They say never waste a good crisis.
Austrian wine may well have changed anyway, but it was forced to by one of the notable wine crises of the late 20th century, and the changes that ensued are now to our great benefit as wine drinkers.
In 1985 several Austrian merchants were found to have added glycol to some wines being shipped into the important German market.
A string of vintages which did not yield fruit suitable for ‘spatlese’ or ‘auslese’ style wines meant that these merchants needed to find another way to add sweetness and texture – they settled on glycol, which at low levels added sweetness and body to the wines, but in higher doses or when consumed over a long period of time could easily cause organ damage and death.
While, fortunately, no one died, it did serious damage to Austrian wine – exports in the year following fell to just five per cent of the value exported previously.
Naturally, this sparked serious regulatory change in Austria with strict labelling laws, quality and quantity controls being implemented to prevent such activities in the future and to protect the image of Austrian wine moving forward. Underneath this change however, the damage done to individual producers was irreparable in many cases and in others the older generations simply gave up on the industry.
These estates were taken over by a younger generation that were open to and focused on improving winemaking and viticultural techniques which, combined with tighter quality and quantity controls, created a great set of circumstances to rapidly and extensively increase the quality of wine coming out of the country.
While the wines have been adored by those in the wine trade for some time now, where it is relatively common knowledge that you can pick up almost any Austrian wine and be confident that you will get a wine of good quality, interest and in many cases reflective of the area in which it is grown at what are still very good value prices when compared to similar wines on the market.
The increased broader interest in moderate alcohol wines, natural winemaking philosophies and organic viticulture is helping to put the wines in front of more people and that can only be a good thing for the producers who have now spent decades rebuilding the image of Austrian wine and, of course, for the wine drinkers now discovering a whole new spectrum of wines.
Pittnauer ‘Pitti’ Red 2018 – $27
It was coincidental that Gerhard Pitnnauer took over his family’s estate in the mid-1980s at the age of just 18 after his father unexpectedly died. Contending with the broader crisis and his relative inexperience, he had to learn by doing as much as anything. Beginning with the philosophy of ‘growing’ rather than ‘making’ wine, a philosophy that was far less common in the 1980s than it is today. He has slowly found his way towards biodynamic and organic practices and producing wines as ‘naturally’ as possible in the ensuing years, and as a result you can see year on year the quality of the wines increases and yet the prices have barely budged.
The ‘Pitti’ is a blend of Zeigelt, Blaufrankisch and a splash of Merlot. Many liken Austrian reds to grapes like Pinot Noir or Gamay for their modest alcohol, and general feel, but you could just as easily, as in this case liken it to the more delicate expressions of Nebbiolo. The flavours are a touch denser than Pinot or Gamay – a mix of black berries, raspberry, cherry along with earthy notes, tobacco, liquorice a touch of pepper and cinnamon which are framed by slightly more assertive grippy tannins than Pinot albeit they are still very fine and the overall mouthfeel is still rather smooth and silky.