Austria’s sustainable winemaking efforts are part of the driving force behind the increasing quality of the country’s wines.
In 1985, pandemonium spread across the Austrian wine industry when several wine producers were found to have added diethylene glycol—a toxic industrial chemical—to their wines to increase the quaffs’ sweetness.
The scandal severely affected the image of Austrian vino at home and abroad, prompting a wakeup call for the entire industry. The Austrian government introduced stricter wine laws such as yield restrictions, regular wine inspections and numbered seals on bottles.
By the mid-2000s, DAC regions (the Austrian equivalent of AOC or appellation designations) were created, the lines for Austria’s vino landscape took shape, and the concept of terroir was born. The concept of Integrated Viticulture—a sustainable winemaking concept that emphasised eco-friendly practices for the vineyards and cellar—was introduced. Side effects of pesticide and herbicide were extensively studied, and legal parameters for their use in vineyards were eventually created. Winemakers began to adopt organic, and subsequently biodynamic, viticulture.
According to the Austrian Wine Statistics 2015 report, the acreage of organic Austrian vineyards grew from 764 hectares in 2000, to 5,100 hectares in 2015. At present, 13 per cent of Austrian vineyards are organic plots. Martin Diwald, winemaker of biodynamic Weingut Diwald in the Wagram region, says Austria has “one of the highest percentage of organic wine producers in the world”. “[Organic viticulture] probably has the biggest impact on sustainable agriculture as the soil is the absolute basis for the vines.”
Safe, Healthy Vines
Unlike conventional winemakers, organic wine producers avoid the use of chemical sprays and fertilisers, preferring, instead, to rely on natural or less harmful alternatives to the vines. In some cases, using copper sulphate sprays as pesticide is accepted in organic winemaking, depending on the winemaker’s own dogma or the rules of a certifying organic winemaking body.
Kenny Khaw, general manager of Schmidt Vinothek Singapore, a wine importer that specialises in German and Austrian wines, says a lot of manual work is involved in Austria’s organic vineyards. “Instead of spraying weed-killers, weeds are killed by turning the topsoil layer upside down. Sometimes, winemakers allow selected weeds to thrive around the vines as they can provide bacterial strains that are beneficial to the plants’ health.”
Biodynamic winemaking builds on organic winemaking concepts by adding methods that are not founded on science but homeopathic ideas such as pruning according to the moon phases, and letting vines build a natural resistance against disease. The latter would thus eliminate the need for any fungicides and pesticides.
Many biodynamic practices are the brainchild of the late Austrian esotericist, Rudolf Steiner, who created ‘preparations’ like method 501, in which powdered quartz and manure are mixed and turned into a spray. Biodynamic producer Birgit Braunstein, who runs her eponymous winery in the region of Burgenland, is a practitioner of 501, and reveals that her vines have become healthier ever since her vineyards became fully biodynamic in 2010.
Styria-based winery Ploder-Rosenberg, on the other hand, has adopted a little practical approach to their biodynamic viticulture—by planting fungus resistant grape varieties, which in turn, reduce the need for vine protection methods. The grapes, which are crossings, include Blütenmuskateller, which is able withstand the winter frost; and Bronner, which has high resistance to powdery mildew.
“Austria has one of the highest percentage of organic wine producers in the world. [organic viticulture] probably has the biggest impact on substainable agriculture as the soil is the absolute basis for the vines.”
Beyond the Vineyards
Sustainable winemaking isn’t just confined to the vineyards. It can take place in the cellar, too. Weingut Diwald draws water from its own well to use for cleaning its facilities, while Weingut J. Heinrich in Burgenland has redesigned its fermentation room to allow natural light in. Weingut Bründlmayer in Kamptal has installed solar panels on its roof to capture the sun’s energy, as well as a gravity-driven cellar that carries the must from the fermentation tanks down to the ageing barrels below another floor, effectively nullifying the need for pumping.
Trying to evaluate all the aspects of sustainable winemaking can be a daunting task for anyone keen on being a sustainable wine producer. Thus, in 2014, the Austrian Winegrowers’ Association launched a self-assessment tool for winemakers to determine if their winery has checked all the right boxes for sustainable winemaking: the vintner enters figures and measurements into a programme before the numbers are automatically evaluated by predetermined criteria. The winery can choose to apply for a certification of sustainability and, if their application is successful, will be allowed to display the green ‘Sustainable Austria’ logo on their bottles.
We pick some of our favourite wines from sustainable Austrian wineries:
Ploder-Rosenberg, Tero 2013
Made from a blend of Chardonnay and Souvignier Gris (a fungus resistant grape created by crossing Cabernet Sauvignon and Bronner), this savoury orange wine packs plenty of herbaceous flavours and a slight aftertaste of truffle.
Weingut Diwald, Chardonnay & Gruner Veltliner 2015
A blend of two of Wagram’s favourite white varieties. The vino offers the roundness of Chardonnay and the fresh, crisp acidity of Grüner Veltliner.
Weingut Braunstein, Blaufränkisch Leithaberg 2012
An elegant, balanced expression of Blaufränkisch. Fresh aromas of mint give way to delicious notes of almonds and raspberries. The soft tannins ensure the finish is silky and smooth.
Weingut J.Heinrich, Blaufränkisch Vitikult 2015
Made from Blaufränkisch grown in loamy, chalky soils, the wine offers intense, powerful notes of dark fruit and supple tannins.
This story was first published in Wine & Dine’s Jan/Feb 2018 issue – Embracing Clean & Green.