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The wines of Austria

The wines of Austria

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The wines of Austria

Lunghezza:
481 pagine
5 ore
Pubblicato:
Nov 25, 2019
ISBN:
9781910902882
Formato:
Libro

Descrizione

The landlocked country of Austria, at the centre of Europe, produces a great variety of quality wines. While the wine scandal of the mid-eighties caused a temporary setback, and put many blameless producers out of business, it also allowed serious winemakers a chance to focus and innovate. Stephen Brook has been fascinated by the country and its wines for more than 40 years, seeing it through its worst times to the multi-faceted wine producer it has become today.

In this second edition of The wines of Austria Brook takes readers on a vinous journey to explore the best Austria has to offer. Today, in a growing area less than half the size of Bordeaux, Austria is producing not only fabulous white and sweet wines but also reds, rosés, amber wines, Sekts and pétillants naturels. Nearly all the wine growing takes place in the east of the country, in four broad regions. In the largest, Niederösterreich, most of the vineyards lie along the Danube valley, where white wines that include Burgundy-beating Grüner Veltliners are produced, while the south-eastern part of the region specialises in reds from Austrian varieties. The eastern region of Burgenland is warm and humid, allowing the production of botrytised sweet wines. Green and bucolic Steiermark yields invigorating, refreshing whites as well as a unique rosé, Schilcher. The capital, Vienna, contains more than 600 hectares of vineyard, with much of the wine produced sold in the city’s many Heurigen, and is also the capital of Gemischter Satz.

Brook provides a detailed account of the climate, terroir and winemaking in each of the 16 major wine regions. The producers selected in each have been thoroughly updated for this edition, with many wines tasted up to the 2018 vintage. Also included is a chapter on the major varieties and a summary of vintages from 1963 to 2018.
Pubblicato:
Nov 25, 2019
ISBN:
9781910902882
Formato:
Libro

Informazioni sull'autore

Stephen Brook is a distinguished author and award-winning wine journalist. After a career in publishing in the US and UK Stephen became a full-time writer in 1982. He has written and edited many books and anthologies on travel, and numerous books on wine, especially on the wines of Bordeaux and California. He contributes regularly to four international wine magazines, lectures on wine at Christie’s Education in London, and is in demand as a guest judge at wine competitions around the world.


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The wines of Austria - Stephen Brook

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INTRODUCTION

Earlier writers of books on Austrian wine have had to urge their readers to accept their premise that Austria can make great wines. That is no longer necessary. Austrian wines have for many years been accepted by writers, sommeliers, and even consumers, as world class. The white and nobly sweet wines have attracted the most attention, and rightly so, but there has been great progress in red-wine production and quality over the past decade.

A BRIEF HISTORY OF AUSTRIAN WINE

It took a while for Austrian wines to make their mark. This is largely because until relatively recently they were mostly sold within the country, with some exports to Germany. Yet its history as a wine-producing nation is ancient. It is known that vines were cultivated in eastern Austria in Celtic times, and there were extensive plantings by the Romans, especially in the Danube valley and Styria. ‘Styria’ is the English name for the area known in German as Steiermark and this name is used extensively in the text that follows, just as Wien is often referred to as Vienna. In AD 92, Emperor Domitian ordered existing vineyards to be pulled out for fear of over-production across the empire; to what extent this decree was observed in remote Austria is not known. At any rate, two centuries later Emperor Aurelius Probus reversed the decree.

After the Romans left in the late fifth century many vineyards were abandoned, and Hungarian invasions in the tenth century made matters worse, especially in Pannonia, the region now straddled by the border between Austria and Hungary. Styria too had many masters before the Habsburgs established their hold over the region in 1282. Charlemagne proved a stabilising influence after he captured what is now Austria in 803 and rules were drawn up for viticulture and winemaking. The next major influence was the arrival of mainly Cistercian monks, who came to found monasteries from the eleventh century onwards, notably Stift Heiligenkreuz near Vienna and its outposts. This gave a boost to local viticulture. Wine was needed for sacramental purposes as well as providing a beverage that was safe to drink at a time when that was rarely true of water. Many of the sites planted by monks, most of whom had come from the wine regions of France, Burgundy in particular, are still in production and still under monastic ownership. In the late twelfth century the Viennese were permitted to plant vineyards, which still exist, within the city limits. As the vineyards developed, so did trade, and many wines were exported to northern Europe.

