Winemaking in Austria: An introduction and comments from an 8th generation winemaker

By Dr. Helene Hopfer

Since starting to work at Penn State last year, I am excited about all these local wines made of Austrian varieties. As a native Austrian, Grüner Veltliner, Zeigelt, and Blaufränkisch (called Lemburger in Germany and Kékfrankos in Hungary) and in particular, the (even) lesser known Rotgipfler, Zierfandler and St. Laurent, are near and dear to my heart (and my palate).

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The more I learn about viticulture in Pennsylvania, the more similarities I discover: Similar to Pennsylvania, Austrian growers worry about late spring frosts, fungal pressure and fruit rot, wet summers, and damaging hail events [1]. So it is only fitting to provide some details and insight to Austrian winegrowing and winemaking through this blog post.

Located in the heart of Middle Europe, the Austrian climate is influenced by a continental Pannonian climate from the East, a moderate Atlantic climate from the West, cooler air from the north and an Illyrian Mediterranean climate from the South. Over the past decades, the number of very hot and dry summers is increasing, leading to more interest in irrigation systems, as on average the annual average temperature in Austrian wine growing areas increased between 0.3 to 1˚C since 1990 [2].

 

Austrian wine growers also see a move towards larger operations: Similar to other wine regions in Europe, the average vineyard area per producer is increasing, from 1.28 ha / 3.16 acres in 1987 to 3.22 ha / 7.96 acres per producer in 2015. Many very small producers who often run their operations besides full-time jobs are now selling grapes or leasing their vineyards to larger wineries. A similar trend is true for wineries [2].

 

Different to other countries where widely known varieties like Chardonnay or Pinot noir make up the majority of plantings, the most commonly planted grape varieties in Austria are the indigenous Grüner Veltiner (nearly 50% of all whites) and Zweigelt (42% of all reds), followed by the white Welschriesling and the red Blaufränkisch (Lemburger).  Another interesting fact is that over 80% of all planted vines are 10 years or older, with 30% of all vines being more than 30+ years old [2].

 
The Austrian wine market is very small on a global scale, with just over 45,000 hectares / ~ 112,000 acres of planted and producing vineyards by around 14,000 producers nation-wide [2]. Nevertheless, Austrian wine exports are steadily increasing, particularly into countries outside of the European Union, such as the USA, Canada, and Hongkong, indicating a strong interest in this small wine-producing country. Austrian wines are considered high quality, attributable to one of the strictest wine law in the world, the result of the infamous wine scandal of 1985 [3]. Today, the law regulates enological treatments (e.g., chaptalization, deacidification, and blending), levels and definitions of wine quality (e.g., the “Qualitätswein” designation requires a federal evaluation of chemical and sensory compliance), and viticultural parameters such as maximum permitted yield of 9 tons/ha or 67.5 hL/ha and permitted grape cultivars (currently 36 different varieties) [4].

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One of the leading figures in developing the now well-established Austrian wine law was Johann Stadlmann, then president of the Austrian Wine Growers’ Association. During his 5-year tenure starting in 1985 at the peak of the wine scandal, he made sure that the wine law could be implemented in every winery and ensured strict standards; Johann Stadlmann could be called the father of the Austrian ‘Weinwunder’ (=’wine miracle’), the conversion of Austria as a mass-producing wine country to one with an emphasis on high quality.

 

Weingut Stadlmann – an estate with a very long history

If you ever visit Austria, you most likely fly into Vienna, the country’s capital. Vienna is one of the few cities in the world that also has producing vineyards located within city limits. Just outside of the city limits to the South, lies another important wine region in Austria, the so-called ‘Thermenregion’, named after thermal springs in the region. The region has a long wine history, dating back to the ancient Romans, and later Burgundian monks in the Middle Ages. The region is characterized by hot summers and dry falls, with a continuous breeze that reduces fungal pressure. One of the leading producers within the region is the Weingut Stadlmann, dating back to 1778 and now run by the eighth generation, Bernhard Stadlmann. He is the latest in a line of highly skilled winemakers that combine innovation with a conservative approach. His grandfather, Johann Stadlmann (yes, the same guy of the Austrian wine law), was one of the first ones in Austria to use single vineyard designations on his wine labels. Bernhard’s father, Johann Stadlmann VII, a master in creating wines from varieties only grown in this region, and named ‘winemaker of the year’ in 1994, is known for his careful approach and is now working alongside his son, Bernhard. In 2007, Bernhard started the conversion of the family-owned vineyards to certified organic. The family cultivates some of the best vineyards in Austria, including the single vineyard designations ‘Mandel-Höh’, ‘Tagelsteiner’, ‘Igeln’, and ‘Höfen’, planted with the indigenous varieties Zierfandler and Rotgipfler only grown here in the region. Wines from these vineyards are among the very best Austria can offer!

