Celebrated wine aficionado, Ron Kapon, who is known in wine circles as the Peripatetic Oenophile — the traveling wine expert — answers questions that Cheese Connoisseur readers have asked.
Cheese Connoisseur: What sparked your interest in Austrian wine?
Ron Kapon: I recently returned from an AmaWaterways Romantic Danube River Cruise. The tour started in Germany and ended in Hungary but spent most of its time in Austria. I was much more familiar with the wines of Germany and Hungary, but decided I needed to learn more about the wines of Austria. I knew about, and have tasted Gruner Veltliner, but not much else. Let’s learn about these varieties together.
CC: Does Austria have a long history with wine production?
RK: Back in 500 B.C., the Celts began growing grapes in Austria, and this continued under the Roman Empire. The monks planted vines near Krems west of Vienna and along both sides of the Danube that runs west to east. In 1872, Phylloxera wiped out most of the European vineyards. By the end of World War I, Austria was the world’s third largest wine producer. Most of what was produced was sold in bulk to Germany for blending and consisted of mainly simple light white wines. Today, with the Austrian climate warmer and drier than Germany, about 30 million cases of wine are produced annually.
CC: Are the Austrian grape varieties similar to those of its neighbor Germany?
RK: Wachau, in the valley of the Danube near Melk (the visit to the Melk Abbey was one of the highlights of my trip) is considered the finest wine region for dry white wines mainly because the Danube River moderates the effects of the cold Alpine winds. Mostly white wines are produced here from Gruner Veltliner, which consists of 47 percent of the wine grape plantings, with a bit of Riesling. Gruner has an herbaceous and zesty taste that is sometimes compared to Sauvignon Blanc. There is the flavor of white pepper, green beans, green apple and lemongrass. It pairs well with sushi. The Wachau region uses its own names to differentiate from other areas that follow the German Pradikat classifications. Steinfeders are easy drinking wines; Federspiel can age for a few years and Smaragd can age for many years. Austrian wine labels have much in common with German labels. Qualitatswein, Kabinet, Spatlese, Auslese, Beerenauslese, Trockenbeerenauslese and Eiswein appear on labels from both countries. I also visited the area around the town of Krems. There the climate is warmer and many red wines are produced. Almost 30 percent of all Austrian wines are red. Welchriesling is the second most planted varietal and the red grape Zweigelt (42 percent of red grape varietals planted) is number three. The latter type is mainly from Burgenland, where around 30 percent of all Austrian wines are produced. Zweigelt reminds me of Grenache and is a lighter red with black cherry, blueberry and raspberry flavors with a spicy finish. Try it with the Austrian favorite foods — Spatzle and Schnitzel.
CC: I heard there was a problem with Austrian wines many years ago? What’s the story there?
RK: In 1985 Austria had the “antifreeze scandal” when it was discovered that some of the country’s wines were adulterated with diethylene glycol that is found in antifreeze. It destroyed the Austrian wine industry, as many countries, the United States included, refused to allow their wines to be imported. This led to probably the strictest wine laws anywhere. Austria went from being a bulk wine producer to one of high-quality production. The country’s membership in the European Union also helped Austrian wines’ image.
CC: What are the major wine regions in Austria?
RK: Austrian wine regions are all in the eastern part of the country bordering on the Czech Republic to the north and Slovenia to the south. There are three major regions: Niederosterreich, in the north with mainly white wines; Wachau and Krems are sub regions. Burgenland produces mainly red wines, while Steiermark is known for white varieties. More than 60 percent of wines come from Lower Austria, which is in the northeastern part of the country. Vienna claims to be the only capitol city with a thriving wine industry within its boundaries.
CC: Did anyone in particular make an impression on your education about the wines of Austria?
RK: Master of Wine Peter Marks conducted several wine tastings on the Danube River Cruise. I asked him for his comments on the wines of Austria.
“While Austria has made a name for itself with the crisp, edgy Gruner Veltliner, it may be the red grape Zweigelt that holds the most promise for the future,” he says. “Having tasted many delicious examples on our wine cruise along the Danube, from fresh and fruity to deep and oak aged, it’s clear winemakers find this most widely planted red variety in Austria to be adaptable to many growing regions and winemaking styles. Personally, I found the best Zweigelts to be soft and fruit-driven, like a Pinot Noir, with the richness and body of a Merlot. The Zweigelt from Pfaffl is a beautifully intriguing and complex wine worth purchasing. I’m sure there are many more worth discovering and recommend all wine lovers seek these wines out.”
You may also find the designation “DAC,” or Districtus Austriae Controllatus, on an Austrian wine label. This is a special classification, much like the AOC classification in France, which was introduced in 2003. To qualify as a DAC wine, certain criteria must be achieved, such as permitted grape varieties, minimum natural alcohol levels and oak maturation. The goal is to feature high quality and distinctive wines of the region. Currently, there are 10 DAC titles with Weinviertel, Kamptal and Kremstal among the most likely to be seen in our country.