By the sixteenth century, it’s estimated that the area under vine throughout Austria was around 150,000 hectares, thrice its present area. At around the same time the sweet wines from Rust benefited from royal approval. Rust, however, was not the first village within the Burgenland to produce sweet wine of exceptional quality. Donnerskirchen produced a Trockenbeerenauslese-style wine in 1526, and the cask, judiciously tapped over the years, was only exhausted in 1852. The Thirty Years’ War had little effect on life in eastern Austria, but on the other hand the area was all but destroyed by invading Turkish armies in the seventeenth century. These vineyard losses as well as the abandonment of sites as a consequence of falling prices meant that the area under vine would continue to diminish.

In the nineteenth century, according to Philipp Blom’s book The Wines of Austria, the varieties grown in Austria were rather different to those cultivated today. Pinot Gris (Grauburgunder) had been present since medieval times, and St Laurent, Blaufränkisch, and Pinot Noir were also planted here and there. Grüner Veltliner was certainly cultivated but far from ubiquitously, and various forms of Muskateller as well as Welschriesling would also have been grown.

In 1860 the country’s first wine college and viticultural research centre was established at Klosterneuburg on the outskirts of Vienna and would have a significant influence over the century that followed. But not instantly. Henry Vizetelly, a British visitor to the Universal Exhibition held in Vienna in 1873, was unimpressed by the wines he tasted there, finding the good vastly outnumbered by the bad. It didn’t matter all that much, as by this time phylloxera had already been discovered in Austrian vineyards and would prove the same lethal scourge as elsewhere in Europe, with losses of around 25 per cent of all vines. Gradually the vineyards were able to recover, and by 1914 there were almost 50,000 hectares under vine. However, the break-up of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy after the First World War led to the loss within the revised borders of 18,000 hectares. Viticultural research continued. In 1922 the head of the Klosterneuburg college, Friedrich (Fritz) Zweigelt created a crossing of St Laurent and Blaufränkisch that bears his name, and went on to create Goldburger and other new varieties. Zweigelt remains the country’s most widely planted red variety, but Zweigelt’s contributions to Austrian viticulture were tarnished by his membership of the Nazi Party, which enabled him to remain at the head of the college until 1945. The college’s advice was not always sensible. Until the late 1980s, long after the French had realised that it was essential for red wines to go through malolactic fermentation, the Klosterneuburg staff advised against it, a recommendation that set back the progress of Austrian red-wine production for many years.

Grüner Veltliner only began to dominate Austrian viticulture after Lenz Moser, the first of many producers of that clan bearing this name, developed a method of high training in the 1950s that was particularly well suited to the variety; it was easy to mechanise, and gave high yields. But the elevated canopy also reduced ripeness levels, and although the system was capable of producing wines of decent quality, it is clear that other systems that are planted to a higher density such as Guyot or cordon give better results. Moser’s Hochkultur is rarely glimpsed today.

POPULARITY, SCANDAL, AND RECOVERY

Austria had, and has, a deeply embedded wine culture. This is embodied in the institution known as the Heurige or Buschenschank. Described in more detail in the chapter on Vienna, it was set on a legal basis by Emperor Joseph II on 17 August 1784. A Heurige is an inn at which the proprietor can only serve wine and food of his own production. Known as Heurigen in Vienna, the same kind of inn is more often known as a Buschenschank in other wine regions. Rules stipulate the opening times for each; they are not year-round establishments. For many Austrians a weekend excursion to a favourite Buschenschank is a popular pastime: a relatively inexpensive way to eat and drink copiously and meet friends.

