They have had a rough ride, but Austrian sweet wines are back with a vengeance, says CATHARINE LOWE
Like all stars, Austrian sweet wines have had their moments of fame and ignominy – fêted in the 17th century, neglected in the early 20th, and then disgraced and decimated in the 1980s. But now they are on the way back up the star-studded ladder, with a number of producers deservedly making a name for themself, and many more of them waiting in the wings.
Making a name is one thing, but persuading the consumer to choose Austrian sweet wines over those from the slatey slopes of the Mosel, the foggy reaches of Sauternes, Loire or Alsace, or the Hungarian hills of Tokaji, is another. (In fact, persuading consumers to choose sweet wine at all is not an easy task.)
Put the question ‘Why choose Austrian sweet wines?’ to winemakers and the answer is clear: ‘Our wines have the freshness of the north like Mosel, the aromas of the south like Sauternes: the finesse of the former, concentration of the latter. We are the middle of the two from a climate point of view: we can do both,’ says sweet-winemaking maestro, Alois Kracher.
At their best, Austrian sweet wines are fruit-driven and concentrated, with high sugar levels, balanced by good acidity and alcohol. At their worst, they can be cloyingly sweet, burningly alcoholic or plain insipid. The key to their individuality lies in the winemakers’ freedom to play with as many varieties as they please, especially as natives far outweigh McGrapes. Mainstays include Scheurebe, Welschriesling, Neuburger, Muskat-Ottonel, Gewürtztraminer, Grüner Veltliner, Pinots Blanc and Gris, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay – and for reds, Zweigelt, Blaufränkisch and Pinot Noir.
Wine Making Regions of Austrian Sweet Wines
Burgenland, an hour’s drive east of Vienna, is the main Austrian sweet wine making region. Vineyards stretch on both reed-covered shores of Lake Neusiedl, a large expanse of shallow water, which creates a warmer microclimate, with autumn mists and botrytis in most years. On the west side is the historic town of Rust, nestled among the last vestiges of the Alps. On the east, firmly on the flat of the Pannonian plain, is Illmitz, only really planted from the 1970s, but fast in realising its potential. Wineries are usually family-owned, small plots of land, with many tending the vines in their spare time.
In the aftermath of the 1985 adulteration scandal, new stricter wine laws raised quality levels, squeezing out much of the poorer, cheaper auslese, and focusing attention on trockenbeerenauslese (TBA), ausbruch, beerenauslese, eiswein and schilfwein (straw wine). Chaptalisation and machine harvesting are banned at quality level.
Rust is home to ausbruch, one of the Austrian sweet wines that enjoyed fame in the 17th century. A few producers such as Wenzel kept the ausbruch tradition going, a cause now taken up by a group of 15 growers, the Cercle Ruster Ausbruch. ‘We want to bring back its reputation,’ says Michael Wenzel, ‘to maintain individual styles, but to discuss issues such as oak, acidity to sugar relation, the elegance, the drinkability of the wines. There is a new generation here that understands the importance of creating a prestigious product.’
In Rust, the slopes and soil give potential for more acidity. ‘The difference between ausbruch and TBA is a matter of finesse and elegance,’ explains Wenzel. ‘The acidity is more pronounced in ausbruch, while TBA tends to be sweeter.’ (Though more than one producer admitted it would be hard to tell an ausbruch from a TBA in a blind tasting.)
The amazing level of botrytis in 1999 allowed Rust producer Feiler-Artinger, another older wine family, to make five ausbruchs, including a Pinot Noir, when two is usually its norm. Other particularly good recent vintages were 1991 and 1995; 1998 was good, as should be 2001. However, little botrytis in 2000 meant more eiswein was made.
A tasting of a few of the Cercle’s wines revealed the producers’ individual style as defining, with some favouring alcohol around 7%, some 13%; acidity fluctuating from 8 to 14 grams; residual sugar from 100g/l to more than 300g/l’. With such wide parameters, balance is everything.
A Schandl Ausbruch Essenz 1999 had a lovely long finish of sharp citrus peel, despite 293g residual sugar and a lowish alcohol, while a Tremmel Ausbruch Chardonnay 1999 kept a fiery acidity in check with vibrant fresh fruit. Showing typical of an older style was a Wenzel Ausbruch 1988, Muskat-Ottonel with great complexity yet leaner, highish alcohol.
