Recently, ABC had the pleasure of having Jost Höpler, of Höpler Winery in Austria, visit our stores and speak with many of our guests and wine specialists. It is always helpful to have these visits because the wines of Austria are quite frankly not on everyone’s radar, so it is a good chance to remind us all just how delicious they can be!
Of the Höpler wines themselves, I could not better what my colleague Jim Greeley had to say in his blog of September 10. But my total enjoyment of them made me want to look more deeply into Austrian wine as a whole. What is the history of winemaking in Austria? What about that infamous Wine Scandal of 1985? And where does Austria currently stand in the international wine scene?
Let’s start by mentioning the grapes that are often found in Austrian wine as many of them are unfamiliar to us. Austria’s most famous wine grape is called Grüner Veltliner (GREE-ner Velt-LEEN-er) – an herbaceous and zesty white which appeals very much to lovers of Sauvignon Blanc. Other whites include Ruländer (aka Grauburgunder or Pinot Gris), Weiβburgunder (Pinot Blanc) and Welschriesling, which bears no relationship to German Riesling and which is used mostly in the production of sparkling and dessert wines.
Among the red grapes is the impressive and age-worthy Blaufränkisch (aka Lemberger or Kekfrankos in neighboring Hungary) which may bear some relationship to our own American Zinfandel. Pinot Noir is also grown successfully in Austria, as well as Zweigelt, which is a cross of Blaufränkisch and a Pinot Noir relative called St. Laurent.
Austria’s winemaking history, surprisingly, goes back 4,000 years. Grüner Veltliner and Welschriesling have flourished around the Danube at least since Roman times. With the fall of the Roman Empire, Austrian viticulture went into sharp decline for a few hundred years but was restored in the late 8th century under Charlemagne’s rule and then was further nurtured by the church.
Jumping forward, by the end of World War I Austria was the third biggest wine producer in the world, although a great deal of it was bulk wine.
Then it happened – The Great Austrian Wine Scandal of 1985. It was discovered at this time that a few wine brokers were adding a little diethylene glycol, more commonly known as antifreeze, to the wine to make it sweeter and give it more body. Glycol is difficult to detect chemically and was not even noticed until one broker tried to claim the cost of it on his income tax. The small amounts of glycol used were actually less dangerous than the alcohol in the wine itself, and although only a few of the middlemen were involved, the industry collapsed, and Austrian wine was even banned in some countries.
But in a way, the scandal ultimately became the savior of winemaking in Austria. Strict new regulations were implemented immediately, bulk wine for a large part went away, red wine began to have a greater importance, and the new emphasis was on dryness and quality all-round. The scandal is still occasionally joked about, but that era has long since gone. Today a quality wine from Austria can stand beside many of the great wines of the world.
I hope you will give Austrian wines a try. You won’t be disappointed.
Bill Stobbs, Wine & Spirits Supervisor
Follow me on Twitter @abcwinebills