Special Feature: Wines from Austria

By John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

Imperialists or Rebels? This special report leads with some perspective on the Austrian wine industry since the turn of the century, with musings in particular about how recent transformations in the capital city, Vienna, almost eerie parallel the evolution in Austrian wines, from doggedly determined  imperial power to reactionary rebel to confident hotbed of both culture and counter-culture, co-existing in harmony.

Sound intriguing? Read on. Naturally, I feature plenty of recommendations from this heart of Europe – nearly three dozen – from tastings both at WineAlign headquarters and a special tasting of sauvignon blanc, various pinot varieties, and the Austrian specialty, sankt laurent, held during the bi-annual Vievinum event this past June, one of the finest on planet wine.  Skip the preamble and go straight to the top picks currently available in Ontario, or to the very best of the sauvignon/pinot tasting, many of which are seeking representation in Canada.

Austria’s Imperialists and Rebels

A sunny day in Vienna, any day, really, is a wonderful day. This former imperial capital deep in the heart of old Europe has a magical feel, comfortingly regal, saturated in tradition, mindfully flaunting its aristocratic authority. The horse-drawn calèches that rally around St. Stephen’s spire in the Stephansplatz, with their cap-and-vest-clad drivers awaiting the next tourist fare, are as expected a sight here as top hats in London or fur coats in Moscow. It’s not a mere overused cultural trope; it’s the trope that created the culture.

There’s a breathtaking collection of architecture, too, with splendid turn-of-the-century Art Nouveau buildings jostling for position between resplendent Gothic and Baroque edifices that rise up from the imperial past in the city’s center. You would only be faintly surprised to bump into Beethoven or Strauss, pre-programmed for the experience by the lilting strings of a Vienna waltz echoing out of a courtyard by some anonymous, concert house-worthy busker.

All around is history, art, culture. The past seems inescapable.

Yet what’s most marvelous about Vienna, at least in my view as I’ve observed since about the turn of the millennium, has been its transformation from anachronistic museum piece to vibrant, innovative, counter-cultural hotbed. Sure, you’ll still come across occasional haughty attitude from a Viennese waiter, as the Hofburg Palace still stands defiantly in the past, hanging on to the remnants of imperial power. But there’s an almost jarringly un-stuffy nature to the place now, a clash of past and future, and the future is winning. Someone has let loose a pack of rebel radicals, and they’re skateboarding, spraying graffiti, and taking off their shoes and running barefoot through the Burggarten.

Hofburg Palace

Hofburg Palace (photo: © ÖWM/Anna Stöcher)

I’m sure you’re wondering where I’m going with this, but there’s a point related to wine. You see, there’s a parallel between Vienna’s and the Austrian wine industry’s evolution.

Only a couple of decades ago, Austrian wine was about as fashionable internationally as the sartorial modes of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Today, it is as contemporary and exciting as the radically stylized, glass-and-steel structures popping up all over Vienna. Barefoot winemakers are setting the textbooks alight and writing their own contemporary history.

Such changes, of course don’t happen overnight, nor without pain and suffering. The earliest days of the revolution, which I’d peg sometime in the late eighties-early nineties (shortly after the “Austrian wine scandal”, which nobody even talks about anymore, thankfully – google it if you’re interested), were marked by false starts, shortsightedness, and the usual over-ambition that comes with impetuous youth and recent freedom. It takes time to unshackle yourself from the past and drag yourself into the future.

“I planted just about everything back in those days”, remembers Hans Nittnaus of Anita & Hans Nittnaus winery in Gols on the Neusiedlersee, Burgenland, with a tinge of regret and even embarrassment. “In 1985 we took over the business. We drank Bordeaux, Burgundy, Barolo and the like and planted Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Internationality was a good thing.”


Nittnaus was not alone. He and many others experimented with international grapes, imported barriques for ageing, worked on methods to produce big, extracted wines in the fashion of the times, times which lasted through the nineties and into the new millennium. There was more than a small measure of embarrassment provoked by local varieties and old techniques. Though it’s hardly a unique story – it has been written countless times in countless traditional winemaking regions around the world – in Austria it was particularly acute.

The results of the ‘new style’, however well received domestically, were not great. I recall my first serious tasting of Austrian wines in Toronto, in 2000: the reds were heavily extracted, woody, uncomfortably green and astringent. Too much graffiti. Whites, too, while perfectly technically correct, lacked character. They suffered from uniformity and predictability, neither modern nor Baroque, more like the communist-era apartment blocks across the border in Hungary. Austria, after all, has one of the oldest winemaking schools in the world, Klosterneuberg, not far from Vienna. Technical expertise has never been lacking.

