Who’s Who in Austria

Austria may be geographically small, but it punches well above its weight when it comes to wine. Julia Sevenich looks inside its industry.

Klinger, Schuller, Thysell, Foidl, Glatt, Schmuckenschlager, Frischengruber, Horvath
Klinger, Schuller, Thysell, Foidl, Glatt, Schmuckenschlager, Frischengruber, Horvath

Although Austria is responsible for only 1% of global wine production, it is a source of unique world-class wines. The scandal with glycol-adulterated wines in 1985 brought the Austrian wine branch business to its knees, catalysing a movement away from quantity toward quality that has continued to gain momentum over the past 30 years. Since then, the Austrian wine branch has developed a dynamic culture that is viewed as exemplary far beyond its borders. From wine politics and legislation to generic marketing, from education and media to sommeliers, retail and land stewardship, Austria sets its sights on leadership.
 

National viticulture association

Austrian authorities swiftly prosecuted the wine scandal culprits and set a new course by developing strict wine regulations. Since 1986, every Austrian wine must be inspected for quantity and quality before being released on the market. In 1990, Josef Pleil became president of the long-established Österreichische Weinbauverband (ÖWV – the national viticulture association), responsible for representing the interests of Austrian wine production. Josef Glatt became managing director of the organization in 1994. Together, the two men were instrumental in establishing requirements for documenting wine production operations, along with a red-white-red seal with inspection number that guarantees that the wine inside the bottle has been inspected and approved. 

Founded in 1860, the Klosterneuburg Weinbauschule is the oldest school of viticulture and oenology in the world, and is today under the direction of Dr Reinhard Eder. Bachelor and master degrees for viticulture and oenology are now also offered at the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences in Vienna under Dr Astrid Forneck. A national wine committee and regional inter-professional committees were created in 2001 with the goal of establishing EU protected designations of origin and protected geographical indications for typical high-quality regional wines. This process continues under Glatt and Johannes Schmuckenschlager, the  president of the ÖWV since 2013. Other current initiatives include the implementation of ÖPUL (an environmentally progressive agricultural program) and the establishment of the framework for sustainability certification.

Marketing

Wilhelm Klinger is the visionary managing director of the Austrian Wine Marketing Board (AWMB). The generic marketing body was established in 1986 to help Austrian wine culture  regain its national and international reputation after the wine scandal. For the past 10 years, “Willi” Klinger has steadily built on the foundation of his predecessors, increasing the added value of Austrian wine. Austria’s wine industry plays a significant role in the country’s economy, responsible for 75,000 jobs.  Klinger’s strategy for growth is a mix of marketing activities at home and abroad that are specifically tailored towards their respective markets. Sales support, point of sale materials, image folders and proactive public relations are a matter of course. A major focus is the communication of regional identities and the specific regional character of wines. Despite a series of small harvests, Austria’s wine export earnings rose to a  record level of just under €148m ($172m) in 2016. An increase of 1.8m litres of high-quality bottled wines brought an increase of €5.2m ($6.1m) in sales in this segment. The average price of all wine exports rose to a remarkable €3.05 ($3.56) per litre.

Education

As Dr Josef Schuller MW, Austria’s first Master of Wine said:  “The more a country develops wine knowledge and culture, the more likely it is that it will appreciate and consume high quality wines.” Dr Schuller has been the managing director of the Weinakademie Österreich (Austrian Wine Academy) since it was founded in 1991 as a non-profit subsidiary of the AWMB. With more than 800 seminars and around 15,000 participants each year, the Weinakademie Österreich has evolved to become the largest wine school in continental Europe. The Weinakademie has been offering the WSET courses in Austria, Germany and Switzerland for 25 years. 

“More than 750 Weinakademie students from 36 different countries have achieved the WSET Diploma in Wines and Spirits and have been awarded the prestigious ‘Weinakademiker’ title,” said Dr Schuller. “Many fill key positions in the international wine branch. We have recently entered a new cooperation with the Istituto Grandi Marchi and now also offer the WSET Diploma course at Palazzo Antinori in Tuscany. Our study trips take students on tours of Austria’s wine regions and the prestigious biannual wine fair VIEVINUM in the Vienna Imperial Hofburg Palace.” The Weinakademie Österreich headquarters are in the historic Seehof in Rust. Its superb seminar rooms are also the atmospheric venue for the Institute Masters of Wine’s residential course for first-year Masters of Wine students.

Media

While wine critics  may be losing their influence elsewhere in the world, Falstaff magazine’s chief editor Peter Moser remains the undisputed “Robert Parker of Austria”. Moser tastes around 7,000 Austrian wines each year and is author of the annual Falstaff Weinguide Österreich and its smaller English-language edition, the Ultimate Austrian Wine Guide. These are the standard guides that professionals and connoisseurs use for their purchases of Austrian wine. Wines are assessed according to the 100-point scale with tasting notes included for the best wines; producers are rated with up to five stars. 

