As is the case with most scandals, the facts were soon forgotten – consigned to history in the form of various bad jokes. For those under the age of 40, though, the facts surrounding Austria’s antifreeze crisis bear repeating. The discovery, in 1985, that a small number of wineries were adding diethylene glycol, better suited to your car’s radiator, to achieve a greater richness in their plonk made headlines all over the world and caused the complete collapse of Austria’s wine industry. The reputational damage would take decades to undo. Yet today, having for too long found themselves as the punchline, Austria’s winemakers are punching well above their weight.
It may have taken some of us a while to realise, but Austria has bounced back with wines that offer the kind of distinctive terroir-driven character, quality level and ageing potential that would be tricky to find at twice the price from more established wine regions. We’re talking value for money here, rather than cost, because Austria doesn’t do cheap. Its fragmented structure of small plots, an abundance of family wineries and the high number of organic and biodynamic producers results in it offering very little under £10 in the UK, making it a relative stranger to our supermarket shelves. Yet I would argue that such status is actually its strength.
Let’s face it, the entry level wines of many classic regions – Burgundy springs to mind – don’t do such regions many favours. Yet for roughly the same price, you could select a really well made ‘village level’ Austrian white that will deliver so much more. Head north to £20 and the comparisons become even more flattering, with the top-tier wines from the areas of Wachau, Kremstal, Kamptal, Traisental and Wagram offering world-beating quality at a price point that doesn’t mean remortgaging your house just to stock its cellar.
Although discerning sommeliers have been salivating about these wines for a while, collectors have been relatively slow to get onboard. It was only last year that The Wine Society offered its first-ever Austrian en primeur (in bond) promotion, a sell-out success that caused as much surprise as delight for its ebullient buyer, Freddy Bulmer. Yet while fine-wine merchants have upped their ante on Austria in recent years, their selections still pale in comparison to what’s on offer from Burgundy and Bordeaux.
Austria has made its name with the delicious white variety Grüner Veltliner, but it has so much else to offer
Austria has made its name with the indigenous, herbaceous and, frankly, delicious white variety Grüner Veltliner, but it has so much else to offer. Whisper it, but I prefer the Danube’s elegant, complex, yet slightly plumper style of Riesling to that of its celebrated rivals on the Rhine. Styria’s Sauvignon Blanc could convert the most diehard savvy sceptic and gives its pricier counterparts in Pessac-Léognan a run for their money.
Then there’s my latest crush: the plush, nutty Neuberger, from Burgenland, or the aromatic and unusual Gemischter Satz, a field blend (a mix of grapes grown on the same site) from the verdant hills that surround Vienna, best enjoyed with a slice of sausage at a heuriger – a winemaker’s tavern.
When it comes to the reds, the world is yet to be fully seduced by the structured, spicy charms of Blaufränkisch, from Leithaburg or Carnuntum, or the beguiling, almost mystical St Laurent, yet both of these varieties offer serious Burgundian-style ageing potential at a relative snip. And finally, let’s not forget the lovely, luscious sweet wines of Lake Neusiedl, which offer noble rot without the princely price tag.
Granted, Austria doesn’t always help itself. Having only established its first appellation (Districtus Austriae Controllatus, or DAC) in 2003, it still offers its own bewildering blend of different descriptions, with terminology more suited to an MW exam paper than a back label. In the Wachau, for example, you’ll find a Germanic classification based on ripeness, with the top wines labelled Smaragd – a leftfield reference to the emerald lizards that inhabit the famous terraces. Around a decade ago, the other famous Danube regions switched to a more sensible French-style system based on vineyard significance, a form of future-proofing championed by the erudite Michael Moosbrugger of Schloss Gobelsburg; other regions are following suit.
Confusing it may be, but then again, Austria is not alone in that regard. And there are signs that appreciation for its wines is growing. Exports hit a new high in 2020, and there is plenty of room for growth.
Having visited the country many times, I am always struck by the humility of those I meet, the openness to opinions and ideas – as evidenced by the appointment of Chris Yorke, an Englishman who cut his teeth in New Zealand to lead the national wine body – and the commitment to quality above all else. Austria’s winemakers have more than atoned for the sins of their predecessors – perhaps the last laugh should be theirs to enjoy.