Professional wine tastings in Austria are truly remarkable events. Wine lovers are regularly invited into the Hofburg Palace in Vienna, where they swirl and taste while surrounded by great Baroque art, in rooms where Mozart performed for the imperial family.
And anybody who wants to see for themselves should make sure they get tickets to VieVinum 2024, which will take place in May. During a special side event, the ‘flighttasting’, they’ll be given catalogues, out of which they can choose what to taste.
The servers take the order, and return with a basket of chosen wines. There is no wastage, no pouring of unwanted wines, and plenty of time in which to taste.
In recent years, Austrian wineries have been increasingly generous and released old vintages for tasting. These wines are a revelation. Decades-old Rieslings and Grüner Veltliners show unexpected freshness and delicacy, while the red wines retain their harmony, balance and flavours, years after they were first bottled.
At every tasting, the Austrians enjoy watching the surprise on the faces of their guests.
Noted wine critic Stephen Brook recently recounted how he shocked a group of Australians by pouring them a Grüner Veltliner from the Kamptal region that was more than three decades old. “They all gasped in disbelief when I revealed the vintage,” he wrote.
Here’s why Austrian wines age so well
For a wine to have good ageing potential, it needs the perfect balance of acid, sugar and structure.
Austria’s cool climate means many grapes take longer to ripen and spend more time on the vine. The coolness drives the grapes to produce more acidity, while the slower ripening ensures a better balance of sugar. By the time the grapes are ready for picking, all their elements are working in perfect harmony.
But that’s not the whole story. Not only have Austrians been making wine for centuries, but they also have a unique relationship to their land, because most holdings are small and family owned. Vignerons know every inch of their land, to the point that they’re practically on first-name terms with each vine. This deep understanding means they know exactly how each parcel of grapes should be treated.
Austria, as elsewhere, has also seen an explosion of winemaking education and research in the past 30 years, so the country is benefiting from its ability to marry best winemaking practices with traditional knowledge. Not only that, but young vignerons typically take time out to do at least one vintage in another country, and they come home brimming with new ideas.
All of this means that Austrian vignerons are making exceptional, world-class wines.
Austrian wines with great ageing potential
Among the white wines:
The best-known of Austria’s indigenous grape varieties, it’s widely grown across all wine regions. The reason for its popularity is clear — it can produce a wide variety of styles, from fresh young aperitif wines that show fruity and spicy characters, through to mature wines with great ageing potential.
Over time, the minerality intensifies and the wine becomes more complex. Both the Niederösterreich (Lower Austrian) wine-growing region to the west of the capital and the capital city itself (Vienna, or Wien) produce Grüner Veltliners with outstanding ageing potential, as do Kremstal, Wachau and Weinviertel.
That Riesling is age-worthy is probably less of a surprise for wine lovers, as the variety is prized for this ability. What makes Austrian Rieslings outstanding is the high acidity, which keeps the vibrancy intact for many years after the wine was first bottled. The wine-growing regions that are well known for their age-worthy Rieslings are Kamptal, Kremstal and Wachau.
Other white varieties
Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Weißburgunder (Pinot Blanc), Grauburgunder (Pinot Gris) and Roter Veltliner all have ageing potential. Note that Roter Veltliner isn’t related to Grüner Veltliner, but is a white wine that shows fresh and spicy aromas while young, and caramel characters with some age.
Among the red wines:
In its youth, Blaufränkisch can have plenty of bite, thanks to its tannins. This structure, coupled with the grape’s high acidity, means the wines have enough complexity and depth to live in the cellar for decades. When young, they have attractive red berry and spice characters on the nose and palate, but when they emerge into the light of day, they will have developed attractive secondary aromas of pepper, cloves, coffee and dark chocolate. Wine-growing regions that produce age-worthy Blaufränkisch wines include Carnuntum, Eisenberg, Leithaberg and Mittelburgenland
Zweigelt, the most planted red wine variety in Austria, is cherry-bright in its youth. As it ages, the cherry notes become dried fruits and spices, while the tannins become increasingly smooth, giving the wine a silky texture. Regions of origin for age-worthy Zweigelt wines include Carnuntum and Neusiedlersee
The indigenous grape variety Sankt Laurent grows primarily in the Thermenregion. A very demanding grape in the vineyard, this variety delivers powerful and dark, aromatic fruity wines that reward long cellaring.
The most age-worthy Pinot Noir are produced in the Thermenregion, where the region’s loam-, loess- and limestone-rich soils, creates the perfect conditions for long-lived wines.
Don’t forget the sweet wines
All of Austria’s wine-growing regions produce sweet wines, whose high concentration of sugar acts as a natural preservative. The key area for this type of wine is Burgenland, and in particular, the Neusiedlersee region. The main grape varieties used to produce sweet wines are Furmint, Gelber Muskateller, Chardonnay and Welschriesling, either as single varietal wines or as cuvée blends.
Even better days ahead for Austrian wines
Austria’s unique topography means it is benefiting from a growing number of warmer days while retaining its cooler nights and cooler seasons. The results can be seen in the increasing number of great vintages since the 1980s; in the past, outstanding vintages only came along once or twice a decade, but are now arriving with regularity — you can see the extensive list here.
Wine lovers can only benefit — but it’s going to be harder to shock wine professionals with aged Austrian wines, as the news about their ageability is getting around.