Monday, May 30, 2011

AUSTRIA: Uniqueness beyond Gruner

There's more than a little that is unique about wine-lovin' Austria. Landlocked and mostly mountainous, it is traversed by one of the longest river highways in Europe, the Danube. Its strategic geographical location has been a crossroads historically, as it was for the Celts, and the Barbarians, and the Slavs.  Austria's history is a history marked by century upon century of invasions. For the Roman's it was an eastern border of the empire's edge, and to Charlemagne it needed to be conquered to introduce the wine rite that is Christianity.

Due to the numerous alpine rivers major moderating influence throughout the southeast and across the fertile Pannonian basin, Austria has grape growing evidence going back more than 4000 years! Nurtured by the Church, by the 14th century, Vienna had established itself as the wine trading center for the entire Danube basin. In 1784, an imperial decree of the enlightened emperor Joseph II intended to improve viticulture around the wine capital, gave licensed innkeepers Heurigen, a way to sell their self-produced wines. Austira's wine industry had evolved, and remained among the very best, most revered in the world for hundreds of years.

Heurige Tavern

An outbreak of devastating vineyard fungal diseases gave birth to the world leading Federal Institute of Viticulture & Pomology in 1860, only to be followed by widespread vineyard destruction from a root louse, phylloxera. Increasingly under Germany's influence, Austrian recovery was slowed by World War I, a global economic depression and then WWII. It was not until 1955 when Austria once again regained her independence. An international wine scandal followed in the mid-1980's, and its mandate resulted in the worlds toughest controls and regulations on a wine industry.  If that were not enough, the challenging 2010 growing season produced the smallest harvest in 25 years!

Austria's 4 wine regions of 16 districts run its eastern edge, like a backward crescent bordering the Czech Republic and Hungary.The western-most wine region of Wachau has its own unique, time honored classification system: dry, low alcohol wines which are mostly locally consumed are labeled Steinfeder; wines of mid-level ripeness, similar to Kabinetts are labeled Federspiel. Among Austria's best dry wines are those labeled Smaragd, having a minimum 12.5% alcohol. Neighboring regions in Lower Austria to Wachau, are Kremstal and Kamptal. Combined with Weinviertel in the countries far northeast corner, these regions produce most of Austria's fine wines.  They are also home to the national grape, Gruner Veltliner, which is
successfully planted no where else in the world.

Today, bright, zesty Gruner, makes up about 1/3 of this nation's wine volume, and it has become its current international calling card. The trade group, Wine Austria, says 70% of Austrian wine is consumed domestically, plus there's a long established export market to Germany. There is still a considerable volume to share with the global market. As recent as two years ago, Today's Wine Writer, Edward Deitch, proclaimed indigenous Gruner Veltliner, a marketing and quality wine value 'hit'. "One of the best attempts at wine branding I've seen", he wrote. Although there is more of this wonderful, food-friendly white wine it in the marketplace than ever before, it is current not displacing our white wine standards.

Here too we find dry Riesling, but generally more steely-edged and sharp than neighboring Germany's. Burgunland's Neusiedlersee region in the east is world known for sweet dessert wines, producing revered conditions right for botrytis along the shores of Lake Neusiedl. In the southeast the southern wine regions of Styria enjoy considerable success with international varieties, like Sauvignon Blanc. In its most famous district, Sudsteiermark, there's almost paradoxically, a popular harvest grape must called Sturm that's consumed with locally roasted chestnuts.

Locally bred red grape varieties, like Zweigelt,  are popular here too, finding wonderful pairings with the awards of the hunt. Blauer Zweigelt, is Austria's most widespread red grape variety, a bright and aromatic cross, with spicy, sour-cherry notes. All of these quality wines are classified based on the level of sugar at harvest, called KMW, and similar to Germany's Ochsle scale. Upper quality tier's, like Qulitatswein Kabinett's, and Pradikatswein Spatlese or Auslese, may not be chaptalized.  Wines of the Pradikatswein tier additionally cannot have sussreverve added.  These are the real deal, and their qualities are guaranteed!

Austria formally joined the EU in 1995, and today continues to economically benefit from its neighboring trading partners. Surrounded by countries that had once occupied Austria, each has left an imprint on this nation's culture and it's unique wines. This then is among the many things of what is unique about Austrian wines, more than just Gruner.  Austria has taken a little from each who have traversed this crossroad, and in the end made it uniquely Austrian quality. Not surprisingly, its capital, Vienna(Wien) is also a wine producing region.  Now that is unique!



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