In this period, Gerhard Pittnauer was an anomaly. He started his eponymous winery in 1992, also around the Neusiedlersee, and recalls his discomfort at his lack of technical training: “I was never a winemaker in the academic sense. I was embarrassed when people would ask me about the details of my wines, the pH and TA and such. I really had no idea, I didn’t have a laboratory. But my colleagues could ring off those details with no problem.” Winemakers like Pittnauer were rare.

These new fashioned wines find their architectural parallel in the Haas-Haus, a hyper modern, curved glass structure in the heart of the Vienna, whose mirrored windows reflect St. Stephen’s cathedral. Completed in 1990, the building was immediately demonized by critics for its overly glaring contrast with the historic buildings surrounding it.


But as the Haas-Haus, originally conceived as an unwanted department store, was refitted to accommodate more welcomed restaurants, bars, shops and a hotel, so too did Austrian wines find a more comfortable integration of tradition and innovation. It was around the turn of the century that the rampant guillotining of the past came to an end, as did the over-reliance on technology and winemaking by-the-book.

The shifting philosophy must have come as a relief to Nittnaus, who had always secretly believed in local blaufränkisch. He had even ‘experimented’ with the variety in his top vineyard, the Ungerberg, back in the 1980s. But though the results were deemed excellent from the beginning, rather than bottle it alone, Nittnaus buried his blaufränkisch instead in a cabernet sauvignon blend. Today, the Nittnaus winery is synonymous abroad with blaufränkisch, their “Kalk und Schiefer” bottling an international calling card, and their range proudly boasting no fewer than four single vineyard bottlings of the grape.

Pittnauer, too, is no longer an outlier. He’s joined by winemakers all over Austria who are less preoccupied with the technical details, and more focused on interpretative, intuitive winemaking, with impressive results. “I cook with my stomach”, Pittnauer tells me, “and make wine with my palate, and that’s cool. I’m comfortable now admitting that I don’t know those technical details.”

Nittnaus and Pittnauer are also representative of so many Austrian vintners who have moved down the same path towards organic and biodynamic viticulture, wild ferments and low or even zero sulphur cuvées, and dispensed with the new barriques in favour of large wooden casks, or cement or clay for ageing. Drawing on traditional and modern trends, there are plenty of examples of skin-fermented whites and pale, crunchy, chill-worthy reds, pet nats (pétillants naturels, or ancestral method sparkling wines) and fully natural wines. These are the skater kids and barefoot graffiti artists of the modern wine world.

But there are also countless classics, too, fit for an Austrian monarch, yet dressed in contemporary style: stately blaufränkisch from the Burgenland, regal riesling and monumental grüner from the terraced vineyards of the Danube Valley, celebration-worthy, traditional method sparkling, naturalized sauvignon blancs that don’t taste like sauvignon but rather of their precipitously steep homeland hills in Styria and its varying underlying geologies, quirky but irresistibly plump rotgipfler, or steelier-edged zierfandler from the Thermenregion, or sankt laurent with its country cousin character, to name but a few of the more traditionally-garbed characters in the cast.

These imperialists and rebels live in harmony, and fuel one-another. Just like in Vienna, where past and present co-exist, each drawing inspiration from the other, the Austrian wine industry has reached a genuinely exciting era. The stuffy past has been shed, and positive change embraced. That makes it one of the most vibrant, innovative, counter-culture, and cultured, hotbeds in the wine world.

A visit to Vienna, and a tasting of Austrian wines anywhere in the world, is worthwhile.

Buyers’ Guide: Austrian Wines in Ontario

Loimer Brut Rosé, Österreich Sekt ($43.00)
John Szabo – Pale pink-salmon. Lovely complexity off the top, smoky, toasty, with creamy raspberry-strawberry fruit, from this innovative blend of zweigelt, pinot noir and chardonnay. The palate has superb balance, essentially dry (6.5 grams of dosage) with crunchy-ripe acids, firm but not at all aggressive, and excellent complexity, length and depth. A very classy Austrian bubbly to be sure. Tasted May 2018.
Michael Godel – Strawberry, rhubarb and sweet leafy herbology are the main attraction but there too is a cured salumi character that puts this in line for meats and cheeses before the meal. Just enough dosage balances the express acidity and the wine just has that flow.

