In wine, reputation is everything. You may position yourself so as to gain a reputation for fine wine, or for cheap and somewhat nasty plonk that the masses gulp down, or you may do something stupid like drop some poison into your wine to make it taste better, then get caught!
The Austrians (no, not Australians, although we both wear lederhosen on weekends) got busted adding antifreeze to their wines in 1985. “Why mention it, that was so long ago?” Even to this day when I mention Austrian wine to people I get the occasional “Oh, they made that antifreeze stuff”. The scandal did a hell of a lot of damage to the Austrian wine brand and it took until 2001 for Austria to sell as much wine as it had done pre-scandal. People went to jail and laws and testing regimes were made much stricter.
Another long lasting reputational impact has actually been on French wine. Somewhere along the Chinese whispers line people have heard that “it was the French that done it”. My in-laws in Ireland wouldn’t drink French wine when I lived there in the naughties because “they had put anti-freeze in their wine” and even The Simpsons did an episode where Bart was working in a French winery and they forced him to buy, add, and drink antifreeze wine.
The reason why it was done is important to the Austrian wine story. It was only done by a small handful of people in a small part of Austria and it was apparently done to meet contractual arrangements. Sweet Austrian wine was popular and the producers involved in the scandal had to supply a huge amount of sweet wine to the German mass market. The thing is, you need good weather with some warm days late in the season to produce sweet wine and this wasn’t happening in Austria in the early 80s. The rumour is that antifreeze was added to prolong the wine but it was actually to turn dry wine sweet because the conditions just weren’t producing sweetness naturally.
Thankfully so much has changed with Austrian wine and the trend for really sweet wine has faded in favour of deliciously crisp, but still fruity, wines. No need for antifreeze (but be concerned if the trend tilts back to sweet 😉 ). I’ve drunk some great Austrian wine over recent years.
A little while ago I was lucky to spend some time in Vienna and Graz (my favourite Austrian city). It was mid-summer and I was drinking some beautiful white wine. I can clearly recall sipping deliciously crisp, slightly peppery and spicy but still quite simple wine, made of the Austrian grape Grüner Veltliner from northern Burgenland while snacking on Austrian-style antipasti. Yummo!
And then there’s the other interesting local grapes like Zierfandler and Rotgipfler. But above all these were the sensational Austrian Rieslings I drank. Austria really do make great Riesling. I had some good and very interesting Sylvaner-Riesling blends too. And I had some rubbishy Welschriesling. Maybe I was unlucky, and I kept trying, but they all seemed rather dull and boring. Apparently the grape can make great sweet wine but let’s not go there!
It was while I stayed in Graz that I had my epiphany on Austrian wine. Graz, with its UNESCO world heritage listed Historic Centre, Schloss Eggenberg (Eggenberg Palace), and The Schlossberg (a beautiful big old clock tower on the hill overlooking the city) is a wonderful place often overlooked by travellers. It also sits on the edge of an often overlooked wine region of Austria, Steirerland (Styria). I had an interesting Sauvignon Blanc, which is widely grown in the area but it was actually the red wines that took me by surprise.
Austria isn’t known for its reds but about 30% of their wine is red, often from Blaufränkisch, Blauer Portugieser, Blauburger, St. Laurent and/or Pinot. These can all make some interesting red wines. But it was a couple of very enjoyable Zweigelts from the hills of Steirerland south of Graz that I found most interesting of all. It’s probably the toughest area in Austria to grow wine yet these Zweigelts hit the spot.
The Erich & Walter Polz Klassic Zweigelt was the perfect red wine match for my pork schnitzel with its light to medium body that packed some decent fruit and spice.
The Winkler-Hermaden Blauer Zweigelt Klassic was also delicious with a bit more body and quite a decent array of fruit flavours along with a bit of minerally spice and had with, ummm, another pork schnitzel for lunch on another day (the Austrians do the best schnitzels and always with a side of potatoes and cucumber done different ways and usually with a bit of paprika sprinkled over the top). I liked this wine enough to buy two bottles that I brought all the way home to Australia tucked away in my bag.
They were relatively light to medium bodied red wines but had the perfect complexity levels and flavours to go with Austrian food, being perfect summer reds that were enjoyed while sitting at the many outdoor cafes around the old town centre!
So, I strongly advise giving Austrian wine a good go, especially their reds even when it’s warm, unless you’re really into sweet wine of course. 😉