some of the world’s finest wines!

Grapes Varieties

Austria is particularly well-known for white wines. In fact, more than 60 percent of wines produced in the country are white. Grüner Veltliner is the most common varietal, forming almost 37 percent of all vines planted in Austria.

Did You Know: Grüner Veltliner wines are known for having green pepper and lime notes, and is often compared to Sauvignon Blanc.

While red grapes are a lot less common, the amount has been increasing in recent years. The Zweigelt grape variety is the most common red grape. In total, the country has 40 grapes approved for winemaking, with 26 whites and 14 reds.

The most common are Grüner Veltliner, Zweigelt, Chardonnay, Riesling, Cabernet Sauvignon, Muskateller, Syrah, Pinot Noir, and Merlot. Viticulture in the country today is supported by the Federal Institute of Viticulture and Pomology in Klosterneuburg.

This Day in Wine History

January 28, 1827 – August Wilhelm Reich Baron von Babo was born. Von Babo was the first director of the Federal Institute of Viticulture and Pomology in Klosterneuburg, now the Federal Office for Viticulture and Fruit Growing. Von Babo was an experienced viticulturist responsible for the institute’s viticulture and winemaking. In 1874, Von Babo initiated the process that transferred the institute’s ownership to the state.

April 12, 1860 – On this day, the Federal Institute and Federal Office for Viticulture and Fruit Growing in Klosterneuburg were established. The institute is the world’s oldest viticulture college. It was instrumental in the rise of Austrian viticulture and winemaking. In this institute, Friedrich Zweigelt was employed on March 1, 1912, leading to the development of the widely planted red grape, Zweigelt.[7] Since then many such institutions have been established all over Austria.

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References:

  1. Albert Stöckl, “Austrian Wine: Developments after the Wine Scandal of 1985 and Its Current Situation,” in Paper Presented at the 3th International Wine Business Research Conference., 2006.
  2. Michaela and Karl Vocelka, “The impact the collapse of the Habsburg Monarchy” in Wine in Austria the History, Willi Klinger, Karl Vocelka and Christian Brandstätter (Wien: Wien Brandstätter, 2019), 1.
  3. Michaela and Vocelka, p. 8
  4. Secret Vienna, “A Scandal Made of Antifreeze and Wine,” Secret Vienna | Tours in Vienna, February 26, 2022, https://secretvienna.org/a-scandal-made-of-antifreeze-and-wine/.
  5. Joey Casco, “Wine, Lies and Glycol – the Austrian Antifreeze Scandal,” April 5, 2015, https://www.thewinestalker.net/2015/04/austria.html.
  6. Gregory Smith, “A Brief History of Austrian Wines,” Gregory Smith, April 7, 2021, https://gregorysmith.wine/2021/04/06/a-brief-history-of-austrian-wines/.
  7. Daniel Deckers, “Friedrich Zweigelt as Reflected by Contemporary Sources” in Wine in Austria the History, Willi Klinger, Karl Vocelka and Christian Brandstätter (Wien: Wien Brandstätter,2019), 2.

 

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