Austria – a mountainous, landlocked country in Central Europe – is enjoying a renaissance as a wine-producing nation. It has worked its way free from decades-old controversy caused by a careless few, and has emerged as a role model for modern European wine - a leader in quality and innovation. Balancing the traditional with the modern, the Austrian wine industry has retained such classics as sweet Ausbruch and Strohwein, while actively developing modern, consumer-friendly wines such as its signature style: crisp, white, aromatic Gruner Veltliner.
Officially, 35 grape varieties are permitted for use in Austrian quality wine, of which almost two-thirds are white-wine varieties. In terms of volume, Gruner Veltliner is by far the most important, followed by Riesling. The finest wines made from these two varieties come from the famous Wachau, Kamptal and Kremstal regions.
Other varieties important to Austrian wine include Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Welschriesling and Pinot Blanc (known here by its German name Weissburgunder). Austria's red wines are made primarily from Blaufrankisch, Zweigelt, Saint-Laurent and Pinot Noir (Blauburgunder).
Located right at the heart of Europe, between the latitudes of 46°N and 48°N, Austria lies parallel with central France and south of Germany. Logically, the climate is slightly warmer than that of Germany, and this is reflected in the wine styles; Austria has a much greater focus on red wines than its cooler northern neighbor. But there is far more to the Austrian climate than just latitude; topography plays a pivotal role. Much of the country - particularly the western half - is dominated by the chilly Eastern Alps, and to the east lies the vast, warm Pannonian Plain. Austria's wine regions can be found primarily in the north-east of the country, in the state of Niederosterreich bordering Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Slovenia.
Very little Mediterranean influence makes it over the Alps into Austria, creating a strongly continental climate, with pronounced temperature shifts from day to night and from summer to winter. Numerous varied mesoclimates lie inbetween the extremes of course, moderated by large bodies of water such as the Danube river (which flows through the northern regions), and Lake Neusidl (see Neusiedlersee).
Viticulture in Austria dates back to Roman times. Evidence of vineyard cultivation surrounding Carnuntum and Thermenregion suggests that vines were planted here 2000 years ago. The steep terraces along the Danube River and its tributaries in Wachau and Kamptal were built by monks from monasteries in Bavaria and Salzburg. The vineyards of Vienna have a rich tradition of Heurigen (meaning both wine tavern and the wine served inside), where locals can enjoy the proprietor's homemade wines.
For much of the 20th Century, Austria was associated with sweet, mass-produced wine made of Gruner Veltliner and Muller-Thurgau, but producers are now turning out crisp, dry wine styles, some of which age very well. This move to drier wines partly resulted from the 1985 anti-freeze scandal, in which diethylene glycol (a key ingredient in anti-freeze) was found to have been added to some bulk-produced wines to increase levels of sweetness and body. The scandal led to the collapse of the Austrian wine industry – in terms of both exports and reputation – but stricter wine laws were enacted and the industry has recovered.
Austrian wine laws are strongly influenced by those of neighboring Germany. The country's wine quality classification system is based on must weight (sugar content) of the grapes, measured on the Klosterneuburger Mostwaage scale (KMW). There are three basic quality levels: Tafelwein, Qualitätswein and Prädikatswein. The labeling terminology is also similar to Germany's, although the required must weights tend to be higher.
Austria wines also follow the Districtus Austriae Controllatus (DAC) appellation system, introduced in 2003. In a similar way to the AOC classification in France, the DAC wine laws impose certain constraints covering permitted grape varieties, alcohol levels and oak maturation regimes. The goal of these is to ensure that wines bearing a DAC title represent an authentic examples of the classic regional style. As of mid-2014, Austria had nine DAC titles.
Although there is no DAC title for the Wachau region as yet, quality-conscious producers there have developed their own 3-tier wine style classification: Steinfeder, Federspiel and Smaragd. For a full description of these titles, and Wachau wines in general, see Wachau.