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Austrian wine - in the groove - by Dawn Cran

Published:  23 July, 2008

What do most people think of when Austria comes up in conversation? Almost certainly Mozart and Viennese Opera, maybe Wiener Schnitzel, perhaps even mountainous ski resorts, but Austrian wine is unlikely to feature. This is no great surprise, considering that Austria accounts for less than 1% of the world's total wine production, but there are some serious wines hiding away here, and those who start to include them in their Austrian experiences are unlikely to regret it.

White wines have traditionally been the mainstay of Austrian wine production, in the form of either the country's great nobly sweet wines of Burgenland or the indigenous Grner Veltliner, which accounts for around one-third of all plantings. And, to a lesser extent, there are fine examples of dry Riesling from regions such as Wachau and the acclaimed area of Heiligenstein in Kamptal. There are also very worthy examples of Pinot Blanc and even Sauvignon Blanc, which has been taken on in earnest by Styrian producers who turn out glittering examples of this global favourite, accounting for 50% of the Sauvignon plantings in Austria.

It would undoubtedly be a mistake to forget about Austria's growing potential for red wine, particularly with indigenous varieties such as Zweigelt and Blaufrankisch, but it is still the whites, from regions such as Weinviertel, Krems, Kamptal, Wachau and Traisenthal, which are pushing Austria up the world rankings.

Of these great white hopes, the greatest by far is Grner Veltliner - in terms of the dry styles at least. In this multicultural era, any wine-producing country worth its salt must have its own grape variety, and the Austrians have been blessed with this one. 'Blessed', because Grner Veltliner is a proper white grape of the kind to scare off many a competitor, even the likes of Queen Chardonnay. The Austrian marketeers even have the means to prove this fact by pointing to a blind tasting held in London in 2002, which pitted the best examples of Grner Veltliner against a number of the world's top Chardonnays (including Burgundies). Austria's pride and joy not only stood up to the challenge but also proved to be the judges' favourite, by quite some way.

The Austrians have continued to build on this success and Grner Veltliner is more important than ever. Another of the grape's big advantages is that it is capable of producing very different styles of wine, ranging from fresh, light and peppery through to full-bodied, peachy and complex, depending on how and where it is made, a feature that has led to its 'chameleon' nickname among growers, and its reputation as a food friendly wine. A further help (or hindrance) for the grape has been the tendency in recent years to market it as Groovy or Gru-Ve, to help give it a shove into the mainstream. Some people think this is a great idea and some don't, but, either way, solid brands - such as Groovey Salomon from Bertold Salomon of Salomon Undhof (listed in Oddbins) or the more recent Grner brand, Laurenz V from Lenz Moser and his daughter Sophie - have to be good for introducing people to Austrian wine.

Salomon headed up the Austrian Wine Marketing Board for eight years and Moser has recently returned to his family winemaking upbringing, fresh from nine years as Mondavi's head of sales and marketing for Europe. It's fair to say that both these men know a thing or two about brands, and the simple but eye-catching packaging for their wines reflects this. Salomon has a salmon on his label and Moser has called the three wines in his Laurenz V range (all Grner Veltliners) Charming, Friendly and Singing, respectively. What's not to like?

Noel Young of Noel Young Wines in Cambridge, agent for Austrian greats such as Kurt Angerer and Alois Kracher, was one of the first UK wine merchants to shake off the damage of the 1985 anti-freeze scandal - which exposed a number of wine producers who were using diethylene-glycol as a flavour enhancer - and begin the rebirth of Austrian wines on UK shelves. As an independent retailer, there are few, if any, widely available brands in his shop, but Young firmly believes that a few well-distributed, recognisable labels from Austria are just what the country needs to gain the sort of recognition in the UK off-trade that it already possesses among clued-up sommeliers. 'It's all very well for the Austrians to say, "oh but we're better and we're niche", but a few examples of supermarket brands would raise the profile of the country overall.'

Grant Page at Thierry's Wine Services agrees: 'Development of a quality Grner Veltliner brand at the 5.99 price point in a focused way would be very important

in growing the market. Encouraging a rewarding trial at 5.99 opens the new, happy and probably surprised recruit to having a go at the next level on the ladder at around 7.99, where there are some great-value Austrian whites.'

