Last Thursday I took part in one of Corks Out monthly wine tasting events, and this month their Timperley store focused on Austria.
Our hosts for the evening were Karim and Alan, two highly knowledgeable gentleman who would guide us through seven different Austrian wines, as well as touching on the history of the wine market in Austria.
So what makes Austrian wine so impressive? Well here’s a little background history to feast upon.
During approximately 1BC, the Romans started extensively planting grape vines after the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius Probus lifted the ban on growing grapes north of the Alps.
However soon after the fall of the Roman Empire, viticulture suffered with the invasions of Bavarians, Slavs and Avars, but from 788 AD the rule of Charlemagne saw considerable reconstruction of vineyards and introduction of new grape presses.
In 955 AD, Austrian viticulture was nurtured by the Church and encouraged among the populace at large.
The first vineyard names recorded are Kremser Sandgrube in 1208, and Steiner Pfaffenberg in 1230, and Rudolf IV introduced the first wine tax, Ungeld, in 1359, as Vienna established itself as a centre for wine trading on the Danube.
The wine business boomed in the 16th century, but the Thirty Years War and others of the 17th century took their toll, as much due to the heavy taxation of the period as the direct disruption of war. Various drink taxes were unified in 1780, as part of a drive by Maria Theresa and Joseph II to encourage viticulture.
An imperial decree of August 17 1784 gave birth to the distinctive Austrian tradition of inns called Heurigen. Derived from the German for ‘new wine’, the decree allowed all wine makers to sell home-grown food with their wine all year round.
The 19th century saw the arrival of all sorts of biological invaders. First there was powdery mildew and downy mildew. One response to these fungal diseases from North America was the founding in 1860 of what became the Federal Institute for Viticulture and Pomology at Klosterneuburg.
Then the phylloxera root aphid arrived in 1872 and wiped out most of the vineyards of central Europe. Although it took several decades for the industry to recover, it allowed lower quality grapes to be replaced with better varieties, particularly Grüner Veltliner.
After World War One, Austria was the third biggest wine producer in the world, much being exported in bulk for blending with wine from Germany and other countries.
However that intensification of viticulture sowed the seeds of its own destruction. During the twentieth century Austrian wine became a high-volume, industrialised business, with much of it being sold in bulk to Germany.
A run of favourable years in the early 1980s saw massive yields of wines that were light, dilute and acidic, that nobody wanted. Wine brokers discovered that these wines could be made saleable by the addition of a little diethylene glycol, more commonly found in antifreeze, which imparted sweetness and body to the wine. The adulteration was difficult to detect chemically – the ‘antifreeze scandal’ broke when one of them tried to claim for the cost of the chemical on his tax return.
Although the amounts of glycol were less dangerous than the alcohol in the wine, and only a few middlemen were involved, exports collapsed and some countries banned Austrian wine altogether. Strict new regulations restricted yields among other things, more importantly, there was a massive change in the culture of wine production in Austria towards an emphasis on quality, as opposed to the low standards that permitted the scandal to happen in the first place.
The Austrian Wine Marketing Board was created in 1986 as a response to the scandal, and Austria’s membership of the European Union has prompted further revisions of her wine laws. Today Austria lies 17th in the list of wine-producing countries by volume, but the wines are now of a quality that can take on the best in the world. Seventeenth
So with a diverse history in wine making, how would the seven on offer to us compare? Well below I offer you my tasting notes on each -
Gruner Veltliner Strasse Hasel 2010
Soft, fresh and fruity on the nose with subtle peaches, stone fruits and white pepper. Short on the palate however, but a clean mix of flavours from the peaches and pepper create a refreshing and very drinkable offering with a long finish.
Gruner Veltliner Terrassen Smaragd 2009
Very sweet on the nose with bold aromas of malt, pepper and fruit. A fresh, rich and full-bodied palate with only a slight sweetness and a soft, dry finish. Would be great with a meaty fish dish.
Riesling Reid Loibenberg Smaragd 2007
Only 5 bottles available in the country, and awarded 95% in Wine Spectator. Very light with a deep aroma of citrus, pepper and honey on the nose. A smooth, well-balanced offering on the palate with white pepper and a slight tang which leads to a bone-dry finish that lingers. Very drinkable.
Little J Zweigelt 2007
On the nose it gave off rich, velvet aromas of spice fruit, a touch of oak and light cherry and raspberry fruits. A delicate flavour of cinnamon and fresh fruits on the palate, with a sharp, acidic tone which leads to a lively drinkable offering.
Blauer Zweigelt Terrassen 2009
A clean yet strong aroma of raspberry with a mix of heavy burn sugar and pear drops on the nose. Very dry on the tongue with soft fruit flavours.
Heinrich Burgenland Blaufrankisch
Lively mix of dark fruits, blackcurrant and liquorice on the nose that leads to soft, rich tanning flavours on the palate with lots of liquorice, caramel and hints of vegetable. Would go well with dark cheese, lamb or beef.
Heinrich Burgenland St. Laurent 2009
Fresh cherry, red currant and dark chocolate mix very well with violets and bitter cherry on the nose, whilst a soft palate flavour of cherries and blueberries with notes of bitter chocolate that leads to a very long finish. Serves well with lamb.
A fantastic insight into Austrian wine, something that many in our group had never experienced (myself included) and to have such a variety on offer was fantastic. Highlights include the Heinrich Burgenland St. Laurent and Gruner Veltliner Strasse Hasel whilst the chance to sample such a rarity in Riesling Reid Loibenberg Smaragd was an honour.
Next on the Corks Out event calendar will be entitled ‘Summer Classics’ where we will try fresh aromatic whites and light easy drinking reds to go with the BBQ summer!
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