Austria is an increasingly important central European wine producer, in terms of both quality and innovation. Compared to its immediate neighbors, Austria has taken the lead in creating signature styles of wine, which are highly regarded not only within its borders but throughout the world. It is blessed with a unique terroir which complements the grape varieties grown here, of which the spicy, aromatic Gruner Veltliner is king.
Located at a latitude of 47 to 48 degrees north, this landlocked country has a continental climate, with extreme variations in winter and summer temperatures. Mesoclimates are created by many local geographical features, including the River Danube (known here as the Donau), which runs through the major wine regions and helps to moderate temperatures. The Neusiedlersee lake in the far-eastern state of Burgenland has a similar influence. Easterly winds from the warm Pannonian Plain, which covers much of Hungary, assist in the production of quality red wines.
There are 35 different grapes permitted in quality Austrian wine, of which 22 are for white-wine production and 13 for red. Gruner Veltliner and Riesling are by far the most important in terms of both volume and quality, and excellent examples can be found in Austria's famous Wachau and Weinviertel regions. Other important varieties include Chardonnay, Welschriesling, Weissburgunder and Sauvignon Blanc. Red wines are made primarily from Blaufrankisch, Zweigelt, Pinot Noir (sometimes known as Blauburgunder) and Saint-Laurent.
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 toxic 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 most influenced by the wine styles and laws of Germany, and the classification system is based on the must weight (sugar content) of the grapes, measured here on the Klosterneuburger Mostwaage scale (KMW). There are three basic levels: Tafelwein, Qualitatswein and Pradikatswein. Terminology within these laws is similar to Germany, although the required must weights tend to be higher. Austria has also excelled in creating its own specialties, such as Ausbruch and Strohwein.
Austria wines also follow an appellation system, Districtus Austriae Controllatus (DAC), which was introduced in 2003. In a similar way to the AOC classification in France, wines classified as DAC must adhere to certain conditions – permitted grape varieties, levels of alcohol, oak aging – and must demonstrate the particular characteristics of the regional style. Eight of Austria's 16 wine regions have DAC classifications so far. Quality-conscious producers from Wachau have also created their own individual wine styles, which carry Steinfeder, Federspiel and Smaragd labels.
Austria's wine regions can be found primarily in the east of the country, bordering Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Slovenia. Niederosterreich is the most important of these, producing about half of the country's wine exports.