Austria’s fresh, lower-alcohol wines are at last winning global acclaim. We meet five wine-makers across the nation and offer some suggestions on the best bottles to bring home.
The roots of wine-making in Austria run deep: records documenting the country’s first foray into production date back to 700bc. However, it’s only in the past two decades that Austrian wine has become genuinely sought-after, due to a newfound appreciation of the subtleties of Grüner Veltliner, the nation’s most plentiful grape, and a timely preference for the lighter, less alcoholic wines that the cooler temperatures here yield.
Wine-making here has had its ups and downs. Following a scandal in 1985, when some wine-makers were caught using chemicals found in antifreeze to sweeten their products, Austria’s vineyards became subject to regulations that are among the world’s strictest. This has helped to establish a reputation for quality and a culture of using native, often organic varieties.
We meet five distinctive vintners in the wine regions of Lower Austria, Styria, Burgenland and Vienna.
wines to try
Grüner Veltliner Donauschotter, 2018
Pfaffenberg Riesling, 2015
Occupying Austria’s northeast, from Wachau in the east to Carnuntum in the west, Lower Austria is the largest winegrowing area in the country. Within it are eight subregions and a varied mix of climates and wine styles, largely dictated by their rugged terrain and proximity to the Danube. Working with vines in Kremstal and Wagram, a region between Vienna and Wachau, Clemens Strobl makes wine that has character and finesse.
Strobl’s ambition is to redefine the role of the wine-maker as someone who oversees the entire process from cultivating the soil around the vines to selling the bottles – an approach to farming that’s the reality for many small wine-makers now. Strobl’s background in advertising – he helped to set up one of Austria’s leading agencies, MS Foto Group, at the age of 18 – has clearly shaped his grasp of marketing as well as production.
Strobl farms his 15 hectares of vines organically, focusing on only three grape varieties: Grüner Veltliner, riesling and pinot noir. His wines balance freshness with texture, which is a talent considering how warm these subregions can be. The restoration of the old aristocratic house and winery that sits on his property in Wagram is also a testament to Strobl’s ability to bring together old and new. This is encapsulated in the restoration of a lido that dates back to 1870. It has been gently transformed into natural pools with a modern tasting room attached so that visitors are able to enjoy both the fruits of Strobl’s labour and his eye for design.
Wine-maker: Fred Loimer
Biodynamic on the banks of the Kamp
WINES TO TRY:
Ruländer mit Achtung, 2016
The modestly sized subregion of Kamptal in Lower Austria, along with idyllic Wachau to the east, was granted Unesco World Heritage status in 2000. These regions are in part responsible for Austria’s characteristically bright and spicy Grüners that have been piquing international interest. Although Kamptal is considered one of Austria’s better-known subregions, it’s also a place of innovation, particularly for wine-maker Fred Loimer, whose vines flank the River Kamp, from which the region takes its name.
Since taking over the family estate in 1997, Loimer has become one of the bigger producers to have moved away from conventional agriculture (of the sort that uses pesticides and heavy machinery) towards an older way of working his vines. His biodynamic farming – a practice conceived by scientist and philosopher Rudolf Steiner in the early 20th century – is especially impressive as Loimer has more than 70 hectares of vines to tend.
The secret, says Loimer, lies in empowering his team. Although Grüner Veltliner and riesling account for most of the wine that Loimer makes, he also experiments with a whole host of lesser-known varieties, including pinot blanc, pinot gris, muscat, Traminer and Zweigelt.
WINES TO TRY:
Straden Sauvignon Blanc, 2018
Ried Silberberg Gelber Muskateller, 2017
Bordering Slovenia, Styria is the most southerly of Austria’s wine-making regions and one of the smallest. A different set of white grape varieties reign among its wild and hilly terrain: sauvignon blanc, muscat and chardonnay (known in Styria as “Morillon”), with a smattering of red counterparts.
Award-winning wine-maker Christoph Neumeister has been working among the vines since he was 10 years old. His grandfather began farming apples, corn, beans and horseradish alongside grapes here after the Second World War and the success of the Neumeister business is partly due to an understanding of the need to diversify beyond wine. The 300-year-old farmhouse was renovated by Neumeister’s parents in the 1980s and became a restaurant, Saziani Stub’n, in 2000; it is led by acclaimed chef Harald Irka. They also have a small hotel nearby.
Neumeister makes wine that, in his own words, attempts to “lift you up and deeply satisfy you at the same time”. It is often aromatic and lively in nature but always quaffable and refreshing.
WINES TO TRY:
Waiting for Tom Rosé, 2018
Saint Laurent, 2017
Bordering both Hungary and Slovakia, Burgenland is Austria’s most eastern winemaking region, informed by Lake Neusiedl and its flat terrain. Its long, hot summers and warm nights mean that red grape varieties such as Zweigelt, Blaufränkisch and saint laurent are most prominent.
In the village of Gols, Susanne and Stefanie Renner pursued different careers before taking over the family winery. Prior to adopting 12 hectares of vines in 2015, Susanne was a fashion designer and Stefanie an environmental engineer. The vineyard was certified biodynamic in 2018 and most of the work is done by hand.
“Where your vineyards are is where your heart lies,” says Stefanie. “Even if that sounds a little cheesy.” But it’s a valid claim: having spent their childhood summers swimming and sailing in Lake Neusiedl and helping their parents with the grape harvest, the sisters’ connection to the land has been, ahem, cultivated since birth.
WINES TO TRY:
Gemischter Satz Rakete, 2018
Gemischter Satz Satellit, 2018
Within Vienna’s city limits are 280 hectares of vines producing field blends, known as Gemischter Satz, that are a result of a number of different grape varieties, both red and white, being thrown together.
Jutta Ambrositsch favours this honest style of wine-making and, in 2005, gave up her job as a graphic designer and took on her first vineyard in Vienna. “Graphic design influenced the way I worked with wine at first,” she says. “Especially the riesling vineyards that looked diagrammatic and clean. Now they’re wild and free.” Ambrositsch and her husband, Marco, leave the vines to grow naturally without much intervention. “People in Vienna are sometimes a little bit rough on the outside but lovely inside,” says Jutta. “I think our wines are like that.”
The pair are also helping to revive Buschenschank – rustic taverns on the outskirts of the city that serve house-made wine and food at harvest time. They are now at their third location, serving their own wine alongside cured meat, bread, pickled vegetables and salad from the area’s best producers.