Austria Wine Industry

There is much to learn about the development of Austria’s wine business and how it came to be known around the world. Austria is primarily known for its alpine climate; however, wine has also risen to be one of the most famous things associated with the country. 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]

Ever since 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 due to their ever-growing popularity and compatibility with many foods, but with little understanding of their history. Keep reading as we take you through the country’s rich wine history which will add to your contentment when sipping Austria’s finest wines.

Ancient Austrian Wine Industry

Winemaking in Austria is recorded 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 grape farming in the northern part of the Alps which really spurred production. In particular, the Australian flagship grape Gruener 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 after drawing on the church movement that promoted grape farming and winemaking for sacramental purposes.

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

Then, in the latter years of the 19th century, the wine industry was nearly annihilated as fungal diseases, such as powdery mildew and downy, invaded. 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, unfortunately, with World Wars I and II collapsing vineyards.

The Saint-Germain Treaty was signed on September 10, 1919, and it altered Austria’s boundaries. In addition, on 4 June 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, most fell to Hungary. On 30 March 1921, Hungary enacted laws increasing taxes affecting Burgenland.[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 across most European nations in the 1860s and 1870s. The disease devastated most vineyards, forcing farmers to replant of vines and hailing in the rise of the modern Austrian wine industry. Phylloxera really was a blessing in disguise. Prior to the disease, Austria and other European nations produced low-quality wines 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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Winemakers discovered, for instance, that they could make their wines taste sweeter and richer by adding diethylene glycol, a chemical compound found in antifreeze. Some countries, such as Germany, subsequently banned Austrian wines, leading to a downward spiral in the Austrian wine industry. The has been referred to as the Austrian Wine Scandal.

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; they were lowly priced even though they were of the relatively same quality. On 25 June 1985, a laboratory in West Germany performing quality control checks discovered that a 1983 Austrian Ruster Auslese contained the chemical compound diethylene glycol, concluding that the bottle had been tampered with before being exported to West Germany.[4]

It is important to note that wines are classified according to the time grapes spend on the vines and their quality. High-quality grapes produce sweeter wines of a higher quality. Therefore, they demand higher prices.

The low prices of Austrian wines, of which some were sweeter than highly-priced German wines, may have led to suspicions about its components, ultimately confirmed by the quality control tests. The discovery spread to other international markets, resulting in an overnight collapse of Austrian wine exports.

Diethylene glycol is a lethal chemical found in antifreeze. When ingested at even very low levels, it can lead to serious health effects, including kidney and brain damage. The quality control test found some wines containing up to 0.1 grams of diethylene glycol.

While this may seem low, it could lead to detrimental health effects as wine was consumed regularly at that time. “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 29 July 1985, most of the Austrian wines were removed from shelves in Germany and West Germany destroyed all Austrian wines that had been shelved.

The Rise of the Austrian Wine Industry

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

On 29 August 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 once more that have since graced the world’s wine market.

On 22 October 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 palatable 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. The Gruener Veltliner is the common varietal, forming almost 37 percent of all grapes planted in Austria.

While red grapes are a lot less common, the vineyards dedicated to red grape vines have been increasing. Zweigelt grape 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 Gruener 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 Industry

28 January 1827 – On this day, 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.

12 April 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 1 March 1912, leading to the development of the widely planted red grape, Zweigelt.[7] Ever since many such institutions have been established all over Austria.

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Reference

  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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