Cover pic: © Austrian Wine / Peter Kramar

For the last four years, the first week of September has heralded an intensive, full immersion few days into Austrian wine, except for last year’s border-closure disruption. A tasting marathon, this year totalling around 350 wines – spicy Grüner Veltliner, racy Riesling, diverse Wiener Gemischter Satz, hearty Blaufränkisch and juicy Zweigelt et al – over 5 days at the so-called ‘silent’ tastings, not to mention any tasting done during evening programmes!

And what is this in aid of? Primarily as part of the Österreichische Traditionsweingüter (ÖTW) efforts, led by Michael Moosbrugger of Weingut Schloss Gobelsburg, to classify the Austrian vineyards, Burgundian style. We wrote about this wine revolution in Austria at length following my first experience of these ‘silent tastings’ in 2018. But here it is again in a nutshell, with some updates.

This ambitious process began more than a decade ago with the classification of Erste Lage (Premier Cru) with the goal of later upgrading some vineyards to Große Lage (Grand Cru), but naturally only after probably another ten years or so of in-depth research and tasting, Austrian style. The system is dynamic, meaning that vineyards can be moved in and out of each cru depending on climate change etc. Michael hopes that one day this might be a countrywide classification, and they seem well on the way to that happening with the addition of new regions at the tastings each year. Initially only the Danube wine regions of Kamptal, Kremstal, Traisental and Wagram, then Wien and Carnuntum joined the fray in 2018 with Leithaberg and Eisenberg tagging along at the Vienna National Library in 2019, before moving camp to join the others in Grafenegg in 2020. While this year saw the growers from the Steirische Terroir & Klassik Weingüter (STK), 12 wineries from Steiermark, or Styria, present their wines for scoring in Grefenegg too, thus also bringing the flavours of Sauvignon Blanc and Morillon aka Chardonnay to the tasting. The rest of Burgenland and the Weinviertel are said to be interested too. 

Why is such a classification necessary?

The classification began with the Danube area, where the vineyards are mainly in the valleys of the Danube and its tributaries with big differences between the upper and lower parts of the valley, meaning that the differences within the appellations is often bigger than those between them. They have two types of vineyards – terraces generally planted with Riesling and loess and clay vineyards with better water retention where Grüner Veltliner feels more at home. If we go back to the early 20th century, wines were more often sold by origin in Austria, yet after WWII, this moved to variety. Many growers argue that you can get Riesling or Grüner from many places, but you can only get Heiligenstein Riesling or Lamm Grüner Veltliner here in Austria. And this is what makes it special, thus needing a focus on provenance. However, Michael estimates it will take a generation to move back to the origin system. This is the initiative of a private association, but they hope it will eventually be enshrined in law. The aim is to classify 10-25% of the vineyards; they are currently at 15% of the total area.

After the ‘antifreeze’ scandal of 1985, Austria enacted some of the strictest wine laws in the world to ensure wine quality. The ÖTW has now added another level of regulation for its 68 members, stipulating maximum yields and hand harvest; wineries must be certified either organic or sustainable and herbicides and insecticides are now outlawed. So not only origin and quality are ensured by the initiative, but also sustainability.

And how does this fit in with the DAC system?

Well, this is where it gets confusing. It has nothing to do with the DAC (Districtus Austriae Controllatus) system, which has been growing constantly over the last few years. DAC is the ‘abbreviation given to an Austrian Qualitätswein (quality wine) that is particularly typical of its region’ states the Austrian Wine Marketing Wine Marketing Board, meaning that the wine ‘displays the unmistakeable characteristics of that winegrowing region. Only wines with this character are allowed to feature the name of that specific region on the label. This puts the emphasis on the wine’s origin and makes the wine all the more distinguishable.’ It began in the Weinviertel in 2003 and now covers most Austrian wine regions.

Still with me? Well, this system is modelled on the French AOC system and is more about the region as a whole, and which varieties and styles of wines can be produced there, while the ÖTW classification is classifying the vineyards, or ‘Ried’ as they are called in Austria. The regions do not necessarily have to belong to a DAC – Wagram, for example, doesn’t yet, while Wien’s DAC currently only includes Wiener Gemischter Satz and we were also tasting monovarietal Riesling, Weißburgunder and Grüner Veltliner wines in the silent tastings to help classify the vineyards. Wachau, after years of saying it wouldn’t, has recently joined the DAC system, but currently has a totally different way of classifying its wines based on ripeness and alcohol content (Steinfeder, Federspiel and Smaragd – Vinea Wachau) and has not yet indicated that it will join the ÖTW scheme. Confused? I certainly am, and we have not yet even considered the role of modern styles of winemaking – natural, orange etc – in the context of classification systems. This brings up the question of individualism and collectivity – and individualism makes an appellation’s life more difficult, according to Michael. Watch this space!

And what of the 2020 vintage?

2020 was a cooler, wetter vintage than usual resulting in wines with restrained alcohol and fresh acidity, basically very approachable wines but still extremely young. Increasing numbers of producers are holding onto the wines for a further winter and releasing them later, so some of the wines, including those of Schloss Gobelsburg were from the 2019 vintage. The 2019 was lauded as one of the best vintages in years, so many of these wines were not only showing better thanks to this perfect year, but also thanks to an extra year in bottle. Michael thinks that this may also become a rule in future for Erste Lage wines, shown as 1ÖT on the label. Let’s see what next year brings!

Many thanks to ÖTW and Wine&Partners who organised the events and whose guest I was for these five days.