“The diversity of Austrian wine is impressive and there are numerous highly interesting grape varieties. Austrians are very proud of their wines and unfortunately the quantities of the very best wines available for export is small,” said Moser, chief editor since 1997. “Austrian Grüner Veltliner and Blaufränkisch have established a place in the hearts of international wine connoisseurs. Now it is time to take a look at the autochthon varieties Rotgipfler, Roter Veltliner and Sankt Laurent.” 

Under his leadership, the magazine has evolved to become a gourmet and lifestyle magazine and is not only published in Austria, but also in Germany and Switzerland with a print circulation of 132,500 that reaches one million readers. The Falstaff online presence has a database of 72,000 wine tasting notes and extensive archive of articles as well as daily entries with current news and events.

Sommeliers

Diplom-Sommelière and restaurateur Annemarie Foidl was appointed president of the Sommelierunion Austria (SUA) in 2008. The SUA is the umbrella organization for nine state sommelier associations and their 1,900 members. Foidl has been instrumental in standardising sommelier education throughout  Austria. Tourism and hospitality is an important sector in Austria and there are many well-trained sommeliers and well-appointed wine lists in restaurants throughout the country. Sommeliers are important ambassadors for wine culture that often offer guests from abroad their first encounter with Austrian wine. Foidl was successful in bringing the prestigious Association de la Sommellerie Internationale Best Sommelier of Europe Championship 2017 to Austria in 2017. 

Retail

Anne Thysell is director of the wine department for the SPAR-group, which is the undisputed leader in supermarket wine sales in Austria. Wine is sold at 1,560 SPAR locations, which include all SPAR, SPAR-Gourmet, EUROSPAR, and INTERSPAR markets and the online shop www.weinwelt.at. The SPAR wine assortment has approximately 1,700 different wines, yet it is the unique selection that is the key to its success. SPAR puts a regional focus not only on fruit, vegetables, fish and meat, but also on wine. The share of Austrian quality wine is 70% to 75% and includes wines not only from famous names and large producers, but also outstanding wines from small wineries. 

“The assortment varies not only from market type, but from market location. Consumers in Austria’s alpine regions have different demands than consumers in the country’s wine regions,” said Thysell.  In Steiermark, she said  by way of example, the assortment of wines favours regional wines from Sauvignon Blanc, Morillon and Welschriesling over Grüner Veltliner from Niederösterreich.  “In addition to the 105 Austrian producers that are listed in our national outlets, we work together with another 100 small wineries that deliver directly to markets near them in their region,” she went on. “We also make an effort to have a selection of premium international wines, even in our smaller markets. Our customers appreciate the combination of a good selection of wines in their neighbourhood and the advantages of online shopping.” 

Also unique to SPAR Austria is that it has its own winery, Weingut Schlossfels, with nearly 90  hectares of vineyards. SPAR  produces its own brands specifically tailored to their customer’s tastes. Five full-time oenologists and a large bottling facility also allow SPAR to bottle wines imported in bulk according to the highest certified standards on their own premises.

Land Stewardship

Tiny Austria’s positioning as the producer of world-class white, red and sweet wines from rare indigenous varieties would simply not be possible without extraordinary winemakers, though it would exceed the scope of this article to include all the producers worthy of mention. Despite this, Domäne Wachau is repeatedly chosen by international experts as the role model for what a cooperative can contribute to wine culture. 

Under the auspices of Roman Horvath MW and Heinz Frischengruber, Domäne Wachau (DW) plays a significant role in land and environmental stewardship in its region. In achieving high wine quality and thus high prices for grapes that grow in steep and remote areas where viticulture would otherwise not be economically viable, centuries-old dry stone wall terraces are maintained. These vineyard walls are vital to a cultural landscape that has been recognised as a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site. They provide a habitat for diverse flora and fauna that are unique to Wachau and would disappear without proper land stewardship, taught and promoted by DW. This is particularly significant because DW cultivates about a third of the total vineyard area in all parts of the Wachau. 

Domäne Wachau excels internationally with classic, dry single-vineyard Grüner Veltliner and Riesling. With their “Backstage” wine series, they experiment with new interpretations and styles. This includeds wines like their Riesling amphora, an oak fermented rosé and a Grüner Veltliner fortified with GV brandy in the style of a VDN. Altogether, this is unique: a cooperative that doesn’t chase to keep up with the best of the best, but one that is among the Austrian producers that are setting international benchmarks.

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