Austrian wine industry survives invasions, disease and dilution

By Molly Steinbach
For Taos News
Posted 9/19/19

Wine grapes have been grown in what is now Austria for thousands of years, cultivated by Celtic tribes even before the Romans infiltrated the region. And with a history that long, there have to have …

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Austrian wine industry survives invasions, disease and dilution

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Wine grapes have been grown in what is now Austria for thousands of years, cultivated by Celtic tribes even before the Romans infiltrated the region. And with a history that long, there have to have been some hardships along the way. Indeed the story of Austrian wine is a confluence of history, biology and economics: a bit complicated, a bit sordid and utterly fascinating.

Concerted cultivation of wine grapes in this region was, unsurprisingly, supported by the insurgence of the Romans in the early A.D. years. After all, the emperors needed something for their conquering troops to drink. But trouble arose during the barbarian invasions that followed the decline of the Roman Empire, when vineyards and other crops were among the casualties of Germanic tribes moving into lands ceded by the Romans.

A few hundred years later, Charlemagne brought Christianity, and thus monks, to the region - and it won't be news to you that monks make wine. The religious orders resurrected (pun slightly intended) viticulture in the land, and plotted vineyards that, in some cases, still exist today. Things went along pretty well until the 17th century, when heavy taxation joined forces with the savageries of the Thirty Years' War and concurrent crop failures, famine and disease to ravage vines once again.

After a brief respite in the 18th century, the 19th century came crashing down on vineyards with a double whammy of vine disease from the new world: two different types of deadly mildew and the aphidlike phylloxera, the second of which wiped out the majority of vines in central Europe in the late 1800s.

The silver lining of this double epidemic was the opportunity to replace the diseased vines with higher quality grape varieties. This is where the superstar of today's Austrian wine scene makes its debut: grüner veltliner, the fresh, zesty, food-friendly darling of many a modern restaurant. But before it burst Liza Minnelli-style onto the world stage, even grüner veltliner had a few more trials to endure, including a scandal that nearly killed Austrian wine for good.

Grüner veltiner grapes ripen easily in such moderate climates as today's Austria. They also have the dubious quality of being highly vigorous, which sounds great until you realize that the more grapes a vine produces, the lower the quality of those grapes. Hence, Austria's next recipe for misfortune. In the early 20th century, the region became known as a source for plentiful, cheap bulk wine, both within and beyond its borders. In fact, it was the third-largest producer of wine in the world.

The problem arose when grape yields kept on increasing until the 1980s, when the wine Austria was generating was so dilute and acidic that even the bulk buyers didn't want it. Some producers in Austria discovered that they could make this insipid liquid more appealing through the addition of diethylene glycol - better known as a component of antifreeze. The resulting scandal caused the complete collapse of the wine export business, with some countries banning Austrian wine entirely.

So, once again, Austria had to dig its wine industry out of utter ruin. The amazing thing is - they did it. Strict new regulations and an enthusiastic crop of young winemakers rebuilt Austrian wine more quickly than anyone expected, and the results are of a quality on par with top producers throughout the world. So it is with particular delight that one can pick up a bottle of Austrian wine at most shops today, and open it with confidence at one's dining room table.

The 2017 Hermann Moser Grüner Veltliner Kremstal Per Due ($17/750ml bottle) is visibly effervescent in the glass. This doesn't mean it's a sparkling wine (it's not), but there is a palpable fizz on the palate. Grüner frequently has this little bit of spritz, which accentuates the freshness of the green apple, crushed gravel and honeydew melon aromas. Grüner is one of only a handful of wines that pairs well with assertive vegetables like asparagus and artichokes, so go wild at your next veggie feast.

Grüner may be the star of the show here, but red wines account for over a quarter of production in Austria. One of the more common red varietals is blaufränkisch, also known as lemberger, or, colloquially, the "pinot noir of the East." The 2016 Evolució Blaufränkisch Weinland ($14) reminds me more of a cru Beaujolais than pinot noir, and the aromas of chalk, black pepper and cranberry are incredibly enticing. Tart blueberry and pomegranate emerge on the palate, making the wine a wonderful balance of savory spice and fruit.

The 2015 Heinrich Burgenland Red ($21) is a beautiful example of the tangled genetic web that history and random vineyard crossings have woven. Our new friend blaufränkisch was crossed with another central European varietal, St. Laurent, to make a third grape variety, zweigelt. And now here are all three varietals in a bottle together, one happy (and tasty) family.

The nose is almost jammy, but with a balance of leather and smoke. On the palate the wine is swimming with red fruits and flinty minerality. When I opened this bottle, a fellow taster immediately proclaimed it "perfect for Thanksgiving!" So keep that one in your back pocket for a few months.

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