So the Buschenschank, as well as the country’s plethora of other eating and drinking establishments, largely accounted for high levels of domestic consumption. Any exported wines were generally dispatched to Germany, and mostly came from the Burgenland. Until 1922 this region, dominated by its lake-shore resorts, was a popular tourist destination, and German visitors in particular got to know and like its wines, especially the sweeter styles. After the Second World War its popularity accelerated, and the 1970s and early 1980s were boom times for the Burgenland. But this would lead to the Austrian wine industry’s temporary downfall. It was slowly becoming apparent in the 1980s that more wine was being exported than could be produced, both from the Burgenland and from the prestigious but small wine village of Gumpoldskirchen. Competition to provide wines at the cheapest price meant that while the labelling was alluring, the wine inside the bottle was often dire as well as fraudulent.

Then in 1985 it was revealed that many of those exported wines had been adulterated – dosed with diethylene glycol, an antifreeze agent, to simulate sweetness. Only a few fairly large wine producers were implicated, but it was enough to put the brakes on the whole industry. I recall visiting a small merchant house in the Burgenland in the late 1980s, listening as the tearful owner told me she had been besmirched by the skullduggery of others and was on the brink of bankruptcy; her firm no longer exists. Four producers were tried and imprisoned. In Britain I don’t recall seeing a single bottle of Austrian wine for about two years after the scandal broke. In truth, it wasn’t much of a scandal. Nobody got ill, let alone died. A year later more than twenty people died in Italy after drinking adulterated wine, and the Italian wine industry sailed on regardless. So the Austrians felt hard done by, but even innocent producers acknowledge that they knew something fishy had been going on since the late 1970s.

The Austrian authorities reacted with speed, prosecuting the culprits and instituting the strictest wine regulations in Europe. It didn’t do much in the short term to restore confidence, but it gradually took effect. The integrity of Austrian wines had been re-established, and the best wines, as well as some mediocre ones, took their place on export markets. My own visits to Austrian wine regions and producers began in the 1970s, when a friend, who lived in Vienna, and I would make excursions at the weekend. The red wines were mostly terrible, but there were many attractive white wines, principally Grüner Veltliner but also from other varieties. Yet this didn’t lead me to take Austrian wines terribly seriously, other than the finest botrytis wines from the Burgenland. Changes were, however, taking place, especially a move to elegant dry wines in place of the innocuous lightly sweet wines, red as well as white, that were so commonly found in Austria at that time.

The scandal re-energised the best producers of Austria, who were dismayed by the damage done to the reputation of their industry. The highly regarded Austrian Wine Academy, which has links to Britain’s Institute of Masters of Wine, was founded in Rust in 1991 and continued to educate and inform thousands of wine professionals. In 1993 Alois Kracher, in a spirit of confrontational defiance, came to London to present a blind tasting of his own wines alongside top Sauternes, Yquem included. A fuller account of this tasting is given in the entry devoted to his wines, but it made a deep impression on those who attended. Austria’s top sweet wines, it was evident, were world class. Willi Opitz too travelled the world with his wines, and became notorious for spotting passing wine writers at trade fairs and dragging them into his booth to taste his straw wines and TBAs (Trockenbeerenauslese), which were usually worth the detour.

If in the early 1990s Austria’s reputation for great sweet wines was re-established, another famous blind tasting in Vienna in 1998 did the same for its dry wines. Here the country’s top Grüner Veltliner wines were pitted against top white Burgundy. To the delight of the Austrians the Veltliners took the top three places. As one of the tasters, I was baffled by how difficult it was to the tell the two varieties apart, even though the Burgundies, unlike the Veltliners, would all have been aged in barriques. A similar tasting, but with Chardonnays from all over the world, was held in London in 2002, with a similar outcome. By now Austria’s white wines were established as among the world’s finest. Grüner Veltliners even became fashionable in many restaurants, as sommeliers recognised their versatility with food.

