Several years ago, a group of young Austrian winemakers poured their wines for some of Australia’s top wine critics. Those critics were so impressed, they raced to recommend the wines.
As winemaker Ludwig Hiedler explained to wine writer Max Allen, Austria’s wineries are in the middle of a generational shift. The Baby Boomers are retiring, and passing the keys to the wineries over to their sons and daughters.
This generational turnover has been a feature of family-owned businesses since time immemorial, but what’s happening right now is different.
“Younger people like me, who are beginning to take over, we have travelled a lot,” explained Hielder, whose family have been making wine in Kamptal since 1856. “We come from completely different backgrounds to our parents.”
Although this handover from one generation to the next is happening everywhere, it’s having a special impact in Austria. Because of the unique nature of Austria’s wine landscape, this generational shift is leading to a unique blending of tradition and modernity, resulting in exceptional, terroir-based winemaking.
What’s different about Austria
According to Austrian Wine, the average winery has 4.3 ha of land to work with; Austria’s family-owned wineries are generally small, with few of the giant brands seen in other countries.
This means that family owners have an intimate understanding of their land, as they can see it, walk it, and touch all of it more easily. Not only that, but many vineyards — not all, of course — sit on slopes, which makes machine picking difficult. As a result, much of the work must be done by hand, building a unique relationship between the family and their land.
It also means that family members must work closely together, sharing not just space, but also ideas. This has had a marked impact on the development of the modern Austrian wine industry.
The older generation
Austrian wines have been well-known to their neighbours since Europeans have been trading wines. In the past few decades, the rest of the world has also become aware of Austria’s wines, largely thanks to the generation who are now beginning to retire.
Vignerons embraced organic and environmentally conscious agriculture relatively early, too; today, more than 20% of Austria’s vineyards are organically cultivated, one of the highest percentages in the world.
Austria can also boast the distinction of having one of the world’s first biodynamic wineries, Nikolaihof.
Influential figures overseas took notice, particularly US importer Terry Theise, who from the 1990s began bringing select Austrian wines into the US market, introducing a whole new audience to the delights of wines like Grüner Veltliner — which weren’t just delicious, but also reasonably priced.
By 2017, wine critic Eric Asimov was writing in the New York Times: “We live for wines like Austrian blaufränkisch, wines of beauty and place that, for myriad reasons, are not well known or highly valued, and therefore are relatively inexpensive.”
The new generation respects the previous one
The past 10 to 15 years has seen the wine world focus its attention on sustainability, with a growing embrace of organic, biodynamic and minimal intervention. These practices were already well established in Austria.
But what many Austrians themselves hadn’t realised, until they headed out into the world to do vintage elsewhere, was how unique Austrian terroirs and grape expressions are, found nowhere else in the world. They are embracing this heritage.
Martin Nittnaus from Burgenland, for example, whose family can trace their winemaking back to 1684, told the Australian Financial Review: “In the 1980s and 90s my father’s generation wanted to be like France,” he said. “So, they planted Merlot and Pinot Noir. But then my father realised that meant our wines would be rated alongside France, so he started to re-plant with indigenous Austrian grapes like Zweigelt and Blaufränkisch. That opened a door of perception for me, and now I am passionate about re-animating the old ways.”
Nittnaus is one of many Austrians who are embracing orange and natural wines; the country is one of the leading producers of low-intervention wines, with wine names like Gut Oggau, Claus Preisinger, Tschida, Tscheppe and Koppitsch — and many more — appearing on top wine lists around the world.
Not all of the new generation are natural winemakers, with many simply wanting to make the best wine they can, while working in harmony with nature. And these wines, too, are seeing success in the market, as the export figures attest.
Collaborating for a vibrant future
Another key feature of today’s Austrian wine scene is its unusual level of collaboration, which is probably the result of its small size. Austrian vignerons have always shared ideas, and this process has accelerated in the younger generation, who are not only working closely with their families and parents, but with each other.
In particular, the new generation is happy to travel together to promote Austrian wines overseas, and to promote one another. Many are close friends and socialise together, sharing their wines and their ideas.
In the end, of course, the most important factor is that all the wines — whether red, white or orange, fermented spontaneously, in barrels or in steel vats — should taste as exceptional as possible. And, thanks to the marriage of tradition and modernity, they do.