Austrian wines are money well spent

Austrian wines can be pricy and hard to track down but their versatility, especially the whites, opens up a world of taste options

I am constantly amazed at the inept manner in which wine-producing regions and countries market their wares. It might be explained by the political rivalry that seems to always pit one group of producers against another, where in reality in most cases, their interests are the same. But usually a lot of money is spent to little effect.

There are exceptions to the rule; Australia succeeded in markets around the world because it showed a united, cohesive front. The other exception is Austria. The Austrian Wine Marketing Board (AWMB) has spent a great deal of money over the past decade trying to convince us to drink their wines. They have been very successful. It helps that most of those working for the AWMB know a lot about wine. The producers also seem to share their vision for Austria.

However when they started out, Austria was a virtual unknown on the international market, and where consumers were aware of its existence, it was usually to do with a wine scandal dating back to the 1980s. Production was tiny in world terms, and most producers were essentially small farmers. Because of this, the wines could never be cheap. In addition, the grape varieties they grew were either unheard of or not in demand.

The AWMB did have a number of advantages; firstly Austria may not do cheap, but it doesn’t do bad either. Apart from some reds, the standard across the board is remarkably high, as good as any country I can think of.


Secondly, Austria’s two best-known grape varieties, Grüner Veltliner and Riesling, fall into the increasingly fashionable fresh, unoaked category of wine. As the AWMB points out, both go well with a wide variety of international cuisines, from Japanese to modern European to Mediterranean.

In parts of the trade, there is a strong belief that Austrian wines are starting to take off in Ireland. This is not before time. They have been performing strongly in other export markets for many years. I suspect that we are a little too conservative in our wine buying at times, and also tend to concentrate on cheaper wines, mainly due to our high duty rates. You are less likely to find them in the multiples, although O’Briens and Marks & Spencer offer a decent Grüner Veltliner. But among the independent wine shops and the more adventurous restaurants, the range is improving and the wines are selling well.

Austria offers world-beating Sauvignon Blanc as well as some excellent Chardonnay and Pinot Grigio (grown largely in Styria and called by their German names, Weissburgunder and Grauburgunder). But for me the two best white grape varieties are Grüner Veltliner and Riesling. Grüner Veltliner comes in a variety of styles, running from lean and crisp through to rich opulent and textured. It is Austria’s flagship variety and rarely found elsewhere, although other countries, notably New Zealand, are showing interest.

Austrian Riesling is different in style to German, due to the warmer climate and different soils. To me, it has always seemed like a cross between the power of Alsace and delicacy of Germany. The best can compete favourably with either region. Both go well with a variety of fish, chicken and pork dishes.

The other great speciality of Austria is its glorious rich and complex dessert wines, well worth trying if you come across them.

The most famous wine region in Austria is the Wachau, a narrow terraced valley bisected by the river Danube. It is a Unesco World Heritage Site, and a popular destination for tourist boats travelling down from Vienna. However, increased temperatures mean wines from the Wachau can now sometimes come in at 14 per cent alcohol or more, not conducive to refreshing white wines, and Riesling in particular.

In recent years I have come to the conclusion that the nearby Kamptal region now produces wines that are every bit as good and certainly more to my taste. This week we feature wines from four of the best producers in Kamptal.

The one challenge still facing the AWMB is red wine. In the past, many producers struggled to achieve full ripeness and made light but very green, herbaceous reds. These were often made worse by being aged in oak or over-extracted. We will look at the red wines in a few weeks but things have really changed here too. It just remains for the AWMB to convince the rest of the world.