The biennial Austrian wine fair, VieVinum in Vienna, brought visitors from the world over to taste wines from hundreds of producers. The Austrian Wine Marketing Board tacked on tours to various wine regions to better inform visiting wine writers about what they were tasting. In the alternating years when VieVinum was not being held, the same organisation held Wine Summits at which groups of writers, sommeliers, and importers toured the regions before gathering in Vienna for some grand tastings and events.

In the meantime Austria’s red wines were in hot pursuit of the sought-after whites. In the 1990s Austria’s red-wine producers, principally in the Burgenland, but also in other regions such as Carnuntum and Thermenregion, often aimed for maximum power and extraction. Lavish use of new oak was the norm, and many producers planted French varieties, hoping for more international renown. This was nothing new: a German merchant called Robert Schlumberger had planted the Bordelais varieties in the Thermenregion in the mid-nineteenth century. By the 2000s this would be recognised as a dubious strategy. There are corners of Austria where grapes such as Merlot or Syrah can ripen, but in general Cabernet Sauvignon in particular struggles to ripen and never does so consistently. Many producers opted to express the merits of native varieties such as Blaufränkisch, St Laurent, and even Zweigelt. Some Pinot Noir could be grown successfully, but was often picked too late and overoaked. It remains a work in progress, whereas many wineries have mastered Blaufränkisch and St Laurent, producing a range of delicious wines in differing styles.

THE DAC APPELLATION SYSTEM

The tirelessly energetic Austrian Wine Marketing Board, which was founded in 1986 as part of the reaction to the scandal, worked closely with the regional committees representing each wine region to introduce a new appellation system. This was the DAC, or Districtus Austriae Controllatus. The idea behind it was to promote regional typicity, but it was to prove controversial. The Weinviertel was selected as the first region to have its own DAC. In an attempt, which has proved largely successful, to recapture Grüner Veltliner as a quintessentially Austrian variety, the Weinviertel’s Veltliners were – subject to some regulations and tasting panels – allowed to carry the name Weinviertel DAC on the label. (The details of this and other DACs are given in the chapters on each wine region.) The downside of the system was that any wines that did not conform to the rules – in practice all other varieties grown in the region – were only allowed to be labelled as Niederösterreich, which to many seemed in effect a downgrading to a broader appellation regardless of the wine’s quality.

In 2005 the first red-wine DAC was created for Blaufränkisch from the Mittelburgenland, and as the decade moved on more and more DACs were created. Frequently they came in two or even three guises: Klassik for the more basic wines, and Reserves for the more serious, generally oak-aged, wines. The difficulty is that while domestic consumers may have come to terms with the intricacies of the system, wine lovers outside Austria haven’t got a clue. Moreover, there are prestigious growers’ associations in Austria – such as Traditionsweingüter in Lower Austria, Pannobile in Burgenland, Eruption in Styria, and the Vinea Wachau group in the Wachau – that operate their own systems of quality control and branding.

Throughout Austria the term ‘Klassik’ (sometimes spelled ‘Classic’) is used to denote a basic style of wine, generally aged in stainless steel tanks, with no oak influence. But the word has been adopted by private growers’ associations such as Steirische Klassik, which contains within its structure single-vineyard wines that may be aged in oak. In almost all contexts, however, the use of the term Klassik (or Classic) on a label or website refers to a fresh, unwooded style, fruit-forward and intended for relatively swift consumption.

The aim of the DAC appellation is laudable – the designation of Vienna’s sole DAC as Gemischter Satz has revived and validated a style of wine for which the city is celebrated – but in practice it can lead to much confusion. And it seems odd that the Neusiedlersee, famous worldwide for its sweet wines, has awarded its DAC to Zweigelt. Even more confusingly, some regional names have been altered to the DAC name: for example, the former Neusiedlersee-Hügelland, admittedly a cumbersome name, is now transformed to Leithaberg, the name of its DAC. But some parts of the former Hügelland are not part of the DAC zone, so the historically celebrated Rust, for example, has to label its wines as mere Burgenland. By 2019 Carnuntum and the Wachau were on the brink of devising a DAC system for those regions, but Wagram and Thermenregion have yet to do so.