2016 Loimer Grüner Veltliner, DAC Kamptal ($22.95)
John Szabo – A reliably excellent wine/value from biodynamic producer Fred Loimer, the 2016 is open and fragrant, ripe yet properly peppery and green, with a fine mix of citrus and sweet herbs. The palate is crisp, dry, tightly wound and sharp in the right way. Enjoy now or hold short term. Best 2018-2022. Tasted June 2018.
Sara d’Amato – Designed to be a pure expression of varietal character, Loimer’s biodynamically farmed grüner veltliner is precise and elegant. Vinified in stainless steel to retain freshness and aromatic character, it is floral and salty with green apple skin and white pepper in abundance. Upbeat with notable charm and persistence of finish. Excellent value.

Lenz Moser Prestige Grüner Veltliner 2016, Niederösterreich ($14.95)
Michael Godel – A next step up in quality and complexity is a guarantee from the channels of Lenz Moser and archetypal Niederösterreich terroir. This grüner veltliner takes the fresh and energetic road, still pulsing with a bit of yet unresolved C02 and plenty of lime-driven flavour. Lots of juicy fruit and liquid white pepper smokiness add to the overall savour.

Loimer Sparkling Brut RoséLoimer Grüner Veltliner 2016Lenz Moser Prestige Grüner Veltliner 2016

Domäne Wachau Kellerberg Riesling Smaragd 2016, Wachau ($43.95)
John Szabo – Terrific nose here off the top from this grand cru site in the finest riesling-producing region in Austria, Domäne Wachau’s 2016 Kellerberg is a gorgeous wine. I love the inviting floral perfume, all apple blossoms, lilac and jasmine, while firm, ripe nectarine-apricot fruit take over on the palate. Acids are brisk and tight but ripe, and supply more than sufficient netting to hold in the fruit. Length is excellent. Really top notch stuff. Tasted May 2018.
Michael Godel – Welcome to the real deal in Kellerberg riesling with little explanation needed to explain why this part of Wachau is simply one of those magical spots on the planet. The Kellerberg is Dürnstein’s steep landmark mountain, with soils typified by “Gföhler Gneiss,“ light feldspar and quartz. While you’d like to imagine the salty-mineral, elemental and airy aspects are the only thing that matters, there is power and heft to this riesling.

Domäne Wachau Weissenkirchener Grüner Veltliner Federspiel 2017, Wachau ($21.99)
John Szabo – A ‘village’ grüner from Weissenkirchen in the Wachau made by the excellent co-op, this 2017 vintage is ripe but fresh and lively, with plenty of pear and lemon/yellow grapefruit flavours. The palate is very nicely pitched in the light-mid-weight category, while acids freshen and enliven. Good to very good length. A few more months or a year or two will see this wine improve and gain in complexity no doubt. Sharp value. Tasted May 2018.

Nigl Gartling Grüner Veltliner 2017, Niederösterreich ($23.95)
John Szabo – Clean, ripe, fleshy, Nigl’s 2017 Gärtling is a lively, well-chiseled example of grüner veltliner with firm acids and plenty of mid-palate depth. Lemon-lime acids and a whiff of white pepper linger impressively. Tasted May 2018.
Michael Godel – Trial, and ultimately wisdom, lead to this point for the Nigl grüner veltliner, beyond the mere simple implications of dictionary entry and into the realm occupied by the essentials. If ever there was one, for the varietal category, the region and the country, there could be no reason not to make this the one.

Domäin Wachau Weissenkirchen Grüner Veltliner Federspiel 2017Nigl Gärtling Grüner Veltliner 2017

John Szabo’s Buyers’ Guide: Austrian Sauvignon and Pinot Tasting

Austrian Sauvignon Blanc

94 Sattlerhof 2015 Sauvignon Blanc Ried Trinkaus, Südsteiermark
A selection made out of the best Kranachberg parcels, based on maritime sands and fossil limestone. Fermentation in stainless steel tank, and maturation on the lees. Open, perfumed, ripe, even lightly candied orange-citrus notes. Great texture, fresh, lively, fruity, youthful. Needs a couple more years, but will be excellent. Tightly delineated. Tasted June 2018.

93 Sabathi Erwin 2015 Sauvignon Blanc “Alte Reben GSTK” Ried Pössnitzberg, Südsteiermark
From a south-facing slope, one of the steepest in Austria with a degree of incline reaching as much as 75%, harvested by hand (obviously), fermented spontaneously with natural yeasts, and given 18 months élevage in large, traditional oak casks. Rich, ripe, gentle texture, billowing with fruit. Well measured lees. Precisely and sharply focused. Excellent length. Superb concentration. Tasted June 2018.

92 Sattlerhof 2015 Sauvignon Blanc “GSTK” Ried Pfarrweingarten, Südsteiermark
Fermentation and élevage in stainless. Clean and pure aromatics, ripe but not overtly tropical; very inviting. Equally clean and crisp on the palate, tightly wound in the right way, with succulent acids and great length. Tasted June 2018.

