Austria 2012 and 2011

Although he prefers cooler vintages, Lucas Pichler from Oberloiben in the Wachau is pleased with 2012. "It was perhaps a touch too warm," he says, "but at least there was no botrytis." In fact, 2012 was the second warm vintage in a row for the producers along the Danube, but 2011 had also been a tad too dry. In fact, many winemakers thought that, if anything, 2012 was somewhat cooler.

In any case, most growers praised the lower levels of alcohol in the 2012s and the refreshing nerve that the 2011s often lacked. If there were troubled voices, it generally had to do with low yields. Spring frosts had a major impact on total production in vineyards from Vienna to Kamptal, diminishing volumes by as much as one-third in some places. After similar difficulties in 2010, this was the second time in only three years that yields were so badly affected.
With only 44,000 hectares of vineyard and an annual production of just 2.5 million hectoliters of wine, Austria does not impress with its size, but with its quality. Statistically it is not even among the top ten producers, ranking only 18th in most charts. Nonetheless, that is higher in those charts than New Zealand, which enjoys wide popularity in the American market. Austria earns its brownie points, though, not only with sauvignon blanc, but also for one of the archetypical expressions of riesling, then for its surprisingly fine reds from indigenous grapes like blaufränkisch and, of course, for grüner veltliner, the grape variety that has become in many people's eyes the country's unique sales proposition. In the 1980s, grüner veltliner reached its peak acreage in Austria with some 20,000 hectares under vine.
Today, vineyard plantings have fallen to only 13,500 hectares, but they still represent 29% of total land under vines. That decline, however, is true of the country as a whole. Vineyard area, which had peaked at over 60,000 hectares, stands today at only about 45,000.

In spite of the decline in volume, grüner veltliner has grown to become Austria's best-known variety. Its rieslings, albeit sometimes exceptional, cannot quite match the potential for this variety in Germany, and its red wines remain curiously unknown. Blaufränkisch is a stunning variety that apparently has little appeal for the foreign consumer who does not know it, cannot pronounce the name and certainly does not understand it. More on that, though, later.

Add to that the short crops mentioned above and you understand the predicament the producers are in today. Many are understandably praised for their finest single-vineyard interpretations of grüner veltliner, but they survive on fighting-varietal models that are built on purchased musts or grapes at attractive prices. Much of the volume in this price segment has been lost, in particular in Germany, which is Austria's largest export market.

Further complicating the picture is the fact that grüner veltliner is now being produced in both the United States and New Zealand. It is unlikely to become the next pinot grigio, but comparisons to chardonnay continue unabated. Riesling, on the other hand, however good it might be at some estates, is a statistical small fry, if not a nonentity, covering only 1,800 hectares, or four percent, of vineyard area. Germany with over 21,000 hectares has far more arrows in its quiver. However, as the delicately sweet Kabinett and Spätlese wines hardly exist there any longer, Austria has been at the cutting edge of the renaissance of dry riesling for almost a generation. There has been some justified criticism of higher alcohol levels or the use of botrytis in the Austrian interpretation of riesling, but the key factor in better international recognition of these wines will probably need to come from more effective marketing of their better sites.

Like Germany, the Austrians are now beginning to classify their individual vineyards, but the controls are not yet sufficiently strict. Much still needs to be done. The use of individual 'ried' names, as the Austrians call their sites, is vaguely organized but largely left to the individual producer. It is not quite as if they were allowed to put a name like Chambertin on the label merely because they thought it would boost sales, but the vineyards have not been so clearly delineated that one can truly say that this is such and such and that is not. In some cases, they do not even quite know what is better and what not quite so good.

The Wachau prepared their original vineyard map in 1983, but it did not differentiate between what was considered a grand cru and what was merely plonk. The Styrian Quality Alliance (STK) did something similar in 2008, but as few of the leading producers share vineyards, they are essentially individual monopolies. There is little understanding at a consumer level as to what is the style of Zieregg, Nussberg or Kranachberg.

Another group of producers called the Traditionsweingüter ( began in 2010 to remedy this situation for the Danube, but their work is still incomplete and, like the German attempts of the VDP, not in any sense legally approved or binding. But their logo with the sundial and the compass is a good indication of who are the better producers in their respective growing regions and what are the best sites.

