White Grape Varieties in Austria
To put it simply, Austria is heralded for its high quality, white wine production.
With over 46,000 hectares (113,000+ acres) dedicated to vineyards, the country boasts 26 registered white grape varieties, all distinct and unique in their own right. This first blog post will explore three dominant white grape varieties in Austria and their key identifying characteristics.
The following blog post will cover the three dominant red grape varieties, so stay tuned red wine lovers, we've got more info headed your way!
Now, some of you may already be familiar with these delicious Austrian white wine varieties! Perhaps you’ve already enjoyed a bottle or sampled one on our wine list here at Time Market!
For those of you who may be unfamiliar with these foreign names and wines, that is why we are here- to guide you through the enormous range of Austrian wines available at Time Market in Tucson, Arizona!
Where is Austria?
Austria is considered a northerly wine growing country, located near the 49th parallel. Producing over 2.5 million hL/year, the country benefits from 'cool climate' vineyard and soil conditions, leading to a plethora of aromatic grape varieties under vine. Austria is landlocked, with the famed Danube river snaking its way through the hilly landscape.
As previously mentioned, white wine production dominates in Austria, comprising just over two thirds of the overall wine production. Thanks to their phenomenal balance between extract and acidity, these Austrian wines are rocking global consumer markets, introducing a new wave of customers to the breadth of Austria’s fascinating and historic production.
The main takeaway with Austrian wine is that the 20th century shift to quality over quantity has cemented Austria as a prime country for high caliber white, sparkling, rosé, red, and dessert wines.
But first, let's explore the white wines of Austria.
Grüner Veltliner grapes at Weingut Taubenschuss
Grüner Veltliner- Considered by many wine professionals to be the Austrian superstar, Grüner Veltliner was, in fact, the catalyst to Austria’s massive worldwide export success. A mid-ripening grape indigenous to central Europe, Grüner has the capacity of producing expansive, complex wines that harness a succinct minerality, an intriguing white pepper spice and vegetal components, and an extraordinary aging potential.
Comprising one third of total vineyard plantings (14,000+ ha under vine) spanning five different DAC’s (Districtus Austriae Controllatus - tr: Controlled Districts of Austrian Origin), Grüner Veltliner is the dominant white grape variety under vine throughout the country.
Colloquially known in US wine circles as Gru-Vee, this grape has been revered by Master Sommeliers, Masters of Wine, wine critics, and those in the wine trade for decades. Most recently, in 2002, Gruner Veltliner surpassed top Burgundy Chardonnay during a tasting in London, astonishing the public and the Sommeliers responsible for evaluating the wines. Acclaimed MW Jancis Robinson wrote about the London competition here.
Grüner Veltliner is unique because the grape contains a chemical compound called Rotundone that exhibits a signature, peppery flavor. While peppery notes are often found in wines as a result of fermentation, this particular descriptor can be found directly in the grape variety, even when plucked directly off the vine, becoming more pronounced after vinification. Fun fact- this key chemical compound Rotundone is also found in Syrah, particularly from those produced in the Rhône Valley of France.
Thanks to its naturally high acidity, Grüner can be considered a chameleon- being crafted into crisp, dry Sekt (sparkling) wines to powerfully aromatic, structured, full-bodied whites.
On the vine, the health and quality of the grapes vary depending on where they are grown within Austria's subregions. The grapes are fairly small, with a greenish-yellow hue and delicate brown spotting. Benefitting from the warm Pannonian breezes coming in from the west, Grüner is most at home when planted on deep loess soils that are nestled mid-slope, adjacent to the Danube River.
Grüner Veltliner can pair effortlessly with traditional Austrian dishes, like schnitzel, tafelspitz, and warm, vinegar based potato salad, but can also be paired with more global cuisine, like braised chicken thighs, roasted pork tenderloins, or a meatier fish. Pro tip- If you’re shopping at Time Market, head to our frozen meat refrigerator, where you can find our house-made Bratwursts - the true ‘perfect pairing.’
Welschriesling grapes at Plenér Winery in Pavlov, CZ
Welschriesling- While the grape makes up approximately 8% of vineyard plantings in Austria, and single varietal Welschriesling wines are rarely imported here to Arizona, it is a grape worthy of attention.