92 Wohlmuth 2015 Sauvignon Blanc Ried Edelschuh, Südsteiermark
One of Wolhmuth’s ‘grand cru’ sites in Sausal on the Rosenberg-Kogelberg with schist soils, whole-cluster pressed and spontaneously fermented aged 14 months on the lees in large wooden casks. A classy, lean, firm and linear wine defined by ripe acids and stony flavour, with some creamy lees notes on the very long finish. Fresh and lively, with much scope to evolve in bottle. Tasted June 2018.

91 Harkamp 2015 Sauvignon Blanc Ried Kogelberg, Südsteiermark
Koglberg is a single vineyard site in Sausal with on mica schist, yielding the “most mineral-driven wines” on the Harkamp range. There’s a touch of botrytis here it appears, with plenty of honeyed richness and supperripe peach/apricot flavours- smells like sauternes, and all the more attractive for it. The palate is mid-weight with palpable extract, very stony and sharply defined by acids, with excellent lengh. An unusual but excellent example. Tasted June 2018.

91 Tschermonegg 2015 Sauvignon Blanc Ried Oberglanzberg, Südsteiermark
Oberglanzberg is south/southwest-facing sloped site with inclines of up to 60%, at an elevation of some 450 metres, and mostly limestone marl underpinnings. 12 months in 1000-litre wooden cask. Fragrant. Intensely flavoured and concentrated, Salty. Firm acids. Excellent depth and length. Richer style. Tasted June 2018.

90 Krispel 2015 Sauvignon Blanc Ried Neusetzberg, Vulkanland Steiermark
A deep, dark expression, very ripe, almost bruised fruit in the tropical spectrum. Fullish, salty and richly flavoured, tangy acids. Highly volcanic, more than sauvignon. Very good length. Tasted June 2018.

Buyer’s Guide: Austrian Weissburgunder (Pinot Blanc)

93 Jamek 2016 Weißburgunder Smaragd Ried Hochrain, Wachau
The Hochrain is a steep southeast-facing site with deep pockets of loess, which are responsible for supplying good nutrition, fat and breadth. Fermentation in steel tank and maturation in large wooden cask. Lovely floral perfume, blossoms of peach and lemon, honeysuckle. Gorgeously textured, fresh, lively with great succulent acids masking the pinch of residual sugar. Classy and arid aristocratic. Tasted June 2018.

93 Tement 2015 Weißburgunder “PINO.T 1 STK” Ried Sulztal, Südsteiermark
A vineyard composed of limestone marl and loamy sand soils. Fermentation and élevage in a large, neutral wooden cask. 18 months maturing on the fine lees.A tightly wound reductive wine with notable So2 on the nose; firmly chiselled on the palate, fine acids, succulent and salty. Great length. Tasted June 2018.

92 Prieler 2015 Weißburgunder Ried Haidsatz, Leithaberg
The site rests on a mixture of limestone and mica schist, open to the cool northeast winds, which adventageously prolong the ripening process. Maceration for 3 days, spontaneously fermented, 12 months maturation in 500L oak cask. Fine, fragrant, really pretty wine. Gently nutty-leesy, floral. Very classy. Limestone. Tasted June 2018.

92 Sattlerhof 2015 Weißburgunder Ried Pfarrweingarten, Südsteiermark
Uncommon perfume, intense for the variety, very floral, lightly leesy. Lovely lean texture, smooth, an elegant style, very fine. Tasted June 2018.

92 Polz 2015 Weißburgunder Ried Hochgrassnitzberg, Südsteiermark
Proper firmness and acids, lean and elegant, stony style, measured wood and lees. Great texture, tightly wound, savoury. Great length. Tasted June 2018.

Buyer’s Guide: Austrian Chardonnay

96 Tement 2015 Chardonnay “GSTK” Ried Zieregg, Südsteiermark
Tement’s top vineyard, heavily laced with limestone. Subdued aromatics and minimal wood influence – only the gentle oxidation that accompanies wood ageing (vinified in neutral oak casks, 18 months on the fine lees). Fresh citrus, apple, pear and white peach. Very pretty. Super elegant, savoury palate, extreme length. Top class. Tasted June 2018.

95 Kollwentz 2013 Chardonnay “Tatschler”, Burgenland
Lovely reduction here. Super stony, properly leesy. Great texture and supreme length. Surely a top Austrian/world chardonnay. White fleshed fruit, citrus. Masterful barrel influence. Tasted June 2018.