Today’s nerve centre of Austrian sweet wine is on the east side of the lake, around Illmitz and Apetlon, in the vicinity of the Seewinkel, an area peppered with lakes. Undoubted king is Alois Kracher, one of the biggest producers in the region. His wines are sought in the US and UK, and have been compared to those of Château d’Yquem. But Kracher is unfazed: ‘My wines are not yet as blue chip to collectors as I want them to be, but I have time. The great thing about sweet wine is that it allows time.’
In 1999, Kracher made 11 different sweet wines, in two distinct styles: a Zwischen den Seen, more traditional, fermented and aged in large old oak barrels, and Nouvelle Vague (the grand cuvée, 70% Chardonnay and Welschriesling), aged in new French barriques. This is a wine of superb concentration, power and freshness and is more international in character.
Old and New Winemakers
Divisions are appearing between the old and new winemakers, as outlined by Helmut Lang: ‘It is a sin in the eyes of the older people to discard healthy grapes. With Sauvignon Blanc, I throw out about 50%.’ This, he says, is hard for his father to understand. (According to another winemaker, the raised voices of Lang Senior and Junior can be heard resounding through the vineyards as Junior carpets the ground with green-harvested grapes.) Lang’s despair doesn’t end in the vineyard: ‘Some producers here are selling cheap, inferior wines, flooding, ruining the market for the rest of us by dragging the price down.’
Hardly surprisingly, Lang’s wines are hugely concentrated and complex, with his Sämling 88 (Scheurebe) TBA 1995 and 1999 showing very well. His Gewürztraminer TBA 1999 is wonderfully fat, with spice, ginger and Turkish Delight characteristics marrying well with botrytis.
The best-known producer is Willi Opitz, who is always looking for ways to get publicity for his wines: a partnership with McLarens produced a ‘Formula Wine’, and there was also a ‘Mr President’ wine for the White House. Now there’s talk of some Arafat/Israeli vinous number (I won’t be alone in thinking it will take more than a wine to sweeten relations). His Opitz One is a schilfwein from Zweigelt, dried on reed mats for five months, and has been priced at up to £150 on some UK restaurant lists. His techniques may raise eyebrows among some, but luckily Opitz’s wines live up to the hype.
He believes the potential of the region is huge but that people need to be more proactive: ‘A lot of producers are “hobby” winemakers. People need to be brave enough to give up their day job’ (as Opitz did in 1995). Yet, as Kracher points out: ‘It is very hard to live from sweet wine. It’s hard, especially for the young who don’t have the money to invest.’
One who took the plunge two years ago, giving up his job as a night-time croupier, is Roland Velich. He admits it took a lot of courage. His dry Chardonnay Tiglat is probably better known than his sweet wines, yet a TBA 1998 Welschriesling manages a perfect balance, and dry notes on the finish, despite 330g residual sugar.
Other producers worth looking up are Martin Haider, whose family has been making Austrian sweet wines since 1870. He has a wonderful, pungent, grassy Sauvignon Blanc TBA and a rich, fruity Nektar Essenz. Brothers Peter and Christoph Münzenrieder, who started bottling their own wines in 1997, are proponents of Zweigelt, which adds a tart and plummy character to botrytised wines. Relative newcomer Erwin Tinhof, who made his first TBA in 1995 and worked extensively in France, has clear ideas of what he wants.
Burgenland is by no means the only sweet wine region in Austria, with some fabulous Rieslings from Wachau and Kamptal (made by the likes of Bründlmayer and Schloss Gobelsburg), Weissburgunder from Sepp Moser in Kremstal, and Pinot Noir Eiswein from Bauer in Donauland, to name but a few.
Of course, the glory of sweet wines is the way they evolve over the years: a Landauer 1988 Ausbruch Welschriesling, with 81g residual sugar and 14% alcohol, had a nutty marmalade, almost fortified character; a Haider BA 1983 Welschriesling was still incredibly fresh, with great botrytis character, while a Just Rust 1973 TBA Neuburger had gained attractive nutty, coffee and caramel notes without losing its fruit. These wines still have a long life ahead of them, and they provide a glimpse of the future for the sweet wines now coming out of Austria.