LOWER AUSTRIA AND WAGRAM
"Lower Austria is the somewhat utilitarian name given to eight diverse regions, which between them produce 60% of Austria’s wine. The regions comprise Wachau, Kremstal, Kamptal, Traisental and the recently DAC-gazetted Wagram to the west of Vienna; Thermenregen and Carnuntum to Vienna’s south; and the huge region of Weinviertel – the ‘wine quarter’ – wraps around the capital to the north and west."
For a country that not only traces its organised winemaking origins back to the Roman Empire but also makes some of the finest contemporary rieslings in the world, Austria cuts a modest figure in global wine; certainly in Australia, its wines are little known.
Celtic tribes living along the Danube can claim to be Austria’s original grape cultivators but were displaced by the vineyards of the Roman invaders and winegrowing was put on a solid footing in the second century AD by the edicts of the emperor Aurelius Probus.
Despite the vicissitudes of Turkish invasion, by the 16th century Austrian winemakers enjoyed a reputation as suppliers of dessert and table wines to the Habsburgs and other imperial courts in Europe. For most of the 20th century, however, Austria’s wine production was inward-looking and harnessed to simple, local tastes. The native Austrians consumed the vast majority of the national product, much of it made to reflect a preference for young, fruity styles, consumed with great gusto in the local hurein, or wine taverns. Then, in 1985, came worldwide headlines stemming from an adulteration scandal, in which antifreeze was used to sweeten batches of white wine. Austria’s reputation and nascent export ambitions were left in tatters.
In the past 30 years, however, Austria has drastically reinvented itself. Grape-growing practices, grape varieties and wine styles have been overhauled, and a new denomination and classification system has been established. Old varieties such as muller-thurgau have receded in favour of riesling, while the indigenous white grape grüner veltliner has undergone an extraordinary renaissance, revealing a capacity to display a disarming versatility of styles. Not considered a noble grape 50 years ago, it was usually known as grün muskateller. Now, although debates of style around the “gru” still hold sway, demand and prices for the finest examples are soaring. Among the reds, the modern favourites of pinot noir and cabernet sauvignon are now cultivated alongside the major traditional varieties, zweigelt and blaufrankisch.
The regions of Lower Austria are strung along the curve of the river Danube in the country’s north-eastern corner, enveloping the capital of Vienna, which itself remarkably still contains more than 1500 hectares of vineyards among its suburbs and in its hill fringes.
Lower Austria is the somewhat utilitarian name given to eight diverse regions, which between them produce 60% of Austria’s wine. The regions comprise Wachau, Kremstal, Kamptal, Traisental and the recently DAC-gazetted Wagram to the west of Vienna; Thermenregen and Carnuntum to Vienna’s south; and the huge region of Weinviertel – the ‘wine quarter’ – wraps around the capital to the north and west.
The term ‘lower’ is a literal topographic descriptor – as soon as one moves west, away from the flood plains, valleys and rolling hills around the River Danube, the country becomes increasingly vertiginous, forming the teeming ranges of the Austrian alps that are home to many of Europe’s most popular and famous ski fields. By contrast, most of the winegrowing regions of Lower Austria enjoy the warming climatic influence of the Pannonian Plain, the vast plateau of an ancient seabed to the east that is not only home to all of Hungary, but which also extends across the Danube into Austria.
In terms of quality, Wachau, the westernmost as well as the steepest and stoniest region of the regions, focuses its quality winemaking almost exclusively on two white grapes: its steep, dry and rocky terraces are favoured for growing riesling, the finest examples being internationally prized for their steely acidity and minerality; where the slopes are gentler, more loamy and less prone to cold, grüner veltliner tends to be grown. Again, the emphasis is on leanness and purity alongside fully ripe fruit flavours. With 17.4 % of its vines given over to riesling, grüner veltiner accounts for 55%. The Wachau has retained its own distinctive classification based on the ripeness of its dry whites, ascending from Steinfeder via Federspie to Smaragd, with its minimum of 12.5% alcohol by volume.
Kremstal is another small, prestigious region. With its soils divided between limestone and loess, it abuts the Wachau and makes similar wines of equivalent quality, although usually at a more modest price. Neighbouring Kamptal, with its marked diurnal temperature swings and terraced vineyards along the Kamp, a Danube tributary, is pursuing a similar strategy. High-end grüner veltliner and fine riesling production are the driving force in both regions.
Straddling the Traisen, another Danube tributary running to the south, Traisental’s 770 hectares of vineyard also have a reputation for making long-lived wines, but thanks to its gravelly, calcareous soils, its riesling and grüner veltliner tend to a lighter character.
Wagram, recently anointed with DAC status, has embraced origin-based marketing to make the most of its own terroir and specialties, namely a soft, round version of grüner veltliner and increasing volumes of pinot noir grown on loess soils.
Carnuntum takes special pride in its reds, notably its zweigelt and blaufrankisch. DAC branding is reinforced by reproduction of a ruined Roman gate, the Heidentor. Whites of note are grüner veltliner, weissburgunder (pinot blanc) and chardonnay.
Stretching south from Vienna, Thermenregen’s relatively warm climate and sandy, pebbly soils enhance the production of a blend of indigenous whites, zierfandler and rotgipfler. The focus in reds is on blauer portugieser, pinot noir, saint laurent and zweigelt.
The powerhouse of Weinerviertel, with its 10,000-plus hectares of vineyards, continues in its traditional role of supplying easy-drinking red and white styles for quick consumption. Grüner Veltliner makes up half the white vines, with zweigelt and the rather bland blauer portugieser being the biggest of the reds.
While supplying easy-going traditional tastes will inevitably remain a huge aspect of Austria’s winemaking future (only around 20% of grüner veltliner-making is considered ‘serious’), Lower Austria offers much evidence of dynamism and a preparedness to experiment in areas from winemaking techniques and styles to the embrace of organic and biodynamic vineyard practices. An appetite and capacity for supplying foreign markets is emerging, all driven by a wine industry that remains mostly in the hands of small-scale, private proprietors.
If it seems unlikely that Australian drinkers will be sampling much rotgipfler or gemischter satz (two of the more obscure of Austria’s 40 permitted grape varieties), our chances of tasting and enjoying examples of Austrian riesling and grüner veltliner look to be getting better and better.
Reforms to Austria’s geographical indications, employing a French model based on varietal typicity rather than a German ripeness scale, go back to 1972. The adoption of a fully-fledged system of DAC (Districtus Austriae Controllatus) has been gradually unrolling across the country since 2003. The latest Lower Austrian region to sign up for DAC status was Wagram, in 2021.
After emerging in 2007 from its former, somewhat fractured identity of Donauland, Wagram has found its feet, thanks in large part to the widespread presence of softer, water-retaining loess soils that encourage the production of a creamy, round version of grüner veltliner, as well giving rise to very palatable pinot noir. Growing seasons, thanks to the Pannonian Plain, are characterised by warm, dry days, followed by cooler nights.
As a new DAC, Wagram has taken on a pyramidal quality scheme resembling those of other Austrian regions, comprising three categories: Gebietswein (regional-wide wine), Ortswein (‘village’ wine) and Riedenwein (single-vineyard wine). Gebietswein in Wagram has a choice of 13 grape varieties for use as monovarietals, blends or field blends; varieties in Ortswein are limited to seven, which are only permitted to be made as single varietals by Wagram’s 27 approved communes. In the top category, officially approved single-vineyard wines can be made only from grüner veltliner, roter veltliner or riesling.
Overt oak treatment is officially discouraged, as are high sugar levels, except, of course, in the region’s examples of Eiswein.
Written by CHARLES GENT