Recent developments in the Austrian wine industry have seen the sparkling wine, Sekt, go from strength to strength. Germany might take the crown for Sekt production in terms of volume, but it’s Austria that’s secured the reputation for high quality Sekt. And while the focus on quality has been increasing for decades, the messaging has ramped up in the years following the establishment of the Austrian Sekt Committee in 2013.
In 2015, the Committee set new standards for bottle labelling with the introduction of the Sekt PDO three-tier quality pyramid, which evolved in 2022 into three categories: Sekt Austria, Sekt Austria Reserve and Sekt Austria Grosse Reserve. ‘The aim of this move,’ says Chris Yorke, CEO of the Austrian Wine Marketing Board, ‘was to ensure that the “100% Austrian origins” of these Sekts [grapes from Austria made into Sekt in Austria] were communicated more clearly.’ A red-white-red banderole was also added on the top of the bottles so that consumers could identify Austrian Sekt more easily.
All of these efforts have contributed to a steady growth in sales of Austrian Sekt in the domestic market and a growing demand on the export market, too (up 19.3% in 2022). Austrian Sekt is as popular as ever within its primary markets of Germany, Switzerland and the US, which collectively receive three quarters of the total of exports of Austrian Sekt.
With so many sparkling wines on the market jostling for position, what makes Austrian Sekt unique? Unlike Champagne and Cava, Austrian Sekt allows all methods of sparkling wine production within the Sekt Austria category. At this level, if the wine has been bottle-fermented, it must mature on the lees for at least nine months, and if the Charmat method has been used, then the wine must age on lees for no less than six months. The grapes used can be any of the 43 approved varieties, which includes the ‘classic’ sparkling wine grape varieties, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, but also traditional Austrian grape varieties, like Grüner Veltliner and Welschriesling, which are more likely to be used.
Sekt Austria wines are fresh and light-bodied; quality wines suited to everyday occasions. When you get to Sekt Austria Reserve and Sekt Austria Grosse Reserve, the wines become more complex. Only traditional bottle fermentation is allowed, with longer minimal ageing requirements. Grosse Reserve wines, for example, must be aged for at least three years, which is the same amount of time as vintage Champagne, though the former will cost significantly less. So, why aren’t we all drinking Sekt?
Cat Lomax, a consultant wine buyer who has worked with Marks & Spencer, Majestic and Waitrose, says that the UK’s love affair with Prosecco might have something to do with it, especially when it’s at the same price point or less than Sekt Austria wines. ‘The average consumer doesn’t know about Sekt,’ she says. ‘In terms of large-scale retail, Sekt has a mountain to climb.’
Master Sommelier Eric Zwiebel, wine director at The Samling Hotel, is a big fan of Sekt but agrees that it can be a challenge to list in the UK. ‘I don’t think it’s easy for people to introduce Austrian Sekt on the wine list because you have got a population that drinks a lot of Prosecco. You also have got more and more people drinking English sparkling wine.’
Unlike Champagne and Cava, Austrian Sekt allows all methods of sparkling wine production
Chris Yorke is more optimistic. ‘We do know that the UK has seen a rise in the production of homegrown sparkling wines produced using the traditional method. We see the increased consumption of sparkling wine in the UK as a great opportunity to introduce the amazing qualities of Austrian Sekt.
‘In the UK, Austrian Sekt is still a niche product… something they have to discover and, therefore, they need somebody to introduce them to the product.’ Yorke says they are working with sommeliers in the UK to promote the wine as an alternative sparkler.
Another way of spreading the message of Austrian Sekt is the investment in wine tourism in Austria. Paul Rittsteuer, winemaker at Weingut Leo Hillinger in Neusiedl am See, Eastern Austria, is seeing the positive results first-hand. ‘Sekt pays a huge role in wine tourism,’ he says. ‘We’re a big summer tourism region and people come, with families, on bike tours. People take their time and enjoy Sekt in this way.’
Hillinger produces two types of Sekt: a Brut Reserve made from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, aged for 30 months, and a Brut Reserve Rosé made from 100% Pinot Noir, aged for 25 months. ‘It’s something that is in the higher price range,’ says Rittsteuer, ‘and we produce 10 to 15,000 bottles per vintage, not every vintage. It’s really working well in restaurants, hotels and here in our winery, where the customers come to buy it.’
Even if younger drinkers are more interested in orange wines and Pet Nats right now, these can act as a gateway to Sekt
Rittsteuer believes that Sekt never goes out of fashion and, even if younger drinkers are more interested in orange wines and Pet Nats right now, these can act as a gateway to Sekt. ‘The Austrian wine scene is getting a lot more interesting for younger people,’ says Rittsteuer. ‘I think Austria was this antiquated wine world for older people, so this whole scene has brought a new energy to this area. Even if it’s the Pet Nat direction, people can drink a little sparkling wine and it can lead to Sekt.’
Winemaker Dorli Muhr in Carnuntum doesn’t produce sparkling wine, but she agrees with Rittsteuer. ‘I know that Gen X and Y are big consumers of sparkling, and their habits are very different from boomers.’ They are very open-minded and want to experiment, therefore sparklings other than Champagne are seeing big growth.’
Whether it’s down to generational trends or 10 years of solid focus from the Austrian Sekt Committee, Austrian Sekt’s star is on the rise. Or maybe it’s just part and parcel of the steady rise of quality across the winemaking country. ‘Austria is a land of very clever people. If you look at the list of countries that win the most Nobel prizes, Austria is at number seven, which is remarkable such for a small country,’ says Master of Wine, Dirceu Vianna Junior. ‘For wine, it’s a good thing, because they make very dynamic winemakers.’
Eric Zwiebel MS agrees: ‘I think in Austria, when they do something, they really have a drive to do it well by their nature.’
This dynamism, this out-of-the-box, future-thinking, could well be the reason we are turning our heads to Austria for the wines we already knew about – like Sekt – but didn’t know could be so good.