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Last month, I had the privilege to participate in a trade tasting hosted by the Austrian Wine Marketing Board. Held at Maple & Ash in Chicago’s Gold Coast and led by Master Sommelier Jesse Becker, I don’t think there is a more perfect way for an introduction to Austrian wine.
I have to admit: this was my first sit down trade tasting. Typically I participate in somewhat chaotic, walk around tastings that are highly diverse and pretty crowded. I was pretty nervous to sit down with these Master Somms and other wine professionals who drink and breath wine day in and day out. As a WSET Level 2 with Merit somm, I know a fraction of what these professionals do. On top of that, I am only able to dedicate after hours and weekends to this area of my life.
Austria’s Best Somm is in Chicago?
The Austrian Wine Marketing Board hit it out of the park by choosing to host this Master Class in a sit down, taste and lecture format. The main reason for this class was to bring attention to and encourage participation in this years Austria’s Best Somm Competition. Held yearly in rotating cities, this year’s event happens to be in Chicago on October 14, 2019. The winner of the written, blind tasting, and service exam will be invited to Austria for Vievinum 2020. This Master Class was the kick off event for the competition, and I learned more than I could have imagined.Austria's Best Somm Competition is on October 14, 2019 at Maple & Ash in Chicago, IL. The winner of the written, blind tasting, and service exam will be invited to Austria for Vievinum 2020. Click To Tweet
Where is Wine Grown in Austria?
As Jesse Becker M.S. explained, there are four major wine regions of Austria, often comprised of more specific subregions, and one smaller but distinct region as well. These regions are Niederösterreich, Wien (a.k.a. Vienna), Burgenland, Steiermark, and the significantly separate Voralberg. These are comprised of various DAC, that is, Districtus Austriae Controllatus, the Austrian equivalent of an American Viticultural Area, or AVA. The growth of these DAC is staggering as there were only 10 DACs in 2017, then 13 in 2018, and four more in consideration for 2019-2020.
Whereas French wine law has been concrete for centuries, Austrian wine laws tightened up often in step with their German neighbors. With a rich, intertwined Hapsburg history, the wine growing areas of Austria tackled great losses during the First and Second World Wars. In 1986, the Austrian Wine Marketing board was created to spread the word about the incredible diversity and complexity of Austrian wine.
The Ten Wine Styles of Austria
Of the 11 wines I sampled, not one was a Grüner Veltliner. This is remarkable as GV is the most identifiable Austrian grape here in America. Why? Because it’s tasty as all get out! Bone dry, light in body and alcohol, and with mouth watering acidity, this lean wine is known to be herbaceous with notes of minerality and pepper. Instead, we spent our time tasting and discussing the other wines of Austria. As a matter of fact, there are TEN distinct wine styles in Austria.
- Perlweine & Sekte: Light, sparkling wines suitable for apertifs.
- Sekt Méthode Traditionelle: Dry, sparkling wines made in the traditional Champagne method.
- White Wines-Classic & Refreshing: Fruity, fresh, middleweight wines found in every wine region of Austria. Examples: Weissburgunder, Gruüner Veltliner, Chardonnay, Welschriesling, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc
- White Wines-Powerful & Opulent: Dry, intense, and complex wines of highly celebrated DACs such as Wachau, often single vineyard stars that compete internationally. Examples: Zierfandler, Rotgipfler from the Thermenregion, Single vineyard Austrian wines from Steiermark.
- Rosé Wines: Made in different styles across all the Austrian wine growing regions.
- Red Wines-Classic & Elegant: Classic Austrian styled wine that tends to be lighter in alcohol and fruit forward. Classical Blaufrankisch falls into this category.
- Red Wines-Intense & Opulent: These wines are more often then not grown in Burgenland and include Spatburgunder (Pinot Noir), Blaufrankisch, and Zweigelt.
- Alternative Wines: Orange wines, Natural wines, Artisan wines and other more experimental styles.
- White Wines-Off Dry & Medium-Sweet: These are wines of the Spätlese or Auslese class, which you’ll recall from my Understanding German Wine Labels post.
- Nobly Sweet Wines: These are the Beerenauslese and Trockenbeerenauslese class which involve noble rot/botrytis to concentrate the sugars of the grape.
A much more detailed run down of these ten styles is available from the Austrian Wine Marketing Board here.
The Most Interesting Things I Learned About Austrian Wines
One of the reasons to attend this event was to learn more about the Austria’s Best Somm competition and get some study materials. Let me tell you: I certainly could not compete this year, not without about 3 months of intense study and probably hands on production in Austria. That didn’t discourage me, but instead made me want to learn more so maybe one day I will be able to compete. In the meantime, there were some really unique aspects of Austrian wine that have really stuck with me.
-As of 2019, 14% of Austrian Wine producers are Organic or Biodynamic, with 3-4% labeled as Certified Sustainable.
-Almost all Austrian wine is grown in the Eastern part of the country because West Austria is for skiing!
-Vienna is a city amongst vineyards! You can enjoy the city life and head out to the vineyards in less than 30 mins.
“Wine is to Vienna as Beer is to Munich.”Jesse Becker, M.S.
-Wine is to Vienna as Beer is to Munich in the form of the Heuriger. These are wine taverns with wine from the current years vintage from casks or tanks. They are social halls that exude coziness and camaraderie.
There is so much more to learn about Austrian Wines, and thankfully, I have time to do so. Best of Luck to all Competitors on October 14th!
Many thanks to the Austrian Wine Marketing Board for inviting me to the Master Class.
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