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Austria Brings New Meaning to Drinking Well

July 06, 2021

Story: Punch Staff

photo: PUNCH

Forward-thinking producers have embraced a shift toward greater environmental consciousness, from integrated, organic or biodynamic viticulture to a national certification program.

We’ve entered a brave new era of Austrian wine. If the majority of U.S. consumers were once introduced to the country’s wine culture through the lens of either bang-for-your-buck, screw-cap grüner veltliner or, on the higher end, the age-worthy grüners of Austria’s prestigious Wachau, Kamptal and Kremstal regions, those entry points have opened up. Today, peruse a progressive wine list or retail shop and you might find juicy reds from native varieties like Blaufränkisch or Zweigelt, a variety of sparkling Sekt, or the latest wave of traditional field blends known as Gemischter Satz.

The country owes this new awareness to the work of its current generation of forward-thinking producers—established and still-emerging alike—who have carried Austria into the future by embracing a shift toward greater environmental consciousness, both in the vineyard and in the cellar. Though their methodologies may vary, one thing many of these producers have in common is the belief that healthy grapes and living soils highlight the diversity of terroir, bringing about a more expansive view of Austria than we’ve ever known in the past.

According to Gabriel Clary, Austria portfolio manager at Skurnik Wines (a top importer of some of the country’s most acclaimed estates), unlike many other historic winegrowing nations, environmental consciousness has been part of Austria’s heritage from the start. “There has always been a huge emphasis on the importance of sustainable vineyard work and the need to preserve soil health,” he explains. More recently, however, quality-minded producers have started to seek certification in sustainable, organic and even biodynamic agriculture.

“Now that all of these issues have become so much more important to consumers, producers have started to explain in greater detail all they’re doing in the cellar and the vineyard, and taking that even further, they’re now recognizing the importance of certifying,” Clary mentions.

In terms of a cultural perspective or mentality, Austria is known for clean, transparent wines that articulate terroir, and that sensibility can be found across the natural wines coming out of the country today.

“Whether you talk to iconic producers from entrenched families who have had land there forever or emerging winemakers from the next generation, Austria’s winemakers have all gone through this enormous change in terms of their value hierarchy,” observes Clara Dalzell, buyer and manager at Flatiron Wines in New York City. “They’ve all championed sustainability in a meaningful way, not just in terms of farming methods but the entire chain of production.”

Given this national mindset, it should come as no surprise that Austria has recently emerged as home to what sommelier and author Pascaline Lepeltier calls one of the wine world’s “most mature and sophisticated” natural wine movements. Based on the tenets of minimal intervention in the vineyard and the cellar, the revolution has put down roots in each of the country’s wine areas, including noteworthy regions such as Burgenland, the source of Austria’s most famous reds, and Steiermark (Styria), known for crisp and fragrant yet deeply structured whites.

Unlike fellow hotbeds of naturalist activity in France and Italy, where the movement emerged as a radical revolt against industrial winemaking, Austria’s emerging naturalist cohort was lucky enough to inherit a wine culture that had long been converted to a quality mindset, Lepeltier says. “I think the seeds of what we see today were planted a while ago,” she explains. “They already had these incredible benchmark estates that have been working organically and even biodynamically for decades, so there was already a strong consciousness of that, and then the change really kicked in with a new generation.”

This renaissance has ushered in a new wave of alternative styles from Austria, such as pétillant-naturel (aka pét-nat) and skin-contact whites (or what some locals call maischevergoren). Just as often, however, producers aim for classically structured wines that, though made with minimal intervention, express a traditional sense of typicity, balance and terroir. In fact, according to industry professionals like Dalzell, what distinguishes Austria’s contributions to the lo-fi canon is the same “clarity, transparency and purity” that defines the country’s output as a whole.

“In terms of a cultural perspective or mentality, Austria is known for clean, transparent wines that articulate terroir, and that sensibility can be found across the natural wines coming out of the country today,” Dalzell observes, noting that this precise sensibility and the technical expertise among its practitioners make Austria the perfect introduction to drinkers unfamiliar with the natural category.

Regardless of differences in approach or philosophy, what unites the country’s current crop of progressive producers is this profound commitment to preserving the integrity of the soils and expressing Austria’s identity as clearly as possible—a mission that, as Lepeltier points out, requires respect for the environment.

“There is a deep pride in their terroir and the local expression of their grapes,” Lepeltier observes. “When you put that together with the spirit of the country, the high ambition of its winemakers, and the understanding of history and tradition … it’s no wonder that Austria has emerged as a leader when it comes to all of the things we’re talking about.”

Understanding Austria's Cultivation Methods

Austria has adopted a wide range of systems for environmentally conscious viticulture, but a few main approaches offer an overview of the many forms sustainability assumes in the country today.

    • Accounting for the cultivation methods of around 75 percent of Austrian vineyard land, integrated viticulture views the vineyard as a complex ecosystem. Its advocates call for minimal use of ecologically harmful materials, like synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, in the interest of protecting both human health and the environment.
    • Organic viticulture prohibits the use of synthetic fertilizers and advocates pesticide-free farming to promote biodiversity and enhance the health and fertility of the soil. In Austria, 16% (7,242 ha) of the total area under vines is being cultivated organically, one of the highest rates worldwide.
    • Based off the teachings of the Austrian theorist Rudolf Steiner, biodynamic viticulture refers to organic farming that emphasizes the holistic interplay between all aspects of the life of the vineyard, taking into account the phases of the moon. Almost one fifth of Austria’s organic area (1,290 ha) is farmed biodynamically, also one of the highest rates worldwide.
    • The result of many years of research and development, Sustainable Austria is Austria’s internal certification system for sustainability, allowing winegrowers to evaluate their own environmental impact and providing concrete guidelines for improvement. In 2019, ‘Sustainable Austria’ was one of only fourteen sustainability certifications worldwide to fulfil the strict requirements of the Scandinavian state monopolies. 14.7% of Austria’s area under vines has been certified as sustainable.

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