The production criteria and the role of tasting panels do help maintain the quality of DAC wines, although the DAC letters on the label are no more a guarantee of high quality than the French AOC system or the Italian DOC. It also tends to refuse DAC status to wines that step out of line. There has been a growth in what one might call atypical wines such as ‘orange’ wines, in which grapes receive prolonged maceration on the skins, a style that the existing wine or DAC regulations cannot recognise or accept. This does not greatly matter, but these wines often have to be released as Landwein or Weinland or some other lowly tier in the Austrian hierarchy. Austria is also home to many organic or biodynamic estates, a trend encouraged but not imposed by the wine authorities.

INTO THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY

Today the quality of Austrian wine, in all its manifestations, has been fully vindicated, and few would deny that average quality is extremely high.There are inevitably some wines that are boring or clumsy or dilute, but overall the quality of winemaking is impeccable. The renown of Austrian wine is constrained only by its limited production. After the Austrians’ own thirst has been slaked, there isn’t a great deal of wine left over for export, though the best wines are much sought after and appreciated. Nonetheless exports have been rising steadily for nine years in succession, with Germany and Switzerland the most important markets. It has to be remembered that with 46,500 hectares of vineyards, Austria’s wine surface is still less than half of that of Bordeaux alone.

Many of those hectares are family owned, and this may be one explanation for the high average quality of the nation’s wines. It is a country with very few cooperatives, and those that remain are often as dedicated to high quality as private estates. There has also been a change of generations over the past decade. It often surprises me, when visiting wineries, how often I am greeted by a man or woman under the age of thirty who is in complete control of both the farming and the wine­making. Moreover, these young owners have in most cases travelled the world and gained a truly international perspective that was rarely accessible to their parents and grandparents, who were often tied to their farms by practising polyculture in order to support their families. For the older generation, grapes were a form of nutrition and quantity was more important than quality. The younger generations, often to the dismay of their forebears, sharply reduced yields and sharply increased quality. All this bodes well for the future, though of course Austria is far from unique in this respect.

Austria today has around 46,500 hectares of vineyards, of which just under half are in Lower Austria. Most of these plantings are of white varieties, of which by far the most important is Grüner Veltliner. Wine regions are grouped within four political zones: Niederösterreich (containing Wachau, Kremstal, Kamptal, Traisental, Wagram, Weinviertel, Carnuntum, and Thermenregion); Burgenland (Leithaberg, Neusiedler­see, Mittelburgenland, Eisenberg, Rosalia); Steiermark (Vulkanland, Südsteiermark, Weststeiermark); and Vienna. Although these are political entities, these four zones do have some coherence. Niederösterreich groups together the regions that broadly lie along the Danube valley. Burgenland is the region with the greatest influence from the Pannonian plain which extends into Hungary, making it a very warm if sometimes humid area. Steiermark is entirely different: a green and bucolic region nuzzling up against Hungary and Slovenia, and best known for its racy white wines. Vienna is on its own: a once-imperial capital with extensive vineyards to cater to a population that has always been passionate about wine. All these regions and subregions are discussed in detail in the chapters that follow.

AUSTRIAN WINE LAW

Before 1986 Austrian wine law was similar to German law. Even today, especially in the Neusiedlersee, you can still find the occasional Spätlese or Auslese wine. And the Austrians have retained the important categories of Beerenauslese (BA) and Trockenbeerenauslese (TBA). The major difference is that the Germans measure grape sugar (must weight) by the Oechsle scale, while Austrians have always used the scale devised by the wine college and thus known as the Klosterneuburg Mostwaage, or KMW for short. Conversion is fairly simple because 1 KMW is roughly equivalent to 5 Oechsle. Over the past decade Austrian rules have been brought into line with EU wine laws.