Overall, it is planted on nearly 4,000 hectares (9,000 acres) in Austria, nearly double the amount of Riesling plantings in the country. Plus, it is one of Arielle’s favorite varieties from her time in the Czech Republic, where it takes the name ‘Ryzlink Vlašský,’ and is widely planted throughout the southern Moravian wine region.
While completely unrelated to traditional ‘Rhine’ Riesling, Welschriesling is native to central Europe, and is grown throughout all five main growing regions in Austria. The grape prefers to be grown on limestone, or warmer soils, and is best suited to dry climates.
Historically, the grape was introduced from abroad to German-speaking countries, under the pretense that it was a variety related to Riesling. This is entirely false, and I’ll explain why!
‘Welsch’ actually means ‘foreigner,’ hence the name ‘Foreigner Riesling,’ and the name just stuck over the centuries. In Croatia, the grape goes by ‘Graševina,’ in Hungary, ‘Olasz Rizling,’ and in Italy, the grape is known as ‘Riesling Italico.’ Despite these Riesling references, the grape bears absolutely no DNA correlation to Rhine Riesling (the Riesling we all know and love from Germany), and is sipmly a linguistic error that has been cemented into our wine vocabulary.
Welschriesling quality can vary, and is quite dependent on the yield, vineyard location, soil, and situation in the vineyards. The grape is susceptible to botrytis, or noble rot, a fungus that desiccates grapes by piercing their skin, drawing out the water, and permitting a soft gray mold that grows on the grape’s exterior.
Botrytis affected Welschriesling
Botrytis affected Welschriesling grapes at Plenér Winery in Pavlov, CZ
Famously grown near the Neusiedlersee lake, the humid, moist air in the mornings and dry, sunny afternoons encourage the growth of noble rot (botrytis), leading to lusciously sweet dessert wines, often labeled as Auslese (late harvest) BA (Beerenauslese=selection of berries) or TBA (Trockenbeerenauslese=selection of dried berries). While these wines have sugar levels that often peak 100 g/L, the wines maintain a remarkable backbone of acidity, balancing extract with acidity and freshness.
When vinified in smaller batch productions as a dry, still white, Welschriesling boasts fragrant notes of yellow nectarines & apricots, maintaining a signature acidity that offsets the mouth coating, fleshier texture. The wines rarely see oak maturation, and are typically vinified in neutral vessels, like older oak, stainless steel, concrete, or even amphora.
Consumer trends are shifting, and due to the seemingly exponential demand for skin-macerated, or orange wines, Welschriesling is currently experiencing a renaissance, with more and more plantings sprouting up throughout Austria.
Riesling grapes at Gurdau winery, Hustopeče, CZ
Riesling - Although Riesling is not nearly as widely planted as in nearby Germany, it is nevertheless an important variety for specific regions in Austria, particularly in the Wachau, Kamptal, and Kremstal.
Austrian Riesling is a far cry from German Riesling, and should be thought of as an independent style. In contrast with the German style of Riesling, that tend to gravitate towards higher residual sugar levels, Austria specializes in crafting dry, fuller bodied styles, highlighting a signature acidity that reverberates on the palate.
Perhaps Riesling is the most misunderstood of the white grape varieties, but we are here to change that! Unfortunately, due to the influx of cloyingly sweet Riesling that bled into US markets in the late 20th century, Riesling became ‘too sweet’ for many consumers. Yet in and of itself, Riesling can be magnificently dry, particularly with low residual sugar levels, like in those examples from Austria.
Riesling is a mid to late-ripening, winter hearty grape variety that offers a powerful, aromatic bouquet, lean texture, and mouth watering acidity. In Austria, Riesling covers just under 2,000 hectares (4,600+ acres), and these plantings are primarily found in the Weinviertel, Wachau, Kamptal, and Kremstal.
Burgenland, near the city of Rust, also produces Riesling, yet those are indeed sweet, and are included in the botrytized, dessert wine category.
In Austria, Riesling takes on its own unique persona- fuller bodied, slightly spicy, with intense mineral tones. These wines are most commonly dry, with very little residual sugar, and boasts notes of apricots, nectarines, yellow apples, and, in some circumstances, can develop petrol tones with age.
But the one thing Riesling should be remembered for is it's acidity- making it the perfect pairing for creamy, fatty dishes, like roast pork, schnitzel, or one of our favorite pairings, käsespätzle (cheese noodles).
If you’ve only heard that Riesling is sweet, perhaps pick up a bottle of dry Austrian Riesling at Time Market, and see what all the hype is about!