With the creation of a new designation system, the idyllic Weinviertel region is leading Austria’s wine production back onto the international market.
If a wine is a reflection of its region, producers in Weinviertel have little to worry about. Under the bright sun and clear blue skies it is so frequently spoilt with, the district’s wavy landscape of green hills, rich soil and charming, slow-paced towns forms, together with an ideal climate, a haven for the growth of distinctively spicy, smoky grapes. With vineyards of such idyll, it is perhaps no wonder that Austria has accelerated its return to the international market by labelling its wines with an emphasis on regional identity.
Not long ago, the country’s reputation for wine production was in tatters. A scandal erupted in 1985 when a handful of producers were found to have illegally inserted diethylene glycol to sweeten the wine. Exports the following year were down by 80 per cent, prompting the introduction of some of the world’s strictest wine laws and the establishment of a national wine board with regional branches. In 2003 a new designation system came, named DAC – ‘Districtus Aistriae Controllatus’ or ‘Controlled designation of Austrian origin’ – to ensure each wine carries regional characteristics recognisable anywhere.
Such measures have played into Weinviertel’s hands. The region, located in the north-east of Lower Austria, one of the country’s nine states, is Austria’s largest wine producer, and was unsurprisingly chosen to make the first DAC wine – the Weinviertel DAC – thus exporting and branding its flavour; one of spicy and smoky character with a pepper and tobacco bouquet. “The wine from this region has a special taste, and so when you drink the Weinviertel DAC you know what you get,” says Ulrike Hager, managing director of the Weinviertel Regional Wine Committee. “It’s more or less the region in a glass.”
The climate defines much of what makes Weinviertel unique. The region’s mild winters make the grapes fruity, while cold Pannonian winds sweep in from the north and make the nights cold, giving the grapes ideal acidity and aroma. The richness of the soil offers endless possibilities for wine production, explaining the region’s rich wine culture. If anything, the hint is in the name; ‘Weinviertel’ actually translates as ‘wine quarter’.
Yet all this would help little if tasters were unable to recognise the wine’s origin. Indeed, before the DAC system, Austria struggled to stamp its identity on exports. Many wines came from the same grape; the Grüner Veltliner, which makes up a third of the country’s grapes and half of those in Weinviertel. The wines were practically sold under the same category: ‘Austria’. “We have so many wines from the same grape variety that taste and smell the same, so we want to focus on this special taste,” says Hager. “That’s why we’ve got a special test.”
While the strict, standardised tests enforced post-1985 are still in place – four of six tasters must approve a wine for it to be branded ‘quality’ – the DAC designation is even more rigorous. In the process, which is modelled on similar systems in Chianti (Italy), Bordeaux (France) and Rioja (Spain), five of six judges must approve a wine’s regional identity. Its credentials are matched against a sample holding the region’s characteristic peppery taste. If successful, it can carry the ‘Veinviertel DAC’ stamp. The system is bearing fruits. “Now the image has changed,” explains Hager. “We are starting to develop an image that people know and it’s growing nationally and in Germany. But also we want to focus on eastern countries because they are so close.”
Since its introduction, the DAC test has expanded into a two-tier system. Not content with producing only the Weinviertel DAC, another quality level named ‘Reserve’ was added for the approval of a premium wine based on the 2009 reserve. While the ‘Weinviertel Reserve’ needs the regional characteristics, it also requires a dry, dense structure, a long finish and a robust style (the minimum alcohol level being 13 per cent). “It is the top wine of the region,” says Hager. “It is more powerful, stronger and heavier. It fits well with the season because in this time, when it’s getting colder and the food is heavier, people like to drink wine that is a bit stronger.”
The Weinviertel producers are benefiting from the changes. In the past, due to their small wine-growing units, few made enough wine to establish a steady stream of exports. With the new system, everyone is working under the same regional brand, establishing a common identity that resonates throughout the market. Tourism is also expanding in the region. “It’s a place for people who want to have a rest or reload their energy,” says Hager. “The biggest towns have good restaurants and many people come especially to visit the wineries.
“You come because of the wine, the food, and because you want to enjoy life. People who live here take things slowly. If they have decisions to make, they say ‘let’s think about it for tomorrow’. It’s nothing fast.”