Nick Dobson of Nick Dobson Wines, which lists more than 100 Austrian lines, also sees the advantages of lower price tags and supermarket distribution, but he remains cautious. 'To achieve the kind of pricing the supermarkets are offering from other regions, it may be difficult to achieve acceptable quality, and there is a risk of a negative reaction by consumers. Entry-level normally means under 5-6, which is a bit of a challenge for reasonable quality Grner Veltliner.' Over at Oddbins, trainee buyer Claire Ilingworth thinks 'there is room for some entry-level Grners but it is important to be able to maintain the varietal character'.

Nick Room, buyer at Waitrose, however, is not at all encouraged by the idea of lower-priced brands and comments: 'Austria needs to present itself as a niche producer of high-quality, mid-premium to premium distinctive wines with personality. This they can do with a unique positioning.'

A further landmark occasion for Grner Veltliner came in 2003 when it was made the basis of Austria's first official appellation, Weinvertal DAC, which dictates that all wine with this label must be representative of the dry, peppery style of the grape. There are very mixed views concerning the wisdom of this decision to move towards an appellation system when the rest of Europe is starting to move away from them, and UK buyers are particularly sceptical. Noel Young is straight to the point: 'People in the UK don't give a toss. It's even ambiguous in Austria and I know people who've decided against putting it on their label. Most UK consumers don't even understand Grner Veltliner, never mind Weinvertal DAC, and it's just really tedious to have to explain what it means.'

Page at Thierry's also believes that the DAC creation is a bad move and remarks that 'things are already complicated enough'. However, Charles Lea of Lea & Sandeman observes: 'I do not really think that ACs, DOCs and DACs are of nearly as much interest as the wines themselves, but a common identity can help to give consumers confidence in what they are getting.'

As might be expected, the view on this subject from Austria itself is often decidedly more upbeat. Franz Prechtl of Weingut Prechtl in Weinvertal explains: 'The aim of the DAC is to point out the importance of Grner Veltliner for our region and to ensure it is differentiated from other examples of the grape, which are now being produced in neighbouring countries.' Another advantage, in his opinion, is 'the increase of a positive image for Weinvertal, which has led to more tourists and therefore higher sales'. The customer knows what to expect from wines labelled with Weinvertal DAC, he continues, concluding: 'I believe this is the best way forward for our region at the moment and the increasing sales figures speak for themselves.'

Weingut Setzer is also based in Weinvertal, and Ulrike Setzer is similarly convinced of the need for the appellation. 'Grner Veltliner is a unique selling point for Austria and the "Weinviertel DAC" brand guarantees both quality and

varietal typicity. It has also enabled the bigger producers to group together and form a stronger PR campaign, which

has helped us to win more retailers.'

Dr Josef Schuller MW is director of the Austrian Wine Academy, as well as being the country's only Master of Wine, and although he recognises the problems of choosing to focus on a region or appellation rather than a grape variety, he argues that the DAC is a clear move away from the sweetness content that was previously acceptable and the impact on the region has been nothing but good. 'Wines from Weinviertel were dead and the DAC has produced phenomenal results as well as giving the international press something to talk about. It's important to remember that it's still a work in progress.'

Bertolt Salomon was one of the main drivers behind the DAC's creation and he points out: 'The Weinviertel now

has the strength of profile in Austrian restaurants to compare with any more recognised region.'

Pluses and minuses aside, other localities are looking to Weinvertel's example, and Fred Loimer of Weingut Loimer reveals that his region of Kamptal has been working towards introducing its own DAC on different levels, while Schuller confirms that Mittelburgenland is 'very likely to develop a DAC this year, concentrating on the red variety of Blaufrankisch'. There aren't too many examples of Weinviertal DAC in the UK as yet, but with the growth in demand for Grner Veltliner, the Weinviertal DAC might just provide a way for Austrian producers to attack the market en masse - although only if Grner Veltliner is given top billing on the label.

Establishing an appellation isn't, of course, the only way for regions to pull together. Wachau is one of the best-known and most admired of Austria's wine regions and since 1983, all the top producers there have been members of an organisation they call Vinea Wachau Nobilis Districtus, which breaks down the wines into three categories - Steinfeder, Federspiel and Smaragd - according to complexity and alcohol content. Wachau has recently decided to build on this concept and publish a charter with details of its philosophy and call it 'Codex Wachau - The Charter of Pure Wine'.