94 Sabathi Erwin 2015 Chardonnay “Alte Reben GSTK” Ried Pössnitzberg, Südsteiermark
Lots of wood still showing up top (wild fermented and aged in small wood, some new), but the palate pulls it all together. Great substance and depth, salty. Firmly acidic in the proper way, excellent length. Give this time – 2-3 years minimum. Top class. Tasted June 2018.

92 Kollwentz 2013 Chardonnay “Gloria”, Burgenland
Intense aromatics for the variety, with only background wood influence. Attractive citrus, pear-apple, white fleshed fruit flavours lead. The palate is evidently rich and fleshy-full, with substantial flavour intensity and great length. Tasted June 2018.

91 Nittnaus 2016 Freudshofer Josier Chardonnay, Leithaberg DAC
Pure chardonnay up to 45 years old from limestone in the Leithaberg, fermented on full lees in 800l cask. Working on reduction. Whole bunch pressed. The nose is reductive indeed, but the palate is lovely – sharp creamy texture, with great acids and long finish. Wood is just a background note (10 year old cask). 12.4%. All about the texture here. Cellar this, or decant well ahead of serving now. Tasted June 2018.

91 Polz 2013 Chardonnay “GSTK” Ried Obegg, Südsteiermark
The Obegg vineyard is a smaller, mainly limestone-based sub-parcel in the Hochgrassnitzberg, a prime site for chardonnay. And this is an ambitious, oak aged and influenced example with evident depth and complexity, and careful winemaking. Fine acids on the palate pull this together. Very good to excellent length. Tasted June 2018.

90 Hartl Toni 2015 Chardonnay “Thenau”, Leithaberg
Very clever reduction here, smoky-sulphidic in the right way, ripe but also mostly in the citrus spectrum. The palate is firm, minimally wooded, a touch pineapple tinged, with very good length. Aiming high, unusual profile, you could say terroir-driven. Tasted June 2018.

Buyer’s Guide: Austrian Pinot Noir

91 Markowitsch Gerhard 2015 Pinot Noir Ried Scheibner, Carnuntum
Wild fermentation in wooden vats followed by malolactic in barrique and 16 months in Burgundian barriques and 500L casks. Nicely earthy, open, a touch of barnyard but not overtly bretty. Fleshy, fine concentration, structured, tightly wound, Dense, intense. Natural without excessive funk. Chewy. Real. Tasted June 2018.

91 Neumeister 2015 Pinot Noir Ried Klausen, Vulkanland Steiermark
Ried Klausen is a long, narrow, east to southeast-running volcanic ridge at c. 340 metres. Wild fermneted with 24 days on the skins, malo in 300-litre and 500-litre wooden casks, bottled after 18 months. Intriguing, open aromatics, earthy-leesy, classic pinot, firm tannins, firm acids, properly medicinal. Oxidative style, savoury, well within the spectrum. Tasted June 2018.

91 Gesellmann 2015 Pinot Noir Ried Siglos, Burgenland
Fermentation in tank; malo in oak. Aged 18 months in small wood. This has some fantasy: aromatics are in the waxy-earthy-red fruit spectrum, pleasantly leafy. Firm, stemmy palate, dusty-astringent tannins. Good length. Fine. Tasted June 2018.

90 Feiler-Artinger, Kurt Feiler 2015 Pinot Noir Ried Ruster Umriss, Burgenland
A limestone-based vineyard, wild fermented in steel folowed by malolactic in large wooden cask and aged 15 months. It’s a little funky off the top, not unusual for the pinot style. Cherry fruit leads in a very subtly oaked expression, tinged by smoke. Great texture: firm, juicy, dusty, light tannins, great acids. Lovely stuff. Tasted June 2018.

Buyer’s Guide: Austrian Sankt Laurent

91 Koppitsch Alexander 2015 Sankt Laurent, Burgenland
Biodynamic farming, no sulphur added, no fining, no filtration ‘Naturwein’. Wild aromatics here, so herbal-earthy-savoury, original. Wet clay, Served cold. Juicy cherry fruit, So drinkable. A perfect mood-lifter. Lovely stuff. Tasted June 2018.

90 Pittnauer Gerhard und Brigitte 2015 Sankt Laurent Ried Rosenberg, Burgenland
Long lees ageing in 500l cask, unfiltered, minimal sulphur addition at bottling. More wild aromatics here. Waxy, herbal, stemmy, tart black cherry fruit, lovely, juicy, succulent. Fresh. A complete package. Tasted June 2018.

90 Kast Stefan Kast 2015 Sankt Laurent Reserve, Burgenland
Firm and juicy, tight, fresh, wood seems to play a role here, but not significant. It’s a touch acetic, which lifts the palate, and length is good. Pure black cherry fruit. Tasted June 2018.