 

The vineyards cultivated by the Stadlmann family also differ quite dramatically in soil composition: While the ‘Mandel-Höh’ vineyard is highly permeable to water and nutrients, with lots of ‘Muschelkalk’ (limestone soil formed of fossilized mussels shells), is the ‘Taglsteiner’ vineyard characterized by more fertile and heavier ‘Braunerde’ soil, capable of retaining more water.

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The long winemaking history becomes apparent once one steps into the wine cellar, full of large barrels, made of local oak: Some of these barrels have hand-carved fronts, depicting their vineyards and Johann Stadlmann senior. All of these barrels are in use, and part of the Stadlmann philosophy of combining tradition with innovation.

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Another increasing threat is the spotted wing Drosophila, Drosophila suzukii, damaging ripening grape berries from véraison onwards. Bernhard sees some varieties more affected by Drosophila suzukii than others. There is intensive research on pest control, including shielding nets, fly traps, and insecticide strategies, and the Stadlmanns currently run experiments within their organic program: They blow finest rock flour (Kaolin and Dolomite rock) into the leaf canopy and fruit zone to create unfavorable conditions for different insects, including Drosophila, wasps, which pierce sweet berries, earwigs and Asian lady beetle, both leafing residuals causing off-flavors in the wine once they’re crushed.  Drosophila suzukii was first discovered in Austria a few years ago and is also an issue in the US (see also Jody Timer’s blog post).

 
During a recent visit at the Stadlmann estate, I had the chance to chat with Bernhard about the challenges of Austrian winegrowing and winemaking. I was interested in a young winemaker’s perspective, especially as Bernhard has been trained all around the world, including Burgundy, Germany, and California. This year, spring frost in late April threatened vineyards in many winegrowing regions in Austria, requiring the use of straw bales and paraffin torches to produce protective and warming smoke. Luckily, not too much damage was done to the Stadlmann’s vineyards, however, it caused some sleepless nights for Bernhard and his family, and shows also the importance of developing effective spring frost prevention alternatives (see also Michela Centinari’s blog post).

 
We also talked quite a bit about wine quality: while the Austrian ‘Qualitätswein’ designation ensures basic chemical (e.g., ethanol content, titratable and volatile acidity, residual sugar, total and free SO2, malvidin-3-glucoside content (for reds), etc.) and sensory (i.e., wine defects like volatile acidity, Brettanomyces, atypical aging, mousiness and other microbial defects) quality, this only ensures a lower limit of quality. In the recent years, the Austrian governing bodies added another layer of wine quality, based on the Romanic system of regional typicity and origin: The so-called DAC (Districtus Austriae Controllatus) wines are quality wines typical for a region, made from varieties that are best suited for that region. DAC wine producers adhere to viticultural, enological, and marketing standards, with the goal to establish themselves as famous wines of origin (think Chablis, Cote de Nuits, Barolo, Rioja or Vouvray).  As this is a relatively new system for Austria, we will see how successful these DAC regions will be. Their success will also depend on the regional producers, and how stringent they set the criteria for the DAC designation, as they have to walk a fine line between establishing a recognizable regional typical wine without losing individual character that each producer brings to their wines.

 

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If you are interested in learning more about Austrian wines, and Bernhard and his family’s wines, they were recently highlighted in a couple of US wine publications, including a great podcast episode on ‘I’ll drink to that!’ and an article in the SOMM journal about Zierfandler. Zierfandler is one of Stadlmann’s signature varieties, indigenous to the region, but tricky to grow, as it requires long and dry ripening periods and has a very thin skin, prone to botrytis. However, when done well (like the Stadlmanns do), it produces extraordinary wines with fruity, floral, and sometimes nutty notes that have a long aging potential. If you are able to get your hand on these Zierfandler wines get them while you can!

Last, a big Thank You to Bernhard Stadlmann for his help with this blog post: He took time out of his super busy harvest schedule to show me around, never getting tired of answering my questions. He also graciously provided all but one of the pictures.

References

[1] Huber K (2017) Durchschnittliche Weinernte 2017 erwartet. LKOnline. Available at (in German): https://noe.lko.at/weinbau+2500++2455141

[2] Austrian Wine Marketing Board (2017) Austrian Wine Statistics Report 2015. Available at (in German): http://www.austrianwine.com/facts-figures/austrian-wine-statistics-report/

[3] New York Times (1985) Austria’s Wine Laws Tightened in Scandal. Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/1985/08/30/world/austria-s-wine-laws-tightened-in-scandal.html

[4] Austrian Wine (2017) Wine Law. Available at: http://www.austrianwine.com/our-wine/wine-law/

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One response to “Winemaking in Austria: An introduction and comments from an 8th generation winemaker”

  1. Marta Sommer says :

    Amazing wineries with good explanation

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