The most basic levels, such as Wein or Landwein, are produced from musts with low KMW levels, and it is allowable to add sugar (chaptalisation) or concentrated grape must. Few such wines are of any interest to serious wine lovers. The difference between Wein and Landwein is that the latter must be made from riper grapes and must carry a vague geographical indication. Some wines (such as ‘orange’ wines rejected by the authorities for lack of typicity) are labelled as Weinland.

There is another category, not included in this book, known as Bergland, which unites the vineyards of western Austria, in the Vorarlberg, Tyrol, and Carinthia. Holdings are tiny, rarely exceeding a single hectare, and the total surface is trifling. Vorarlberg had 700 hectares in the nineteenth century, but after phylloxera most vineyards were abandoned, and only 10 hectares remain. There are 170 hectares in Carinthia and 5 more hectares in Tyrol. I have rarely tasted the wines, which are produced in minute quantities and rarely leave the zone of production, so thought it best not to pretend to any knowledge of them.

Sparkling wine, or Sekt, is a style of growing importance. Robert Schlumberger in the 1840s had a commercial success with his Sekt, produced from Thermenregion grapes, and the house of Schlumberger still exists as do Kattus and Steininger. Many small producers are introducing Sekt to their range. It’s often méthode champenoise, produced in fairly small quantities as a sideline, although some wineries, such as Bründlmayer and Malat, have always taken it seriously. In 2017 a 3-tier quality pyramid was introduced so as to regulate a sector that has grown to around 25 million bottles per year. The basic Klassik level must be aged for at least 9 months. The mid-tier Reserve has to be made by the méthode champenoise and must be aged for at least 18 months. Grosse Reserve must be made from grapes from a single community (such as Langenlois), bottle-fermented and aged for at least 30 months on the lees. A tasting panel has the final say on whether a wine qualifies.

Rosé has become increasingly popular, as has pétillant naturelle (pét nat), a trend that has entranced many European wine regions, delivering fresh styles to be drunk young.

The majority of Austrian wine is produced under the Quality Wine (Qualitätswein) banner. Such wines must come from a designated wine region, have minimum alcohol levels of 9%, and be made from one of the thirty-five approved varieties. They carry a seal with the state control number awarded after chemical and sensory analysis. The capsule is in red and white, the colours of the Austrian flag, which incidentally makes Austrian wines easy to spot in a crowded shop.

Sweet wines are known as Prädikatswein in Austria. The must may not be chaptalised, and the residual sugar has to be attained by natural means and not by adding grape must. A Spätlese must be produced from must with a minimum of 19 KMW, while an Auslese must be made from selected grapes with a minimum must weight of 21 KMW. Beerenauslese is made from overripe or botrytised grapes with a minimum must weight of 25 KMW, the same as for Eiswein, which is made from frozen grapes at harvest, and for Strohwein and Schilfwein, the specialities of a few producers in the Neusiedlersee. An Ausbruch, the speciality of Rust, requires a minimum must weight of 27 KMW, and it is permitted to add freshly made juice or wine of at least Spätlese quality to the must during fermentation. Finally, for TBA the minimum must weight is 30 KMW, which is equivalent to 156 Oechsle.

There are a few other rules. The EU stipulates that any declared variety or vintage must contain at least 85 per cent from that variety or vintage. The alcohol level on the label must be within half a degree of the analysed alcohol content, and the level must be stated in either full or half degrees, thus, 12% abv (alcohol by volume) or 12.5% but not 12.7%. For a dry (Trocken) wine the maximum residual sugar is 9 grams per litre, but this maximum can vary according to the acidity level of the wine. Medium-dry is up to 12 or 18 grams, again depending on the acidity levels; medium-sweet, a rarely seen category, has residual sugar of between 12 and 45 grams. Bergwein can be used to designate wines from grapes grown on slopes of at least 26 per cent. Gemischter Satz refers to a field blend, a style most often found in Vienna but also produced in other regions. The word ‘Ried’ on a label is now required to indicate a single vineyard, for example, Ried Lamm in Kamptal.

