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Decoding the Way to Excellence from Austria
By Jim Clarke
Dec 15, 2021
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I’ve long been a fan of Austrian wine and, from a professional perspective, an admirer of the Austrian wine industry’s ability to offer clear messaging that make the country’s wines easy to come to grips with, even for beginners.  That’s still true, but in the past decade the appellations and designations of the Austrian wine world have become increasingly complex; it has become harder to know which terms are best used to impressed likeminded wine geeks and which are truly help you when confronted with a wine list.  But a few designations are demonstrating some reliability in terms of providing markers for quality and sometimes style as well.

Novice wine drinkers can still easily find an entry point for exploring the Austria’s wines, largely thanks to a New World-style focus on a signature variety, Grüner Veltliner.  Such an approach is inherently reductionist, but from there one can readily explore further.  The beginner’s message on Austrian Riesling was similarly clear: it’s dry.  Reds are more diverse, and the number of regions one might want to keep track of continues to grow; ten new DACs, Austria’s officially recognized appellations, have appeared in the past three years.  (Granted, one of these is Wachau, a region which anyone who paid the slightest attention top Austrian wine was already familiar with.)

That’s all well and good; the regions and their primary grapes are generally clearly associated with each other – Styria and Sauvignon Blanc, for example, or even the more peculiar example of Vienna’s white blends called “Gemischter Satz.”  The challenge is the more “Old World” instinct to create tiers and other designations, many of which only apply in certain regions or among specific groups of producers.  How much attention should one pay?

It seems that many of these changes or at least the heightened attention being paid to them is in response to the country’s success in export markets.  That success has largely been tied to a crisp, lighter style of Grüner Veltliner which has made it a mainstay as a by-the-glass offering in particular.  This style would seem to threaten the marketing of more serious, pricier wines, especially those made from that same signature variety.  It’s easy to separate the cheaper wines that work some pun on the word “groovy” into their name from the more complex examples, but when producers use German “nome di fantasia” as readily as vineyard names on their labels it becomes trickier.  Five years ago, the term “Ried” was made the official designation for single vineyard-site wines, which has helped a great deal in separating larger production wines from single-vineyard examples.

With that, apparently, comes an instinct to designate certain vineyard sites as remarkable.  This seems to be a challenge anywhere it’s attempted, with opinions varying and politics often playing a larger role than is good for the resulting wines.  But at a recent tasting I attended one such program, the Österreichische Traditionsweingüter’s “Erste Lage” and “Grösse Lage” designations, seemed to have gotten it right, consistently promising good things in the glass.  If “Österreichische Traditionsweingüter” is too much German to get your mouth around, you can take some relief in the accepted acronym “ÖTW,” even if there’s still a pesky umlaut in there.

The ÖTW has designated 90 vineyards as either Erste Lage (“1ÖTW”) or Grosse Lage (“GÖTW”).  There are 68 members, and membership is confined to DACs within the Danube River region: the three “tals” of Kamptal, Kremstal, and Traisental as well as Wagram, Wien, and Carnuntum.  Aside from indicating that these vineyards can provide grapes of remarkable quality, producers are required to work under certain restrictions to use 1ÖTW or GÖTW on the label; only certain grape varieties are permitted, yields are limited, the plot must be farmed sustainably, and herbicides and pesticides are forbidden, among other things.

But most importantly, the quality shows in the glass.  All the 1ÖTW and GÖTW wines I tasted at the October event stood out, and a few other examples I’ve tasted since continue to impress.  If there’s only some much brain space you want to devote to memorizing Austrian wine terms, or even wine terms in general, I would seriously recommend making “ÖTW” one of them.  Here are a few examples that demonstrate why:

Jurtschitsch Riesling ‘Heiligenstein’ 1ÖTW 2019:  I’ve been a fan of the Jurtschitsch wines for many years; while they can do the light, crisp style as well as anyone, what I really like is their ability to craft more powerful but still nimble wines.  The Heiligenstein Riesling is dominated by its mineral core, but also shows layers of ripe apricot, nectarine, and Meyer lemon.  It’s rich and full, but with good supporting acidity.

Loimer Grüner Veltliner ‘Loisenberg’ 1ÖTW 2019:  On the nose this is somewhat closed and reductive; with time that should open up.  On the palate meyer lemon and clean mineral notes lead the way for now, but this is a wine for drinkers who value texture, mouthfeel, and presence.  It’s dense and focused, with a firm finish and good length.

Malat Riesling ‘Steinbühel’ 1ÖTW 2018:  Generous, with lots of stone fruits, tangerine, and citrus supported by an underlying minerality.  It’s quite full, with good length.

Nigl Riesling ‘Hochacker’ 1ÖTW 2020:  A touch above medium-bodied, with a slight waxy character and moderate, well-balanced acid.  Shows notes of nectarine and apricot.  The finish is long and elegant.  

Read more columns:   Jim Clarke 
Connect with Jim on Twitter:   @JimWineBeer