Six rules of the region, such as 'no additives' and 'no aromatisation', are listed and they all add up to a vocal defiance of artificial practices in winemaking. Franz Hirtzberger, one of the foremost producers in the region, explains: 'In reaction to the questionable wine production methods of the US wine industry, which the European Union has now allowed in Europe, we decided to follow our own path and introduce this charter.'

Emmerich Knoll of Weingut Knoll acknowledges that spelling out this philosophy hasn't exactly increased the region's popularity with other producers 'because plenty of people use artificial techniques and there's nothing wrong with this - chapitalisation can produce very good wines'. The reason they have chosen to speak out, he continues, is because Wachau 'is a very small region and in order to survive, we need to do something different, and it's one thing to talk about something, it's quite another to actually write it down and present it to people'.

Undoubtedly the Codex Wachau will create further awareness of what the region is about, although the natural methods talked about are only likely to be taken seriously up to a point, particularly with the current trend towards organic and biodynamic viticulture that is catching fire the world over. Fred Loimer confirms that Austria is well up with this fashion and reveals that he is part of a group of wineries currently working with a biodynamic consultant from the US. 'There are about 10 other wineries queuing up to work with him next,' he adds. So natural methodology is all relative.

The ubiquitous issue of closures throws up a further consideration for Austrian producers, particularly in the context of the UK market, and the reaction is increasingly positive. Most styles of Grner Veltiner are virtually crying out for a screwcap, and Lenz Moser, for one, has demonstrated his commitment by bottling his three Laurenz V wines under screwcap. Marcus Huber of Weingut Huber in Traisenthal is also a confirmed fan: 'I love screwcaps; 95% of our wines are sealed in this way and it should be 100% soon.

I think it's the perfect closure in terms of quality and many top Austrian producers have switched to screwcaps already.' At 26, Huber is one of Austria's growing brigade of bright, young things and his 2005 Grner Veltliner Obere Steigen has just been awarded a gold medal, and potentially a trophy, at the 2006 International Wine Challenge.

Not everyone is quite so enthusiastic about screwcaps, but most acknowledge that there's no escaping the advance of the Stelvin. 'Screwcaps are necessary alternatives, which will be used no matter what people think of them,' says Martin Mayrhofer, marketing manager at Weingut Jamek in Wachau. Ludwig Holzer, export manager at Winzer Krems, Austria's second-largest wine company, agrees and comments: 'The progression of alternative bottle closures such as the screwcap cannot be stopped. We already use screwcaps for our basic wines and this is likely to be extended in the coming years.' Johannes Hirsch in Kamptal was one of the first courageous Austrian producers to make a case for screwcaps and his range has been 100% covered in this fashion since 2003.

Austria is certainly not guilty of wandering slowly into the modern wine world and in many ways it has shown noticeably more propensity for adaptation and change than its German neighbour. Conversely, one of the main reasons for this is undoubtedly the notorious anti-freeze scandal and the subsequent rocket up the backside of the entire Austrian wine industry. According to Schuller, the scandal saved the wine world in Austria: 'We needed a waking up and shaking up,' he insists, 'and this had a huge impact on everyone.' Austrian wine buyer at Sainsbury's, Helen McEvoy, adds that Austria has 'worked hard to remove the image of anti-freeze and by putting a great deal of effort into their wines, the Austrians receive many column inches, but this time for positive reasons'.

It was, of course, over 20 years ago that the whole thing blew up and there's no longer any slur on Austrian wine. Noel Young, for one, is fed up of hearing about it. 'For my first few years of involvement in Austrian wines I smiled at every single anti-freeze joke but soon I wanted to punch people,' he remarks. Nick Dobson is also fairly unsympathetic on the topic and says: 'Occasionally that old chestnut is trotted out, but generally only by customers who have little or no understanding of Austrian wines. The more knowledgeable ones don't mention it.'

Austria is not only about white wine and if the global warming threats become reality then red wines could be the future. But it's the whites that continue to grab the limelight at the moment. Charles Lea comments: 'With the general trend towards lightness, freshness and precision in white wine, I think that Austrian wine has something very special to offer, and it has become a lot easier to sell.'

Of these whites, Grner Veltliner has been the focus here because it's the key, the door and the welcome mat to all the other great dry wines of Austria. Lenz Moser believes that Grner Veltliner from Austria will be the next New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc and although he is not the first producer to put forward his own country's indigenous grape for this role, it's one of the few times that such a lofty goal has held the weight of real possibility.