WINE STYLES

There are two principal styles of wine from Austria: unoaked and racy, and oak-aged and, it’s hoped, more complex. This is true of other wine-producing countries too, but it is especially marked in Austria, where an unoaked style is often signalled on the label by a term such as Klassik (or Classic). This division is not surprising in a country dominated by white wine production. Most white-wine drinkers want to be refreshed and stimulated rather than bludgeoned into admiration by excessive oak. But consumers have a choice, with many wines, red as well as white, either aged solely in stainless steel tanks or neutral vats and casks, or in smaller barrels of 225, 500, or 600 litres.

In the 1980s and 1990s many producers, especially of international varieties such as Chardonnay or Cabernet Sauvignon, assumed that the more oak employed, the more ‘serious’ the wine. The result was a plethora of clumsy wines that may have impressed local wine critics, but fell flat in international markets. Today most winemakers have sharply reduced the amount of new oak, and pay far more attention to the origin and quality of the wood. Although there are still some heavy-handed reds being produced, especially in the Burgenland, there are also many beautifully nuanced wines, in which the wood adds complexity and subtlety rather than overtly woody aromas and flavours.

White wines such as Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay from Styria were often absurdly over oaked, with new wood overwhelming their primary fruit. Almost without exception the producers have reined back the use of new oak, and the wines are all the better for it. Fortunately new oak was very rarely used for ageing the great white wines of Lower Austria, the Grüner Veltliners and Rieslings, although today you can still find some top wines that do indeed spend months, even years, in wood, but with the intention of oxygenating the wine slowly rather than imparting woody flavours which hardly anybody believes can enhance these wines.

In recent years there has also been a revival in the use of acacia barrels and casks, employed by winemakers who admire the wood’s neutrality and lack of vanilla flavours. Many large casks are also made from Austrian as well as Slavonian oak, and Austrian-coopered casks can be found in areas as diverse as Bergerac and Italy.

One typical Austrian wine style is established long before the grapes reach the winery. This is Gemischter Satz, the German term for field blend, that is, a wine made from a number of different varieties planted together in the same vineyard and generally picked at the same time. Field blends, which are also quite common in California, were planted as a kind of insurance policy: if one variety does poorly, because of problematic flowering or disease, then some of the others will come through strongly, allowing a good wine to be made. Gemischter Satz is a speciality of Vienna, but is also found elsewhere in Austria.

Austria has not escaped the trend for organic, biodynamic, ‘orange’, and ‘natural’ wines. Organic wines are made from grapes grown without recourse to chemical products such as fertilisers, herbicides, or pesticides. Biodynamic wines follow similar practices but also apply homeopathic doses of plant treatments to vineyards; the system incorporates a mystical element derived from the writings of its founder Rudolf Steiner, which more scientifically minded winemakers reject. Yet biodynamism can produce wines of exceptional quality. By 2018, 13 per cent of Austrian vineyards were farmed organically or biodynamically.

‘Natural’ wines pursue organic principles into the winery. The most extreme practitioners refuse to make any intervention in the wine­making process, such as temperature control or additions of antioxidants such as sulphur dioxide. Such wines are controversial, as they can be less stable than conventionally vinified wines and more subject to oxidation and bacterial problems. Personally, I am no fan of ‘natural’ wines, being reluctant to spend good money on wines that often turn out to be flawed, unstable, or suffering from premature death throes.

‘Orange’ wines are based on an ancient Georgian method of vinification, in which bunches of grapes, usually destemmed, are dumped into amphorae or clay jars that have been buried in the earth. Here the grapes, whether red or white, are left to ferment at their own speed. The amphorae are generally sealed. For red wines the difference between conventional whole-cluster and amphorae vinification is not striking, but for whites the difference is dramatic. White grapes tend to be pressed immediately or after a brief skin contact to extract some aromatic compounds. Vinification on the skins in either amphorae or casks not only ferments the juice, but extracts phenols, tannins, and other compounds from the skins. This accounts for the orange colour of the wines and for their grainy texture. These wines can also have an oxidative character that is not to everyone’s taste.

The first orange wines other than the Georgian

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