For these reasons, we have chosen not to write "Grosse Lage," "1er," or whatever else the producers might have on their labels, in their price lists or on crib sheets, but merely written the site after the grape variety. In doing so, we have also left off the name of the corresponding village, thus writing only Riesling Heiligenstein and not Kammener Heiligenstein Riesling.

Further, the use of terms like Reserve can still be confusing. In those regions that have introduced a DAC, there is a Reserve category, but no producer is obliged to write Reserve on the label merely because his wine qualifies for the designation. As many of the wines below were tasted over a three-week excursion to Austria in the late summer either from cask or just after bottling with no corresponding label it is possible that some will enter the market as Reserves even though we have not listed them as such below. Even a selection of my favorite wines that were tasted again in late September was often from bottles with only temporary labels.

Fortunately, this should not lead to any confusion, as no producers that I know will make both a Käferberg and a Käferberg Reserve. In fact, in most cases it is forbidden. Whether the DACs have been helpful in making Austrian wine more easily understood is a subject of some debate in the country at present. Few doubt that the initial spark in 2003 to resurrect the reputation of grüner veltliner in Lower Austria was a success, but have the carbon copies been helpful or confusing? Trying to delineate what is typical of a region and promoting that style is certainly a noble cause, but the example of white Leithaberg, which can be produced from grüner veltliner, pinot blanc, chardonnay or neuburger shows only too well that politics often trump good intentions.

Another question that will certainly arise for purists is why we write gruner veltliner instead of the correct grüner veltliner? This is because this IWC wine data base does not currently support characters that are not in the standard English alphabet. We also write chateau and not château. We could also have written gruener veltliner, which would have been the correct alternative, but would perhaps not have been understood by Americans already familiar with the simplified spelling.

Another subject of debate will certainly also be scores. Why are they not higher? No sauvignon blanc here was rated over 93, but then Steve Tanzer's highest note for a sauvignon from Marlborough in his recent article on this site was only 91. That reflects, I think, reality as the finest examples from Styria, although there are only a few of them, are in my opinion better than anything New Zealand is producing. The 92s, 93s and the occasional 94 for dry riesling are also comparable to Germany, but there are fewer of them here than there. Perhaps, though, I should be marking some of these with 95, 96 or 97 points as they are some of the finest dry whites in the world.

Where the debate, though, is likely to be the loudest is in the comparison of grüner veltliner with chardonnay. Numerous blind tastings have painted unoaked grüner veltliner as at least the equivalent of barrel-matured chardonnay after ten years of bottle age. I am not quite sure that I buy that line, in particular because I am troubled by the fact that many of the "show reserves" that the producers flaunt today as the best wine they produced in a given year have 14.5% alcohol. Many winemakers are aware that something needs to be done, but as long as the domestic press lauds this style there is insufficient incentive to seriously review role models.

This is human, though, all too human. We Americans also often overrate the quality of our bombastic California cabernet sauvignons and so stand in the way of sensible efforts to promote elegance over brawn. With that I open a closing paragraph on red wine.

Few American consumers associate Austria with anything but white. That is understandable as most of us think more of skiing in the Alps when we hear Austria, and snow is white, but not discovering Austrian reds would be a sin of omission. Cool-climate red wines are something that any serious wine consumer should be viewing more attentively.

Anyone who enjoys dolcetto, Beaujolais Villages or carmenere should at least try a bottle of zweigelt. Like the aforementioned alternatives, it is seldom a wine to write home about, but it does offer substantial drinking pleasure. It is also, with 14% of the total vineyard area, Austria's second most widely planted grape variety after grüner veltliner. Although not nearly so widely planted, blaufränkisch, a cool-climate gem, must be taken far more seriously. Its wild fruit, austere tannins and edgy coolness in its youth are not as easily appreciated as, let us say, merlot, but it matures like nebbiolo from Piedmont, syrah from the northern Rhône valley or cabernet franc from the Loire. In my opinion it is one of the most underrated of the world's great red varieties and one that I suggest every IWC reader should try.

Joel B. Payne, an expatriate American who has lived in Germany since 1983, is a regular contributor to Germany's leading wine magazines, Falstaff and Vinum; he was also a founding member of the Grand Jury Européen. In addition, he served as president of the international circle of wine writers, FIJEV, from 2007 to 2010. He is best known, though, for his German Wine Guide, which has appeared annually for the past 21 years. Although he has written about Austrian wine in German for 25 years, this is the first vintage report that he has written for the IWC in English. His report on Germany 2012 will appear in the next issue.